On Reading Broadly
This is the second part of a series on the importance for Christians to think historically and read broadly. You can catch Dan’s daily historical podcast, the Christian History Almanac, wherever you download your podcasts.
The Inherent Problem With This Kind of Article
There are no shortage of articles online giving you tips for living your best, or at least better, life now. I recognize this kind of apology makes for a peculiar beginning to an article. But ask yourself if you fit into either of the following categories:
You clicked on this because you feel guilty about not reading enough, and hope that a “Christian” approach to reading more might help you.
You clicked on this because you are a voracious reader and you hope this will bolster what you already think.
Thus, an article telling you to read will likely crush the spirit of the first group and make the second group insufferable. And so threading the needle of encouragement based on the gospel and arguing for the urgency to do something can be tricky. I think you should read, and I think as people of the Book, we have a special calling to be readers. At the same time, no amount of reading will make you one smidgen more acceptable to God.
Furthermore, extolling the practice of reading broadly isn’t necessarily a Christian virtue. And even still, articles telling you how “X” is the life hack you need to power up to the next levels seem to have an element of little “L” law and a scolding tone to them.
Articles that suggest you read more, work out more, eat healthily, etc. aren’t trying to crush your spirit, but if you approach them as the gospel, with the hope that they will lead you to acceptance and worthiness, they can crush you the same as the laws thundered from Sinai.
But this doesn’t make all attempts to better your life useless. We might be going two steps forward and then run backward half a mile. No one is taking your spiritual temperature and deciding whether or not your adherence to any principles make you more worthy of the kingdom. Be of good cheer; the gospel even forgives the sins of those presumptuous and precocious enough to think that an article of “tips” can make them holy.
Slow Down Online, Read Broadly Offline
Outside observers must think that the Christian making their case for theological or political points over social media is one of the primary responsibilities of the faithful. Leave aside the fact that arguments online seem to rarely change anyone’s mind, and ask yourself why you need to show the world (or the other person) where they are wrong. Are you trying to correct a brother or sister, or are you grandstanding and virtue signaling your own theological righteousness?
Here’s my answer to those who find themselves increasingly on social media making “arguments”: shut off the computer and read a book. You have free time, it seems, and an interest in certain topics, so let me suggest a few reasons to read broadly and outside your comfort zone.
Reading a book allows you to pick the subject. Reading a book allows you to get mad, work through new ideas, and even change your mind without the embarrassing online footprint of “comments” and “statuses” that could alienate others while you’re still on your way to figuring something out.
No one has to know what you’re reading. Books give you a level of anonymity that, in this age of insta-opinions, you can enjoy without unnecessary hassle from your curious co-denizen at the coffee shop.
You can pause, reread, make notes, or close the book whenever you want. And, you don’t need to have a “take” on everything. Let ideas sit and percolate without having to decide what your own position on the issue is.
Reading helps us to focus and be quiet. Reading builds our vocabulary and helps keep the brain active and less likely to degenerate in various ways. The science seems conclusive: reading is better for you.
In his famous commencement address “This is Water,” the late David Foster Wallace begins his plea for the life of the mind with this important reminder about our impulses to turn everything back in on ourselves:
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real. (David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”)
Luther wrote that we are all curved in on ourselves. Wallace states this in plain language with modern examples. Luther’s answer is the ultimate for hope in life and death: get outside of yourself by running to the Cross. Wallace suggests that we battle the inward obsession by thinking of others, which is precisely what Luther wrote we should busy ourselves with after we’ve run to the Cross.
And thus, we do well to get outside of ourselves in every way we can: to the Cross and to the lives of others.
Reading broadly gives you access to the emotional and mental lives of a cast of characters, both fiction and historical. We can’t all afford to travel the world, but the more we read from outside our own context, the bigger we see the world. We might better understand the urban plight of the less fortunate, the deep struggle some find with their sexuality, or how complicated life in a community of sinners can be. In short: we become empathetic.
Being People of the Book: What We Mean By Sola Scriptura, and What We Don’t
While the modern world is, unsurprisingly, more literate than any time in the past, we find curious pockets of highly literate civilizations throughout history. The one thing these groups have in common is a holy text that claims to be revelatory. Being literate wasn’t necessary to follow such texts, but it didn’t hurt. The power of the individual to read the revealed word of a God outside of space and time, and then interpret the world accordingly is a revolutionary thing. Whether exiled Jews with their Torah, Reformation Christians, or Colonial American Puritans, we find high literacy rates among these people and others who see their text as being no earthly word, but direct from the heavens.
As a Christian in the Reformation tradition, I have taken solace in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Traditions, culturally conditioned rituals, and the decrees of the highest kings and popes in the land don’t mean a thing if they don’t jibe with Scripture. However, be careful that this doesn’t lead you back in the direction of willful ignorance. Sola Scriptura means that the only rule of faith and life is the Bible. And the Reformers believed, “the Scripture’s teaching of God reconciling the world to himself by way of His Son” is the principle by which we will decide if a teaching is in line with the teachings of Scripture. Theologians sometimes call these things the formal and material principles. The “material” principle can be thought of as “what material makes up that from which they teach?” For the Reformation traditions, the material principle is Scripture alone. This means that the Bible alone, apart from tradition, the church, or any private revelation, is our only standard. The “formal” principle is the teaching that makes up the core of your beliefs. The reformation used the shorthand of “justification by faith alone, through grace alone, on account of Christ alone” as the “formal” principle taught by the Scriptures. Any teaching that assaults this is likely to fall apart.
By Sola Scriptura, we don’t mean “the Bible only,” as if we don’t need any other texts. Commentaries, confessions, and works of theology can be really helpful. Textbooks, almanacs, and diaries can open up parts of the life of the mind and the natural world in a way wholly consistent with our belief in a good, created order. Novels with only the basest of villains or heroes pure as the driven snow might not be realistic in our world, but they show us a dynamic range of possibilities. I may not know anyone of a certain race, or outlook, or with customs very different from mine, but I might get to know some representative models through literature.
Ultimately, the world is for enjoying, and reading a book can be like savoring a fine glass of wine as opposed to engaging in online arguments: the equivalent of trying to drink from a firehose. And while the encouragement of habits, whether it is to read or empathize or to use your brain, is not to crush you. But it might: when you can’t seem to get through as many words-a-day as you’d like, or when some words start to sting, become unintelligible, or disconcerting, remember that prologue to John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:1-4).