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Promiscuous Reading

A bonus track from Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, excerpted from Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.

Published on:
September 11, 2018
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5 min.
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I know that salvation is of God, but I also know—mainly because I learned it from books—that there are other kinds of salvations, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth.

One such gift is that my soul was entrusted to two good parents, one a mother who loves books and who read consistently to her children as we were growing up. Just as weekly attendance at church and Sunday school was part of what it meant to belong to my family, so too was my mother reading to each of us, my two older brothers and me, every night at bedtime. These rituals were part of our lives well past the age when most of my friends were no longer tucked into bed, or read to, or made to go to church by their parents. Even into my brothers’ teen years our mother made the rounds to each separate bedroom, reading a section nightly from books of our choosing. 

I thought my love of books was taking me away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.

Although every child raised on books grows up to be a voracious reader, the early inculcation of the habit increases the chances. Likewise, although being raised by God-loving parents is no guarantee that one will love God oneself, it certainly helps. I did love God, even if it didn’t always show, but for much of my life, I loved books more than God, never discovering for a long, long time that a God who spoke the world into existence with words is, in fact, the source of meaning of all words. I thought my love of books was taking me away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.

Books and the reading of books fill the memories of my early childhood as much as anything else. My childhood rituals of reading encompassed a complicated set of ceremonies, rules, and traditions not unlike those of the church. Church stifled me. But books made my world feel bigger and made me feel freer. Some of these books took me to places most people would say a young girl shouldn’t go, but my parents never restricted my reading, unlike many parents today who seem to spend a lot of time fretting over what to allow their kids to read or not to read.

It seems to me to be an entirely negative, not to mention ineffective, strategy to shield children from reality rather than actively expose them to the sort of truth that emerges organically from the give-and-take of weighing and reckoning competing ideas against one another. Discovering truth is a process that occurs over time, more fully with each idea or book that gets added to the equation.

This is why books should be “promiscuously read.” 

Books and the reading of books fill the memories of my early childhood as much as anything else.

These are the words of John Milton in his famous 1644, anti-censorship tract, Areopagitica. In the midst of the English Civil Wars, when the price for a wrongheaded idea might well be one’s head, Milton argued passionately in this treatise that the best way to counteract falsehood is not by suppressing it, but by countering it with truth. The essence of Milton’s argument is that truth is stronger than falsehood; falsehood prevails through the suppression of countering ideas, but truth triumphs in a free and open exchange that allows truth to shine. This was, I think, the essence of my parents’ approach to their children’s reading, though they didn’t express it this way. My parents hadn’t ever read Milton, but they had good instincts and a good dose of common sense.

While Milton wrote Areopagitica in a context far removed both chronologically and politically from the US Constitution, his argument against the licensing orders of the seventeenth-century English government was instrumental in the thinking that shaped the First Amendment. Milton’s stance is even more significant when one considers that he was arguing against the policies of his own Puritan faction. Milton demonstrated the universal power of truth not only in the content of his treatise, but also in the very act of countering his fellow Christians: by standing for truth even against his own party, Milton embodied the very power of truth. Milton thus exemplifies the person of integrity whose allegiance is to truth rather than comfort, to doctrine rather than political or social expediency.

Even outside of Milton’s context as a seventeenth-century Puritan, his argument for promiscuous reading is instructive, because such an approach is still both the means and the mark of the intellectually- and spiritually-mature person. If only that father who brandished the black marker against his daughter’s college textbooks had read—and received—Milton’s wisdom.

Today the word promiscuous is usually associated with sexual behavior, but this is a more recent usage, one that comes from the word’s actual meaning—indiscriminate mixing. It’s easy to see the sexual application of the word from this definition but instructive to think about in the context of reading. It’s surprising, I think, to realize that pious and scholarly Milton is actually arguing for indiscriminate, disorderly reading. And lots of it. In Milton’s day people had more fears surrounding promiscuous reading than promiscuous sex (the latter being rarer), so Milton had quite the challenge ahead of him.

In making his argument, as a churchman speaking to fellow churchmen, Milton cites the biblical examples of Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who were all steeped in the writings of their surrounding pagan cultures. Milton also invokes a leader of the third-century church who asserted that God commanded him in a vision, “Read any books whatever come into your hands, for you are sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.” Such advice mirrors the Pauline suggestion to “test all things and hold fast to that which is good.”  Milton puts it most profoundly when he says,

Well knows he who uses to consider, that our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion. Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.

In other words, the power of truth lies not in abstract propositions but in the understanding and willful application of truth by living, breathing persons which can occur only in the context of liberty.

Indeed, for Milton, this necessary freedom is seen in the character of God. For God is not, Milton argues, one to “captivate” his children “under a perpetual childhood of prescription,”  but rather, God expects us to exercise reason, wisdom, and virtue. “What wisdom can there be to choose . . . without knowledge of evil?” asks Milton. What praise for “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees his adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Those “who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin” have a poor understanding of human nature and the human condition, argues Milton.

But beyond the practical uses of truth in exercising virtue and cultivating maturity, Milton waxes most eloquent when he describes the very nature of truth itself:

For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious; those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power. Give her but room, and do not bind her when she sleeps . . . And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength.

Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

Reading John Milton helped me to understand that the antagonism I had always felt between the life of the church and the life of the mind was false. Why had this truth been obscured from me for so long? Why had it seemed hidden from me by the church, only to be uncovered by an unbelieving professor? I’m not clear about where the perception of this antagonism came from—from culture, from politics, from bad preaching, or from all of the above. But the fact was that there was no essential conflict between the tenets of my faith and freedom of the mind. The oppression I had felt in the church was of human origin, not divine.

Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior, PhD, is a professor of English for Liberty University. Prior is also a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Senior Fellow with Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

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