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The Forgotten Reader 2: R.E.A.D.

Before discussing reading first and writing shop-talk second, what do we mean by “reading”? True reading starts with humble Receiving and ends in God-worshipful Delight.

Three groups of readers possibly forgotten by Christian-speculative blogs, mentioned last week, are challenging. Christian-speculative fans may feel tempted to give up on them.

  • Parents. They may include “moms who want things child-friendly, sanitized and safe.”
  • The “Lewis/Tolkien or bust” crowd. “They want Christian fiction to match the best in secular fiction, despite there being at least 40 + year difference in the age of the genre.”
  • Church folk. They prize safety and tend tserieslogo_theforgottenreadero dislike challenges.

D.M. Dutcher noted these annoyances in a followup blog, apparently an expansion of this comment. Others noted potential hardships in trying to “discuss reading as an activity” (Austin Gunderson) or a shortage of topics related to reading (novelist Morgan L. Busse).

What do we mean by ‘talk about reading’?

In asking if blogs, websites, and groups overemphasize writing-related topics …

I don’t mean: story structure, characters, emotion, truth, beauty, realism, creativity.

(Surely anyone who “enjoys” a story without exploring these buys cheaper/imposter “joy.”)

I do mean: this week’s personal wordcount, contests for writers, grammar peculiarities, Chicago Manual of Style changes, agents, publishing, proposals, pitches, provincialism.

To compare with another Christian “industry,” it’s those last terms that may resemble theologians exclusively talking shop about obscure symbolism, Greek language nuances, or exact translation matrixes rather than first discussing Biblical doctrine-applied-to-real-life. Yes, we should discuss all of Scripture. But first we must receive the Story, enjoy the Story, ask of the Story, delight in the Story. Isn’t the same true of manmade stories?

Perhaps before discussing potentially other neglected readers, we must first check to make sure we’re not neglecting genuine reading ourselves.

1. Receiving

Upon seeing a sight like this, which of these should we do first? 1) Take a photo to post online. 2) Get to work discussing home landscaping methods. 3) Gaze in wonder at the beauty. If possible, jump in.

Upon seeing a sight like this, which of these should we do first? 1) Take a photo to post online. 2) Get to work discussing home landscaping methods. 3) Gaze in wonder at the beauty, and call others to see.

Lex Keating suggested an excellent image that reminds me of an earlier metaphor I tried:

Keeping the reader-only mentality is hard, especially when trying to deepen a discussion that requires elements of critical thinking that are typically stored in the “writer’s toolbox” section of the average human’s education.

Ah, a writer’s toolbox. It echoes this earlier question. Do writers see other stories, starting with the Bible, primarily as worshipful-art first to receive and enjoy? Or do we tend to see them as tools to use for our own arts and crafts, parts to salvage and use for practical goals?

In receiving a story, we lose ourselves in it. If possible, we’re not even thinking of “how can I use this” for some other means — not our children’s enjoyment, not moral instruction, not evangelism, and not even for personal entertainment. Part of this is the storyteller’s job to deliver, and part of this is our jobs as readers, to receive. Often this takes some training. Before we can share beliefs and discuss, we must listen. Before we run, we must breathe.

Of course, our breathing doesn’t always come easily. With the onset of spring, our allergies may be flaring. Maybe we just finished using previous oxygen for a long workout and are feeling winded. Maybe life, the universe, and everything, are sucking air from the room.

This is ultimately about our fight for Biblical humility. It’s the kind of humility that first says, “Not my story, God, but Yours.” 1 Our other stories do matter — but later.

2. Enjoying

If a story doesn’t lead me to enjoyment — true enjoyment is the same as even subconscious worship of God — it’s likely a poor story. I was concluding this the other day when considering many Christian writers’ or artists’ appeals. Look, some say. I wrote a song about the Gospel. Or, Look, I wrote a fantasy novel, only Christian. Even if these claims are unique (they’re not), I have only this question: will your artistry bring me joy? In that way I gladly admit I’m “selfish.” I should want to gain from your work — to gain Godly enjoyment.

3. Asking

Great stories keep us asking. This alone could power for weeks a city of reader-centric discussions on blogs and in person. What about this character? Did you see this plot twist coming? How did this theme grip you personally? Would you read this again? This is not “writicist” shop-talk (though it has implications for writing craft). It’s thinking like a reader, responding to the story-receiving and -enjoying by engaging the author and other readers.

4. Delighting

This ties back to humbly-receiving, and handily completes the R.E.A.D. acronym (which will surely stay with you for perhaps seconds after this megachurch sermon). Story’s purpose isn’t “practical” as we often understand it. Story’s purpose is to cause delight — in God the Creator and in others’ creations. If a story doesn’t bring delight, it’s likely a bad story.

Summary

That’s what I mean by saying, Let’s first discuss reading before we discuss writing.

Next week: how we might encourage those skills in others. This may help deal with those annoyances of parents, the “Lewis/Tolkien or bust” crowd, church people, and others.

  1. Any talk of receiving other stories is tangential compared with the need to receive God’s Story.
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Austin Gunderson
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Agreed!  “Story structure, characters, emotion, truth, beauty, realism, and creativity” are things that both readers and writers want to discuss.  (Depending on what you mean by “peculiarities,” I’d probably throw “grammar” into that mix as well, since I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoy such minutiae.)  “Personal wordcounts, Chicago Manual of Style changes, agents, publishing, proposals, and pitches,” on the other hand, are things that only writers discuss, and only, I’d assume, because they have to.  Nobody becomes a writer because he or she wants desperately to hire an agent or nail a pitch to a publisher.  Such concerns are necessary annoyances at best, and focusing on them will significantly shrink one’s audience.

Here’s the problem I see with your R.E.A.D. paradigm: it requires that I “lose myself in,” “enjoy,” and “delight in” a story in order to discuss it.  This artificially limits the spectrum of discussable stories to the awesome end only, and requires all book reviews to constitute potential back-cover blurbs.  Yes, I love to gush about the objects of my delight.  Sharing my wonder only adds to my enjoyment.  But, even though I’m a highly selective reader, my wonder is, more often than not, tempered by the realization that a story could’ve been much improved had it been altered in specific, quantifiable ways.  Is such criticism an indication that I haven’t yet relaxed enough to “receive” the story on its own terms?  Not at all — it means I’m receiving the whole story, in all its excellence and inadequacy, and asking it hard questions.  Pure delight isn’t something I can train myself to feel, something I could experience more often if only I “let myself go.”  It’s a spontaneous reaction to awesomeness.  And awesomeness, pretty much by definition, is exceptional.  So I think the paradigm for a holistic discussion of books — which phrase I think captures your intent better than “discussion of reading” — must expand beyond that expressed by R.E.A.D.

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

I’m rereading Hexwood right now, which, despite the fantasy title, has a strong science fiction bent. I happen to love the book, but a glance at Amazon shows that many people hate it. It’s confusing and backwards and twisty because the whole story is out of order. And it is. The delight comes in trying to piece it all together as you go. Also, I happen to adore Mordion as a character.
 
My point is, not everybody delights in the same things. That’s why book reviews and reading groups are fun. I’ve learned lots from books that I hated, too, like, never read this author again. But that’s what happens when you pull books randomly off the shelves in the library. Mixed bag. All life is a mixed bag, and it’s wonderful that God has given us such diverse tastes.

Galadriel
Guest

I’ll think about this next time I read something besides homework. Might be useful. I know I do a LOT of ASKING with Doctor Who–Moffat is really horrible with things like that.

Lex Keating
Guest

I could be wrong about this, but it seems the whole premise of this READ concept is that the reader first trust whatever story they “fall into” when they read. If that’s so, I would not be surprised that those three groups would refuse to join the discussion. Those three groups would be some of the first people to throw up a hand and say, “I can’t blindly trust a genre/author/book. I must be cautious about what I let into my life.” And there’s some wisdom behind that caution. Some prejudice, too, certainly. That prejudice, however, will not be overcome by a passionate plea that this book/author/genre is lovable.
 
And, there is a flip side to what is referred to here as “humility.” A lot of avid readers who accept what they read as a delight and a truth engage in idol worship–celebrating creativity (or a particular author or genre) as a god in their hearts. We don’t like to call it that, especially as Christians, because we’re usually aware that God will make us give up the things we worship above Him. But all the facets covered here make it easier, not harder, for people who struggle with any fiction worship to place God first. 
 
To paraphrase Gal. 3:21, is reading then against the enjoyment of fiction? God forbid! For if reading alone could have taught us to reason, then enjoyment could have come by the reading of any book. How a reader reasons a book is, as Kessie pointed out, different for every person. What isn’t argued here (and perhaps it shall be addressed later) is any apologetics. The art of arguing for faith in such a way that it is clear to those we would convert. The faith in books presented here is quite clear, but any reader (whether that reader falls into one of the groups mentioned, or has other issues or agendas) who encounters this argument has the same objection: “What you say is for you, not for me.” Not because these people are post-modern, but because this line of reasoning expounds on what a READer wants to hear. Not what a potential convert needs to hear to consider changing sides. If a reader is not already a READer, they can walk away from the argument without thought, because the argument doesn’t allay fears or dispel concerns or answer burning questions. 
 
If we’re going to ask a reader to fall into a story, we should make that fall so inviting that refusal is cowardly. Authors do this by anticipating their readers, and creating an environment/plot/characters with which the reader feels empathy. Good authors, anyway. 🙂 For a READer, who wants the engagement and/or conversion of a garden-variety reader, that READer will have to listen to the unbeliever and meet the reader where he/she is. Not unlike sharing the gospel. All the arguments about predispensationalism or post-millenial theology are completely useless to someone who doesn’t know why Jesus’ death on the cross matters. His death matters to me, for instance, because He rose from the dead. His sacrifice wasn’t in vain, and is an open invitation for me to have a new life. Because He loves me. I want you to share in my hope for new life and fulfilled purpose. What do you want out of your life, and your purpose on earth?

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