To enter the children’s literature section at Fabled, a bookstore in the heart of downtown Waco, Texas, children are invited to climb through a wardrobe lined with fur coats. While there are other ways to enter this area of the store, most children choose the wardrobe. Framing the entrance in this way does more than cultivate whimsy—it creates a world in which children are free to lose themselves in the stories they find there.

Children begin reading stories at a time when their character and imagination are forming simultaneously. If they enter the world created by C. S. Lewis in his Narnia series, they must decide whether a wardrobe leads to a place called Narnia or whether it doesn’t. Maybe there are only coats there, and the author’s words are nonsense. If they have faith to enter that world through Lewis’s words, they find Narnia to be a cold, dead place. It is winter there but never Christmas. Children who enter Lewis’s world must then decide: Is this reality cause for despair, or is there hope for a different outcome? Will the snow melt, and will the White Witch be dethroned? Like Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, children also choose whether to fall in love with Aslan’s goodness and sacrifice or to be captivated by the power of the White Witch.

Children tend to read literature in much the same way I have observed them entering the wardrobe at Fabled—slowly and imaginatively, with curiosity and wonder and delight, with a pliability to be shaped toward what is good and true. In reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, children stretch their imaginations, even as they cultivate the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Words thus create worlds that shape who we are, inviting us to believe that, both with God and with story, all things really are possible.

I made my home among words at a young age, yet somewhere along my scholarly formation, I stopped reading like a child. For one thing, as a twenty-seven-year-old in a graduate program in biblical studies and early Christianity, I found that my faith in the words of the Bible—and my faith in the Word that is Jesus—began to break down. I found myself more comfortable with critical methodologies undergirded by liberalism and the Enlightenment than the childlike faith I had in the verity of Jesus’s words and the trustworthiness of his witness. I suppose I could argue that I gained something in my scholarly formation, but along the way to the very adult hermeneutics of suspicion I learned in postgraduate school, I lost something much more precious.[1]

Beyond my wavering faith in the veracity of the word of God, I also lost hope that I could hear God’s voice in those pages or anywhere else for that matter. I no longer saw myself as a child Jesus called unto himself; instead, I was an adult reader, a scholar, someone taught to master a text from a place of scholarly detachment rather than someone seeking relationship with its author. Such a reading posture annulled the hope that when I opened the pages of Scripture, I would encounter God. Moreover, reading Scripture solely in a detached, scholarly way forms what George MacDonald calls “the crust of self,” a false self who is unwilling to yield to the transforming love of God.[2]

In contrast, children climb into the pages of a story like they climb onto the lap of the one who reads it to them. As the adopted aunt of two little girls, ages four and five, I have discovered that intimacy is at the heart of story time. “I want to sit in your lap while you read to me,” one of them said to me. What follows is a liturgical moment, holy and comforting, in which a child engages the words of a story while she is held by someone who loves her. Held safely together by the love we both share, we have the freedom to giggle at the funny parts—a kitten who does a deep dive into a little boy’s birthday cake, a giraffe five stories tall.

When we read together, my little niece can ask me questions she might not ask someone else. “What does that word mean?” “Oh, it means very large,” I say. “Can a grizzly bear really sing?” she asks skeptically. “In this story he can,” I tell her. “Why is the White Witch so mean?” she asks “That’s a good question. What if you and I asked God to help us be like Aslan?” I suggest. When I read stories with my nieces, there is no agenda except to be together and to delight in story. We are not accomplishing much of anything at all, but something does happen. We learn things together. We laugh together. Sometimes, if the story is especially sad or moving, there are tears. Most of all, we are brought closer together, building memories around reading that incarnate the words on the page. In short, we build a relationship with one another and with the stories we read, which challenge us to grow, little by little, over time.

With the caveat that children are not all the same, my sense is that a childlike reading posture is one that seeks intimacy with a living author that is as personal as possible and as real as the connection to the person on whose lap a child sits when she reads. A childlike reading posture is one that engages the words on the page with no other agenda than to spend time with the author and to be formed into the author’s image. A childlike reading posture means being comfortable enough asking the author all the questions the story raises for us, confident that curiosity, skepticism, anger, fear, delight, and sadness are all allowable and expressible emotions within the context of a loving relationship. And to read as a child is to continue setting ourselves before a text. A child clamors to hear the same story again and again because she knows there is something further to delight in, something more to be curious about, some core value in the story with which to wrestle. Such a reading posture requires intellectual and emotional humility.

To be clear, none of this is to say that those of us who are scholars doff the skills we have gained as linguists, exegetes, theologians, and historians. It is to say, however, that we put those skills in their proper place. When we reteach adults to foreground faith, hope, and love as central virtues in the reading experience, we begin to retrieve a childlikeness that truly engages the words on the page.


In his linguistic and philosophical exploration of the word faith, Josef Pieper ties belief to volition, stating that “belief can never be halfhearted. One can believe only if one wishes to.” Regarding the will as a more vital element than cognition, Pieper argues that we believe not because we deduce something as true “but because we desire something good.”[3]

The Christian tradition recognizes goodness as inherent to its message—the gospel is literally “good news.” But for those of us in the academic study of religion, that the gospel is good news isn’t even news. We have heard all this before. We need not be personally and relationally connected to Jesus to understand the ideological and emotional stock the early church placed in the gospel message. We can stand at a detached and objective scholarly distance and define the words in the pages we read. What we cannot do, however, is intimately connect to those words without understanding ourselves as addressed by the Author of those words.[4]

Indeed, Pieper goes further than defining belief as desire for something good. For Pieper, belief (or faith) is ultimately personalized—there is a Someone good. He states, “The believer, of whatever sort, is not primarily concerned with a given matter but with a given someone.” Pieper then shifts his focus from a believer of whatever sort to a religious believer specifically. For a religious believer, this “Someone” whom we desire is “God himself.”[5] For those of us who read the Bible, then, a Person hovers over the page. For faith to be operative in the reading experience, we must desire that Person. We must read with delight, not detachment, because the Author whom we encounter is Person, the Someone who speaks to us through the words on the page. This Someone who longs to set us free must also be freed from us. God is not the property of scholars to dissect, deconstruct, and hold every which way to our smug, scholarly light. God is not news, good, bad, or indifferent. God is instead the Author who perfects our faith (see Heb.12:2).

The trouble is that many of us have sought not to perfect our faith but to deconstruct it. Madeleine L’Engle puts it well: “Too often the result of such academic research is not illumination, but loss of story. For such academics, miracles have to go. The Resurrection has to go. The story gets edited until there’s no life left in it and there’s nothing worth believing in.” With a story as boring as that, no wonder we have ceased to delight in it. Yet this is not a boring story! In Jesus, we have something extraordinary—the personal Word who continues to reveal himself to us in the reading experience. As M. Robert Mulholland Jr. helpfully suggests, Scripture is inspired at the level of the writing and the reading. For Pieper, this means that God is the Someone who is capable of speech, and we are the someones capable of being reached by that speech.[6] Yet in our quest for adult certitude and academic credibility, we have muted the voice of the Author.

L’Engle adds the following: “First of all, it’s easy to believe in facts. We certainly don’t need faith, not for facts. Faith is for the part of that story that superficially isn’t believable. Virgin births? Miracles? Resurrections? Unrealistic. Childish. Or is it maybe not so much childish as child-hearted? Children are better believers than grownups, and better theologians than many academics.”[7] The Author has not only spoken—the Author still speaks. We must desire to hear, relinquishing our adult Enlightenment postures that demand every piece fit into the puzzle before it can be trusted. We cannot dilute the message of the Author and still expect to hear the Author speak.

As I have shown, however, that a child expects the author to speak through the words on the page does not mean that a child never questions the author. Quite the opposite. As Karen Swallow Prior says, “True faith is a childlike trust in God, who allows his children to question him as they might question their earthly parent, and to do so in the certainty of the relational knowledge and trust of the Father.” For Pieper, this questioning takes the form of “mental unrest,” as he links final assent with residual unrest, suggesting that simultaneous rest and unrest are characteristic of the believer.[8] I would add that in this searching that still trusts, readers are drawn into deeper intimacy with the Author and the words of the Author.

Christian and Hebrew traditions alike understand searching to be at the heart of our relationship with God. For Jewish readers, the Scriptures are themselves a house of searching. To turn these texts round and round while still wrestling with their Author is intimacy and true knowledge. And for Christians, the Greek word repentance (metanoia, a compound word built from meta and nous) denotes going after or “attacking” our thoughts. Part of repentance, then, is a continued searching out of our minds. Readers who continue to search the Scriptures and to question their Author engage in a radical act of trust in the One in whom we place our hope. To do so is to trust that the Author can and does brook textual scrutiny within the context of a loving reading relationship. Our communion with Jesus is not shaken by our mental unrest. Instead, this continued searching strengthens us in hope.


To read as a child is to continue setting ourselves before a text. Just as Jesus bid children to come to him again and again, so, too, Jesus invites us to return repeatedly to the pages that speak about him. To do so is to engage in a kind of readerly hope.

In his discussion of the theological virtue of hope, Pieper draws a distinction between the status viatoris and the status comprehensoris. To be a viator, Pieper says, is to be “on the way.” Such a person is a wayfarer, a pilgrim, one who continually searches. There is in this search a quality of the “not yet,” which is a quality of the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as in heaven” (Matt. 6:10 KJV). Moreover, this is a prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray from the position of a child before a father: “Our Father, which art in heaven. . .” (Matt. 6:9). To pray in this way is to engage in hope, a virtue Prior has defined as regarding something good in the future that is difficult but possible to obtain.[9] God’s will is not done on earth as in heaven—not yet—but I will pray as though it will be.

Similarly, to read like a child is to rest upon the hope that the Author will help me find what I am seeking when what I am seeking is the Author. To do so requires me to trust that the Author is good and that the Author’s words are also good. The Author can and does speak to me through the words I read. When I choose to read with hope, I do so with the expectation that the world is not a cold, dead place—God’s spirit still hovers here—and God’s spirit still hovers over the pages of Scripture. To receive the textual kingdom in this way, however, I must, like a child, continue my lectical pilgrimage. Interpreters who still seek to know are the true interpreters, Alan Jacobs says. They are the ones to whom the Word will reveal himself. As Walter Brueggemann explains, “Because [the Bible] is God-given, given as God characteristically gives through the hidden workings of ordinary life, the book endlessly summons, requires, demands, and surprises with fresh reading.”[10]

By contrast, Pieper defines a comprehensor as one who has “comprehended, encompassed, arrived.” Such a person need read no further. In this posture, I assume that I know all there is to know. Whatever interpretive choices I have made are the right ones. If I have chosen to exegete in such a way as to “exit Jesus” out of the Old Testament, for example, then I will cease to find him there. I will cease to read with the hope of the early church, both its first-generation adherents and the church fathers and mothers who sought and found Jesus in textual places we academics have outgrown.[11]

Jacobs goes so far as to say that a status comprehensoris has annulled hope altogether. To put it plainly, a comprehensoris a person who has shut down every interpretive possibility that the academic guild has not already sanctioned as credible. We read in scholarly echo chambers, clamoring for our own aggrandizement while edging out the Author’s voice. When we read in this way, we read as adults and academics, not as children. In the words of Jesus, we have received our reward. In the end, what does it matter if we have all the biblical languages, know all the exegetical methods, can recite the history of interpretation from the early church to this postmodern moment, but we have not love? We are, in the words of Paul, but a noisy (scholarly) gong or a clanging cymbal. As John Henry Newman said in his Oxford University address, “We believe because we love.”[12] Building on Newman, I would venture this claim: we ought to read because we love.


To read as a child is to read for the purpose of our own spiritual formation. As defined by Mulholland, spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. Jesus said it plainly to the scholar Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (John 3:7 NIV). As scholars, we too must become children—we must be born again as readers. One way we begin this process of readerly rebirth is to read from a place of childlike reception, not grasping, scholarly possession. When I begin to read in this way, I invite the Author into the reading process. I ask, “What would you have me to receive from this passage?” In doing so, I relinquish the power and control that detached critical readings frequently afford me. I assume instead a position of vulnerability, one that invites the spirit of Jesus to soften “the crust of the self.” It is very often at the place of my unlikeness to Christ that the Word encounters me there, seeking to break that crust.[13]

As a scholar, one of those crusty places is in the way I view knowledge itself. The apostle Paul says it well: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2 ESV). Do I pursue study of the Scriptures in order that I might astound those in my academic and pastoral care? This is a temptation for many of us in the academy. According to Emmanuel Levinas, the act of knowing is inherently related to grasping and seizure. That is, for Levinas, Auffassen (understanding) has always been a Fassen (gripping). In Levinas’s description, there is an inherent violence, arrogance, and possessiveness attached to the very act of knowing. Simply put, the academy rewards us for mastering our subjects. Promotion, tenure, prestigious titles, named chairs and lectureships are all ways mastery of subjects are reified and celebrated. When we seek to make names for ourselves in these ways, knowledge is not power; knowledge is what we worship. Thus, the very act of knowing perpetuated in the academic system is one that pushes against the call for faith, hope, and love as “the more excellent way.”[14]

We need to counter an epistemology that externalizes knowledge as a thing to be grasped. One way to do so is to consider the semantic range of knowledge in the Old Testament. The first use of the Hebrew verb yada (“to know”) is in the description of Adam’s sexual knowledge of Eve (Gen.4:1). In the Hebrew tradition, knowledge is not an external thing to be possessed, mastered, or objectified. In this instance, knowledge is not a thing at all—it is a relationship of intimacy, submission, and mutuality. Knowledge is not power; knowledge is personal. To read for love’s sake is to understand ourselves as subjects or persons before the Subject, the Someone, who is seeking us in the pages we read. We are not, in the words of James K. A. Smith, “thinking things.” Such an anthropology is Cartesian, not Christian. Rather, we are what we love.[15] Specifically, we are someones sought by the loving Someone. Reorienting our reading posture to reflect this reality begins to set us free from systems of readerly objectification and oppression.

This changes the purpose of reading entirely. No longer do I read to demonstrate to others what I know. Instead, I read to submit myself to the Knower. Therefore, I receive whatever grace the text offers to me, whether a word of consolation or of conviction. I do so because I am known by the Word who not only understands all the words on the page; according to Mulholland, this Word also understands me as one of his words in the world, spoken forth by God in love (see Eph.1:4). Such a realization ought to counter arguments that reading from a place of love neglects the intellect. Indeed, Paul cautions believers to be “adults” in our thinking (see 1 Cor. 14:20). As an academic, I am not called by God to shrink from the knowledge that I have. Instead, we do well to heed the words of Peter Brown, speaking about Augustine—we are to “reintegrate” love and knowledge.[16]

On a personal level, I find this reintegration at work most directly in my efforts to teach college students.In an upper-level Hebrew class, for example, my students began to translate the passage in which Abraham encounters God at the oaks of Mamre (see Gen.18:1–15). We worked our way through source-critical questions about why the text uses the Lord in one moment and “three men” in the next. Predictably, my students saw it as a reference to the Trinity. Without disavowing that their instincts found robust support throughout the history of Christian interpretation, I also pushed them to consider a menu of other exegetical options. We ended the class, however, by laying those scholarly questions to the side and foregrounding how God might be speaking to us through the passage now. “This is a text that demonstrates hospitality,” I told them. “The hospitality that Abraham shows to his guests, but more importantly, the hospitality of God to enter Abraham’s house at all. What might God find if God entered your house?” I asked them. “Are you willing to invite God into the home of your heart and probe what God finds there? How comfortable are you with that? And how comfortable are you extending hospitality to God?” Suddenly, the text moved from head to heart. In my students’ thoughtful responses, together we engaged the Author of the story. We submitted ourselves to the Knower, the One whose quiddity is the perfect integration of love and knowledge.

To read lovingly, then, is to engage our studies seriously, with all the academic tools at our disposal. But to read lovingly is not to abrogate reading confessionally. Instead, this is an important place to cultivate childlikeness. Those of us who are academics have, knowingly or unknowingly, absorbed a fear of appearing foolish to those more academically “adult” than we are. For Jacobs, this “adolescent fear of being caught believing in that which others have ceased to believe in” is the origin of the hermeneutics of suspicion.[17]

When we read from a place of childlike receptivity, however, the word of God does not merely inform us. It forms us into the likeness of Christ. Indeed, reading for formation rather than information teaches us, trains us, shapes us, and reminds us of transcendence. This posture pushes against our inherent nihilism and our superficial, suspicious reading postures, which are tragic and telling cues about the superficial and suspicious ways we live our lives. And ultimately, reading for formation is teleologically oriented toward the other. A process of being conformed to the image of Christ that is not for the sake of the other is not genuine conformity to Christ, and it is not spiritual formation. Rather, it is Gnosticism, a squirreling away of knowledge that still ultimately glorifies the self. We read for formation because Jesus called us to love God and neighbor. This is the pinnacle of the Christian life.

In her book On Reading Well, Prior notes that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are drawn from the Bible and occur not through human effort but by divine power.[18] Hence, reading for spiritual formation is not another skill set we develop or a reading posture we perfect; rather, it is a prayer we must pray. And it is a practice of asking ourselves hard questions: “Why do I read? Do I read to become more whole, holy, and like Jesus, or do I read to impress, grasp, and possess? Am I willing to enter Scripture with curiosity and wonder, like children entering the wardrobe of the children’s section at Fabled?”

That the words of God and the Word who is Jesus are told through stories where lions lay down with lambs, where a gigantic, gender-fluid fish swallows an irritable prophet, and where God chooses to be born through a virgin does not negate these stories’ veracity but instead enhances it.[19] Children read with faith in the truthfulness of what the author has written, with hope in the goodness of the author’s intentions, and with love for the author.

In the words of Jesus, let the little children come to me.

[1] The hermeneutics of suspicion is a reading posture that emerged from the commitments of the Enlightenment to subject all texts, including religious ones, to critique and systematized doubt. Earlier generations of biblical scholars, who exegeted religious texts from the perspective of faith, gave way to biblical scholars whose epistemological leanings largely favored reason. Such readings naturally swept away biblical claims to the miraculous and divine inspiration, as many of these scholars preferred to see the Scriptures as solely human constructions. Any claims to divine providence in the writing and transmission of such texts were largely elided in readings built upon the hermeneutics of suspicion.

[2] MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1975), 104.

[3] Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy(San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997), 35 and 37.

[4] Note that I am well aware of the long scholarly debate about authorship of the canonical Scriptures. Such a discussion is an important one and central to the work of exegesis, but it is beyond the scope of this essay.

[5] Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 56.

[6] L’Engle, The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 1993), 13. Also, see Mulholland, Shaped by the Word (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1985), 43; and Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 61.

[7] L’Engle, The Rock That Is Higher, 14.

[8] Prior, On Reading Well (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2018), 107; and Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 51.

[9] Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 91 and 93. Also, see Prior, On Reading Well, 123.

[10] Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), 90; and Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 12–13.

[11] Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 91–92. For an excellent discussion of christological readings in the early church, see Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Westmont, IL, IVP Academic, 1998).

[12] Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 90; and John Henry Newman, “Love the Safeguard of Faith Against Superstition,” in Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, between AD 1826 and 1843 (London, UK: Rivingtons, 1880), 236. Also, see 1 Corinthians 13:1.

[13] MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, 104. For spiritual formation, see Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey: A Roadmap for Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 15–44; and for encounters with the Word, see Mulholland, Shaped by the Word, 28.

[14] Levinas, “Ethics as First Philosophy,” trans. Seán Head and Michael Temple, in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand(Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 76.

[15] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 40.

[16] Brown, Augustine of Hippo, quoted in Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 50; also see Mulholland, Shaped by the Word,34.

[17] Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 88.

[18] Prior, On Reading Well, 107.

[19] Amusingly, the author of the book of Jonah changes the gender of the fish three times. In Jonah 1:17, the author uses the phrase “the [great] fish,” employing the masculine singular form haddag. In Jonah 2:1, the author uses the feminine singular form of “the fish,” haddanah. In Jonah 2:10, the author uses the phrase “to the fish,” once again using the masculine singular form, laddag.