Reading as an Act of Discipleship

I hear the naysayers. Our century has unparalleled amounts of information, so why should we read? Wikipedia has over 40 million articles, according to Wikipedia.[1] Don’t 21st century Christians need abstinence from information instead of information intake?

Yes and no.

Yes, we should limit certain venues of information. The internet, for example, is a glut of information, much of which is harmful, some of which is potentially harmful, and little of which is excellent. It is wise to abstain from certain influences—pornographic or excessively violent ones, for instance.

But the real world is a world covered with slippery slopes and the sooner we learn the art of discernment, the better. Among a millenia-wide smorgasbord of ideas and worldviews, books give us the perfect opportunity to jumpstart the process of learning discernment. One reason for this is that reading can be done in a controlled environment. As we read, we can pray, read scripture, and discuss our reading with other believers.

Historically the primary sources of influence were as follows: first, other people; then, people and books; and finally, people, books, and electronic media.[2] None of these are good or bad of themselves, but the question is, which influencer will best help us become the people God envisaged?

About now you might smell a rat. I got sucked in to reading another rant on how books are better than electronic media. Rest assured. While my gut tells me electronic media are inherently more treacherous than books, I have no solid data to back that up, and the point of this article is not to denigrate electronic media anyway. The point is to extol books.

Actually the original influencer, people, and more specifically people of character, remains the best influencer. During my years as a junior high teacher in Kansas, I kept coming across an idea in the literature I read and the workshops I attended. The gist was that a teacher can have the perfect curriculum, but unless she or he is a person of character, the students will be cheated of the best educational resource: the teacher’s life. The term life-on-life has become a buzzword for a reason.

You: Ahem, your point is to extol books. Though you are well into an exhortation on reading as an act of discipleship, you have not said one word in praise of books.

Me: With all due respect, that’s because books are not the point. The point is to expose ourselves to ideas, skills, and virtues that will shape us into the people God envisaged. But, I will hasten to add, the advantages books have in doing this are myriad.

At long last, here’s how.

Consider, for instance, how books form us into listeners. Sticking with a person for 300 pages and absorbing the burden of those pages is a countercultural act, especially in an age where millions seem happiest sounding their microphones on the internet.

Jesus’ disciples must listen; and then discern. “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” said Francis Bacon.[3] Whether we ultimately agree or disagree with an author, reading and pondering 50,000 words in a book allows us to evaluate his case with far more fairness and thoughtfulness than reading 50 words (and/or emojis) in a tweet.

Then also, reading forms us into people of depth, people who grasp how mysterious and nuanced our world is. Of course if someone reads only James Patterson or John Grisham or some other pulp fiction, he or she will probably have a more skewed understanding of reality, not a fuller one. Even reading Victorian literature or theology will do us little good if that is all we read. In order to form us into astute observers and participants in our world, our reading must be comprised of many genres, time periods, and worldviews.

Be warned. This kind of reading leaves us with fewer simplistic answers, not more. But at least we will be observers and probers rather than opinionated, entertainment-crazed barbarians addicted to quick reactions and dopamine rushes. At least the few words we do have will no longer be trite words, but those of leaders; not heroes, but leaders, making quiet but real contributions.

“Not all readers are leaders,” said President Harry Truman, “but all leaders are readers.” In the best case scenario, readers become leaders, but as Truman’s quote indicates, some readers do not become leaders. Instead, they become cynics. “There is no end to the making of many books,” they sigh wearily, echoing Ecclesiastes 12: 12. Cynics, who make knowledge an end in itself, soon flounder in meaninglessness. Leaders, however, read with purpose, considering how to put their insights to work and improve the world around them.

We all want to become leaders and effective people. We all want a fuller, more empathetic view of the world. But reading, though in some ways immensely pleasurable, is serious business. Accordingly it should involve more than just another halfhearted New Year’s resolution. Always have one or two books you are reading—on your nightstand, at the waiting room, instead of surfing the Net. Write in the margins. Evaluate. Read between the lines. Disagree. As you go about your day, ponder what you have read.

Do not forget to ask for and share book recommendations with people you respect. Reading is ultimately a conversation with multitudes of people, past, present, and future. And truly, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety”.[4] I take this ancient proverb to mean our world is complex and barely navigable, but if we surround ourselves with wisdom, we will begin the transformation into the people God envisaged. Fortunately we, more than any previous generation, have been given a vast library of counselors to help us.

What excuse will we have if we neglect it?

Gideon Yutzy Gideon Yutzy believes Christians should live as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: “counter, original, spare, strange.” He is addicted to the thrill of encountering new people, new ideas, new skills, new words, and new levels of personal growth. Gideon lives with his wife Esther and their three daughters, Olivia, Charlotte, and Honor, in an Anabaptist community in Ireland.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Size_comparisons

2. Music and art factor in here somewhere.

3. Bacon, Francis. The Essays, London: Penguin Books, 1985.

4. Proverbs 11:14

 

3 thoughts on “Reading as an Act of Discipleship

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. I absolutely agree that reading is hugely beneficial to our development into more well-rounded people as well as “people of depth” as you said. Books offer a glimpse into the minds of people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and even time periods. Great article!

    Like

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