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It’s so natural, so common, that when we sit on the couch, kick our feet up, and flip open to the bookmark or dogeared page, we start reading immediately. The question, “Am I prepared to read?” probably does not go through our minds. But it should. Without preparation, we might learn and enjoy, but growth will be minimal. There is one key component to reading readiness: hospitality.
Reading is dialogue, inviting a distant author into your personal space for conversation. As Esther Lightcap Meek observes, “Welcome is the key posture of a knower wooing the yet-to-be-known.”1 Without hospitality in our minds and hearts, we remain to some degree closed to what the text and its author might say and do to us.
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Be Their Guest
But hospitality starts with the passive rather than the active mood. We as readers, after all, are guests of the author. The book is a meal, and the author its host. How well-prepared and satisfying of a meal remains to be tasted; not all writers are good cooks, and not all good cooks make good meals every time. Nevertheless, the writer was kind enough to offer words for us to taste and eat, and they won’t benefit us if we begin chewing with a mind that is mindless, begrudging or skeptical.
Welcome begets welcome, and once we are grateful to our author-host we can return the favor. Isn’t that how we come to Jesus? He is the Word who gives the first word of welcome, opening our eyes so that we are open and welcome to what he says to us.
What does Jesus say to us as readers? I imagine him telling us what not to say: “Do not say to yourself, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). Formational reading does not thrive in such self-justifying soil. We are called to be neighbors to other writers, which means showing neighbor love (Luke 10:36-37). What does this look like? Allowing the voice of another to demand something of us, just like the man half dead on the road presented a demand to priest, Levite and Samaritan alike. It is the willingness to be addressed by the other, whether with words of comfort or conviction, that is the hallmark of hospitality.
As we extend welcome to the author, we can also share the author’s hospitality with others. Hospitable readers share what they are learning and how they are being encouraged and challenged. But be careful about sharing your reading too soon.
John Owen said that “no man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart.”2 The same can be said of reading. As a spiritual practice, in order for reading to be of maximum benefit to others it must first penetrate into our hearts. We must allow the questions of the text to wrestle with us alone all night until it blesses us. Then we will share not just from our head but from our whole self.
Circumventing this priority - sharing books, quotes and ideas with others cognitively rather than also carditively - not only diminishes benefit for others, it also diminishes the benefit for ourselves. I know the desire to quickly share quotes with others, sometimes from mixed motives of sharing joy and also appearing knowledgeable and wise. By doing so, I abort the formation the author and text seek to affect in me. So share what you read with others - share generously and winsomely - but not too soon. The best kinds of meals, such as many of us enjoyed yesterday, are slow, unhurried, leisurely. Which is why the fundamental components of transformational reading are prayer and meditation.
We know we are prepared to share our reading with others when the author-guest has taken up residence within us. Or if not a resident, at least a familiar guest: the author raises no suspicion from our neighbors when he or she picks up the key hidden under the door matt and enters freely without having to knock.
Quote from Esther Lightcap Meek
Welcome is the most fundamental gesture of reality: the invitation to encounter. Invitation opens a world of possibility: new seeing, new belonging, new fruit. Epistemology requires hospitality!
A Little Manual for Knowing, by Esther Lightcap Meek.
This series is about reading for transformation, but that doesn’t mean it is only for books in the spiritual formation category of your local Christian bookstore. Often those are books that we are most unlikely to read hospitably because we are so familiar with their local Christian dialect. When did you last read something that challenged you with it’s “otherness”? Next time you pick a new book to read, would you be willing to choose one that is to you what the Samaritan was to the priest and Levite?
Meek, Esther Lightcap. A Little Manual for Knowing. Cascade Books, 2014, p. 41.
“The Duty of a Pastor,” in Works of John Owen, Vol. 9, p. 455.