Geoffrey Chaucer. William Shakespeare. Matthew Kelso.
At least, as I turned ten, this was how I envisioned my legacy. Work on my twin masterpieces had already commenced. The first, a lively journal detailing my everyday adventures (a source document for all future historians); the second, a detective novel of mysterious intrigue and heroic daring-do, boasting two(!) bickering mice as central protagonists (aptly named Chalk and Cheese). Both lasted a quarter of a file page.
This isn’t simply a self-deprecating anecdote. This is a narrative framework for you to understand the rest of what I’m going to say. My background is steeped in compulsive reading. I’m an English Literature graduate; which here means I spent a small fortune on reading over three books a week for three years. Reading has played a holistic role in my personal development.
So, when faced with questions about the necessity of books and the cultivation of a Christian love of reading; well, you can anticipate my answer will be, a fairly biased, “of course it’s vital!”. While fortune apparently favours the brave, debate certainly favours the nuanced. So, let’s attempt to develop a nuanced understanding of whether Christians need to love reading, by briefly considering it biblically, culturally and impartially.
A Biblical Basis.
Our God speaks. When He speaks, stuff happens. The cosmos is forged ex nihilo (out of nothing). Covenants are sworn. Redemption is accomplished, and applied. God reveals Himself through speech; Jesus is the Word in flesh. Our entire understanding of God – and therefore our entire understanding of life, the universe and everything in between – is based on the fact that He speaks! While we’re not able to perfectly and totally understand this revelation, my point is: God gloriously and graciously speaks, revealing Himself to sinful humanity.
But how has God chosen to record that revelation?
We confess that God is all-powerful. God could have chosen any means to record His revelation. He could have shaped the constellations, placing the stars in certain patterns to spell out His fullness of truth. He could have produced a great play, or a work of art, to be copied and performed throughout the ages. But, instead: He gave us a book. He gave us a literary treasure hunt. God chose to have His speech – and His truth – recorded in a variety of different literary genres: history; poetry; wisdom; prophecy; gospel; epistle; apocalyptic. And God chose to all of these genres to be bound together, working in harmony to reveal His character, in a book.
Therefore, it’s inevitable that this book – the Bible – will play a central role in Christian discipleship and spiritual development. We’re to cultivate a deep love for (Psalm 119), and dependency on, Scripture. And the entire time, we’re to remember that it is a means to an end. Scripture is breathed out by God, for the profitable change of making us more Christ-like, by equipping us for every good work for His glory (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Christians, we need to love Scripture – above all other books – because, through it, we find the resplendent treasure of communion with God.
A Cultural Concern.
“So”, you ask, “our God speaks through a book. I agree: all Christians need to love Scripture. But, no-one has time for other books! So, they can’t need them then!”.
Picture the scene: it’s date night. You’ve scraped a few pennies together, and reserved a table at the trendy Italian(ish) bistro in Belfast. Together, you arrive, find your table and order. Basking in the glow of an imminent feed, you start to make conversation. But, shockingly, your partner has pulled War and Peace out of her handbag/his wallet! They’re utterly engrossed, and don’t look up until dinner arrives. The same thing’s happening all around you: couples, families, friends; all reading mammoth literary works!
That’s face it: that’ll probably never happen. But, Facebook abounds! In 2013, it was estimated that Britons spent 62 million hours on social media (Facebook and Twitter) a day. We have the time. And we have the ability to read. We just don’t match up the time with the literature. But, why should we?
Great plays, works of fiction, historical reflections – whether secular or explicitly Christian; all can be useful in helping us understand the human condition, or appreciate God’s creative power, or considered God’s providential hand throughout history.
An Impartial Conclusion.
God revealed the fullness of His character in His Son. And He recorded this revelation in the Bible. We can’t understand this revelation on our own. The Spirit is our guide. Which means the writing, thoughts and literature of other Christians is vitally important.
The Spirit is our guide. He’s been guiding men and women for centuries, as they’ve deeply considered God’s Word. In their work, we have invaluable resources. We can rejoice in God’s love for weak sinners with Augustine. We can be amazed by our union with Christ alongside John Calvin. We can be challenged on our prayer-life by the thoughts of Don Carson.
When we view books in this way, it helps us see why we should love them! They are only ever a means to help our understanding of Scripture; an understanding which is, in itself, a means to enjoying communion with God forever.
But, how is this conclusion impartial? Well, I’m asserting that literature is a means, not an end. Book-reading isn’t to be the ultimate and defining characteristic in our lives. Instead, a correct love of reading acknowledges it for how it helps us better worship God. And, I’ve been careful to use the word “can”. There are many Christians who simply can’t read. It’d be inappropriate for me to demand that they do. But, there are many Christians who simply don’t read. It’d be inappropriate for me to not encourage them to take up a book, and try!
This is an issue which demands nuance. Many things that I’ve said require careful distinctions, and I acknowledge that I’ve left several things unsaid, which deserve fuller attention. But, to finish, I want to challenge my book-reading brothers and sisters. So often we adopt an attitude of superiority, or consider ourselves experts based upon the volume of our reading. Hear, then, the warning of Thomas Brooks:
“[I]t is not hasty reading–but serious meditating upon holy and heavenly truths, that make them prove sweet and profitable to the soul. It is not the bee’s touching of the flower, which gathers honey–but her abiding for a time upon the flower, which draws out the sweet. It is not he who reads most–but he who meditates most, who will prove the choicest, sweetest, wisest and strongest Christian.”