Why Christians must be readers

October 20th, 2014

A few months ago a relative of mine was in the process of making a long distance move and had made a critical decision to sell off his library. He's a long-retired pastor and in downsizing his house, he knew as much as he wanted to that he couldn't take all his books with him. It was one of those libraries that you salivate at: three walls lined with books, floor to ceiling, ranging the whole twentieth century; whole commentary series; books on about every topic you could dream of. I cried with him, I think, as he made the decision to sell them, but I straightened myself up enough to pick through the collection at his invitation (of which I am eternally grateful).

I remember, however, coming to collect the last of the boxes I'd packed up and stepping into a conversation he was having with a local pastor. The man had stopped by to bid him farewell and while doing so, my relative extended him the same invitation that he had me. A tad bit curious to see what books the pastor might be interested in, I stepped into the living room to hear his response: "Ah, I hate reading! I hate it so much. I don't think I've read a book in five years. I think I'll pass." He left the house without a single book in hand and I was left on the floor bitterly crying for the man. I still think he should have repented for his words, as I'm certain that they offended God more than they did me.

All joking aside, this man's perspective on the value of reading is shared with a large percentage of the population. General statistics on voluntary reading is depressing in many ways already. A recent Pew Forum poll indicated that nearly a quarter of American adults have not read a single book in the past year. That should be alarming in itself. But what is equally alarming is how in sync this perspective is within the Christian world. Though a scientific poll has yet to be done specifically on the reading habits of Christians, it's unlikely that there's a huge divide between the general American public and the church. If Bible reading is any indication of our reading habits, only 26% of American's regularly read the Bible with 57% reading it four times a year or less.

If Scripture reading numbers are that dire, one might wonder what the statistics are for non-Bible reading. How many Christians read books? Or perhaps a better question: How many Christians read good books? While it's difficult to speculate any solid numbers, our general attitude about reading is far from laudable. The story of the pastor above is but one of a number of conversations I've had over several years with pastors and other Christian educators about reading. The number of pastors who don't read beyond what is necessary for developing a Sunday sermon is simply astounding (and often enough, the extent of that reading is the Bible itself and maybe a pulpit commentary).

I used to be this way. Through my high school years there were only two books that I read voluntarily: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (yes, I am a Tolkienite...and I don't like Harry Potter, so there!) Beyond these two books, I can't think of anything else that I ever read voluntarily as a teenager. It was only a month prior to my college career that the significance of reading was made clear to me at a summer worldview conference as I was informed in a terribly rhythmic phrase that sounded like it came right out of Reading Rainbow, "If you want to become a leader, you need to become a reader."

Well, I've had that one rattling around my head for a decade. I hear it at night and when I'm alone; I hear it every time I gaze at my bookshelves thinking I might have too many; sometimes there are two creepy children standing at the end of a long hallway repeating it over and over (subsequently I have to put them back to bed). But it's absolutely true! Try and think of any significant leader of the past two centuries that hasn't been formed by a desire to read. And then go back in centuries long before that and you'll by far find the same habit! Even the worst leaders in history were readers (though probably because they were forced to read Anne of Green Gables!)

When we look at the great world shapers of the past couple of centuries alone, every single one of them were readers: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela, etc. Indeed, it is said that Theodore Roosevelt read a book a day while serving as president! All of these men immersed themselves in books, developed habits for engaging the written word, and sought to shape their own significance around what they had learned.

Of course, if we want to look at the history of Christian thought and influence the list is just as endless: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (again, just because he deserves it!), etc. Every one of these thinkers were influenced by books both past and present and this fact is evident in their contributions to the church, both in thought and in practice. They read the Bible but they also went beyond and read the greatest books of history, some fiction and some nonfiction. They devoured the classics and immersed themselves in the poetry, myths, philosophies, and histories of the ancient and modern world.

While certainly any one of us in particular is hard-pressed to stand up the status of those like Aquinas or Lewis for reasons I need not spell out, we should recognize that none of these leaders would have garnished the reputation that they now carry if it hadn't been for the fact that they were committed readers. Imagine a world in which Lincoln had never read the books that he did or Lewis wasn't informed by the classics. Would we even know their names? It's doubtful. Would Barth and Bonhoeffer have had the leadership to stand in opposition to Hitler's redefinition of the German Church? Would Wesley have set off the Methodist movement if it hadn't been for his love of books? Unlikely.

Leadership is significantly connected with readership. One of the sad misfortunes of depriving oneself of books is the simple lack of exposure to the broader world and broader history. Sometimes our misguided cultural notion of progress convinces us that whatever lies in the past or beyond our immediate culture is inferior to where we currently are, as if there are no real lessons that can be learned from looking backward. The real shame is that we spend more time listening to voices that won't outlast the day than we do listening to the voices that have outlasted history and transcended boundaries.

Every child on earth should be exposed to Narnia; every Christian adult should spend some time with Oswald Chambers, and every pastor should immerse themselves in Thomas à Kempis. As I tell college students, "You have to read old dead guys." We must be readers and we must be good readers, for it is intimately tied with our eventual identity both within this world and within Christ.

Is it no wonder, then, that God would give us his revelation in the form of a book? Christians should be, above all others, readers because we are called to be, above all others, leaders. We are called to be disciples and disciple makers, guiding others while being guided ourselves towards knowing God deeply and intimately. And if a disciple is, after all, a student, how in the world can we suppose that we should be exempt from reading the ideas and thoughts that have created the world in which we now live and fulfill our calling? One does not buy a home without knowing something about its history, development, and surrounding context.

If we don't have a desire or a passion or an attention span for it, then we must create it. Follow the words of John Wesley who, in responding to a preacher who thought reading was futile, said the following: "You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: What is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way."

What do you think? Why else should Christians make it a point to read? What are some of the books that you feel are necessary for the Christian journey? 

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