Why spiritual writing and reading matter so much
"Do you want me to read from the real, actual, small-print Bible tonight?" I asked my six-year-old as she pulled her jammies over her head and flipped onto her bed.
"Yes!" she squeaked, and then, "What’s in it?"
We usually read from colourful kids’ Bible storybooks. My daughter knows all the top hits from David and Goliath to Jesus calming the sea, but we had never flipped through my actual Bible together. Over the next hour she asked me why there were no pictures and why the paper was so thin.
Then she asked the bigger questions that bubbled just below the surface: Why are there bad guys? Why doesn’t Jesus speak to her with a real-life voice? How can Jesus live in her heart and heaven at the same time? We had graduated from picture books and took a big step into the deep and beautiful story of God.
We were reading together.
As a boy I spoke French at school and English at home. I stuttered, and reading on my own came late to me. It was a rocky start. My mom put Archie comics in my stocking at Christmas and urged me on, but reading didn’t easily capture my attention.
In fifth grade the Gideons gave us all little Bibles and I remember sitting with it in my living room. As I peered intently into my tiny red book, the words seemed both foreign and deeply intimate. The words breathed and beat along with my young thoughts with the full weight of God’s love for me. I realize now it wasn’t me who found these words. The Word had been waiting for me.
Literacy is more than the science of stringing consonants and vowels together into a functioning vocabulary. Literacy is the embracing life of ideas that comfort, move, challenge and connect. The gift of literacy, that started with my mother and a Gideons Bible, became for me the gift of God’s very presence, sitting right beside me and speaking directly with me. I had discovered a path well worn before me.
Words have captured us for eons and continue to transform.
Readers could fill books describing the power of words on their own lives, and they have. A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers (Enchanted Lion, 2018) is a collection of over 250 encouraging notes to young readers from writers like Mary Oliver, Jane Goodall and Neil Gaiman. It is an ode to the power of literacy on the inner life of readers.
"Books aren’t just a door to another world – each book is part of a door to the whole world, a door that always has more behind it," writes Alexander Chee.
Lucianne Walkowicz invites young readers to, "Step forward, if you’re brave. Stories become our well-worn pathways and our companions too. Repeat them and release them so that their truth may one day come back to you."
Those who have been through forests of stories and meadows of expansive ideas beckon us to join them in the beauty of what they have found.
When we read devotionally, reading in a way that deepens our faith in Jesus in any genre, we join with saints throughout the ages. We step into a tradition of readers whose loves were formed between the pages.
The story of Saint Patrick has opened my imagination to the potency of words to shape a land and heart of a civilization. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (Anchor, 1995) follows a Celtic thread of faithful literacy that has transformed the Western world.
He tells of Saint Patrick, called by Christ, who found himself on the shores of Ireland among a people who were broadly illiterate. He arrived first as a slave, then returned as a pastor called to love and serve them. The Celtic people Patrick embraced were receptive not only to the Good News of Jesus as it resonated beautifully with their culture, but this message came to them wrapped in a gift – the written word.
The island, already expressive in oral and visual art, grew alive with new language, illuminated texts and the story of Jesus captured in poetry, songs, prayers and epic tales. People read the story of Jesus and in turn recounted their own conversions, adding to the growing new genres of spiritual autobiography and hagiography (the life stories of saints or respected people), among the first of their kind in Christian literary history. Word read beget word written. Communities transformed as their faith was bolstered page by page.
Soon monks were gathering books from Continental Europe on any and all subjects, copying, reading and sharing them. Cahill’s history traces the general collapse of literacy in much of the Western world while Irish Christians were reading all the more. They kept the tradition alive and found comfort in the written word. It was the Irish passion for language, woven through their faith, that reignited literacy several hundred years later and reintroduced millions to the stories, poetry and prayers that shape us even now.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to these early Irish readers and writers. Thank you.
The Jesus Way is a road marked with language. Words illuminate the way, give direction and shape our journey. I met a missionary years ago engaged in Bible translation work overseas. We visited at a conference and I asked her about her time serving abroad. She leaned in and told me a story.
She said she spent years living in an isolated village. Working with elders gathered around a fire, they translated the Bible together. Their dialect was unwritten and so they had to work together to apply the best words from their language to the biblical story. Over the years there was one idea the translators could not capture – salvation. This pivotal Christian word simply did not translate well, so it was left as a blank gap, waiting to be filled.
One day a boy was in the river, and got caught and pulled under the water by a crocodile. Hearing the screams a villager ran into the river and rescued the boy. He saved his life. Soon the whole village was shouting with joy, hollering out a word the Bible translator had not heard. The word meant to be pulled from the mouth of a crocodile by another person. It was their word for salvation. When the translator told the village this is what Jesus does for us, the village erupted again.
Jesus entered the water for each of us. The villagers found the word, and all the power stacked behind it, that revealed the heart of God. Words, the translator told me, are gifts that change lives.
As a boy I memorized scripture. I tried to capture those words. My mother told me if I could get those words into my deepest parts, God would recall them when I needed them. It was my Sunday school teacher who sat down with me and helped me memorize Psalm 34. I was participating in an ancient tradition – hiding words in my heart.
I have visited the caves of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. There, hidden for millennia, were scrolls transcribed by the few who could read and write in ancient times. In the times of Jewish kings, it is estimated fewer than 10 per cent of people were literate by any modern standard. Many could read and write at a very basic level, but it was the scribes who would read, copy and record language.
Those scribes eventually added one more job to their resume, and that was to teach what they were writing. If people had questions about their faith, they would call up a scribe to help them understand. Their role grew. By the time of Jesus, teachers of the law were a specialized class of people who knew what the Torah said, and helped others understand it and live by it. Jesus, however, criticized these scribes-turned-teachers saying, "Be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach" (Matthew 23:3).
Providentially, Jesus lived in a time when literacy was on the rise in the Palestinian Roman world. Literacy grew among early Christians who copied, read aloud, and shared the stories and language of their faith. Luke, the doctor, was articulate in his writing and alluded to the "many" who have written accounts of Jesus’ life. Soon Paul’s letters were making their rounds, and anyone from any class could engage with the words of Jesus for themselves and in community with others.
The story of the Early Church is also a story of reading.
Today I can sit beside Luke and read his account. Then I can sit with Augustine and read his Confessions and live, for a moment, with the Christians in northern Africa. From Saint Patrick to Eugene Peterson, to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Flannery O’Connor, I am invited into a world of faithful friends. I am never alone. My little red Gideons Bible, with its blue paint stain from the Sunday school craft table where I memorized my first chapter, became the soil for the first sprouts of a literary garden that has grown in me.
Our faith in Jesus, rooted in its grand story, is replanted in us, in every generation. Our story is read, told, rewritten and worked again in the soil of neighbourhood, community and church life together. In the end, we may discover it is not actually our ability to innovate and pivot that determine the future life of the Church in Canada. Maybe it will be our curiosity and love for words that help us find our way through.
Perhaps it is what writer Marilyn McEntyre calls the practice of poesis – the work of turning words into action – that deeply helps the work of the Church. We have a story rooted in our people and our place. Our work is to turn words of love into a movement of love. This is the transformative journey of the Word made – and always becoming – flesh in us.
Preston Pouteaux is a beekeeper, pastor of Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alta., and author of The Bees of Rainbow Falls: Finding Faith, Imagination, and Delight in Your Neighbourhood (Urban Loft, 2017). Illustrations by Jarred Briggs
We think our cover stories would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to point members to www.FaithToday.ca/Ode-to-Reading. Let us know how it goes ([email protected])!
- What spiritual formation books have helped you on your faith journey?
- Preston Pouteaux writes, "Our work is to turn words of love into a movement of love." How do you understand that work in your own life or in the life of your church?
- For many believers journalling can also be a conduit to spiritual growth. What role does writing play in your life?