Reading Literature

In an article written several decades back, Pastor John explained the value of reading richly descriptive literature to develop a vibrant language of theology. He encourages theology students to sometimes pick up great literature and poets like Wordsworth to catch their descriptive sensibilities. He wrote this in his article "The Poverty of Theological Vocabulary" (1970):

There is an intimate relationship between our power to enjoy a sensuous experience and our capacity to describe it with words. In "Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey" Wordsworth is not taken up nearly so much with the joy of revisiting the banks of the Wye as he is with the pleasure this moment will bring him in the coming years "recollected in tranquility."

To put it simply, without a full and rich language of the sense, we will lose the enduring quality of our sensuous joys, and, what's worse, with the atrophy of our descriptive capacities the power of all our enjoyment languishes. When you cease to use the word "tree" in your vocabulary, you have probably ceased to look at trees.

The relation this has to theological vocabulary is this: The fastest and easiest way to obliterate the language of the sense and the power of the senses is to read only poverty-stricken theology. If we in seminary do not stretch ourselves beyond the pages of our dogmatics we shall all be dead by graduation day.

And if you’re wondering where to begin, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead may be a good way to look afresh at the trees. There she will display images in your imagination like the newly unveiled sun glistening through the water droplets on the soaked leaves of a tall oak after a hard rain. Writes Pastor John, it is a novel that “continues to move me, months after I read it."

Tony Reinke is a content strategist and staff writer for Desiring God and the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts, and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and their three children. He also blogs at tonyreinke.com.