The (Lost?) Art of Well-Rounded Reading

Bonnie FearerCommunity News

I am writing to readers.  You know who you are.  You’re the ones that read everything you can get your hands on.  As a kid you probably read the back of the cereal box in the morning, and under the covers with a flashlight at night.  I know I’m talking to you because you’re reading the Community News right now.  Non-readers skip it, skim it, or go straight to the “Did You Knows” at the back, so let’s talk, you and I, about our love of reading, and why it matters.

Probably like you, my love for reading began by being read to.  I distinctly remember loving Pinocchio, and being disturbed by Alice in Wonderland.  When I could read for myself, I devoured everything from fairy tales to science fiction, biographies to mysteries.  I was indiscriminate because I simply loved to enter into —and observe— other worlds.  I loved the craft of a well-turned sentence, the ability of a writer to end a chapter by dangling a curiosity or thread of suspense that made you want to turn just one more page.  I still love all of those things, but since becoming a Christian, my reading habits have taken on a greater sense of responsibility.  Let me explain…

All of us read for three basic purposes: entertainment, information gathering, and opinion-shaping.  The first two are self-explanatory; reading is a fun escape, and reading expands our factual knowledge.  The third point, however, merits some extra discussion.  What does it mean to be a well-rounded reader in such a way that our opinions are healthily shaped by what and how we read?  As followers of Jesus, what does this even look like, and why is it important?  It is crucial to know what we believe, and it is also important to read broadly in order to understand the culture in which we live.  If we only read Christian books, or if we only read from sources with whom we agree, then how are we to be humble, compassionate bridges-builders to a lost and hurting world?  So, in light of that, here are a few points to consider:

1.  We benefit from fiction, especially the classics.

Our imaginations need exercise, just like our bodies.  If we limit our imagination to the visual (movies, TV, etc), then someone else has done half the work for us.  We need to let our own minds paint the pictures, set the scene, hear the sounds.  Well-written fiction does more than entertain; it also has the ability to teach us.  We can read a book on the theology of forgiveness, and we can also read Les Miserables. We can read an article about the psychological effects of guilt, and we can perhaps learn as much from Crime and Punishment.  Read with a filter that looks for the plight of the human condition, and the search for transcendence that results.  Listen to this opening paragraph from a modern novel, A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton:

I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident.  I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing.  You don’t necessarily sense the motion.  I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

This is not a Christian author, but isn’t it a great description of the problem of sin?  Reading fiction exercises our imagination, but it also reminds us that the great themes in literature are always firmly grounded in a search for meaning and truth.

2.  Read the newspaper.

We need to be familiar with global issues, educating ourselves in the complexities of our world.  We shouldn’t settle for learning our news from Fox or CNN —read and think.  Read and wrestle with it. Read and pray.

3.  We should read from those with whom we disagree.

I’ll come right out and admit that one of my pet peeves is the predilection of many Christians to read only those authors whose opinions line up with theirs.  On one level I get it, but on another level one could say that it’s like surrounding yourself only with friends who will always agree with you and never challenge you.  Such practices breed pride at the very least – possibly pharisaical thinking at the worst.  This is not to say that we should open ourselves up to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine,” (see point #4 below), but it does mean that we should seek to truly understand the opinions of those in our culture who see the world much differently than we do.  Why is this important?

a.    As Christians, we always have much to learn from the world around us.  Evangelical churches can learn about “doing church life,” not just from other evangelical church leaders, but from the great institutions in our culture such as from the business world, from caring institutions like hospitals, from the field of education, and so forth.  On an individual level, we need to read from the experiences of those whose lives are completely different from our own.  Reading is one way to expand our hearts and grow in compassion. Our posture as Jesus-following readers should be one of humility combined with discernment.

b.    The importance of reading broadly, inclusive of reading opinions we may not share, is that we are called as Christians to be bridge-builders.  We are called to search in our culture not just for every little thing about which we disagree, but also for the common threads that allow us to extend a hand of grace and compassion in the name of Jesus. I would go so far as to say that if we are not building bridges, we are building ivory towers.  Reading broadly helps us to find common ground in order to be better-equipped bridge-builders.

4.  We should always read the Bible in one hand, and our additional reading material in the other.

All reading —and all information for that matter— should always be held up against Scripture.  If our primary reading objective is to remain culturally relevant, then we have abdicated what Christ calls us toward, which is always and forever a call towards himself.  That call will put us at odds with our culture and will keep us as foreigners, rather than true citizens, of this earth.  If, however, we absorb from Scripture the call to reach out to this lost and broken world, then our desire will be to find every possible way to understand that world and know it, so that we can speak the truth and love of Jesus.  Reading broadly helps us with this understanding, as long as we push it first, last, and always through the filter of Scripture.

In a world of tweets, sound-bytes and bullet-point communication, reading remains a way to slow down, and tointrospect, to wrestle with what we really think in the midst of a world that offers a fire-hose of constant information and opinions.

So fellow readers, let’s take some time to think about what we read.  Let’s start with Scripture, and then expand our reading diet. As Dr. Seuss said, The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.  May we go to places in our reading that help us to become better bridge-builders, not tower-builders.