This post is a continuation from Part 1 of “Addressing Religious-Based Concerns About Reading,” where the first post addressed the question, “Shouldn’t a Christian be reading his Bible more than reading so many books?”
This post addresses the second common question:
2. Is it wise or even permissible for a Christian to read secular books or books that differ in theological matters?
First, it’s probably important to note that you’ll probably never find a book that you agree with 100%.
The point of reading isn’t to find material that we agree with or fully endorse. Reading for such a reason generally defeats some of the main points of reading: to learn, to grow, to understand, and to enjoy. Learning comes by broadening our minds (both in the extent of knowledge we expose ourselves to and in the mediums through which it is carried), and exposing our minds to a variety of perspectives, viewpoints, knowledge, etc. And yes, that may sometimes include things that we don’t agree with.
Reading only what you already know and agree with is definitely safe and keeps you within your comfort zone. But there are important reasons to read outside of our comfort zone, to read widely:
1. We can read to learn other worldviews and to gain a better understanding of human experience.
We can accomplish this through both fiction and non-fiction. When we read the books that are selling to the masses, both historical and the current bestsellers, we can go into them understanding that there is something in these books that appeals (or, has appealed) to a great number of people. If it’s a current bestseller, it can give us a better understanding of the current worldview. If it’s a classic that’s been well-read through the centuries, we can better understand what common passions and themes bind humanity beyond mere contemporary and cultural overtones.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes connot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.”
2. We enhance our ability to think better when we read things that we know we disagree with.
For now, let’s just use the example of theological difference. As an example, if you are an avowed Calvinist (and maybe you aren’t quite sure why), you may wish to pick up Roger Olson’s handy little book Against Calvinism. You’ll start thinking about your position — why you hold it, possible objections to it, or maybe even why some of your reasonings are invalid, etc. In the case of this theological debate, there is a companion volume called For Calvinism by Michael Horton in case you find yourself on a different starting point (or just want to refresh and strengthen what you believe you already believe). The clash of perspectives sharpens the edge of one’s intellect.
We shouldn’t just pick up a book in order to tear “the other side’s” argument to shreds, either. We should read graciously and with a spirit of learning. There are things that we can learn from people whose ideologies and lives we may neither agree with nor endorse. Exposing ourselves to ideas that we knowingly disagree with can also help us to strengthen our understanding of our own ideas, or, it may allow us to see where our idea is weak and perhaps there is some truth to the idea that opposes it. It may be slightly unnerving to find ourselves in such a position, but it is a place that is essential for growth, and possibly, change.
3. We can read with the understanding of common grace, and see evidences of God’s common grace displayed in ways we may have otherwise been blinded to or oblivious of.
Although you may not necessarily agree with a certain worldview, theological position, or piece of information, that does not mean there is nothing to learn from a well-written work.
Christians often significantly damage their intellectual credibility by refusing to learn from sources that are not specifically “Christian.” Rather than dismissing a field entirely because it’s not authored or promoted by a Christian (or even a worldview that aligns with a Christian worldview), we need to discern what is genuine information and research that may be ensconced in an opposing worldview, and be willing to extract and interact with that knowledge from a variety of sources.
For example, a Christian who believes that God created the world (regardless of what timing one may believe God used) should be able to look at a work that expounds on the wonders of evolutionary biology and see that the underlying theme is that these same amazing wonders of biology point to incredible intelligent design of a God who created this world.
Knowledge and information is often intermingled with worldview, and it takes discernment not to conflate the two together and throw them both out (or vice versa, wholeheartedly embrace both). (And although this post is heavily influenced by my worldview, I think an atheist or agnostic could come to this post and also leave with something valuable to him. Of course, it’s also possible that he is also influenced by my worldview.)
4. We can read to practice discernment.
God’s truth is ultimate, and it will triumph. If what we call truth cannot withstand exposure to opposing ideologies, then it is a weak faith, and perhaps in some cases a misguided or misplaced faith (i.e., such faith may be situated in religiosity, in standards, or in tradition more than it is in God and His Word). There are also those who fear all forms of doubt, but doubt is sometimes the tool or catalyst God uses to open hearts and minds.
That said, it is important to read with discernment. Of course, everything we read must be tethered to a right understanding of God’s Word. Nonetheless, we can strengthen our minds, grow our faith, and interact with the world better when we understand more by reading broadly. We need to make sure that we don’t think of “discernment” as implying that Christians should never expose themselves to ideas opposed to their own.
We also need to remember that even our “Biblical worldview” may have been influenced by cultural entrapments that we’ve picked up along the way, or have been embedded in our Christian subcultures for so long that it is hard to realize that that aspect of our worldview is not truly Biblical.
What about Philippians 4:8 “Whatever is true, etc…think about such things”? This is a verse often used to attack the reading of pop fiction, psychology, or other works from a secular perspective. This is an important verse. It enjoins the Christian to meditate upon things that are excellent or praiseworthy. This does not deny to Christians the reading of secular literature. We live in a fallen world. We see the marks of sin everywhere we turn. The overriding direction of our minds, however, must remain fixed upon excellent and praiseworthy things. If you become obsessed with reading unwholesome material, it’s probably time to change your habits. If, however, you are training your mind to think upon excellent and trustworthy things in the context of a fallen world, this is where true value lies.
5. We can read to enjoy.
Finally, there is value in reading to enjoy. Beyond relaxation, enjoyable reading can enhance our creativity, productivity, and rejuvenation. Reading must not always be chore that you’ve got to force yourself to slog through. It can be something fun and exciting.
These are only five reasons to read widely. There are numerous more. Not only is it permissible for Christians to read widely, but it is also important to do so.