So Many Books...So Little Time

Anne MacDonald

How many of you," I asked the ladies in my workshop at a presbytery women's retreat, "believe that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice; that is, if we want to know the truth about what to believe or how to live, we look to the Scripture?"

Every hand went up.

"Good. Now, with that belief, how would you decide whether or not to read the next Stephen King novel?"

There was a pause. Some of the ladies looked at the outline they had received, entitled "So Many Books...So Little Time...So What Do We Read?" Section 3, at which we had arrived, was entitled "Scriptural Basis."

At this point, we divided into small groups; each group had a sheet with several scriptural references. The directions read: "Considering all of these passages, what biblical principle can you find to give guidance to your decision of what to read? What additional implications might there be (in these passages) for your reading?" What follows is a summary of our reading and discussion.

The first group started with Haggai 1:5. Just as Haggai reminded the people that God had told them, "Give careful thought to your ways," so we must give careful thought to our reading. Romans 12:2 and Ephesians 4:22-24 emphasize the importance of our minds in the process of our sanctification. Second Corinthians 10:5 declares that we "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." In doing so, we also "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God." As one woman said, "We must never lose sight of the knowledge of God."

First Corinthians 9:25-26 uses the image of an athlete and contrasts the temporary crown he receives with the eternal reward for the Christian. However, both the athlete and the Christian are in strict training, which means that there is purpose behind their activities. Thus, there should be purpose in our reading; we do not thoughtlessly grab just any book that's been published.

Finally, 1 Corinthians 10:31—"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God"-is certainly familiar to all of us. But have we considered how our selection of reading material does-or does not-bring glory to our God? Careful consideration and a sense of purpose in the choice of the books we read may be at least the start of our attempt to glorify the Lord in this area of our lives.

The second group of ladies considered Ecclesiastes 3:1, Psalm 90:12, and Ephesians 5:15-16. All three passages focus on time. With "so little" time available, we must use it wisely. One way is to avoid "junk" reading. Instead, we ought to look for books that provide insight and knowledge, sharpen our thinking skills, and develop qualities such as compassion. For example, fiction that shows us people in difficult situations, such as refugees, can increase not only our knowledge, but also our concern. And as we read books with quality themes and profitable messages, we need not expect dullness; good books are also enjoyable books.

This last point ties in with the third group of Scripture passages, which happens to be the longest. Exodus 35:30-35 shows us that the artists who worked on the tabernacle had received their skill and ability from God. Similarly, skillful writers have been gifted by God. However, not all of them desire to glorify him, and not all of them are profitable for us to read. In Romans 16:19, Paul desires God's people to be "wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil." Such good and evil is also seen in Luke 6:45 as "the overflow" of the heart. Philippians 1:9-10 and 4:8 encourage discernment in the Christian's thinking because, as Isaiah 5:20 states, there will be "woe to those who call evil good and good evil," a reversal often seen in twentieth-century fiction! Therefore, we must use discernment and consider both content and style as we choose good books to read. At the same time, we must remember, as James 1:17 indicates, that every good gift is from our heavenly Father. Books written by non-Christians may contain truth and help us to glorify him.

The fourth set of passages included only a few verses, but they were very challenging ones. In 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, Paul declares that although "everything is permissible," not everything is beneficial or constructive, and he "will not be mastered by anything." Galatians 5:1, 13 sets forth the freedom to which we have been called; it is true freedom in Christ, but must not be interpreted as license "to indulge the sinful nature." Ephesians 4:14-15 speaks of the goal of this freedom: to grow up into true maturity in Christ.

Relating these passages to our reading, we see the principle of Christian liberty. Between the Bible, on the one hand, which we must read, and pornography, on the other, which we must not read, we have freedom to select many different books, but this freedom must be exercised in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and to others. As Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton note in Read for Your Life, "If we are free to read, then we must show a willingness to think, to evaluate, to examine." The books we select to read must not be masters of us; rather, they are means to help us glorify our God, as previously noted. In practice, this means that not all of us will read the same books. Our interests and our tastes and even our reading abilities differ, yet within these differences, we must remember the goal of our liberty.

The final group of passages focused on understanding and maturity. Colossians 2:8 warns us, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." In order to heed this warning, we must know Christ, and we must also be aware of deceptive human ideas. First Corinthians 14:20 commands us to "stop thinking like children" and "in your thinking be adults." Colossians 4:12 holds out the goal of standing "firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured," while Hebrews 5:14 reminds us that "solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil."

In contrast, Romans 14:14, 22-23 discusses the person who has doubts about certain actions and is convinced of the uncleanness of such activity. Relating these verses to our selection of reading material, we might say that one person, mature in his understanding, could read a novel by a non-Christian writer and discern both the truth and the error in it. Another person, less mature, might not only lack the understanding necessary for such appreciation, but could be harmed in his spiritual life by such reading. Certainly, the one who can read must not look down on the one who cannot, and the one who cannot must not judge the one who reads.

Earlier in the workshop, we had considered the reasons why we read (with a particular focus on fiction). Reading exercises our imagination as we enter the world of the story. The reading of well-written books provides pleasure and beauty in our lives. And reading helps us grow in understanding, both of our own lives and those of others, and in compassion for others, especially those who do not know Christ.

Along with these reasons for reading fiction, we now had several principles from Scripture to consider: There must be purpose in our reading, ultimately to give glory to God. We must be good stewards of the time God has given us. We must use discernment and select good books, not poor ones, to read. We have freedom in such selection, but must also consider our level of understanding and maturity.

So, what do we read? And what about the latest Stephen King novel? Within the past year, the editorial board of the Modern Library, a division of Random House, compiled a list of what they considered to be the one hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century. This list immediately gave rise to other lists, to much discussion and debate, and, predictably, to complaints of "why wasn't this author or that title included?" Some of the complaints related to race or gender, while some simply reflected personal tastes and favorite books. Such lists are fun, I think, and can even be helpful, especially when compiled by someone with a biblical world-and-life view, in suggesting possible titles to consider for your own list.

But that's the point (and was one of the main points of my workshop)! You have to devise your list because you have the scriptural principles and the reasons for reading to balance when making your decision. And the decision of what to read is an individual one. For example, a mother of young children, with responsibilities of home and family, will have a different amount of time from a retired person. A high school student will have a level of maturity that is different from that of his teachers. The teacher of history will have one purpose in his selections, and the teacher of English will have another.

All of us, however, should be reading, for books and the ability to read them are gifts from our heavenly Father. In looking for titles, I have found the various book reviews in World magazine helpful. Other useful guides include Terry Glaspey's Great Books of the Christian Tradition and James W. Sire's How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind.

One place I do not recommend looking is the best-seller lists, which include, of course, what is popular at the moment, whether or not such books are worth reading. Occasionally I try one, but I am almost always disappointed. When I read, I want the book to be a rock tossed in the pool of my mind, causing ripples in ever-widening circles. Too much of what is currently published is only a pebble that plops to the bottom.

A "ripple-inducing" book, which enables me to recall characters and scenes and to ponder meanings, is probably one that I can reread with delight. Such reading can help our sanctification, and the sharing of what we have read can strengthen our fellowship with other Christians. As Susan Gallagher says, in Literature through the Eyes of Faith, "God has given us a world full of possibilities. We can glorify him through many different kinds of reading. Within our personal reading, we should strive for variety and deliberately place ourselves in new reading experiences. Each person has different tastes and different talents. The Christian community as a whole, however, should try to have members reading and evaluating many kinds of literature."

Therefore, even though there are "so many books" and "so little time," we need to exercise our Christian responsibility to think, to select, and to read on!

Mrs. MacDonald is a member of Second Parish OPC in Portland, Maine. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2000.