Reading More Without Living Less

Addressing Religious-Based Concerns About Reading: Part 2

October 25, 2012

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. 

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  • Erika October 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks for the great reasons–and for the wonderful Lewis quotation! Not one I had been familiar with, so it’s going into the file!

    Two thoughts as I read #4:
    1. Every book (well, except the Bible!) has bones to spit out; I think about this idea with most every book I read. And I think reading with discernment is my default, especially as the analytical person that I am, by this point in my life. However, discernment is not just spitting out and ignoring the bones, but comparing and evaluating the “bones” and changing and growing as needed, even if humbling, uncomfortable, or surprising. But to return the image to its original context, I still can’t make myself crunch the bones in canned salmon! Plenty of maturity to grow into in that realm, I guess!! Loved this passage:

    “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.”

    2. Phil 4:8 “whatever is true” – just thought I’d mention another specific attack on reading I’ve heard based on this verse: that all fiction is wrong since it’s not true! I’ve always wondered what the people believing that statement really think about Jesus’ parables or how such a disconnect occurs! Very thankful for the soul-piercing application that “story” enables!

    And my little English teacher soapbox makes me curious, Keren, if you have read The God-Hungry Imagination, Almost Christian, or Soul Searching? Good books related to youth culture–and some also to “story.” I haven’t read them fully, just portions that Andy pointed out to me or read aloud.

    Yikes, a much longer comment than I intended. Thanks again for your work on this series.

    • Keren October 25, 2012 at 11:00 pm

      As to the Lewis quote, you can read it here (Google books, “An Experiment in Criticism”), though I believe it is also shared in some of his other works. (The rest of the passage it’s taken from is also excellent!)

      Good thoughts again. Daniel mentioned the no-fiction argument based on Phil 4:8, as well, as we were discussing this. 🙂

      Of the books you listed, I’d only heard of Almost Christian. I’ve put them all on my to-read list, but the first looks particularly interesting. Thanks for sharing them.

      (And no worries on the length–just look at the length of this post. ;))

      • Erika October 25, 2012 at 11:21 pm

        Thanks for the link. I had done a quick search to find out what work it was from (for that reading list of course!), so I ended up reading a bit more of the context. But looking forward to reading it more fully and thoughtfully.

  • Kristen October 25, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    ‘Christians often significantly damage their intellectual credibility by refusing to learn from sources that are not specifically “Christian.”’

    Yes! And ironically, we limit ourselves in our ability to “think on things that are true” (Phil. 4:8) when we fail to expose ourselves to true knowledge that God has revealed through common grace to unbelieving, yet brilliant people made in His image. My recent reading of various books that touch on psychology and neurology have increased my wonder at God’s intricate design of the human brain/intellect and likewise my horror at the comprehensive, even physiological effects of the fall. There have definitely been hard questions to ponder (how do physiological realities of brain function relate to conscious thought and personal responsibility, etc.) but like you said, “The clash of perspectives sharpens the edge of one’s intellect.” And I’ve never been more thankful for the vast knowledge and expertise of secular science than in recent weeks since my infant daughter has been placed under the care of a pediatric neurologist for unexplained seizures. Christians regularly pray for God to “give the doctor wisdom.” It’s helpful to remember that God has given much wisdom to doctors already through common grace, though I believe in praying for specific guidance for doctors as well.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    • Keren October 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm

      And thank you for the thought-provoking comment–this really helps flesh out ways this can be recognized in real life in both of your examples here.