Reading as Spiritual Discipline

We have learned from postmodern social critics to be suspect of those whose views benefit only themselves. I hope that, in this case, however, readers will be indulgent, allowing me to share some thoughts. You see, I am a bookseller–a fairly passionate one, I am told. I really believe that books can make a difference in people’s lives and that the reading, discussing, sharing and giving of these gifts of paper and words and cardboard covers can be life-transforming. I am not ashamed to say that I really want to sell books.
In the pages of the web-based e-zine, JubileeNow founder Howie Schultz wrote a thoughtful and helpful piece about vocation and calling. It is ground that our readers know well. I would say that part of my vocation–that is, my God-given calling–is to get good books (hopefully at a fair price) into the hands of those who need them. I think it is very, very important.
But there is the rub: some who most need to read thoughtful books are those who may not. (It is so frustrating to meet influential and strategically-position professionals–college professors, business executives, government leaders–who are followers of Christ but have never read a Christian book in their chosen field; they have no clue how to relate a Christian perspective to the basic issues in their profession.) And even those who do care about such things may find it immensely difficult to commit to a reading plan. In our info-glut culture (we get way too much information to responsibly respond to it all) and our entertainment-focused setting (the ubiquity of TV, movies, radio, the World Wide Web), it is hard to make time and space to develop the habits of serious Christian reading.
Others, of course, have raised these sorts of concerns: books of cultural criticism as well-known as Neil Postman’s fascinating Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, or as personally thoughtful and well-written as the memoir of book-lover Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age) to the brand new and very wise assessment of boredom in our fast-paced world, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering Passion & Wonder by Richard Winter, weigh in on this crucial question of our time. How can we be that which the Bible calls us to be–wise agents of Godly discernment–“salt,” “light” and “leaven”–if we haven’t nurtured the habits of thoughtful study, reflection and reading? How can we enjoy popular culture without losing the slower and more demanding medium of books? How can we be well-informed people of depth without turning into dry or overly-intellectual snobs? How can those of us who call ourselves evangelicals, particularly, respond to the devastating critique offered in the brief book by Os Guinness, whose title says it all: Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What Can Be Done About It?
I would like to suggest that there are a few reasons why those of us who are attempting to live faithful, engaged and vibrant lives of relevant discipleship ought to read widely and regularly.
Reading as Worship
Firstly, reading is a requirement of our worship. The Word from Sinai is blunt and non-negotiable: we are to love God with all our minds. To fail to exercise the gray matter God has given us is a sin and we must repent of any intellectual laziness that may plague us.
Granted, as the above-mentioned titles explain and analyze, it is not easy to think well in our postmodern culture; in this fast-paced day and age, it is not easy to set aside time to study and read. But if we see reading as an aspect of worship, as an expression of our piety, as a part of what God demands, our hearts–if we love Him and desire to be obedient–will move our minds to action. We will do that which we must in our schedules and budgets to become readers, learners, those who are familiar with quality writing and who care about good books.
The earliest spiritual writers have said this–they even have a name for that careful, spiritual attention to texts: lectio divino. Reading is an act of worship, a way to show our love for God and a way for God to speak to us.
Reading as Discipleship
Secondly, reading is an act of discipleship. The Bible, again, is explicit: “Study to show yourself approved” (2 Timothy 2:15). We must know what it is we believe, why we believe, and consider the vast implications for whole-life expression of our convictions and creeds. Elsewhere, the Bible says we were created for “good works,” so we ought to consider how to do them.
Of course, we learn to be followers of Christ through a variety of mediums–not the least of which is regular public worship and Bible study–but the study of Christian books, a bit of church history, contemporary studies of theology and doctrine, the occasional Christian classic, and reading about the very basics of a Christian worldview all contribute to our formation as mature and solid followers of the Master.
Being a disciple is like being an apprentice, a “learner.” The Bible warns us not to take learning lightly, but to buckle down, study up, learn God’s ways, become rooted in a well-informed and mature faith. Who among us dares not to learn about the glories of the gospel? Who would not be well served with remedial reading in various aspects of Christian living? The apostle Paul–himself quite the bookman and life-long learner–continues his counsel to young Timothy as to why he should study: so that he can be a good and fruitful worker in the Kingdom. Reading is an act of discipleship.
Reading as Mission
Reading is, thirdly, a significant and strategic aspect of mission. The brilliant Apostle Paul has given us an extraordinary example of engaged and thoughtful witness to nonbelievers in his discussion with the pagan ideologues on Mars Hill. (Read the story in Acts 17 if you don’t know it!) Think about it, though: Paul was able to quote to these intellectuals their own favorite authors and stories, which clearly suggests he had read them! This is no different than a modern campus minister quoting the latest rock album in the student union, or a contemporary businesswoman citing the latest leadership text in her corporate headquarters, only to use those insights as an avenue of sharing a Christian perspective.
Paul obviously read widely, used his knowledge of pagan authors effectively as he interacted, debated and discerned opportunities to talk with those he encountered in that literal marketplace of ideas. Near the end of his life, while in a Roman prison cell, he continued to special-order books along with his beloved Hebrew Scriptures (see 2 Timothy 4:13). Paul had a passion to understand his context and his mission.
At our bookstore, strict religious folk sometimes wonder why we carry such an array of diverse titles. One answer is simple: the Bible tells us that Paul read widely, so we should too! How else can we converse with our neighbors if we are not at least somewhat familiar with their favorite books, movies, TV shows and journalists? And, sometimes, like Paul himself shows us, these authors, who are not known to be evangelically-oriented, truly have something important to say. In God’s common grace (as Richard Mouw so helpfully explains in He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture & Common Grace) even non-Christian authors have stumbled onto insight. If we read widely with discernment, we too can build bridges with our hurting world by speaking knowledgeably about the hot topics and important writers of the day.
Books Change Lives
An entire article could be filled with remarkable stories of those whose lives have been profoundly affected by the reading of books. From ancient readers–St. Augustine, who read Romans; John Wesley, who read Luther; the slave-holder John Newton, whose life was changed by reading Thomas A Kempis, to more recent examples–C.S. Lewis read a fairy tale by his favorite author, George MacDonald, which helped lead him to faith, and Charles Colson, after being arrested for his shenanigans with the corrupt Nixon White House, read Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Colson is now one of the most astute evangelical spokespersons, as he routinely recommends quality books on his Breakpoint radio show. One of my own heroes in the faith, the turn-of-the-last-century Christian statesman Abraham Kuyper, found himself coming alive in personal faith after an uneducated lay woman gave him a novel which changed his life.
Books make a difference in the lives of those who read them, and sometimes those lives change the world. Great authors are a gift to the Christian community, and those of us who struggle to relate our deepest convictions to the work-a-day world of career, entertainment, citizenship, health care or family life, should recall that good reading can equip us to think in new ways. Books invite us to adopt new perspectives and nurture new motivations. Indeed, the ideas of a good book can catapult us–like Paul on Mars Hill, or like the abolitionist activist, William Wilberforce, who befriended John Newton as they read books together–into exciting arenas of service with history-making possibilities! We can indeed be harbingers of a renewed and more healthy way of life, we can model Godly principles, we can “seek first the Kingdom,” we can learn to “think Christianly.”
For this awesome task, we will need more than the habits of reading–much more. But we will, at the very least, need to be thinking long and hard, studying, discussing, forming reading groups, paying attention to reviews and articles, using resource lists. I congratulate JubileeNow for offering one more place where we can be reminded and equipped for just this task. With God’s help, we can read widely and deeply, as an act of devout worship, as an expression of our discipleship and as an aspect of our commitment to effective, contemporary mission.
A few books to help in your journey towards being a Christian reader:
How To Read Slowly: Reading for Understanding by James Sire (Shaw). A guide to reading with the mind, attentive to the worldview and views of the authors. Skip the speed-reading courses and use this as a guide. Very helpful.
The Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading by Terry Glaspey (InterVarsity Press). Perhaps the best argument for reading widely, an annotated listing of tons of great books and a nice guide to what this fascinating author likes best. Very highly recommended!
More Than Words: Contemporary Writers on the Works That Shaped Them compiled and introduced by Philip Yancey (Baker). A good handful of solid Christian writers–Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, Stephen Lawhead, Luci Shaw and others–gives us an introduction to the writers they love. Annie Dillard calls is “a wonderful book…like a fine conversation.”
Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith Through Literature and Film by David Cunningham (Brazos Press). A learned and thoughtful discussion of various novels and a few films, organized according to the phrases of the Apostle Creed. Stellar insights, nicely written and nearly experiential. Excellent.
Honey for a Woman’s Heart: Growing Your World Through Reading Great Books by Gladys Hunt (Zondervan). Some booksellers call Hunt their “patron saint” because of her classic Honey for a Child’s Heart. (What a great book that is!) This is a lighthearted invitation, especially for women, with a fabulous guided bibliography. I want to say how nice this is, but it is more than nice–it is a gem! See also her excellent Honey for a Teen’s Heart which, again, makes the case. God bless her!
Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling by James Sire (InterVarsity Press). Not everyone is called to this sort of intellectual rigor, but Sire is always worth reading. Some of his reflections on how to choose a good book and his own forays into bookstores are a delight. A great book, which I have often suggested. What would happen if a dozen serious folks studied this and prayed to become respected, public intellectuals, for God’s sake?
Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Baker). This candid and witty collection of short chapters about church is fabulous for any number of good reasons. But get this: he has a few chapters on the need for church leaders and pastors to “throw the book at them,” which is a clever way of saying to encourage the bookish habits of reading. His essay on the need to support indie bookstores–forming alliances, to use his term–is the best brief thing I have ever seen on this topic which is obviously close to our hearts.
Quick. Get this book. Photocopy the chapter (call ’em for permission, which I already have done) and send it to your pastor. (Or, if you are the pastor, send it to your governing board or elders or council members!) And then call us to brainstorm more about how we can help your congregation “read on purpose.” (I’ve got an audio tape of me with extreme unction addressing a workshop on the strategic need for good parish libraries and the significance of books in the Christian life. After reading Stackhouse’s brief chapter, you may want to order this tape from us.)
A Is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church by Leonard Sweet & Brian McLaren (Zondervan). This unusual book–eccentric and intriguing–is an alphabet book, with brief entries with headings like attention, mysticism, simultaneity, tribal. Some essays are to be expected: postmodernism, globalization, spirituality; others really have the mark of these two zany witster (see, I can make up words, too!) gadflies. It includes words you’ve never heard of, acronyms, doubletakes on standard phrases, all hinting at bold and new ways to see into our times and place with imagination, prophetic zeal and (madcap) insight.
Why list it here? (In a personal conversation that I often recount, Len described how he was knocked off his “print-based high horse” in a Damascus Road-like conversion. Interestingly, he was in the process of writing a book condemning, like Postman, the postmodern shift toward images which he now embraces.) Shouldn’t we brainy, bookish types mock (or at least fret about) these high-profile postmodern-meisters? Isn’t this part of the problem? Although this question deserves more serious discussion, here is my quickie apologetic for adding this new book here on my “books about reading” list:

  1. It is, please note, a book. A very well-footnoted book.
  2. It is important to read about the emerging culture in which we move and breathe and do our reading. Even if those books are old and critical of such stuff, it is the milieu, and there is no getting around that. Chances are, a computer network printed your book, and you may have a TV or CD player playing in the background, even as you read your C.S. Lewis, with the really hip new covers, telling you to read old books more than new ones.
  3. According to the Bible itself, we are told not only to read words, but signs; not just the Word but the world. A Is For Abductive is a creative example of an effort to “read the signs of the times” (see I Chronicles 12:32 or Matthew 16:3).

Still Bored In A Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering Passion and Wonder by Richard Winter (InterVarsity Press). Read the signs of the times? Man, this is it! Despite our postmodern goofiness, high-tech glitz, entertainment (even info-tainment), we still are, too often, deader than a doornail. Read this remarkable book to help discern, diagnose and move towards normative responses to one of the chief issues of our times: boredom. This book is not about reading more nor about being more abstract or learned. It is also not The Berenstain Bears With Nothing To Do for adults. It is a deep, wise, interesting and altogether profound book, itself full of quiet passion and glorious wonder. Winter himself is a psychiatrist and professor of practical theology at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.
Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age by Quentin Schultze (Baker). I mentioned this very important book two months ago in our column and book list of titles about ethics. The sub-title, after all, mentions virtue, and I was on a roll…
This spectacularly wise book is, however, much more than a diatribe about virtue or a plea for character. It is more than a critique of our info-glut cyber-age. It is, rather, a superb example of “reading the times” and discerning ways to nurture embodied ways of Christianly living. As Denis Haack, editor of our favorite magazine, Critique, has written, “Read Habits… more than once.” You see, reading really can change your life. And it really can be a part of what can change the world.
I suppose I say this every year about this time–I say it to myself, to my family, to my friends, and to you, dear readers, CCO staff members, Web site visitors. Make a resolution to read more this year. Turn off the tube a bit more, let the house get a bit dusty, spend less on cosmetics and gadgets and buy books. It is an investment in living well in these times. Thanks.