Wesley Hill: The inefficient wisdom of literature

In the face of large scale organizational challenges, here’s some advice: Read poetry.

If “The New Yorker” is right that “what politicians are reading is a kind of nerdy equivalent to the gossip about whom celebrities are dating,” then I’ll plead guilty to being a nerd. When the White House released the titles of the books President Obama was taking along for his summer vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, I did a quick search for them on Amazon and eagerly added a few to my wish list.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Writing for the “National Review,” Tevi Troy expressed disappointment with the President’s choices: “five of the six [books chosen] are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.”

Troy’s question is a familiar one for those tasked with leadership roles. “Read what you want to on your off hours,” we may have heard, implicitly or explicitly, from others. “Just remember, there’s real work to do after you’ve finished the third Stieg Larsson novel.”

In contrast to Troy’s critique of Obama’s book bag, Bill Keller of “The New York Times took a very different approach. In despair over the recent goings-on in Congress related to the debt ceiling and the plunging figures on Wall Street, Keller offered a suggestion for senators and state representatives: Read some poetry.

Brushing up on economic theory wouldn’t be bad advice at this juncture in history, and I’m sure Keller wouldn’t begrudge any member of congress who wants to dust off their old copies of “The Wealth of Nations” and “Das Kapital.” But the counsel to give poetry a try is of a different order altogether. “Poetry is no substitute for courage or competence, but properly applied, it is a challenge to self-certainty, which we currently have in excess. Poetry serves as a spur to creative thinking, a rebuke to dogma and habit, an antidote to the current fashion for pledge signing,” Keller writes. “It is, moreover, an invitation to consider the inner lives and circumstances of others -- for instance, the 14 million despairing jobless so marginalized in the latest political pageantry.”

The kind of wisdom found in Emily Dickinson or W. H. Auden -- or Obama’s vacation reading -- isn’t directly relevant to governing the country or crafting legislation. But Keller’s point is that poems and novels may give us exactly that -- wisdom, a fresh perspective on the big questions of human life and love -- as opposed to “knowledge” that we upload to our brains and apply instantaneously to the next fiscal crisis.

This is a word for Christian leaders more than anyone. Yes, our task involves management skills, entrepreneurial savvy, the kind of smarts that might be best learned in business school. But it also involves the ability to attend patiently to the intricacies of human character -- the kind of delicate, complex matters explored by Marilynne Robinson and T. S. Eliot, whatever other values Stephen Covey may offer.

Ken Myers, host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and himself a great reader of fiction and poetry, said this about the royal waste of time such reading represents: “We tend to think we learn things so that we can take control, so we can step out and do something, rather than learning it and just living with it. But the people I know who behave really wisely are not that calculating. I think they’re kind of intuitive; they make decisions more from a kind of grounding in thoughtfulness.” They believe, in other words, that while reading fiction may not help you know exactly what to say in the Oval Office the next day, it may help form you to be the kind of leader who could discern what to say and do when the moment of testing comes.

Myers might have three cheers for Obama’s book choices -- and he might urge us Christian leaders to follow the president’s example.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter at @wesleyhill.