Love the Lord Your God with All Your Books

book heart

Over the next several posts, I’ll explore how certain passages of Scripture that are essential to the life of a Christian frame the reading and study of literature.

The first of these passages is when an expert in the law comes to ask Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

How do we follow these two commandments when we read literature? Let’s look at the first one today.

Before people begin to pray or read Scripture contemplatively, Saint Alphonsus Liguori recommends that we prepare ourselves in the following three ways: express faith in the presence of God, perform a short act of contrition or humility, and pray to be enlightened. He advises that these steps be brief but done attentively. I think Saint Alphonsus’s recommendations are also instructive for how we can uphold the first and greatest commandment—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”—when we read literature.

Express faith in the presence of God

When we read Scripture, we trust that the Father is speaking to us through it—to give us wisdom, solace, correction, direction. The Holy Spirit, when we alight upon a salient passage, resonates within us. Jesus is present with us, interceding for us, helping us draw nearer to the Lord through the fearful, trembling process of sanctification. We are not alone when we read Scripture, and our reading of Scripture grows richer and deeper the more we can quiet ourselves to acknowledge the divine Tutor with us.

Of course, a fictional narrative, poem, or drama is not Scripture; nevertheless God is still present when we read these other texts. The Father still speaks, the Holy Spirit stays alert within, and Jesus continues the project of reconciliation. The reader, on the other hand, often judges there to be a difference, drawing a line between sacred and profane reading experiences. How would the experience of reading literature change, though, if we acknowledged and welcomed the Lord’s presence as we picked up the book? What insights would He give us? What connections would we be able to make? By acknowledging God’s presence as we read literature, we allow ourselves to be guided by His wisdom in our understanding and appreciation of the text.

Perform a short act of contrition or humility

We know that a broken and contrite heart will not be despised by the Lord (Psalm 51:7), but why should we approach a literary work with such humility? Texts composed by fallen, fallible human beings rightly demand that readers approach them with discernment, but the critical eye can easily degenerate into the judgmental eye. Too often we read a text with a variation of the Pharisee’s prayer in our minds: “God, I thank you that I am not like the author of this book” (cf. Luke 18:11).

Our right judgment of a text comes when we are in right relationship with God, and our right relationship with God puts us into a position of humility. Jesus came to reconcile us while we were still enemies of God (Romans 5:10); we can hold no position of superiority over the fallen men and women whose literary works we read. Mind you, I am not saying that we should not read a work critically or find fault with a distorted view of the universe; rather, I am saying that such critical reading should be in submission to the command in Micah 6:8: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Pray to be enlightened

The Roman poet Horace’s twin criteria for poetry that it delight and instruct are worthy petitions to bring before the Lord as we prepare to read a literary work. The Lord desires to teach us, and He can give us insight and inspiration even in texts written by people who have repudiated God. (More on this in a later post.) The lesson we draw may not be a positive one (e.g. “This is how we love our neighbor.”); frequently the Lord will instruct us on something to avoid or show us how the world, the flesh, and the devil inflict pain on His creation. At the same time, however, He can teach us how to respond to such darkness with light and love. God can use literature to point us to the places in the world where restoration most desperately needs to occur.

Can such enlightenment be delightful? It can, if we look past light-hearted entertainment or non-threatening happy endings for a more durable, stout-hearted joy. The gospel teaches us that there is joy even in the midst of sorrow; there is hope even when circumstances are bleak. We can pray that God shine His light within the darkness of a text, to help us locate his divine beam, even when an author thinks it has been completely snuffed out. The discovery that God is truly present in such a text is the deepest joy to be had within literature.


Link to Image

That’s humiliating!

Just a year ago, I was flabbergasted when I discovered that quite a great number of students in our introductory leadership class, Learning and Leading, couldn’t explain the difference between humility and humiliation. This presented quite a difficulty since we spend an entire week in our freshman leadership class on the role of humility in leadership.  In fact, when I asked them what they thought about the article they read which referenced the role of humility in leadership, a number of them thought the idea was a terrible one.


Photo Credit: gak via Compfight cc

In twenty-three sections of this particular class, almost every facilitator had a similar experience. Many of these students had seen leaders who chose to use intimidation or humiliation with their followers and our students couldn’t distinguish this from the concept of having humility as a leader.  Others had watched as once respected leaders had plummeted from public approval through various scandals and wanted no part of leadership accompanied by humiliation.

So, when every group in my Organizational Leadership class selected humility among the top qualities of a leader, I was thrilled. (Only 7% of Barna survey respondents selected humility.)

As I discussed in last week’s blog, a couple of the characteristics of good leaders selected by my students were unexpected. Though the first gave me plenty of food for thought, this second difference was particularly surprising in light of my past interactions with students about humility and leadership. Though I’m sure I maintained an outward posture of serious academic fervor in front of my class, inside I was throwing a party.

I think any faculty member in Christian higher education wants to celebrate when they see their students integrate faith with their learning. Whether they realized it or not, these students were drawing directly from the teachings of Scripture in considering what makes a good leader.  When we consider the character of Jesus Christ, humility is among the first qualities to come to mind. Consider the words of Philippians 2:5-7

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant…”

If we, as leaders, are leading only in the context of being followers of Christ, then it would be exceptionally difficult to find a place for self-serving leadership.
And as often seems to be the case, research supports the words of scripture. Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great indicates that the best leaders are in fact humble.  He talks about a “curious combination” of personal humility combined with a great deal of drive to see the organization succeed.

Of course, being humble doesn’t automatically make you a good leader, but in a world where so many leaders we see are arrogant, domineering, or self-serving, I’m so impressed that our students can envision a world where the most valued leaders look out for the good of others and give credit to those around them.


The Seven

September 23, 2013

The Seven

Did you watch the horror movie “S7ven” with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt?  The serial killer justifies his murders by killing people who exemplify the “seven deadly sins.”  Come to find out, the seven deadly sins are not biblical!  Pope Gregory the Great compiled the Seven Deadly Sins sometime in the late 6th century.  God’s list of seven sins is found in Proverbs 6:16-19 which reads

” [16] There are six things which the LORD hates,
seven which are an abomination to him:
[17] haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
[18] a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
[19] a false witness who breathes out lies,
and a man who sows discord among brothers.” (Revised Standard Version, 1964)

The Catholic Church then came up with the seven virtues: wisdom, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope and love.  I would counter that God’s list of virtues are summarized by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5 verses 22-23.

“[22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
[23] gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Revised Standard Version, 1964)

There are many more verses in God’s Word that give us insight to what God would consider to be virtues.

SO…what on Earth does this have to do with intellectual standards, traits and critical thinking?  Well, if you look at the essential intellectual traits put forth by as virtues and their counter parts as sins then

Essential traits/virtues   Intellectual sins
Intellectual humility vs. Intellectual arrogance
Intellectual courage vs. Intellectual cowardice
Intellectual empathy vs. Intellectual narrow-mindedness
Intellectual autonomy vs. Intellectual conformity
Intellectual Integrity vs. Intellectual hypocrisy
Intellectual perseverance vs. Intellectual laziness
Confidence in reason vs. Distrust of reason/evidence
Fair-mindedness vs Intellectual unfairness

Let’s define humility, courage, arrogance and cowardice in intellectual terms.

Intellectual humility vs. Intellectual arrogance

If we are humble then we know our limits and we are aware of our own ability to deceive ourselves.  On an intellectual basis we should not claim to know more than we do.  Intellectual arrogance is just the opposite in that we can deceive ourselves into thinking we know more than we do.  Those who are arrogant are boastful, conceited and pretentious, just like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Think about Jesus, God incarnate, and how He was never boastful or pretentious or conceited.  Think about some of our Christian leaders who claim to know so much more than the Bible tells us.  They know when the second coming will happen (HA!).  God speaks to them and gives them a new interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. (I doubt that!)  A true intellect/scholar will openly admit that they don’t know everything.  How about you?  Are you humble?

Intellectual courage vs. Intellectual cowardice

John Wayne has been quoted saying “Courage is being scared to death and getting in the saddle anyway.”  This is a very popular quote among my buddies.  Have you ever thought about the kind of courage Jesus had?  He faced many, many challenging questions and He asked many, many challenging questions.  Remember when He wrote in the sand?  He was thinking, deeply, about what to say to the religious authorities.  These authorities were in the right according to the Law but their thinking was wrong-headed and counter to God’s Law of Love.  It took an enormous amount of courage to face those who were right in the letter of the Law but didn’t understand the spirit of the Law.  Intellectual courage means coming to see truth in thoughts, ideas, things that at first seem absurd and dangerous AND seeing the lies in thoughts, ideas, things that have been accepted as truth but simply are not truth.  Cowardice is going along with the crowd when the crowd is following a lie or untruth.  Often conformity is simply the easy way that leads to disaster.  Pursing the truth no matter what the social/religious authorities dictate is costly.  Just ask Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, Mother Teresa, Mary, Martha and many, many other Christians who gave their lives for the truth.  How courageous are you?