Worthily Reading

God is the Story-teller and the main character. He is the Bard and the hero.
He authors the fairy tale and then comes to kill the dragon and get the girl. 
—Joe Rigney, “The Story-Teller Who Entered In,” desiringGod.org

This is the first letter that I have written as president-elect to the friends and contributors of Bethlehem College & Seminary. God willing, it will be the first of many. At one level, such letters serve a practical purpose—they invite you, the reader, to support The Serious Joy Scholarship in 2020. The Serious Joy Scholarship is the primary way that our small school is able to fulfill its mission of spreading a passion for God’s supremacy in all things by teaching the students that the Lord sends us. Such gifts enable us to offer the highest quality education at a very affordable price to our students. You have been so generous and immensely helpful to this mission in the past. Won’t you please pray whether God is calling you to help us again in this particular season?

But beneath this very practical purpose of a so-called fundraising letter is an assumption.

We assume that you, the reader, share our vision of a God-entranced education, one that raises up a generation of Christian Hedonist pastors and that produces mature adults who graduate ready to witness for Christ with wisdom and wonder for the rest of their lives. Thus the more important purpose of these letters is the attempt to make that assumption into an established fact. There are no doubt many ways to accomplish this. But the one that is most appealing to me is to offer you a window into our classrooms. What exactly are we doing at Bethlehem College & Seminary?

For years, whenever I’m asked what I do for a living, I’ve jokingly replied, “I teach college students and seminarians how to read.” In truth, it’s only a half-joke. Despite the common assumption that we learn to read when we’re in elementary school, the reality is that reading—really reading—is incredibly difficult. It’s also incredibly important. That’s why one of the central skills that we impart to our students is the habit of wise, careful reading. And one of the best ways to teach the habit of wise, careful reading is through a prolonged engagement with great authors. One of my favorites is Jane Austen. In fact, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is from one angle simply a book about reading. Observation, interpretation, application—these are what this book is about. And Austen knows that reading rightly is not easy. Take a few simple lines from Austen’s sixth chapter.

“You began the evening well, Charlotte,” said Mrs. Bennet with civil self-command to Miss Lucas.
“You were Mr. Bingley’s first choice.”

At one level, the meaning is obvious; this is a simple compliment from one neighbor to another. But the careful reader will notice the context and subtext and background to this simple statement. He will notice that Mrs. Bennet is ostensibly praising Miss Lucas for being the handsome Mr. Bingley’s first dance partner, while also inviting a comparison to Mr. Bingley’s second dance partner—her daughter Jane Bennet, with whom Mr. Bingley danced twice. In other words, giving the compliment is actually a way of fishing for compliments. More than that, it is a subtle assertion of superiority. By beginning with superficial praise, Mrs. Bennet invites Miss Lucas to return the favor and point out Bingley’s preference for Jane, which then occupies the next page of conversation. In other words, behind and beneath the simple compliment is a whole world of neighborly jealousy, rivalry, pride, and the machinations of mothers seeking to find eligible husbands for their daughters.

Austen writes her novel in such a way that it demands her readers attend to this sort of thing. We must learn to read between the lines, to see beneath the surface, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When Mrs. Bennet faults Mr. Darcy for his incivility in not carrying on a conversation with Mrs. Long on the grounds that “he is ate up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage,” the perceptive reader should begin to suspect that the one who brought Mrs. Long’s lack of wealth to Mr. Darcy’s attention was Mrs. Bennet herself. That’s the sort of thing she would do in order to elevate herself above her neighbors. Accurately evaluating the characters in the novel requires the reader to observe carefully and understand thoroughly what is before us, both on the surface and beneath it. It requires us to notice small details like this and fit them into an overall picture.

But Austen also knows that what we notice depends on who we are. Mr. Bennet reads a letter from the unknown Mr. Collins to his family, and then Austen invites us to consider what the different members notice. Mrs. Bennet, whose primary aim in life is to get her daughters married and settled, notes Mr. Collins’s intention to do good to her girls, and welcomes it. Jane, who always looks for the good in people, accents the fact that such a wish is to Mr. Collins’s credit. Bookish Mary comments on Mr. Collins’s use of metaphor, as though she were writing a paper in a literature class. Mr. Bennet, who delights in seeing people make fools of themselves, primarily notes the mixture of servility and self-importance in the letter, and is eager to see his absurd cousin. All heard the same letter, but all were attentive to different things. Who we are shapes what we notice.

And who we are is not simple. It is composed of numerous parts, including our natural constitution, our life experiences, and our moral character. Such is the stuff of Pride and Prejudice, and such is the stuff of a debt-free Bethlehem “Education in Serious Joy.” For example, a consistent comparison and contrast is drawn throughout the novel between Jane and Lizzy, the two elder Bennet sisters. Jane is prone to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. She takes the good of everyone’s character and improves it, and says nothing of the bad. Lizzy, on the other hand, readily sees the folly of others, and has a quickness of observation and discernment that allows her to see the superciliousness beneath the fine exterior of Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst.

On numerous occasions, the reader is invited to compare the two sisters as they interpret letters and events. When the Bingley party abruptly departs the neighborhood, leaving behind only a letter for Jane, the two sisters debate the meaning of it.

“It is evident by this,” added Jane, “that [Mr. Bingley] comes back no more this winter.”
“It is evident that Miss Bingley does not mean he should.”

The sisters offer defenses of their interpretations, based on what they see of the character of the people involved, and the reader is invited in to make a judgment. Which sister is correct about Miss Bingley and her character?

A similar debate ensues over the wisdom of Charlotte marrying Mr. Collins. Jane, who always looks for the good, commends Charlotte’s prudence in securing a good establishment for herself and wishes to believe that Charlotte really esteems her new husband. Lizzy refuses to do so.

Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man…You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavor to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness.

Here the issue of reading, meaning, and interpretation is explicitly set before us. Can we change the meaning of words to suit our desires? Or must we allow the unpleasant truth to be announced, however much it may distress us? As our chancellor, John Piper, has so frequently exhorted us, “Words matter. Sentences matter. Paragraphs matter.” They form arguments, propositions, and commandments that can mean life or death, eternally.

Bethlehem College & Seminary students will arrive here having already received 13–17 years of formal education yet woefully deficient in their ability to read—that is, really read. By the grace of God, the classroom labors of our remarkable professors, and your partnership in The Serious Joy Scholarship, they graduate ready to make the most of their God-given abilities to read.

But good reading is not merely a matter of our natural constitution. It is also a matter of our character. For starters, we must learn to be patient. There are seeds sown in early chapters that don’t bear fruit until later. Charlotte’s scheme of securing Mr. Collins for herself is told to the reader in Chapter 22, but the seed was sown in the previous two chapters if we are attentive to her presence at key moments. Attention to detail and remembering what we’ve seen is crucial.

Or again, when it comes to our judgment about the character of some of the individuals, we must also be patient. Some men’s folly runs on ahead of them, like Mr. Collins’s obsequious pride. The folly of others trails behind and only becomes evident later. Our amusement at Mr. Bennet’s satirical wit and humor in the early chapters gives way when we realize that his passivity in the face of the folly of his wife and younger daughters has grave consequences for his daughters.

Our ability to read well is thus partly owing to our natural constitution, partly to our patience and memory, partly to our past experiences, and partly to our moral character. As the title of the book suggests, it is a matter of pride and prejudice. Jane cannot see what Miss Bingley is, because Miss Bingley turns on the charm in Jane’s presence. What’s more, Mr. Bingley’s attention to Jane keeps her occupied with more pleasant and important concerns. Lizzy, unhindered by this attention to herself from both brother and sister, is therefore able to see through the superficial civility of Miss Bingley.

On the other hand, Lizzy’s judgment is far from consistent. When her friend Charlotte marries Mr. Collins for the sake of his wealth and station, Lizzy judges her harshly for such a foolish choice. When Mr. Wickham directs his attention to Miss King on similar grounds, Lizzy is not nearly so harsh on him. Could his initial attentions to her have anything to do with it? Might such attention have prejudiced Lizzy in Wickham’s favor so that she excuses in him what she condemns in her friend? Our prejudices feel so natural and normal, and operate so subtly, that we can easily miss their effects.

Much more could be said on this point. This, after all, is perhaps the central thread in the book—how does our pride lead us to misread things, whether it’s a comment, a letter, or a person? Given that all of us will make preliminary judgments (that is, all of us have prejudices in one direction or another), how can we so manage them that we avoid errors in judgment, and therefore errors in action? The book brilliantly explores the way that we perceive others, how our first impressions are formed (and what effects they have on our second and third impressions). It accents the influence of the surrounding community in shaping our understanding of others, the way that “what everybody knows” becomes fact, whether it is true to reality or not. And perhaps most importantly, the reader who faithfully enters Austen’s world may just find that they have their own little apocalypse-through-reading. In the midst of the book, they may abruptly look up and say, “I too have courted pride and been blinded by prejudice. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

But I don’t assume that the readers of this letter have all read Pride and Prejudice, and far be it from me to spoil the main plot with too many details. I trust what I’ve said thus far is enough to whet the appetite and perhaps lead some of you to pick up this great book for the first time. Perhaps even at some point you and I might have the pleasure of discussing the book together. At the very least, I hope that my recommendation overcomes certain impressions that some readers may have about the value of Austen’s novels. As I tell my students on the first day of our discussion, part of my goal in teaching Austen is to explode the fashionable prejudice that real men don’t like books about ladies in drawing rooms discussing marital prospects. And over the last decade I have been quite successful in eliminating this prejudice when it has appeared in my class.

Suffice it to say, the central plot of the book involves pride, and prejudice, and a deep humbling (and subsequent restoration). And as it happens, the “turn” in the novel involves reading. Not only that, it involves re-reading. And through this reading and rereading, a major character has an almost apocalyptic awakening to their own pride and prejudice. And this awakening leads them (and the reader) to revisit everything that we’ve seen to that point. It really is a remarkable book, and one that I return to again and again.

So why dwell on it here in my first letter to our generous contributors? Because I want you to see the central importance that we place on good reading at Bethlehem College & Seminary. It’s not incidental to what we do; it’s fundamental. We want students to learn to read well—whether it’s the great books or the Greatest Book. Whether they’re reading Jane Austen or the apostle Paul. Whether they are reading the people around them or seeking to interpret the present time. Our aim is that they learn to read well. After all, Christians are people of the Book, because the living and active God gave us a living and active word.

At Bethlehem College & Seminary, we fulfill our mission under the authority of God’s inerrant word. All Scripture is God-breathed, every last word, every jot and tittle. Which means we want our students to learn to pay careful attention to every jot and tittle, to ask why the human authors and the divine Author included the details they did in the Greatest Book. Every word of God proves true. And so they must press into every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter, and every book. And they must do so again and again, until their minds and hearts have been shaped and molded by the Scriptures. They must eat the Book, savoring and digesting it, until it becomes a part of who they are.

Because as Austen shows us, reading well means that our students must become a certain kind of person. They must be patient, refusing to jump the gun in the formation of their judgments. They must be observant, giving assiduous attention to whatever is before their eyes. They must remember what they’ve learned before and seek to fit their new knowledge and their old knowledge together, allowing them to correct and clarify each other as needed. And they must be humble and self-aware, knowing their own bents and tendencies so that they can best employ their faculties so as to love their neighbors as themselves. Loving well means reading well, since love requires us to interpret people and their words and actions, to see both what’s on the surface and what’s beneath the surface, to discern good and evil, joy and sorrow, pain and sin in the messy circumstances of life.

But the importance of reading extends beyond love of neighbor. According to the apostle Paul, reading is the pathway to seeing Christ. Paul tells the Ephesians that they can come to understand his insight into the mystery of Christ through reading. What greater endorsement of the (not-so-simple) act of reading can there be! Through reading, we come to know the only true God and his Son, Jesus Christ. That is, reading is the pathway to eternal life and eternal joy. And therefore, it would be unconscionable to offer an Education in Serious Joy that didn’t major on the art of humble, Spirit-illumined reading.

And this brings me back to the practical purpose for this letter—The Serious Joy Scholarship. Each year, every full-time student at Bethlehem College & Seminary receives a $10,000 scholarship toward their tuition. This scholarship enables them to complete their education at Bethlehem without the burden of student loan debt, so that they can launch into life and ministry immediately after they graduate. And it is contributors like you who make this happen.

It is important to note the CARES Act passed by Congress earlier this year provides extraordinary tax benefits for charitable contributions made by individuals and corporations during this otherwise daunting year of global pandemic. Please consult your financial advisor. In order to be considered tax-deductible in 2020, all such charitable contributions must be made or post-marked on or by December 31, 2020. A commerce-secure facility for online contributions is available here.

Your generosity enables us to accomplish our mission. Because of you, our students can become good readers—not merely of novels (as enjoyable and important as that is), but readers of the Scriptures, readers of people, and interpreters of the present time. Because they learn to read well, they learn also to live well. They become the kind of mature, sober-minded, humble, and courageous men and women who know God and therefore know themselves, who approach God’s word with expectation of his presence and illumination, who approach other people with the right mix of discernment and hopefulness, and who approach God’s world with wide-eyed wonder for the rest of their lives.

Kill the Dragon. Get the Girl.


Dr. Joseph J. Rigney