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Reading for Wisdom and Virtue

With all the emphasis these days on reading, let’s make one thing clear: as wonderful as the activity of reading is, reading without purpose or method does not help much. How we read and for what purpose we read is all important. In my recent Faith & Culture seminar, I talked about how God designed our brain to read, and its implications for how we ought to read. We need to train our brain and our children’s brain to read systematically, with decoding skills, on the one hand, and contextually, within the context of a rich reading culture, on the other. This dual approach maximizes our reading brain, and develops what is known as the “deep reading” which enables the reader to think critically, empathize with others, and gain new insights.

In addition to how we ought to read, I also touched upon the purpose of reading. The purpose of reading is the same as the goal of classical education: to cultivate wisdom and virtue. Or to use John Milton’s language, the goal is to know God and to become more like him.

How do we gain wisdom from reading? Wisdom has to do with understanding, understanding who God is, who we are, and what a good life is. According to great philosophers, wisdom is defined as “an examined life,” or a “discernment of good and evil,” or “a rational inquiry into fundamental questions of life.” These are all helpful, but according to Augustine, the pursuit of wisdom is the same as the pursuit of God. Wisdom is first and foremost a person, Jesus Christ, and then it is how God reveals his wise and perfect plan of salvation in Christ. So, the first aim of reading is to discover how God reveals his truth, goodness, and beauty in his salvation/redemption. It does not necessarily take a “Christian” book to fulfill this. But they cannot just be any book. Every Thursday morning, I read one or two pages from the Great Tradition, which is a collection of essays by the greatest educators throughout history, both Christian and non-Christians. Through these readings, we gain great insights, i.e., wisdom, into God’s truth, goodness, and beauty.

How do we gain virtue from reading? Virtue, as well as wisdom, is gained from reading stories, real or fiction, where virtue triumphs over vice, good over evil. Children in our generation have a hard time discerning the difference between good and evil, partly because they are living in a very confused time, where evil is called good and good is called evil, but mainly because they have not read enough stories where virtue triumphs over evil. But you may say, don’t all stories have virtue and vice? Maybe, but it is increasingly difficult to find stories in which virtues triumph over vice through the grace of God. Virtues in stories these days are so man-centered that they could easily mislead a child away from God, and create more vice in them than virtue. There is a reason why stories like Divine Comedy, Les Miserable, Pride and Prejudice, Brother Karamazov, Moby Dick and children’s stories like Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings stand the test of time and stir the imagination and lift up the hopes of people everywhere. It is because they draw us nearer to God.

In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, Book 5), a prideful selfish boy named Eustace is introduced. Later, he is redeemed by Aslan, but for a while he has no clue as to how obnoxious he is to everyone, and the author explains that it is because “Eustace hasn’t read ‘the right sort of books’ as far as magic and mythical creatures are concerned, as he prefers to read books about science and how things work.” In contrast, when Pevensie children find themselves in unfamiliar or undaunting situation, the first thing they think about is, “What would someone in this kind of story do?”

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