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Desiring Books, Desiring God

March 7, 2013

I haven’t finished reading Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction yet because, well, I’ve been distracted. Recently this book popped back onto my radar after a friend of mine–a fairly new mom–mentioned that she sometimes listens to Jacobs’ lectures or talks while she’s nursing. That was pretty inspiring, and I made a mental note to find a talk of his online to listen to while doing data entry at work (it’s not all party planning and reading, you know).

I came across an interesting talk Jacobs gave at New St. Andrews on books– the media of books throughout history- from scrolls to codices to smaller, more portable bound books to e-readers. In general, he discussed how technology regarding books has always been advancing, despite what some Luddites would like us to think-books have always been books, but they’ve always come in different formats, and those formats, those mediums-have indeed affected the message, but if you’re thoughtful about it, then it’s okay. E-readers might not give you the smell of an old book or the pleasure of an unusual typeface, but the easiest thing to do on an e-reader is to turn the page. Chalk one point up to the e-reader for making it easy for you to keep reading, instead of putting the book down, or closing the window (on the computer), or whatever it is that makes it easy for you to lose interest.

Anyway (and that’s a big “anyway;” I’m going to  shift gears now), the talk made me like Jacobs, who I’ve never heard speak before, and I decided to revisit The Pleasures of Reading after getting a feel for his voice.*

The point in The Pleasures of Reading is that Jacobs has noticed that reading, in general, has more or less become relegated in the American psyche to the category of “Things I should probably do in order to be a better person,” alongside other dutiful activities such as eating spinach and exercising out of a grim sense of shame and remorse instead of, well, joy. Rather than something we do for pleasure and delight, reading, and especially reading long lists of things we feel like (or are told) are things we ought to read, has become ultimately a means of American bootstrap-pulling self-improvement, rather than something we do because we enjoy doing it.

Jacobs’ thoughts? Mostly, read what you enjoy reading, most of the time. You may discover that there’s virtue in reading with no other motivation than pleasure, because what you like and desire leaves impressions on who you are in a deep and powerful way. And consider getting an e-reader, because the simplest operation on a e-reader is to keep moving the pages forward- to keep reading. In many ways, they minimize distractions. Minimizing distractions is important because it’ll maximize enjoyment, interaction, and the subtle interior transformation that occurs when you wholly give your attention to something you find really pleasurable.

Oh man, this book is so good. I gotta say- I’m really enjoying it.

Reading The Pleasures of Reading got me thinking about another old classic in the Christian publishing canon: Desiring God. Piper’s familiar refrain, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” keeps rolling around in my brain as I turn the pages of Jacob’s little book. More and more I’m convinced that what we love says so much more about us than what we think or say we believe.piper-desiring-god

I don’t know if many people put Jacobs and Piper in the same boat, but I think they’d firmly agree on this point: our affections represent the deepest part of who we are. But what do we do when our affections are morally corrupt? Do Piper and Jacobs and the rest of the Augustinian camp think we should just pursue our desires regardless of their ethical ambivalence?

Well, we shouldn’t pursue all of them. Since our hearts bear the image of God, they are still capable of wanting good and true things-the things they were designed to want by their creator. But nobody denies our need for some serious-dare I say it? Renovation of the Heart.

I may be the only person ever to list these three authors with each other, but in my analysis, it just makes sense. Jacobs, Piper, and Willard all address, in their own way, issues of the heart; of our desires and our wants and the connections those things have to our identity. As Christians, all of these guys would assert that our hearts are mixed bags- they bear the image of God, and they are also infected with an evil disease (sin. The disease is sin- we’re all aware of this at one point or another).


And I think this is where Piper, Augustine, Willard and  Jacobs would point to the hope laid out in Ezekiel 36- that is, the hope of a new heart, with new affections, and an inclination in the deepest part of ourselves to love God.  This new heart, with new affections and desires, is a gift from God, available to us through Jesus and sealed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit transforms our hearts in such a way that eventually, we begin to want the things we ought to want, or as Willard puts it, “We don’t just do loving things. We become loving people.”

Can we cultivate these loves, these right desires? Absolutely- Willard discusses this cultivation process in Renovation of the Heart, which addresses, among other things, the role of spiritual disciplines in conjunction with meditating on Scripture (reading it! What a novel idea!).

Is your heart sick, or your attention faltering? Can you even enjoy the good things you say you enjoy? Do you want to want to love the things you’re meant to love? To love God?

That’s a fine starting place. Ask God for help, and he’ll respond. He might even direct you to a few well-timed books or authors to help you along as you think through these things.

If you stop in and want to pick up one of these books, tell the cashier that Valerie said you could get 25% off on any of them (this offer will be good till April 7, 2013). 

*Who knows why, but it’s often easier for me to get interested in a particular author after hearing him or her speak. This happened with Walter Wangerin, Lauren Winner, and NT Wright, all of whom write exactly like they talk- at least in their popular-level stuff.

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