- - Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Have you ever stopped to consider why stories mean so much to us? Why do great books and great movies enrapture us?

When you pick up your empty popcorn bag and slowly — almost mournfully — make your way out of the theater, or when you finally lay down a dearly loved book after you have turned the final page, the deep sense of longing we experience suggests to me that our hearts long for far more than mere entertainment.

In “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” Donald Miller writes about the parallels between storytelling and living — about how the elements that make a story compelling are the same that comprise a meaningful life.

In a sad yet hopeful observation, he writes about the disappointing “stories” that so many of us “tell” the world through our lives: “We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.”

I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people desire to live well, but that most of us too easily lose sight of how to do it. We have a spiritual need for a meaningful narrative to remind us of the potential we have to offer the world.

Though I love movies as much as the next person, there is just something extra special about reading. The written word allows us to pore carefully over phrases and sentences, and soak in their many layers of meaning. Or perhaps it is them soaking in us.

Eugene H. Peterson, best known for translating the Bible into the easily relatable version known as “The Message,” also authored a book titled, “Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.” As the title suggests, it provides insight on how we can intentionally read not only the extraordinary stories recorded in Scripture, but any substantial work of literature to nourish our souls.

Mr. Peterson opens his book with a portrayal of how his dog acts with a bone and relates that image to something that excited him in the Prophet Isaiah’s poetic description of a lion growling over its prey: “What my dog did over his precious bone, making those low throaty rumbles of pleasure as he gnawed, enjoyed, and savored his prize, Isaiah’s lion did to his prey. The nugget of my delight was noticing the Hebrew word here translated as ‘growl’ (hagah) but usually translated as ‘meditate, as in Psalm 63: ‘when I think of thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the watches of the night’ (v. 6) “

“Hagah is a word that our Hebrew ancestors used frequently for reading the kind of writing that deals with our souls. But ‘meditate’ is far too tame a word for what is being signified when Isaiah’s lion and my dog meditated, they chewed and swallowed, using teeth and tongue, stomach and intestines There is a certain kind of writing that invites that kind of reading, soft purrs and low growls as we taste and savor, anticipate and take in the sweet and spicy, mouthwatering and soul-energizing morsel words I am interested in cultivating this kind of reading “

Who doesn’t want to cultivate that kind of reading? As writer and poet Oscar Wilde stated, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

How to save your family: Do a little summer reading

Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, said: “You can live life richly and you can prepare yourself to live it actually by reading great books.”

That firmly held belief is exactly why Hillsdale College is offering a free online class series called Great Books 101. I work with Hillsdale and am so very proud of its effort to break through the meaningless and mindless noise of poor stories and promote great ones. In 10, 30- to 50-minute lectures (and an introductory lecture by Mr. Arnn), Hillsdale teachers discuss 10 of the most important works of Western literature. You can watch the lectures at your own pace, in any order, for free.

The books covered in the class include Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” Dante’s “Inferno,” and selections from the Old Testament, among others. The course is full of material worth dwelling on.

Instead of filling your summer with reading good books, try reading a few great ones. Alone or with your family, get your head into stories of real substance and use the free tools available to you. You can sign up for the free online lectures at www.HillsdaleGreatBooks.com. Take 30 minutes and sample Mr. Arnn’s opening lecture. I promise you will be inspired!

• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected]

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