Reading as spiritual practice

When my first-grader began school this fall, I was reminded again and again during those first weeks of the school year of the importance of reading with my child every night. More than math and more than facts that she has learned in science, reading is the skill that her school wants us to reinforce at home. Reading. We are supposed to read 20 minutes each evening, and we are given charts and graphs that demonstrate how this accumulates over time. Akin to charts about saving for retirement and compound interest, they show us how many words our child is exposed to if we read for 20 minutes each day vs. 10 minutes each day. All of this is designed to motivate us into doing that reading now, striking fear in our hearts that our child will be woefully behind her peers in terms of language if she does not get enough exposure. And this is true enough.

My middle schooler is required to read each day, and she has a reading log that she must fill out each week to demonstrate that she has done this independent reading assignment. It includes listing the title and page numbers of the book and writing a brief summary of what she has read.

While both of these assignments force my children to read, neither of them really helps my girls embrace the joy of reading. For both of them, reading winds up becoming a chore. Perhaps for some children this is not the case. Some may love the reading log; I may well have been one of them — I am an archivist by nature and love the idea of cataloging and tracking what I have read. But that is not true for my girls. And I don’t think it is true for most children. In most cases, these assignments turn the joy of reading into a burden.

I don’t fault the teachers for making the assignments, though. What else are they to do? There’s no question that reading is important — perhaps the most important thing that my children will learn in grade school. It is the kind of life skill that one needs to succeed in most everything — from securing a Ph.D. in some liberal arts field to following instructions to install a faucet in your kitchen sink. “If you can read, you can cook,” my mother used to tell me. Until the very recent development of radio and television – and even more recently, YouTube videos and podcasts – any information that was transferred from one person to another (without being in the presence of the other) had to be written down and then read.

But that is all very practical.

But what of reading not as a practical skill, but as a practice? A spiritual practice even?


I recently had a conversation with a friend who is retired from the mission field. Her work was in Bible translation and she has been all over the world, participating in the work of giving people the Scriptures in their own language for the very first time. In many cases, the Bible had been available to people in a language they knew, likely an enforced national language, but not in their first language, which is sometimes called a “mother tongue.” The mother tongue could be a tribal language or some other kind of ethnic language that had been spoken to them since birth. My friend said that she frequently worked with marginalized people groups, and that their ethnic language was very often a language that they had been told was “rubbish.” So sometimes the first task, before simply translating the Bible, was to teach literacy in their language, to teach the ability to read and write in one’s own native tongue. And that, in and of itself, was transformative. To be able to express and share ideas in the language of one’s own identity suddenly gives validity to that ethnic identity, which had been pushed to the margins. To be able to capture the stories of one’s own culture in the language of that culture preserves its history; what was once an oral tradition can also be captured in material that can be read and re-read. And finally, then, there is the possibility of the gift of the Bible, which is then able to be offered in language that sounds natural to the ear, and thus to the heart.

Many of us are often not grateful enough for these gifts: the ability to read and write in a language that is our own, to have the Bible at hand — and not just one family copy, but many copies, in many translations. It is easy to forget, though, that none of this could very easily be part of the practice of Christians for the first millennium and a half of our faith. It was not until the invention of the printing press and the translation of Scripture into the common language of the people that individuals had access to the Bible to read and study and pray through on an individual basis. This completely changed the Christian’s ability to read Scripture as spiritual practice. Reading was no longer mediated by an authority. Reading Scripture became a personal practice.

It is not hard to defend the reading of Scripture as a spiritual practice. That is what reading Scripture is, by definition. Arguably all kinds of reading of Scripture can count as spiritual practice, whether one is reading it for study, in preparation for preaching, in search of guidance, or in prayer. Madame Jeanne Guyon, a 17th-century French mystic, draws a particular distinction between “praying the Scripture” and reading the Scripture for study in “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ.” When praying the Scripture, “you do not read quickly,” she says, “you read very slowly. You do not move from one passage to another, not until you have sensed the very heart of what you have read. You may then want to take that portion of Scripture that has touched you and turn it into prayer.”


What Guyon describes could also be described as a deep reading of Scripture. “Deep reading” is a term coined by Sven Birkerts, an author and editor who is particularly concerned about how technology has made it increasingly difficult for us to concentrate. Deep reading is what he understands as the antidote to this problem. Birkerts does not approach his task from the perspective of faith, as does Guyon. But their ideas are similar. While Guyon is focused on Scripture, it is not only Scripture that can be read deliberately. All kinds of material can be approached slowly and purposefully. Deep reading is a kind of reading that can be defined as reading attentively and carefully for a sustained period of time, looking for more than just simple comprehension, but also making comparisons, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating and critiquing. When I consider deep reading, I usually think about the reading of longer texts — this may be somewhat different than Guyon’s direction to dwell on short portions of Scripture. This sort of discipline requires us to involve ourselves in the sustained argument of a theological treatise, to engage in the narrative arc of a novel, to attend to teaching of a work of non-fiction. To involve ourselves in this kind of concentration, a blog post that you can read on your phone in the grocery store checkout line will not do. Deep reading will mean that you become so engrossed that time passes without your awareness of it. Deep reading very often reads with pen in hand — it takes notes or marks up books. Deep reading can approach difficult texts because it goes slowly and willingly struggles through texts that are demanding.

Deep reading is a spiritual discipline because it requires attentiveness. It requires us to put aside distraction and to focus on only one thing. This is a countercultural move for some of us who move so quickly from item to item on our agendas or to-do lists, sometimes navigating two or three simultaneously. It is countercultural to give extended focus to one thing when we are constantly bombarded by very important news. No one can read deeply under these conditions. In an article in The American Scholar, “Reading in the digital age,” Birkerts writes: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.” What deep reading does for us is train us in attentiveness. But Birkerts’ focus is on what this kind of concentration can do for the self. As people of faith, it is worth considering how training in attentiveness helps us to look beyond ourselves. When we can focus with this much deliberation on a text, we find that we can focus on other things as well. We can focus on one another. We have trained ourselves not only to read deeply, but to listen deeply. To attend to the world around us. To be still. To attend to God.

Communion of saints

There is yet another spiritual benefit we receive from reading. When we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the communion of saints,” we generally think of it as a glorious hereafter promise. But there is a sense in which deep reading of texts can allow us to engage with the saints of the church, both ancient and modern, across all places and all times, because reading deeply allows us to interact with others through their ideas. When we read theological texts, ancient and modern, we enter into a continuing conversation with those who have gone before us and those who are grappling with the questions of faith now. You and I can engage with the thoughts and ideas of those who reinforce what we believe, putting what is in our heart into beautiful language. We can engage with those who have had very different experiences than we have, who make us ask questions of what we have always believed. We can even engage with those who present direct and personal challenges to what we believe.

But it is not just reading from theological works that can help us broaden our experiences. Fiction and nonfiction can serve us well, too. But that involves making intentional choices. I know myself well enough to know that if I just pick up a novel to read, without thinking about it, I will choose a novel by a living, white, Southern woman. Fine. But if I want to engage with experiences that are different from my own, I should look elsewhere. Several years ago, I decided that I wasn’t reading as widely as I ought. As a way to solve this problem, I formed a reading group in the congregation. It served a couple of purposes: I could form a small group of people who could gather around a common purpose — always a task I am looking to accomplish in the church. And I could “require” myself to read some books I might not read otherwise. I recently asked the group what the practice of reading did for them. One of the women in our group said: “Reading gives me the opportunity to see life and people from a different perspective. It lets me get into the skin of someone I otherwise would have not known; to walk with them and know what their life is like. It expands my world. It gives me the opportunity to question how my theology would apply in new and different situations.” I was particularly struck by her final comment. She sums up precisely why reading even works of fiction is a spiritual practice. Novels can serve as a test case for our commitments about who God is and how God acts. We can ask the questions of faith about any story, whether the author has been obvious about the presence of the divine or not. And most importantly, we can test our convictions: Do the theological principles that we hold so dearly still stand up in this situation?

At the end of the day, you and I may not have the same contemplative disposition as Guyon, with her tendency toward mystical experience. But there is something to be said for slowing down our reading of Scripture until we are sure we have gotten to the heart of it. Similarly, it is probably for the best not to get caught up in the anxiety of Birkerts about what technology is doing to us. And yet. We lose something when we lose the ability to pay concentrated attention for long periods of time — to texts, to one another, to the world around us. As in all things, the best response always seems to be one of gratitude. May we be grateful for the gift of reading, for the gift of the Bible in all its variety, for the gift of theology and literature. And as we engage those texts, may we do so with generosity and charity, recognizing that we are interacting with the thoughts of none other than the body of Christ.

Erin Kesterson Bowers is associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in High Point, North Carolina. She lives in High Point with her two daughters and her husband, who is a United Methodist pastor. She enjoys traveling, all kinds of theater and performing arts, and reading.