Book Review

Read like your life depends on it: Karen Swallow Prior and “On Reading Well”

January 14, 2019

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)

My introduction to literature was when my father gave me a copy of Bulfinch’s mythology after I learned to read. What began with tales of Zeus and Hercules and Achilles soon transformed into reading about Harry Potter’s years at Hogwarts, Bilbo’s adventures in Middle Earth, Hamlet’s moral dilemma, and Dickens’s stories of the Victorian era.

I have long suspected that much of the way I approach the world was formed by the literature that I read. I was pleased, therefore, to find that I was not alone in suspecting this. Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well argues that we are what we meditate upon. Specifically, she says that literature has a unique ability to shape us and form us into more virtuous people through two methods: “offering images of virtue in action” and “offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue” (15). By meditating on the literature that we read, we are invited to consider our lives (whether in agreement or contrast to the characters) and are thereby given the chance to enact in ourselves the reality that we find in the pages of these books.

Reading well

Karen Swallow Prior’s book is foremost an exercise in cultivating the practice of reading. Recognizing that we live in a world of sound-bites and short internet videos, Prior reminds us that the art of contemplation and meditation is essential to “reading well.” As a literature professor, she believes that the words on the page in front of us are essential to formation. This requires that we take the time to slow down and focus in a determined manner.

Prior does not imply that this is easy, though. In our age of constant breaking news, social media designed to keep our attention, and fragmented contact, this practice is hard to cultivate. Though difficult, like any discipline, it improves with practice. So Prior urges her own readers to read widely, constantly, and pleasurably. Pleasure, in particular, in an activity that makes the practice easier, and there are too many books to continue reading one that is “agonizing” to wade through (16). So read for pleasure, read widely, and read like your character depends on it, for it does.

Thinking well

The importance of character formation is at the heart of Prior’s work. She begins by describing the historical and philosophical tradition of virtue ethics, chiefly as found in the work of Aristotle and Alistair McIntyre. In this tradition, the virtuous life is the mean between extremes. The virtue of bravery lies between the extreme of cowardice and brash behavior. Humility lies between pride and self-erasure. Humility is the proper perspective of self, nether too high or too low. Therefore, each of these selected works becomes an image of someone who either held the virtue or was lacking in the virtue, inviting readers to consider their own lives and actions.

Living well

Prior moves from the Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage) to the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love), before ending with a focus on the Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility). In each, Prior’s love for literature and its shaping power is evident. Using the characters in specific novels and short stories, Prior asks questions not confined to literature theory: What is the nature of faith and doubt? How do you practice temperance in an age more extravagant than Gatsby’s? What does justice look like for the descendants of injustice?

While these are not confined to questions of religion and faith, Prior’s explicitly Christian perspective informs how she approaches these questions. Looking to Scripture and church tradition, she invites the reader into a conversation surrounding these questions. She does not offer a universal answer. Rather, she offers us the chance to think for ourselves and answer as best we can. This is the role of literature: not to tell us what to think or the correct answer to a question, but to teach us “to ask definitive questions about ourselves” (108). Literature doesn’t provide all the answers, but it does reveal the questions that we have all been asking, even if we did not know it.

On Reading Well is an excellent resource for anyone who would like to begin thinking more about these crucial questions. Though you may not come away with a love for the same books as Prior, you cannot come away without a sense of the wonder and magic found in literature. The space to consider these questions is perhaps the greatest strength of this book. It creates a space for deeper reflection that is often not found in our current moment. As mentioned, it does not give the answers in the way that Aesop’s Fables might, but it does invite us to find ourselves in the story and ask, “What would I do?”

Life after literature

The bravest thing that Bilbo Baggins ever did was not fighting giant spiders or stealing from a dragon. It was walking alone through a tunnel: “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” (The Hobbit, 197). As a child, I didn’t realize this. The dragon was obviously the most dangerous thing. However, it was not the dragon that Bilbo had to conquer. He had to conquer himself.

Though Prior does not write about this book in her chapter on courage (choosing instead another classic, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn), I believe that Bilbo represents what Prior finds in these other great works. As I read this novel as a child more times than I can count (even taking a course on Tolkien in college), I had to ask myself, “What is my dragon?” Bilbo offered no answer to my question. But he did offer a model for how to face that dragon. And my faith assured me that though I am just hobbit in a strange land away from the comforts of home, the dragon will be defeated (Rev. 20:1-3).

What Tolkien taught me through his imaginative world is just one example of why reading is so important. So, read widely. Read well. And read as if your soul depends on it, for it does!

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24