Reading – Why, What and How?
Robert Strivens is Principal of London Theological Seminary. This article is based on the lecture he gave in April, 2010, at the opening of the new site of the Evangelical Library. It is in the present [November 2010] edition of In Writing, the magazine of the Evangelical Library. It has also appeared in Reformation Today.
If you were on death row, awaiting execution, how would you want to spend your time?
The apostle Paul found himself in that position. What he wanted to do was to read. He wrote to his friend Timothy to ask him to come to see him and to bring with him Paul’s cloak and reading material – ‘the books, especially the parchments’1 – most probably parchments of Old Testament scriptures as well as other writings.
About 1500 years later, another man was in prison for his faith in Jesus Christ. He also suspected, correctly as it turned out, that he was due to die soon. He too, like Paul, wanted his books. In the 19th century, a letter from this man was discovered, written while he was in prison, probably to the prison governor. The letter asks for warm clothes, in case the prisoner had to endure the cold winter that was approaching, but this not his main concern:
But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.2
The writer was the famous English Bible translator, William Tyndale, exiled from his homeland because of his desire to translate the Bible into English. He wrote this letter from prison in Vilvorde, just outside Brussels, having been betrayed into the hands of the authorities in 1535. We can imagine him, alone like Paul, with friends far away; with winter approaching, he is feeling the cold – as evidently Paul had done. He also recognises that the prison may be his last earthly dwelling-place. But, like Paul, his main concern was not for his own physical comfort.
Here were two Christians, whose end was near and whose useful public ministry was at an end – and what they wanted was books!
Christians have always loved books. First and foremost, of course, we love the Bible – ‘the book of books, the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort, the holy Scriptures’.3 This was Paul’s priority, as it was Tyndale’s after him, and it should be ours. If we have time to read nothing else, we should read the Bible. We should seek to read all of the Bible, not simply our favourite passages or books, and for this purpose some kind of reading scheme is useful.4 As well as reading through the Bible, we should be regularly studying some part of it in more depth. We thereby provide our souls with the nourishment they need, deepen our fellowship with the triune God, find instruction on questions of faith and living and help prepare ourselves for the corporate worship of God’s people on the Lord’s Day.
However, my focus in this article is not Bible reading, a subject on which some excellent books and booklets have been written.5 I will take it for granted (which perhaps I should not) that we are all devoted to a regular, meaningful reading of the Scriptures, both privately and in fellowship with others, as a vital part of true Christian living.
In this article, I want to focus instead on the reading of literature other than the Scripture. I do so because we are surrounded by an enormous wealth of literature, particularly in the English language. We are bound, from time to time at least, to want to read some of this vast array of books. How do we decide what will be helpful to us? How do we assess their value? Where do we begin? I want to try to offer some help, to enable us to make the most of our reading, and to do so I shall pose three straightforward questions:
1. Why should Christians read?
2. What should Christians read?
3. How should Christians read?
Why should we read?
There are two answers to this question and we need to give attention to each of them.
Firstly, we read because we are human.
Oh for a book and a shady nook,
Either in door or out;
With the green leaves whispering overhead,
Or the street cries all about.
Where I may read all at my ease,
Both of the new and old;
For a jolly good book whereon to look,
Is better to me than gold.6
The love of reading is universal. Wherever we go – on the Tube, in buses, at airports, in bookshops, on the internet – people are reading. Reading is God-given: that is clear – ever since man was created, it seems that he has wanted to write and therefore to read. Wherever you go in the world, people are reading.
Readers have always placed a high value on their books. This is how Petrarch, the 14th century Italian scholar, described them:
I have friends whose society is extremely agreeable to me; they are of all ages, and of every country . . . They open to me . . . the various avenues of all the arts and sciences, and upon their information I may safely rely in all emergencies. In return for all their services, they only ask me to accommodate them with a convenient chamber in some corner of my humble habitation, where they may repose in peace.7
Isaac Barrow, 17th century English mathematician, put it like this:
He that loveth a Book will never want a faithfull friend, a wholesome counsellour, a chearfull companion, an effectual comforter. By study, by reading, by thinking one may innocently divert, and pleasantly entertain himself, as in all weathers, so in all fortunes.8
And Jeremy Collier, an eighteenth-century churchman:
Books are a Guide in Youth, and an Entertainment for Age. They support us under Solitude, and keep us from being a Burthen to our selves. They help us to forget the Crossness of Men and Things; compose our Cares, and our Passions; and lay our Disappointments asleep.9
Reading is not an unnatural or un-human pursuit; it is not, as some assert, an evolved skill. Reading has always been with us – as we can see from the fact that the revelation which God has given us is in writing.
Reading provides information; it satisfies interest and curiosity; it can transport us away from ourselves into another world, either fictional or real. Books have great power – they have changed how people think and altered the course of history:
But what strange art, what magic can dispose
The troubled mind to change its native woes?
Or lead us willing from ourselves, to see
Others more wretched, more undone than we?
This Books can do – nor this alone; they give
New views to life, and teach us how to live;
They soothe the griev’d, the stubborn they chastise,
Fools they admonish, and confirm the wise.
Their aid they yield to all; they never shun
The man of sorrow, nor the wretch undone:
Unlike the hard, the selfish, and the proud,
They fly not sullen from the suppliant crowd;
Nor tell to various people various things,
But shew to subjects, what they shew to kings.10
Consider how privileged we are to have so much written in English!
The English language, when Tyndale began to write, was a poor thing, spoken only by a few in an island off the shelf of Europe, a language unknown in Europe . . . [I]t is hard to think that in 1500 it was as irrelevant to life in Europe as today Scots Gaelic is to the city of London . . . The idea of any great work in English would have seemed incomprehensible.11
Daniell argues that Tyndale’s translation of the Scriptures into English and the resulting dominance of the Bible in English was the ‘switch’ which moved written thought and expression in England from Latin to English. What riches we have as a result!
Reading, then, is universal: ‘Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body’12 – and we all need exercise.
Secondly, the Christian particularly treasures reading.
Christians through the ages have testified to the power of reading in their own lives.
Augustine is a famous example. In his Confessions, he recounts how a child’s voice helped him at a time of great spiritual struggle, to ‘take up and read’ – leading him to Paul’s warning in Romans 13:13-14 to flee from sin and to put on the Lord Jesus.13
Much later, the Anglican clergyman, Thomas Scott, described in his spiritual autobiography, The Force of Truth, the great influence which reading had upon him in the events which led to his conversion.14 Nearer our own day, one of the daughters of Martyn Lloyd-Jones has described the great preacher’s reading, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Man and his Books.15 She says of her father, ‘he read lovingly, regularly and a lot’.16
Reading is not essential to the Christian life – there have always been illiterate Christians – but it is a huge help. And becoming a Christian often feeds the desire to read. One young man who had read hardly anything in his life became a Christian and discovered Reformed theology. He has now read Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Calvin’s Institutes (twice), John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied and sermons of Lloyd-Jones, as well as completing the first year of a New Testament Greek course on his own – all in his spare time, whilst engaged in full-time work. His story is by no means unique.
What should we read?
‘Of the making of many books, there is no end.’17 When it comes to reading, we have to choose. In order to choose well, we need good criteria. I want to suggest some categories of books that we may want to read and then some principles to help us select specific reading.
Four categories of reading
I suggest that our reading should be drawn from four categories of books and that we should, over time, be reading some books from each category. I do not claim that these categories are perfect, or that they are the only kinds of helpful book. But I believe these to be a good place to start.
We should read, firstly, for edification.
The Christian must be constantly feeding his spirit and soul. The essential place to go for this, of course, in absolute first and primary place, is the Bible. That is non-negotiable, for all times and for all people.
But is the Bible sufficient for our edification? In an absolute sense, yes it is. It is the book which alone is ‘breathed out by God’ and profitable ‘that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’.18 But there are also books which help us to understand the teachings of Scripture better. They are also useful, though not in the strictest sense necessary.
So books which inform us about the history, culture and geography relevant to Bible narrative and teaching should be read. Commentaries, of all kinds, shapes and sizes, can also be useful, if they teach us something about the language and meaning of the text we are studying and help us to understand it better.
Beyond that, there are books which enable us to learn from the experience and knowledge of other believers. These also are most helpful to the Christian. Such reading might include:
– sermons and other devotional material: choose the best preachers and writers – Spurgeon, Lloyd Jones, A. W. Tozer.
– theology & doctrine: there are some good, readable books of orthodox, biblical doctrine available, for example John Thornbury, System of Bible Doctrine (EP Books) or Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (IVP).
– biography & history: an excellent way of learning about the Christian faith, through the lives of God’s people and his dealings with his church through the ages.
– ethical & practical: books on the Christian life (marriage, work, illness, death) and on moral and ethical challenges (euthanasia, embryo research, sexual orientation).
As well as edification, Christians should read for education. A great deal of our reading is likely to fall into this category (which of course overlaps to a large extent with the previous category – true edification of the soul is bound to include educating the mind; however, the emphasis here is on feeding the mind, rather than the soul).
We are all interested in different things. I have little interest, I confess, in motor mechanics or in steam trains – books on those subjects would be likely to remain on my shelves unread. Allow your interests, then, to shape your reading – whether it be climate change, jazz, the science of the brain or local history.
Christians sometimes worry that reading books that are not directly related to the Bible or the Christian faith is a waste of time or even perhaps sinful. It is true that in all things we are to be moderate and self-controlled and everything we do is to be subordinated to the great aim of living for Jesus Christ and pleasing him. However, we have a false view of true Christian spirituality if we think that this restricts us from reading books on non-spiritual subjects. We live in the universe which God has created. It should be our delight to find out more about it, according to the interests and inclinations which he has put within each of us.
Thirdly, we should read for our encouragement. Books can remind us why we do the things we do and why we believe the things we do – they motivate us and spur us on to greater things. When we are discouraged, they can pick us up. When we feel deflated or defeated, they can set us on the road again.
Some of the best books in this category are biographies, especially those which tell us of their subjects’ struggles and failures as well as their successes. Books which make their heroes out to be untouched by human infirmity, their lives one continual succession of triumphs and achievements, are best avoided.
Finally, Christians read books for straightforward and simple enjoyment. We all need to rest and relax at some point: the alternative is burn-out and failure. Books can be an excellent way of finding the refreshment – mental and physical – which we regularly need. Find a book – a subject or an author – that you really like and sit back and simply enjoy it. It may be the storyline, the plot, that grips you; or it may be the author’s use of language which attracts you. Whatever it is, read it to enjoy it. Our mental faculties, just like our bodies, need to be relaxed as well as stretched. To have one without the other is to court disaster.
Six principles for deciding what to read
The historian G. M. Trevelyan warned: ‘Education . . .has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.’19 Here are six principles for deciding what to read.
1. Select books which will expand the areas of your knowledge and understanding. Read broadly so as to expand the understanding and keep the mind fresh and resilient. Avoid the temptation only to read books that are of direct and immediate relevance to a particular task. The most useful books in the longer term may be those which feed our background and general knowledge, not necessarily of any direct relevance to current work: ‘the business of books is to make one think’.20
2. Choose books that really interest you: ‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’21 Samuel Johnson may go a little far there, but there is a great deal in what he says. Sometimes there are things we have to read, without much enjoyment; but as far as possible, go for things you love.
3. Go for quality, not quantity. Speed-reading a large number of books on a subject is not usually the best way to become acquainted with it. Heed Richard Baxter: ‘It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good, but the well-reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best.’ Or, more briefly, Sinclair Ferguson: ‘Read the great books!’22
4. Avoid reading only books which you know you will agree with. Favourite theories need to be tested by opposing views and arguments. At the same time, the Christian is well advised generally to avoid books which teach error. The 19th century evangelical Anglican clergyman, Edward Bickersteth, had these wise words to say on this subject:
It is dangerous to try the strength of the constitution by tampering with poison, and it is yet more dangerous to tamper with error which is spiritual poison.23
5. Maintain balance and variety. Avoid reading books on one subject only; equally, avoid reading just one author. It is good to continue to try new authors and new areas of study and interest.
6. Read book reviews. They will keep you informed of books that you might like to read – and will sometimes save you the trouble of reading them at all.
How should we read?
Having chosen your book, how should you read it? Start at the beginning and carry on until you reach the end is the obvious approach. However, different kinds of books need to be read in different ways. As Francis Bacon famously wrote: ‘Some bookes are to bee tasted, others to bee swallowed, and some few to bee chewed and digested.’24 Here are some thoughts:
– Be discerning as you read: only the Bible is infallible. Use your judgment and test all things by Scripture. ‘Reade not to Contradict and Confute; Nor to Beleeve and Take for granted; Nor to Finde Talke and Discourse; But to weigh and Consider.’25
– Be disciplined in your reading: make plans to read – provide for it in your schedule, daily if you can. Be persuaded that reading is important – if you leave it just to odd moments, you are unlikely to do very much.
– Reading is your servant, not your master: there is no law that requires you to finish a book that you begin! Indeed, unless the book is on a set reading list, you are under no obligation to read any particular book at all (except, of course, the Bible). Avoid reading a book because everyone else has, or because it is supposed to be the book to read.
– There is no law against cherry-picking – it is fine just to read the parts of a book which interest you, or to start at the end and read backwards, or just to read the index and the footnotes if you wish. Read a book in whatever is going to be the most useful, interesting and enjoyable way for you. ‘The art of reading is to skip judiciously.’26
– Read most books with questions in your mind, which you hope the book will help you to answer. This gives focus and interest to your reading.
Think as you read. Except where reading for specific information, the aim of reading is more to form and stimulate your own thinking than to remember everything you read. ‘Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.’27
– Many find it helpful to keep a record or diary of their reading. Make brief notes of essential things – of important facts, but especially of the main line of the author’s argument and his or her principal reasons for holding that view.
– Read prayerfully.
Keep reading, all kinds of books.
Buy books, borrow books, use the libraries.28
Above all, read the best book – the Bible.
- 2 Timothy 4:13.
- The letter was written in Latin. This translation is from D. Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (Yale University, 1994), p. 379.
- George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple (1652).
- That devised by Robert Murray M’Cheyne is probably the best known, which, over the course of one year, takes the reader through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice. It is available on the internet and also from a variety of publishers (including Banner of Truth).
- Among those which could be recommended are Geoff Thomas’s booklet, Reading the Bible (Banner of Truth) and his book, The Sure Word of God (Bryntirion).
- These lines are generally attributed to the Scottish author and literary editor, John Wilson (1785-1854), though John Lubbock in his book The Pleasures of Life (1887) says they are from an ‘Old English Song’.
- Quoted in Lubbock, The Pleasures of Life, ch. 3, ‘A Song of Books’. Lubbock has plenty of other quotes and interesting comments on the subject of books in that volume.
- Isaac Barrow, Of Industry, in Five Discourse (London, 1693), pp. 172-73.
- Jeremy Collier, ‘Of the Entertainment of Books’, in Miscellanies upon Moral Subjects. The Second Part (1695), pp. 93-94.
- George Crabbe, The Library. A Poem (1781), p. 5.
- The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (Yale, 2003), p. 248.
- Richard Steele, The Tatler, no. 147.
- Augustine, Confessions, bk. VIII, ch. 12.
- Thomas Scott, The Force of Truth: An Authentic Narrative (1779; repr. Banner of Truth, 1984).
- By Elizabeth Catherwood; published by the Evangelical Library, 1982.
- p. 16.
- Ecclesiastes 12:12.
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
- G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942), ch. 18.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, quoted in Elizabeth Catherwood, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Man and his Books, p. 21.
- Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s Life, vol. i, p. 428, 14 July 1763.
- Sinclair Ferguson, Read Any Good Books? (Banner of Truth, 1992), p. 8.
- The Christian Student, (2nd edn., 1830), p. 160.
- Francis Bacon, ‘Of Studies’, in Essayes. Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed. (London, 1597).
- Bacon, ‘Of Studies’, in The Essayes or Counsels, Civil and Morall, of Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount of St. Albans. Newly Written. (London, 1625), p. 293. This work first appeared in 1597 and was reprinted many times in the 17th century. In the earlier editions, the quotation above appeared in a shorter form: ‘Reade not to contradict, nor to believe, but to waigh [sic] and consider.’ The 1625 edition is the first one in which the longer, better-known version is found.
- Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Intellectual Life (1873), pt. iv, letter iv.
- Arthur Helps, Friends in Council (1847-49), bk. ii, ch. 1.
- Try the newly-located Evangelical Library!
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