Reading With Our Spines…
by Travis Pickell
I’ve recently been reading James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, and it has been thoroughly enjoyable. Smith reflects upon Christian formation and education from a Reformed perspective, and yet he significantly shifts the center of gravity away from talk about world-views, beliefs and ideas to a more Augustinian account of the importance of loves. Given my recent fascination with Augustine, this is scratching me where I itch, so to speak.
One of his critiques of world-view speak is that it ignores the relationship between our embodiment and the formation of our loves toward certain ends (teloi). In particular, Smith argues that our “vision of the good life” is more often formed by affective, unconscious (or subconscious) means, rather than by cognitive means. In everyday speak, this means that it is the stories and images that we encounter every day that affect us at the gut level that really form us. “Stories seep into us–and stay there and haunt us–more than a report on facts” (58). Or, in the words of a former teacher of mine, “facts are inert, what matters is imagination.”
Smith offers an example of this in the process of reading good literature:
“Given this role of the imagination, we might suggest that liturgy is like literature: it gets hold of us through the body. In that connection, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s comment on reading Dicken’s Bleak House: “All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. but I think Dickens will prove stronger.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature [New York: Harvest, 2002], 56)
Nabokov doesn’t mention it directly, but he could very well have commented on the antithesis of the mode of reading literature and the way we engage the world through the medium of the internet. I know and love the shiver that he mentions, and while I have certainly felt that shiver while watching a good film, I have never experienced it while reading a blog post, tweet, or facebook status update — although increasingly I am spending more time doing that. It makes me think hard about the quantity/quality distinction when it comes to digesting new information. I must remember to spend time reading good literature, or just not reading at all and thinking and praying, so that my thoughts can focus and come from a deeper place. The problem with the internet is its tendency toward shallowness (and its tendency to make us shallow, not just emotionally but also intellectually – so argues Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains). I can already see this in my own habits of reading the first few lines of many blog posts each day without actually reading a single one through to the end.
About Smith’s point generally, I wholeheartedly agree with his [Augustinian] analysis of human formation and am excited to see what he does with it (although he is particularly applying it to the context of Christian education, a form of education about which I am particularly skeptical). I think the church must constantly be attentive to the importance of imagination, desires, and embodiment on human formation, not just in the realm of Christian education, but also in the realm of gospel proclamation and cultural engagement.