Reading & Laying Down Your Life
Jesus teaches his disciples that everyone who seeks to save their life will lose it but those who give up their lives will save it in the end (Mark 8:35). Like many things that Jesus said, this passage is often overly spiritualized and emptied of its power. In many ways it is similar to Jesus’ admonition to “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31). Everyone claims to love their “neighbor” because no one ever takes the time to figure out who their neighbor is.
For us, our “neighbor” is some nebulous idea floating around in our mind. This ethereal neighbor never sins against us so we find it very easy to love this neighbor. But as soon as a real neighbor wrongs us, we find it very difficult to love them all of a sudden.
Something similar happens to Jesus’ admonitions to lay our lives down. Because we tend spiritualize this too, we imagine “laying our life down” as some sort of mighty spiritual act. While it certainly could be that, the real opportunities to lay down our lives live much closer to home. In fact, they are usually sitting, unwashed, in the kitchen sink.
When understood in this light, there are infinite “practical” ways to lay down our lives. As you might guess from the title, one such way is by reading. In the final pages of his work An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes an argument that “good reading” consists in laying down one’s own point of view. This, Lewis explains, is a type of “dying,” but in this dying, we find that we truly become ourselves as we escape ourselves. Lewis claims that this is exactly what jesus was stating in the Gospel and we can experience it in a small (but powerful) way as we become better readers. Here’s the quotation:
Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’. (pg. 138)
Prior to this quote, Lewis spent a considerable amount of time describing what “bad reading” was. For the most part, bad readers are those who are not laying down their lives as they read. They are either constantly defending their own pride as they read, or they are constantly trying to “use” the work of literature. In both cases the reader is left to himself. They are unable to die to themselves, and thus all they have is themselves.
In good reading, we escape ourselves. Yet, in this escape, we taste (in a small way) what it is like to be truly human.
Food for thought.