Episode 86: There's Always Water in the Wilderness with Author Kari Cope

On this dose of book recommendations, library love, and literary enthusiasm, our Library Laura Podcast guest is author Kari Cope. She's recently written a book, There's Always Water in the Wilderness: A Close Look at the Biblical Motifs of Wells and Wildernesses. On today's episode, we chat about the writing process, Kari's reading life, what it means to closely read a text and why it's important when it is applied to reading Scripture, and swap some great book recommendations! 

Listen to the episode here or on your favorite podcast player. 

Find Kari at @cope.kari on Instagram and her email is Kari(at)karicope(dot)com. She'd love to hear from you.

Books from today's episode are on the Library Laura storefront on bookshop.org

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What does it mean to read closely and what does it bring to a text when you do it? 

For Kari, writing is all about teaching and communicating. Reading closely has been a huge part of her academic and personal life, so she's excited to have the opportunity to share some of that with readers through this work. 

"With literature, sometimes we can think that being able to decipher words on a page is being able to read. (And it is, to a certain extent) but to read well involves some other tools that we can bring to it. Generally in any good writing you have layers of meaning. so you have to read and re-read to be able to dig through those layers and see the themes that are emerging." 

In the introduction, Cope talks about the concept of "remembering forward," quoting Peter Leithart. In the Bible specifically, we have to have a concept of the whole in order to understand the parts and to understand how the Author is fitting it all together. Just like in a great novel. Reading a text multiple times lets us discover new things and illuminate meaning in a way that just reading it once doesn't allow. It involves paying attention to the kind of language, word choice, repetition, recurring elements or motifs, etc. 

This concept is true with favorite TV shows or movies, too. Each time you encounter a work it opens up an opportunity to see it in a new light or experience it differently. And someone who is watching it or reading it for the first time can't love it like you do.This is the value and impact of "close reading." 

"If I was reading and teaching a novel in a literature class and different characters kept meeting up at a well, I would ask why! What's the deal with that? Why is the author putting that well in there again? That's kind of where I started." 

The writing process 

Graduate school was where Kari started thinking about the interplay between literary analysis and theology. Her background is English Literature and then she went to seminary and got a master in Apologetics. She noticed there wasn't a lot of work being done where the Bible was looked at through a literary lens. There are a few -- Leland Ryken of Wheaton College for instance. 

She had it in mind to write this book for quite a while. She started thinking about these ideas probably 15 years ago and jotting down a few ideas here and there. But she was teaching English and taking the time to write the manuscript didn't happen until much more recently. With the little bits of time she pieced together, it was difficult because it was so similar to what she does professionally it was hard to find the bandwidth mentally. 

In February 2020, she had a tree go through the roof of her home after a big storm. Then the pandemic hit and she had to finish teaching the semester online. Later, in June 2020, she moved back across the country from Charlotte, NC to Southern California and began living with her mom. THat move allowed her to take some time and focus on the writing and not have to teach full-time. She did some tutoring, but primarily spent time researching, writing, and finishing the book. She's now back in the classroom this school year.

It's cool to see the creativity that has come from the chaos of the pandemic. It also fits in with the wilderness as a place of barrenness and suffering, but then life and reminders of God's presence even in the wilderness. A lot of us have experienced this in new and interesting ways in the past two years. 

Teaching and Writing

There's a lot of interplay (and some tension) between writing and teaching like Kari does. The tension is mostly the limited time and energy left for writing after teaching is done. The interplay influences what she wants to write about and her students have served as a great motivation. The overlap is that in a lot of ways her book is like an AP Lit class for the Bible. The classroom can be this place of mutual respect, exchange of ideas, and enlarged understanding, and that's similar to her goals for this book. 

She always encourages her students to ask the Why question when studying a work. You start with the What question (e.g. Joseph thrown into the well -- or pit -- by his brothers) but then start asking questions about why that word for well is the same as other words translated differently in other contexts. You start to see patterns when you start with the What and to the Why. 

For Kari, this writing is another way to teach, and the reader is being given the opportunity to thoughtfully engage with the biblical text through this approach. The goal is to create dialog. 

(Links to books are affiliate links for Bookshop and Amazon and as an affiliate I may earn from purchases made through these links. Thanks!) 

 Reading Life

Kari's love for and fascination with words started early; she started reading her brother's easy reader books and the backs of cereal boxes even before she officially started school. Her great aunt also had a huge impact. She gave Kari Little Women, which was one of the first books she truly loved and read over and over again. 

These days, she reads pretty widely and eclectically. She thinks that good writing reveals what's true -- whether about human nature, the outcomes of a certain way of thinking or acting, the way the world is, our desires, or our need for love. She's drawn to writers who use voice well, such as Sandra Cisneros' ability to write in the voice of a child but with complex interwoven themes. She enjoys lyrical or beautifully written prose. Good writing also raises good questions. 

Some all-time favorites include: 

Flannery O'Connor - her fiction is weird, bizarre stories that are also funny and point us toward truth. Kari loves her non-fiction as well, especially Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Toni Morrison's novels 

Marilynne Robinson's companion novels, Gilead and Home, are some of Kari's favorites of the last several years. She recommended I read these books. 

A.W. Tozer's The Knowledge of the Holy, which is about God's attributes. Every time Kari reads it and reflects on the character of God, she is reminded of how she wants to do this more often. 

C.S. Lewis's non-fiction / philosophy, especially The Problem of Pain

Peter Kreeft's philosophy works 

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy - a beautiful book for adults and children alike. It reminds us both of Winnie the Pooh. 

Madeleine L'Engle - Walking on Water especially. We also both read Bright Evening Star in December thanks to Trinity Forum selecting it as their Christmas reading. This would also be a great book to read around Easter, as the Incarnation doesn't have to be confined to the Christmas season. 

Kari just started reading Anthony Dorr's All the Light We Cannot See and it's beautiful. 

Laura's Recommendations to Kari 

Two books about the motif of trees throughout the Bible, which I think Kari would get a kick out ofReforesting Faith by Dr. Sleeth and God of the Garden by Andrew Peterson. Also this video from the Bible project, which part of the Hutchmoot discussion with Andrew Peterson. 

Kari loves Andrew Peterson's songwriting and books. She got and gave The God of the Garden for Christmas from her sister and for her mom. She also really appreciated Adorning the Dark (as did I!) 

A book series that I find incredibly re-readable and that has depth and plot twists is the Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. It's the kind of book where you read the whole thing and then want to go back and read it again to see everything in a new light now that you know the whole story. A great example of "reading forward" coming into play like Kari and I discussed earlier in the episode. 

 I interviewed Megan Saben on the podcast (EPISODE 79 - This whole interview was delightful.) and she wrote a beautiful picture book that's about the motif of the resurrection in the life and ministry of Christ called Something Better Coming. I read this book on January 1 to my son, who had no idea what's happening because he's three weeks old, but I cried because it was beautiful and poignant. 

Of course it was Daniel Hsieh who connected Kari and me, and he's one of the co-authors on A Compass for Deep Heaven (along with my sister Rachel Roller) that's all about reading well when it comes to the Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. This was such a cool project. 

Kari and I are both baseball fans, and she roots for the LA Dodgers. I mentioned that my husband just recently started a YouTube Channel focused on his interest in sports card collecting. You can find him over at Kingdom Cards. 

A Message of Hope

The big consistent theme for Kari as she examines wells and wildernesses in There's Always Water in the Wilderness is that we all have needs in the wilderness, whether it's something that happened to us or something we've done. And all of those needs are met with God Himself. That He always the answer to what we are seeking. For example, in one chapter she addresses the story of Job, where ultimately Job realizes he is seen by God. That consistent theme is that what we need and what He gives us is Himself. She hopes that people will find that Hope and encounter God when they encounter the text aided by her book. As we love God with our minds by doing close reading, may it show us that God is with us and that we are not alone. 

Connect with Kari

Find Kari at @cope.kari on Instagram and her email is Kari(at)karicope(dot)com. She'd love to hear from you.

With lots of literary love from my library to yours, 

~ Laura 


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Library Laura
Laura is an avid reader who is happiest when surrounded by books, tea, blankets and/or friends. Host of the Library Laura Podcast.


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