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How to Read a Brook: Some Notes on Creation-Literacy

On Wordsworth, Augustine, and stopping reading to read well

There comes a point when walks do more good than books. You know the feeling: the page grows opaque; the same sentence spins like a pinwheel three or four times across the eyes; and your thoughts, like snow geese, join in sudden migratory flight. At times like this, the best thing isn’t reading. It’s walking: donning your fleece, rounding the block, and listening once more to the wild poetry of the poplars—not so you can stop thinking, but so you can truly start again.

Wordsworth knew the good of outdoor learning and wrote some lines about it:

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

For Wordsworth, real reading starts when the book closes. We lay aside the printed word and listen for the logos of Creation. The world speaks as mountains become metaphors and waves take on their ancient syntax. Like Wordsworth’s “throstle,” even small things—a seed, a wasp, a patch of moss—preach divine goodness and expound the mysteries. In Duke Senior’s words (from As You Like It), humankind finds “books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

If that sounds like poet-speak, take it from a theologian. Augustine treats the Book of Nature in one of his sermons:

Some people, in order to discover God, read a book. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above and below, note, read. God whom you want to discover, did not make the letters with ink; he put in front of your eyes the very things that he made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?

Here, too, Creation is our first teacher. Books are mankind’s words about God and the world, but the world is God’s word about himself. As the Psalmist writes, the heavens “pour forth speech” and “reveal knowledge” which runs “to the end of the world.” The cosmos then is not full of unanswerable questions (as it would sometimes be convenient to imagine), but unquestionable answers—the visible, audible, tangible, smellable, tastable, altogether incontrovertible testimony of the Three-in-One.

Likely, though, you have noticed something paradoxical in the authors above: that we receive their invitation to put down the written word and pick up the tree-word, the sky-word, the desert-word through—that’s right—the written word. We read a human book about not reading human books and why and how instead to read the Book of Nature. What is going on here? If the vast swirl of birds and brush and rocks and rain is really such a loud proclamation of God’s character, then do we need poetry and prose to tell us about it? Does it take a written word to hear a spoken world?

Apparently, it does, and the Apostle Paul tells us why. As it turns out, when it comes to the Book of Nature, we have a literacy issue. In the language of Romans, we “suppress the truth” of nature “in unrighteousness.” That means that we are not unable to read world-word so much as uninterested in doing so. We are not creationally illiterate so much as creationally aliterate (just as ignorant and twice as ignoble). So we need an education; we need training in becoming faithful readers of nature. As our friend C. S. Lewis advises us:

We must not try to find a direct path through [nature] and beyond it to an increasing knowledge of God. The path peters out almost at once. Terrors and mysteries, the whole depth of God’s counsels and the whole tangle of the history of the universe, choke it. We can’t get through; not that way. We must make a détour–leave the hills and woods and go back to our studies, to church, to our Bibles, to our knees.

Through books—poetry and theology, of course, but especially through the Scriptures themselves—we learn again the language of that dusty tome shelved in the human heart. The Christian intellectual tradition makes the world legible and intelligible again. It is our primer in the classroom of Creation.

So before venturing out there into the hinterland with your pith helmet and magnifying glass, take on the guardianship of tradition, the Scriptures, and the Logos himself. My guess is, journeying from the pews to the pines, the book will open. The grasses will disclose their grammar. The leaves will rustle a new meter, and you will find his invitation to you:

Know me.

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