Literature in the Soul of Me

By Karen Swallow Prior

I asked Jesus into my heart before I was 5 years old. It was many years before I asked him into my mind.

In fairness to myself, it was a long time before I realized that my mind was a place where Jesus not only needed to be but wanted to be. Reading books—many books, most of them not about God at all—made this clear to me.

The Book of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” I didn’t accomplish these loves all at once.

I seem to have followed the order of this verse: first loving Jesus with my child’s heart, a love there in the middle of me, tucked safely away, but hidden in the compartments I’d made for my self and my life. Eventually, that love seeped outward, filling the core of my being, my soul. It took a long time, however, for that love to fill my mind—to be present in my thinking the same way oxygen is present in my breathing.

I’ve never really struggled with doubt—doubt about God’s existence or the truth of the Bible or the witness and teachings of the historic church. But I have faced doubt. I have faced doubt through the disbelief of others, through the questions and honest searching of minds greater than mine, across the ages, on the pages and in the words of the writers I have read. To be sure, I have had questions of my own, and I have grappled with questions alongside others. People sometimes journey from faith to doubt, and I have known such people. Some of these have come back to faith. Others have not. Others I have known began in doubt or unbelief and came to faith. My own faith journey has been slow at times, yet steady and straight. But it has not been a blind faith.

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’m not sure when we felt we had outgrown the bedtime stories, but I do know that my brothers and I each came to feel we had outgrown church. The bedtime stories, however, ceased long before compulsory church attendance did. Even friends or cousins who slept over on Saturday night knew they would be attending church with our family come Sunday morning. For most of them, this was the only time they ever went to church, so naturally, I was apologetic. And embarrassed. We New Englanders may derive from Puritan stock, but the stoic independence more than the religious piety has survived into the current age. I made up to my friends by entertaining them during the service: snickering at the drops of spittle that seeped from one corner of the pastor’s mouth while he preached, making naughty puns on the names of the parishioners, and singing the hymns in a high, quavering old lady voice only the friend next to me could hear. Anyone needing evidence of the human soul’s need for formation need look no further than a sneering child seated on a church pew on a Sunday morn.

I struggled against God. Not as many do. But still I did, in my own way.  I didn’t doubt his being. I doubted his ways. I doubted that his ways were better than my ways. I doubted the ways of his people, too. Even so, I wonder more that an airplane can fly than that the God of the universe exists. Granted, my doubt in airplanes is rooted in my ignorance of physics. But might the same apply to our understanding of God? My struggle against God’s ways only reinforced my belief in him. After all, one doesn’t struggle against something one doesn’t believe in. One doesn’t rail against someone one thinks does not exist.

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. My journey toward that discovery took place mainly in the pages of many books. Wide reading has humbled me in showing me that “there is nothing new under the sun.” As real and as important as any questions I have might be, I’ve seen that they are not unique to me. There is comfort in this, and chastening, too. Somewhere between universal truth and utter solipsism is a unique self, but the preponderance of that self, like all other selves, is the image of God that all selves share. There’s more of him in us—in me—than anything else. Even the ability to doubt him, to struggle against him, to wonder at his ways is rooted in him. Certainty seems bigger than me, skepticism smaller. Wonder is just right. 

For a long time, 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 wonder and truth.

— Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos 2018). She is co-editor of Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan 2019) and has contributed to numerous other books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Religion News Service, Books and Culture and other places.

This article is excerpted by Karen Swallow Prior from her volume Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press), 2012.

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay


Enjoy the bonus book deals below from the just-released July issue of The Worldview Bulletin. In this issue, Paul Copan continues his informative series on the problem of evil, and Paul Gould and David Baggett discuss making new beginnings, pursuing God-given dreams, and the new Center for Moral Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Subscribers also gain access to our full archive of previous articles and features—all for only $2.50 per month!


Book Deals

(These deals were good at the time of writing, but prices may change on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis.)

Get the Faithlife free eBook of the Month for August, Understanding Intelligent Design, by William Dembski and Sean McDowell. Three other books on Christianity and science are also steeply discounted on the same page, including our own Paul Gould’s volume The Story of the Cosmos.

The Logos free book of the month for August is History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 3rd ed. (The New Testament Library Series). Four other volumes are also on sale on the same page.

Also, check out Logos’s $7.99 Zondervan sale—probably only good for another couple of days.

36 books in the Crucial Questions series by R. C. Sproul are currently free on Kindle.

Divine Action, Determinism, and the Laws of Nature by Jeffrey Koperski is free on Kindle.

Not a book, but Craig Blomberg’s new course on The Historical Reliability of the Gospels is free to listen to at BiblicalTraining.org.

Zondervan is running a summer commentary sale on Amazon. Many volumes are discounted from the normal price.

Save Big During IVP's Summer Warehouse Sale

Basic Christianity: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by John Stott, $1.60

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Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museumsby Clyde Fant and Mitchell Reddish, $6.00

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God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of a God by Robert H. Nelson, $2.99