We were talking about reading in general in my last article, and I was suggesting that reading ought to be a lot wider than just religious material. I want to expand on that a bit.
It is my judgment that it is profitable for a Christian to read widely in the field of secular literature. I refer particularly to novels and other fictional material. There is a whole field of such literature that anyone who claims to be educated ought to have read; especially teachers and ministers.
This reading ought to include material from earliest history, but especially from the times since the Protestant Reformation. There is excellent literature from almost all Western countries in Europe and some fine literature in America.
Some of the best literature has come from England, but good reading also has come from Russia, France, and other European nations. It has all been translated into English. I can give some good reasons why reading good literature is important.
Number 1 is that, if you want to know the history of a given country at a given time, you have to read the fictional literature of that period. This literature tells more about the culture, the peculiarities, the thinking of the people, the attitude of the citizens towards others, their government, their work etc. than any history book will ever tell you. You cannot understand 19th century England without reading Charles Dickens. Nor can one understand fully the French Revolution without at least reading, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Second, is the fact that a well-rounded education includes a knowledge of these countries because from it you learn their strengths and weaknesses, their relation to the church, their place and importance in God’s providential work in all history. How, for example, is it possible to understand modern France without understanding what France did to itself when it persecuted the Huguenots and drove them from their country and homeland? And how can one understand the history of the countries in Southeast Asia (Siam, Burma, Indo-China, Malaysia, Singapore etc.) and their place in history without reading Rudyard Kipling’s stories or reading and pondering his great poem, “The Recessional”?
Third, some people of God are given the ability to write. This writing is for the purpose of the truth, the advancement of the Gospel, and the calling to be a witness in a wicked world. One learns how to use language effectively when one is widely read. To this day, if I sense my writing is getting stale, I pick up a book like C. S. Lewis’ allegory, “The Great Divorce” and read in it for an hour or so. He was a master at clear, simple, effective English. An hour with him is worth ten hours in a course on C. S. Lewis taught by a professor in some prestigious university.
I had a professor in college who taught a course in Shakespeare’s plays. He was a dreamy sort of man of whom you would have thought was almost completely out of touch with the world around him. But he could read “Macbeth” in such a way that one was completely caught up in Shakespeare’s genius for the English language. And as a bonus, he taught us that “Macbeth” had profound religious significance, for it taught (to quote this professor of 65 years ago), “the inevitable moral deterioration of the willfully sinning soul.”
Books that are well-written, as, for example, Winston Churchill’s “History of the English speaking People” will help any aspiring writer. There is something about good writing that captivates a person. A well-crafted phrase, a perfect use of a different word, a spare, unadorned sentence – all these are like a delicious taste in one’s mouth. One likes to read it over and over, not for its meaning, but for its sheer beauty, roll it around in one’s tongue, say it aloud and taste its flavour before moving on.
I recall taking with me Churchill’s four- volume work to Australia when my wife and I went there on a speaking and preaching tour. I read the last pages of the last volume in O’Hare Field Airport in Chicago, while waiting for a plane to Grand Rapids at 6:00 in the morning. I almost shed a tear that I had come to the end of the set.
Reading good writing gives birth to good writing. Not everyone can and should write, but everyone who is amazed at God’s great gift of language can and should enjoy speech and writing that comes close to being beautiful.
Responsibility in Reading
I would be remiss in my writing if I did not remind you that when one picks up a book to read, he assumes an important responsibility before God. The responsibility is no greater, I suppose, than when one switches channels on a TV remote, or when one boots one’s computer. But it is a more subtle danger and, in a way, more alluring. It is the danger of forgetting our calling to read with discernment.
By reading with discernment, I refer to our calling before God to evaluate everything we read in the light of the Word of God. I recall that when I first read Dostoevsky’s great novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, I was enthralled with the story. It was a book in which a man had been unjustly treated by his companions, had been imprisoned for a crime that he never committed, but had escaped and had found a great treasure, the existence of which had been told him by a dying prisoner. The rest of the book is devoted to how the Count spent all his life and his great riches getting revenge on those who had treated him unjustly.
I was captivated by the book and in my own mind cheered the Count on in his revenge-seeking. Later, when my children became teenagers and read the same book, I decided to read it once again. I was appalled at how terrible a life it must have been for a man to spend years and years and oceans of money for no other reason than to gain revenge. The text kept running through my mind, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay.” There was one brief sentence near the end of the book in which the Count wonders aloud whether it was worth it all.
I had no regrets about reading the book, but I wished that I had read with more discernment when I was young. In my mind I had cheered on a man that had violated an important principle of Christian conduct. I felt like one who had cheered on a man who had visited a house of prostitution.
Yet I did learn what a sin can do to a man’s life when he actively seeks out a sin and gives himself over to it.
I remember another instance that will illustrate the point. There is a book that was written just prior to the Civil War by Harriet Beecher Stowe called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was such a powerful book that when President Abraham Lincoln met her, he was supposed to have said, “Ah, here is the lady that started the war.”
The book tells of a slave girl who with her baby escaped a cruel slave master and fled, pursued by her master, other slave owners and vicious tracking dogs. It was a book that pulled at the heartstrings and many who read it cried openly. It did tell a sad story and it did show the cruelty and evil of slavery, but if its impact was only emotional, one had not read the book with discernment. If it did nothing else, it should have brought us face-to-face with the question of whether it was morally right to flee a master when Scripture tells us we must submit to our masters, even to the cruel and evil ones.
It is not wrong to “get into” a book so that one senses something of the emotion displayed, but a Christian is called to do all things to the glory of God. That means that he does all things aware of what he is doing and what he must do to serve God in his activities. This rule also covers the reading of books.
And so I come to the end of what the Bible says about reading. I hope God will use these articles to increase your enjoyment of reading and to encourage you to read, read, read, read…
Written by: Prof. Herman Hanko | Issue 9