Some of the sentences we read are just that – if we believe them, they become life sentences that condemn us to whatever prison cells their authors wrote from. They captivate us – and send us into captivity.
Some words condemn us to the irresistible allure of their author’s outrage. Others beckon us into the dungeon of their author’s apathy. Some seduce us with the enticement of their author’s moral lapses. Some seize us and fill us with their author’s anxieties and despondency.
I wish it were easier to sniff out the emotional baggage with which authors write.
I wish it were easier to spot when an ancient author writes as a reaction to his own guilt and shame. This would allow me to reflect on whether I should believe what he says and thereby take on the yoke of guilt out of which he writes.
I wish it were easier to spot when an insightful tweet or a funny meme underhandedly promotes impatience, or resignation, or condescension.This would help me find a balanced way of receiving it.
But I get so gripped, so enamored by what the words say that I find it hard to step back and recognize the attitudes and perspectives behind them. And, swallowing author’s sentences, I too am sentenced along with them.
Reading and writing is ultimately a spiritual battle. The writer foists his opinions on the reader, hoping to dominate their hearts and minds. Behind every book, article or – yes, blog post – is the subtle message: “Love me! Find me clever, witty, or enlightening! Adopt my beliefs! Be a little more like me!” And the reader responds to this attempt at domination by deciding how much to submit and how much to resist. Some readers swallow ideas uncritically. Others respond with discernment or even resentment.
The goal of understanding the author in order to know how to respond appropriately sounds good in theory, and to a limited extent is doable and important. But ultimately it is impossible to fully get inside the other person’s head. You read John Calvin’s Institutes, then want to know more about Calvin himself, so as to know how to interpret his book. But to do that you have to read secondary works, which themselves are written by authors with distinct perspectives that need teasing out.
So appears the strange phenomenon of third tier literature, writers writing about writers who wrote about other writers. Paul writes about Jesus. Calvin writes about Paul. A historian writes about Calvin. And then someone writes their thesis about the historian’s interpretation. At what point can the reader rest, knowing she has finally heard the end of the matter?
Looking behind the text is important, but we can only do so much of it. A more practical goal is to look in front of the text, at ourselves, at the struggles which the sentences and paragraphs produce in us. Why does this chapter excite me or anger me? What kind of person will I become if I give in to its tractor beam, if I allow it to put me under its spell? What kind of person will I become if I reject the worldview of this text? What kind of person do I really want to be?
I recognize the irony of writing to readers about authors trying to dominate readers. I know my sentences will bind some of those who read them and provoke rebellion in others. As an author who cares about ethics, I can only hope that those who subject themselves to my ideas will find their captivity liberating, and that those who resist my ideas will find the struggle invigorating.
I hope my words will communicate
- wonder and fascination,
- discernment and discipline,
- motivation and courage,
- love and humility,
- trust and grace.
And that they will inspire the same in those who happen upon what I write. Blessings.