Thomas and I were on our way to a church to read a book for four hours in April of 2018. Our professor called it a “reading retreat,” an evening dedicated to silent reading in an Anglican sanctuary. I was the sophomore without a car, Thomas the senior art studio major who offered me a ride over. The song “A World at Large” by Modest Mouse announced itself crisply on his audio as we turned onto Gary Avenue just outside of Wheaton, Illinois. I believe it was springtime, too. Nearing the end of the semester, the marshes cusped with green. Easter come and gone, that wet smell of something new and raw in the air. I can’t recall any words from the song except for the lines “went to the porch to have a thought” and “how come I always get caught in the undertow?” The two phrases joined forces with the melancholy electric guitar rift, the Anglican atmosphere where we were about to commit four hours to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and the feeling of relief that the past year was coming to a expectant ending. Something about the song and the moment and the night, its sad thoughtfulness, and the dusky world outside, told me things were going to get better from here on out. That I didn’t have to understand or come to definite conclusions. College at a premier evangelical school brought with it unforetold episodes of isolation, loss of identity, deep doubt. Looking back on it now, I hesitate to dramatize it any more than necessary. But things were changing. Modestly, largely.
That was two years ago. In March of 2020, I made another retreat, not to a church sanctuary, but my old house in Oklahoma. Thousands of others did the same. Back then it was easy to romanticize the desperate exodus of those fleeing major cities like Chicago or New York City. It was easy to see it as a “time for reflection” in which we would all stand in our windows with cups of coffee dwelling on the fragility of life. It didn’t take long for me to realize the shortsightedness of this silver lining, especially when the unexpected racial and political tensions escalated to historical proportions over the summer. Suddenly, ideological warfare erupted, both online and in major cities where the pent-up revolutionaries took to the streets to voice their cause. I found myself on another retreat in a moment of crisis. So, I did what I could, and accepted where I was at. I kept working online for my internship in Chicago, helped out around the house, and started reading novels.
It has been some seventy years or so since C.S. Lewis wrote in defense of reading and education during “wartime.” In his defense, he argued that “mankind has always existed on the edge of a precipice.” I take it he meant that there has never been a moment when the world was not in deep crisis. Getting a liberal arts education amidst a raging war, or reading books during social upheaval, is something like going to a church for a reading retreat when you could be doing something else–a session for perspective, lamentation, rest in God, and wisdom. Based on our current political and social milieu, this seems hardly the correct response. The proper response, at least according to our elite leaders and the social media throngs, is to take up arms in the cause for justice, to become an activist, to “get woke or get out” as a flyer at the nearby campus put it. With another polarizing election on the horizon and the worsening race and political relations in the United States, it seems like going on a reading retreat is the least productive thing anyone could be doing right now. I struggled with the tension, wanting neither to be indifferent towards matters of injustice but also questioning the motivations and health of those at the helm of the movement. Based on how violent and irrational some of these movements for “justice” became, I wondered if there wasn’t a far deeper problem we had completely failed to address.
A dear friend and mentor of mine, Jacob, recently mentioned that “hell” is the place where everyone is shouting but no one is dialoguing. Both political extremes of the left and right fall into this category with their divisive rhetoric and their black and white assumptions of the world. Each one claims superiority over the other without pausing to give thoughtful reasons for their position, and the “get woke or get out” slogan says it all: if you’re not with us, then you’re a deplorable and need to leave. You’re “cancelled.” However, Jacob said, there is an alternative. The “kingdom of heaven” is at the other end of the pole. It’s where dialogue, collaboration, and community blossom, where differences align to make each other stronger, and where we are all united in a common purpose: to further goodness, truth, and beauty in a broken and fractured world.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that good literature is always an effort in this kind of collaboration and dialogue. It seeks a nexus of support and never claims to be so important as to isolate it from the sources that made it what it was. It aims for a continuity and unity of the human experience over time. Books and authors are always in conversation with each other, learning from the past, revising here and there, adding new pieces to the puzzle for the future generations to appreciate and extend. It is as C.S. Lewis wrote years ago, “The true aim of literary studies is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him the ‘spectator’, if not of all, yet of much, ‘time and existence.’”1 When we read, we step out of ourselves and assume the perspectives of others, growing in our understanding of the world and its people. This is the opposite of staying chained in an ideological echo chamber and pointing fingers at the “other side.” One is open to growth and newness. The other is dedicated to moral narcissism and social decadence.
I am not saying reading good novels is the healing balm for our nation, but in my experience, literature has certainly saved me from political fanaticism, especially this year. In our ideological warfare, nothing is complex, multifaceted, or up for debate. Standing in allegiance to the kingdom of God over and above a political party is not really seen as an option either. Read David Copperfield, however, and you’ll find the emotional devastation of growing up without a father, the beauty of adoption, the corruption of the social systems, and the need for personal responsibility in an unfair world all entwined into one narrative. Read Crime and Punishment and watch how maniacal guilt can transform into joyous love. Redemption is possible in these books, and mystery and ambiguity are welcomed as necessary friends on life’s quest. Death, loss, and disease are taken for granted, but not as the last words to our condition. If anything, retreating to read Home by Marilynne Robinson in 2018, and retreating every day to read other novels in my inner room, is not escapism from reality. Maybe it is a withdrawal from “real life,” but it may be a necessary one at that. Among other things, it is an attempt to escape political ideology and easy but empty pleasure, to reclaim beauty as real and attainable, and learn a little bit more how to love my neighbor as myself. Gratitude and humility become second nature.
It is hard to know how to use solitude, especially when it is “mandated.” It seems now that the psychological need for human contact is compelling people to spend time together again despite the potential for spreading the virus. The mystics and early church fathers saw solitude as an indispensable good in connecting with the transcendent and disentangling oneself from the factions and distractions of the world. I do not really know how to have solitude when our factions, distractions, and access to the world exists in a piece of silicon in our pocket. We take it all with us now. But I do know that being willing to acknowledge complexity and revel in gratitude at the wonder of it all can start to clear the cobwebs. And clarity makes it obvious how we can serve. We see ourselves in relation to the whole and begin to act accordingly.
Thomas and I headed back to campus after the reading retreat. I think we were in silence the whole ride home.
Peter Biles is a graduate student at Seattle Pacific University where he studies creative writing in fiction. He has written essays for Plough, Salvo, and the Wheaton Magazine, and is currently working for Touchstone and Salvo Magazines. A version of this essay was previously published at Salvo.