Along with lofty diet and fitness goals, the turn into a new year seems to spark a heightened interest in reading as more people resolve to get through a certain number of books in a calendar year. Perhaps it's because we want to exercise our bodies and our minds – we have a renewed sense of determination to better the whole of ourselves. Or maybe it's just a band of mamas realizing that they haven't read a single book, cover to cover, since their first child was born (..five or ten years ago). Whatever it is, avid readers and non-readers would agree that there are personal benefits of reading. Isn't that why we tell our kids that "leaders are readers"? Books are potent tools for personal development and growth at all ages.
But what exactly are we reading? The New York Times
always has its best sellers lists in every imaginable category. The Gospel Coalition has its own list of top picks from the year. Countless blogs have published their favorite reads along with a slew of honorable mentions. The virtual world essentially allows anyone to pose as an expert on any given topic – all you need is a phone and an e-mail address. We are bombarded with opinions and options and in desperate need of discernment.
So what sharpens our minds to discern? Should we only read books that are written by dead theologians? Is there any benefit to reading fiction? Is there a magic formula or printable reading list for reformed Christians?
The Apostle Paul notes the importance and power in reading in Ephesians 3:4-5 (ESV), "In reading
this , then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (emphasis mine). There is power in reading God's Word. As believers, the primary book that we should strive to read is our sacred text, the Bible. If we read nothing else in our lives aside from the Word of God, we would be fully satisfied and adequately equipped. In fact, we wouldn't even be able to exhaust the riches in the Word. If our time is limited, we should devote that time to the study of His Word. If our time and resources are not limited and we have a larger margin to engage in more literature, we still need to devote time to study the Word of God because that is our gold standard.
Believers are able to navigate through the overwhelming ocean of options by knowing the Word of God and reviewing things through the lens of the Gospel. The Gospel allows us to see truth and to decipher lies and twisted messages. If we study the Word of God, we are girding our minds against any falsehood. This allows us to broaden our scope of literature and read various books to our benefit. Fantastic fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Ring scan edify our minds and, dare I say, nurture our souls.
Tony Reinke, a respected author on this particular topic, even notes that the fore fathers of our reformed tradition ventured outside of reformed literature. On his blog, Reinke shares a direct quote from Martin Luther:
"It is a result of God's providence that the writings of Cato and Aesop have remained in the schools, for both are significant books. Cato contains the most useful sayings and precepts. Aesop contains the most delightful stories and descriptions. Moral teachings, if offered to young people, will contribute much to their edification. In short, next to the Bible, the writings of Cato and Aesop are in my opinion the best..." (Find the full article here).
Did you get that? Martin Luther believed that Aesop's fables were instrumental to the moral training of children second only to the Word of God! He believed this so much so that he translated many of Aesop's fables while he was translating the New Testament into German. As we behold the Word of God, we can be wisely flexible with our reading choices without being jostled with every wind of doctrine. We can take pleasure in beautiful pieces of writing and even have our understanding of the gospel deepened. As someone who wrestles with reading any sort of book that isn't non-fiction or guaranteed to bolster my theology, this is permission to couple my discipline of reading and studying with delight.
But there's another conundrum to be addressed – freedom to read a broad scope of literature does not mean we are able to read everything under the sun. We are finite beings and the majority of us have responsibilities that don't allow hours and hours to cozy up with a book and a hot cup of coffee. We are challenged to be selective – maybe even strategic (Audible, anyone?). The current digital age makes this even more difficult because we're assaulted with millions of blog posts and articles at our fingertips on top of the temptation to read everyone's musings encapsulated in 140 characters or read microblogs on Instagram. Add this avalanche of information to passive entertainment in the form of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, cable TV, and Facebook stories.
More than ever, discipline is required to engage in the exercise of reading. Because so many things are fighting for our affections (in the form of our time and attention), we need to be wise in our book selections and intentionally reserve time in our busy days to actually read. For me, this has looked like committing to reading 20 minutes before bed at the very lease. I also asked for a Kindle (Paperwhite) for Christmas because it can be tucked into my purse or diaper bag; it's amazing how many small pockets of time fill our days!
When it comes to reading, we are invited to a form of discipline and a means of delight.