Monday, February 9, 2015

Are You Afraid to Read?

That reading is in decline is indisputable. Despite the popularity of audio books, e-readers, and the superabundance of published printed books continuing to stream our way, the real reading of books is not considered a necessity, let alone pleasure or privilege, for most people.

If you are reading this, you are probably not one of the "most people," or, possibly, are determining to reform. The reasons people don't read are various, and I have elaborated on many of the popular ones before. Some fear reading because it requires time and attention they don't believe they have. Some fear it because it is difficult and possibly unrewarding. Another reason for avoiding reading, however, is the danger it represents in and of itself, for reading is a dangerous activity.

These "fearful" readers, I believe, are hesitant to read because they fear their own inability to choose "good" books. In the presence of thousands of books, the selection process overwhelms them. We need to be careful not to scoff at such timidity. Books are powerful. The ideas and thoughts they contain can be life changing. Some fearful people have no desire for their lives to be altered or challenged in any way, while others are afraid they are not equipped to judge books adequately, to know when dangerous, or even evil ideas could harmfully penetrate their minds and detrimentally influence them. The very notion of such a possibility is enough to scare them off. They know they need discernment, but are afraid they do not have it.

One of the solutions to this problem is a bit ironic: to know what to read or not to read, you have to read. The only way your judgment improves, is by reading a lot of books by widely diverse authors of many different genres. Reading is like anything else you become comfortable doing - cooking, or driving - skill builds confidence.

Discernment is an acquired skill. Discerning what is good, true, and beautiful increases with time and experience. When you read some excellent books, you relax with them. They become like friends you have come to know well and want to spend more time with. 

I suggest, if you are hesitant to know where to begin, that you take advantage of those who have read and found it rewarding. Read the books they have read, talk about, and recommend. Ask friends who read good books for suggestions, or check out any of the "great books" lists available online or at your local library. Those classics are a perfect place to begin because they are "classics" for a reason; they have lasted because they continue to be enjoyed, continue to reveal truth and beauty. Avoid books written within the last 20 years if you are an inexperienced reader, as those have not endured the test of time.

My strongest encouragement to you, if you are a Christian, is that you remember that, as a Christian, you have the mind of Christ and the Holy Spirit is given for the very purpose of guiding you in wisdom and discernment. His ministry is "to lead you into all truth" and, as all truth is from God, even pagans can't help revealing it though ignorant of its source. We can thus be confident in new reading adventures.

A small and helpful little book that has been written recently might also be of service, as you begin to explore the wide and deep world of literature. Lit by Tony Reinke is a simple mentor. Here's a sample of some of the counsel he offers:
"Faith in Jesus brings with it a critically important benefit for the Christian reader - discernment. Discernment is the ability to do three things: the ability to "test everything," to "hold fast what is
good," and to "abstain from every form of evil." 1 Thess. 5:21-22. It is the skill of comparing what we hear or read with God's word to determine its authenticity according to God's revealed truth. Discernment is critical for evaluating everything said INSIDE a church building, and it is equally critical for evaluating life experienced OUTSIDE the church context. We need discernment to hear sermons, to watch movies, and to read books. Discernment protects the church, a and discernment protects our hearts...We can test every book that we read - to treasure what is true, good and pure in God's eyes, and to reject what is evil (Rom. 12:2)"
Or, if you trust a saint of 500 years ago, here's John Calvin on the subject:
" reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book second, chapter 2, 15.)
One thing is sure. If you continue to avoid books out of some fear of knowing what to read, you are missing one of the most powerful tools for having discernment for living your life at all. Discovering how others think and have navigated the treacherous and delightful paths of life can give sharp insight, provide perspective on your own life, deepen understanding and increase your wisdom for living. Just as a child who will not stick a toe into the water will never learn to swim, so not cracking open a book cover may hinder your living your life to the full.
"Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess." (from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler)
Reading itself brings discernment. The only thing to fear is the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom and discernment. Books written by the creative minds of skilled authors are one of His great gifts to us for intellectual nourishment, aesthetic enrichment, and for opening our eyes to see the great Creator and our place in His story.

For the joy of reading,