Interview by D.L. Mayfield
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is one of those authors I wish everyone would hurry up and read. He has consistently been publishing thoughtful books on a myriad of topics on following Jesus for decades. He lives in a house of hospitality he helped found in 2003 in Durham, NC and his writing is enriched by his life of activism, contemplation, and diverse relationships.
I reached out to Jonathan because he is a busy man–engaged in intense political activity via the poor people’s campaign with the Rev. Dr. Barber–and yet he exudes a wisdom and a hope in Christ that is profound. Here, he shares with us how reading helps shapes and forms him for the long work of pursuing righteousness.
D.L.: How do you feel reading fits into soul-care? How does this play out in your life?
JWH: I’m a recovering glutton when it comes to books–and I don’t mean that in the loose way the adsters talk about something being “so good it’s sinful.” I mean I’m tempted to overstuff my soul with reading–to eat and eat at the buffet of good books until I’m so stuffed nothing tastes good anymore.
So, for my own soul-care, I have to be selective. I’m trying to get up these days and do 30 minutes of physical exercise before I read anything–even my morning Scripture meditation. It’s helping, I think. I’m recovering my attraction to beautiful words.
What we read and how we read it is a spiritual discipline. Which isn’t to say that you need some sort of military-like routine to do it well. But what and how we read deserves reflection. We can learn to read well, even as we can learn to live well.
Years ago I came across a phrase from one of the scholastics who said he chewed on Scripture “like a cow chews on its cud.” Chewing and chewing and chewing again. That’s where I am these days. I mean, I read the news and try to keep up when there is a lot of stuff that I have to read. But for the sake of my soul, I’m trying to chew again on the things that I need to get deep down inside of me. Like the desert ammas and abbas and the prophets; like Dorothy Day and Dr. King. And James Baldwin. I don’t think there’s a writer in the English language who touches my soul like Baldwin.
Do you have any thoughts on the theological importance of reading in fast-paced and tech-heavy world?
Well, it’s all theological. I mean, if everything is a commodity to be consumed, then, as St Paul says, “your god is your belly.” I find human beings to be religious animals–and, as the old hymn says, “prone to wander… prone to leave the God I love.” The iPhone disciplines your mind to worship speed. So, sure, slowing down to read a book can be an act of worship.
I think we worship in Spirit and in truth when we read hospitably–when I open myself to the strange and sometimes difficult truth of another soul by wrestling with their words on paper. I read all across the map–poetry, essays, history, fiction. But I most want to sit with an honest voice.
What is your approach to reading these days? Do you have a schedule or a philosophy or an attitude towards reading you would care to share?
In addition to the exercise, I’m trying to interrupt my reading with intentional conversation and play with the kids and silence, where I can get it. But my approach to reading remains what it’s been since I was a kid: keep a book at hand wherever I might have a spare minute: in the bag for airline flights and by the bed stand; a stack by the chair where I sit in the mornings and one on the back of the toilet.
What books got you through 2017?
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
And Eric Foner’s history books.
Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the gospels.
Mary Oliver and Eddie Glaude and the journalist Naomi Klein, to name a few. I’m a spiritual writer, in part, because I don’t enjoy most spiritual writing. (You write what you want to read, right?)
What three books would you recommend people read in 2018?
Democracy in Chains was a finalist for the National Book Award last year. I’m sure all the finalists were good (I’ve not read them all), but I wanted Nancy McLean’s book to win because I think it pinpoints what’s happening in America right now–with footnotes.
2018 is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, so I hope folks will go back and read his last book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
And I’ve tried to write the book that I need for 2018. It’s called Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion. I poured my soul into it and, in the end, I think it names the hope that’s in me better than anything I’ve written. It comes out in March.
You can find more about Jonathan, his books, and the work he is doing by going to his website or following him on Twitter. Be sure and check out the books he has mentioned, and go ahead and pre-order a copy of Reconstructing the Gospel. To my mind, it is the book the Christian church most needs to read this year.
For more information on the Reading to Save Our Souls Column, and to check out past posts, click here.