The other night my husband said, “I think I’ll have some whiskey and drink my book.” Eyebrows raised, I replied: “You’re going to drink your book?” Grins slid across our faces, laughter into the room, as he reached for a glass.
Funny as the statement was, there’s truth tucked into it. In a sense we do consume what we read. We call bookworms “voracious readers.” We use phrases like “Her taste in books differs from mine.” We say, “His style of writing is difficult for me to digest.”
Why do we liken reading to eating and drinking? It’s true, we can “savor” both waffles and words, steaks and stories, but I think there exists a deeper, more important relation between the two activities. Rather than their experiences, let’s compare their effects.
Food Changes Us
When we eat, we change. The fact that the diet effects physical change surprises no one. “We are what we eat,” as the saying goes. However, the extent to which food and drink can impact the human body often does shock, as well as terrify, people.
In the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s for three meals a day for thirty days. Not only does he gain nearly 25 pounds, but he experiences headaches and even heart palpitations. One doctor feared that even if Spurlock were to lose the weight, his heart might be irreparably damaged.
Eating and drinking begin with our mouths, but the fare never stops there. In the same way, for most of us reading begins with the eyes, but words won’t settle for mere consumption. When we read, we change.
Reading Moves Us
Take a look at neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s work relating to reading’s impact. Relaying Wolf’s findings, professor Karen Swallow Prior says, “Deep reading activates regions of the brain related to touch, motion, and feeling.” As our gaze slips from one sentence to the next, so does our brain. And it can’t help but call other faculties to mind while we read.
Test it out. Here’s a favorite passage of mine, Flannery O’Connor describing a peacock: “He had jumped into the tree and his tail hung in front of [Mrs. Shortley], full of fierce planets with eyes that were each ringed in green and set against a sun that was gold in one second’s light and salmon-colored in the next. She might have been looking at a map of the universe . . .” I don’t know about you, but when I read that —tree bark and feathers and sunshine bristle against my skin; I vault and land and dangle and squint; amused, I wish I knew a peacock.
I’m whimsical, I know. The scientists out there (my husband included) want data. In a 2014 study by Dan R. Johnson, participants who read a complete story “about a counter-stereotypical Muslim woman . . . exhibited lower categorical racial bias” than those who read only a synopsis of it. The participants whose eyes and, thereby, minds and hearts pressed into the whole narrative did not “disproportionately” associate “higher intensity anger expressions” strictly with faces belonging to Arab people.
The God Who Wrote
Reading, like eating and drinking, does more to us than we think. It alters our thoughts, prods our senses, quivers our feelings. At this point we might ask, “Why?” Reading changes who we are — as thinking, feeling, moving, moral beings — because of Whose we are.
Our ability to create and understand meaning through language is an imago-Dei footprint of the God whose voice assembled atoms to make our toes. And he did not stop there. God spoke; then he wrote. Again, as Karen Swallow Prior says, “From the carving of the Ten Commandments, to the writing of the Torah, to the copying and distribution of scrolls and letters in the early church, God’s plan was for his people to read.”
God ordained not only for his people to read, but also what we should read, every day. “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth,” he says, “but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8).
When God commands us to run our eyes, minds, and hearts through the Scriptures as religiously as morning rises and evening falls, he is not being legalistic. He is being loving. For God knows that hard-fought, Word-wrought communion with him yields joy unspeakable in us. As the prophet Jeremiah said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16).
A People Who Feast
Does this mean that God wants us only to read what he has to say? Not only, but as of first importance. For many, “as of first importance” stops the alarm; brews the coffee; opens Bible, mind, and heart. “God never commands us to meet with him in the morning,” writes Scott Hubbard. However, “the morning, more than any other time of the day, invites us to give God our firstfruits, roll away our burdens, hear his teaching, and enjoy his love.”
We eat in the morning because our brain needs glucose to jumpstart its functions. In the same way, our textual breakfast rouses our minds, hearts, and souls. What we read first sets us running. Throughout the day, will we move heavenward?
After all, it’s during the day that we most often choose to eat and to read what’s “easy to digest.” We resort to the snack drawer. The microwave allures us: “I can have chicken nuggets ready for you in one minute. I only dirty one dish.”
Throughout the day we encounter much human writing akin to empty carbs and frozen foods: common, accessible. undemanding. We cannot avoid the mass Facebook post, unsought thoughts à la Google search, the secular stranger’s political Twitter thread — nor should we! When we listen well, we love well. Plus, we will share the gospel story best when we do not fear but rather seek to understand other narratives.
The difference is, we have already feasted upon our Author’s goodness (Psalm 38:5). We’re full, and we’re satisfied. Now, fueled with the time-tested, sure nutrition of God’s truth, we read what others write not to satisfy ourselves with their words, but to love them well; to understand their lives and resultant worldviews better; and, ultimately, to posture our own and hopefully other hearts around the only Word that satisfies literate souls. This Word is Jesus.