I am notorious for recommending that people read a lot more. People see me riding in on my white charger, bearing an armful of Jane Austen novels, and try to slink away before I catch sight of them. Usually they succeed, but on the occasions when I do successfully collar someone, he listens politely. Then he doesn’t read the books I suggest.
They may be considering the source, you say. Well, there is probably some of that going on. But I think the reasons go deeper than just my flawed character.
Do I think that we gain salvation by reading good books? Is that the core of my theology?
If so, that would be a very weak brand of Christianity. In fact, I am quite aware that it is very possible to be a godly Christian, completely without having done wide reading, or any reading at all. No doubt lots of people who have read almost nothing are very intelligent and very godly, whereas I, who have read a great deal . . . well, I am what I am. But let’s just say that no one has accused me of either intellectual brilliance or saintliness.
Why, then, my persistent efforts to get people to read more? Is it just, “Be more like me, because I am so wonderful, and you can’t go wrong if you are more like me”? Well, perhaps there is some of that going on. However, consider the possibility, faint but real, that wide reading really is something that can be a great blessing to the ordinary Christian and to the ordinary person. Maybe I would be delighted to see other people gain some of the blessings I have gained through reading. So maybe my evangelism for reading is not necessarily foolish or self-absorbed. Maybe, in my own demented way, I am trying to help people have better lives. I know it’s a stretch, but consider it a possibility.
First, though, let’s consider three (additional) possible reasons why people are almost never interested in the books I recommend, other than my own personal fecklessness.
1/Ignorance is the default position of mankind. That definitely includes Christians. We are just people, in that regard. Most people are ignorant, and prefer being ignorant. Mankind is aggressively ignorant, rather than just passively so. In fact it takes a very intentional desire to be interested in learning something new, to be willing to read. This is by far the most important reason of why people won’t read. Gravity is pulling us down. Who has the desire to fight against gravity? It is work to read. People work enough in their daily lives; when they get home at night they want to rest, not work more.
2/Most people are pretty self-satisfied in regard to their character and attainments. They aren’t casting around for ways to improve what clearly needs no improving. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
3/Our major eschatologies (in terms of number of believers) are dispensationalism and amillennialism. They are quite different in their beliefs, but they are completely in accord in being pessimistic about what can be attained in this earthly life. Christian civilization cannot be largely advanced for any length of time. What you see now is what you get in the future–nothing very good. If something good comes around for a little while, it will disappear shortly. So why read to try to learn and improve our prospects of advancing Christian civilization, when the Bible so clearly teaches that no such advance is possible? ‘”Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die.”‘ (Isaiah 22:13)
Consider the possibility that reading brings benefits to the person who does the reading, and to the people around him. Sound weird? Well, consider how little we Christians read the Bible. The level of Bible knowledge among Christians is horrific. Can we not all agree that it would be better if every Christian increased his knowledge of the Bible by reading the Bible? The pastor, no matter how gifted, can preach through only a small part of the Bible. Reading the Bible for ourselves gives us a much better chance of understanding the nature of God, the nature of goodness, and the nature of our responsibilities to Him and to the people around us. So if we were intentional in our Bible reading, as a Christian people, it would almost certainly bring benefits to us and to our circle. We don’t read the Bible because it is hard to do so, and we are lazy and self-satisfied.
Once we have admitted that fact that simply reading the Bible more would help all of us, watch out, because we are on a slippery slope!
What if the blessings of reading do not stop with reading the Bible more? What if we would also be blessed if we read not just books of theology, but also economics, history, and fiction?
What if there are things we can learn from those books which would help us understand the life we are living right now on the earth? What if the more truth we gain, the more we are able to evaluate good and evil from God’s point of view, so that our actions can be more obedient to God and thus more helpful to our families and to our neighbors?
Once we get on that slippery slope, we are very near to having to admit that reading can be very helpful to us.
Ignorance is so easy, and reading is so hard. We are so far behind, we’ll never catch up.
All true. But to coin a phrase, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
If a person is reading zero books in a year, but begins to suspect that he is giving in to his human default position of wallowing in ignorance, that person can begin to live differently. He can resolve to read six good books in the coming year. (Keeping written records will help some people.)
If he fails to read six books in a year, but does read four, he is four books ahead of where he was a year ago.
And what I will predict is that most people–maybe not everyone, but most people–will find that reading good books gets easier over time. Next year the six book goal will be attained, and maybe it will be eight the year after that. And maybe eventually the person will begin to have much less interest in watching television, and will feel blessed to be reading a lot more. What started out being work may eventually be partly work but partly also very enjoyable. Fun? Yeah, maybe. It is just a possibility to consider that this might happen.
We are in a battle for Christian civilization. I think if we give up our commitment to being aggressively ignorant, we will be better armed to defend something that seems to be in danger of slipping away from us. Christian civilization is very precious. We took it for granted, but now that it is in grave danger, maybe we are beginning to see how precious it has been. It got built up once; maybe it can be built up again. Maybe the dispensationalists and amillennialists got it badly wrong, in agreeing that the future is hopeless. Maybe we can have an effect for good in the world. Maybe even if we fail, it is better to go down six-shooters blazing than in passive acceptance of evil. Maybe knowing better how the world is put together, because we are reading the Bible and lots of other good books, will help us and the people around us.
Maybe reading the Bible, and then reading theology, economics, history, lots of other things (the technical term for which is stuff, as Anthony Lane might say), and fiction would help us in our attempt to fight on the side of the angels rather than on the side of Satan. Maybe, anyway. So it has long seemed to me.
Did I really mean fiction too? Yes. Next week I hope to give a brief checklist of books which a Christian (or any person committed to stretching his mind rather than sitting in front of the TV set) might find enjoyable.
Salvation by reading? No, absolutely not. We are saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. But once He saves us, He promises that His Holy Spirit will guide us ‘”into all the truth.”‘ (John 16:13) I think some of that ‘”all”‘ is going to be found in lots of books which we are able, if we are willing, to read.