It all began with someone saying they couldn't be bothered to read a 10,000-word paper someone had sent them by way of an answer to a question they'd asked on Twitter.
Last year I witnessed an online conversation where pastors and theologians discussed their disappointment that Christians seem more and more unwilling to engage with lengthy theological papers and books, preferring the quick, 'surface-level' engagement of social media and 'popular' writing.
The conversation quickly turned into a debate and what followed provided an interesting insight into privileged lives where the time to read and digest huge amounts of theological writing is assumed, and lives where those not able to do so are excluded and considered to have no part to play, no insight to offer. It was explicitly stated at one point that extensive reading and a commitment to rigorous intellectual development equates to a better 'character' and that without these, Christians cannot expect to be able to think objectively or that people will take their opinions seriously.
As a formerly voracious reader for whom life now often gets in the way of ploughing through books, I was among several people quick to point out that spending hours reading is a luxury that many don't have and that it says absolutely nothing about their intellectual capabilities. As I've heard the subject of reading as an essential part of spiritual development crop up on numerous occasions since, it has become more evident that such advice comes from an incredibly privileged viewpoint and often unwittingly, a particularly gendered one.
As with all spiritual disciplines, some sermons and books can leave us with the idea that if we 'just' set aside a bit more time to read, 'just' prioritise our lives better, our spiritual health will improve immeasurably. We're often encouraged to get up an hour earlier, stop idly watching television or using social media in order to achieve this. And this in itself is not wrong. But there are two key assumptions being made here – firstly, that we have plenty of free time that we could be prioritising more effectively and secondly, that everyone finds reading easy.
The problem of finding uninterrupted leisure time can be particularly difficult for women. It's well-documented that they enjoy less time to themselves every week than men do (this 2013 report found a 'leisure gap' of five hours every week) and that in addition to their role in the workplace, women often face the double burden or 'second shift' of being responsible for the bulk of household chores and also childrearing or caregiving, which in itself is often referred to as the 'third shift'. Some even talk about the 'fourth shift' of serving responsibilities at church. There may be greater equality in the home than in decades gone by, but women are still often left with much more to do.
What's more, societal pressure is such that women are often made to feel guilty – or feel they are required to perform guilt – for having any time to themselves, any time that they're not focusing on their families. Time alone and focusing on wellbeing or personal development for a wife and mother is often framed as indulgent, special 'me time' in a way that the same leisure time for a husband and father is not. It's an unusual occurrence rather than an entitlement and one that can leave women feeling as if they're being judged or perceived as selfish for putting themselves first.
In a world where church leaders and theologians that move in certain circles are mostly male and middle class, how much do they stop to consider how privileged their own lives might be when making judgments about people based on how much they are able to engage with theology in traditional ways? How much is their free time facilitated by supportive families, partners and even staff? Do they feel entitled to spend time following intellectual pursuits, or is this something they struggle to find the headspace, time and money to do? And are they willing to listen to and include people who don't look and think like them?
Speaking from experience, I know that when it comes down to it, the sheer exhaustion of life often leaves women unable to even contemplate reading anything in-depth or doing any sort of traditional study. Since becoming a mother I've reflected about the shift in engagement with spirituality that this forced me to confront, for the first couple of years, at least, as a result of unending mental and emotional exhaustion that left me reluctant to even go to church on a Sunday, let alone read challenging books as if it were a moral responsibility.
Many women I know have spoken to me about the way they have had to change how they engage with scripture, pray and hear from God due to the increasing demands of daily life. It is not lazy or somehow disappointing to want to engage instead with more accessible resources, for example more concise spiritual writing.
I'm not suggesting that church leaders and theologians don't know about burnout or the difficulty of concentrating on work. But it should not be forgotten that the time to read extensively is a luxury, that reading is something that many find difficult – and that none of this means someone's opinions are of less worth or that they're somehow spiritually deficient.
Simplifying spiritual growth
Some people find that they engage with concepts and learn things more effectively in other ways. We mustn't discount discussion online, watching videos or creative approaches to communicating ideas as somehow lesser. I once took part in an online theology course that centred on communicating through a Facebook group and I know many people who have found it helpful to work through email devotionals or blog series. Some people benefit from a focused opportunity to read – for example a church book club (something my own church has just started running) or the chance to read through a book together as part of a small group series.
In a world of competing pressures and responsibilities, Christians can only simplify their lives so much. Spiritual development happens in many different ways – not just those ways more accessible to the privileged, the academic and people without many additional burdens of daily life. It's important that this is taken into consideration by those tempted to think that people whose spiritual lives don't mirror their own aren't worth listening to. Perhaps they might discover anew the sacrifices that others make so that they have the free time they need.
Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge