The Intersection of Reading and Spirituality

Here’s a confession—I buy a lot more books than I read. Don’t tell on me, OK? It’ll be our secret. But I had to teach myself to do this. My family of origin didn’t have much money, and so each book had to count. Even if it wasn’t that good, you were to read it through if money had been paid (less so for a borrowed book). The first time I read the first two or three chapters of a book and stopped—confident the beginning was so bad the rest couldn't get better—I had more than one sleepless night before I could talk myself into trashing it. As I tried to sleep, behind my closed eyelids was my shocked mom (long-deceased in reality, but indignantly alive in my dreams) demanding I explain why I was heading for the trash with a minimally-read book in my hand. Fortunately, I was pretty clear on the waking/sleeping thing. I managed to survive this mini-crisis without too much discomfort.

I have grown accustomed to tossing books that don’t measure up. Even a well done book was not enough for me if it wasn’t somehow helpful. I was always asking “What is this book for in my life?" For a long time, the answer was some version of “Because I can talk to others about it and look smart.” Or “Because it will help me know more in my job, or with my financial growth, or broaden my understanding of the world or how people think.”

Then I became a true follower of Jesus (I admit to a few false starts, but that’s another story…). Now, I HAD to know more. Sermons were good, but not enough. They only made me more curious. I had read the Bible to become a believer, and now I needed to read it to know what it was that I had become.

And then I read books that explained and clarified the Bible, and then I read history books about the times of the Bible. And on and on I went, eventually spilling out into more recent Church history, biographies of Christians like Augustine, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and then into areas such as the science/religion debate, novels that tried to discern the depths of human distress and yearning for redemption and purpose, and finally, yes, I even strayed into philosophy, and endless debates about “the meaning of life”. I just couldn’t stop myself. I wound up in the area of psychology, and the struggles of people as we live. Before I knew it, people were saying things like: “You certainly are a reader, what are you reading now?” I would look over my shoulder to see who they were talking to.

I just cannot conceive of myself as a “reader”. But I am “a very curious Christian”. Therefore I read. The writer of Proverbs urges me strongly to “…know wisdom and instruction…” (1:1-7), and to “…incline (my) heart to understanding…” (2:2). I am clear that I need to be not just “a” reader, but a disciplined reader to follow that exhortation.

Because I read a lot and in a lot of different categories, I get tagged as one of those people who loves to read and somehow reads easily. I am not, and I don’t. I do have a certain, limited-agenda love of reading, but it’s toward a goal. What I love is not the issue. Who I love is: Jesus. Reading is a joy when it leads me back to him, or to how I can live and clarify the Gospel more effectively for him. But that’s very much not the same in my mind as “loving to read”. And when a book isn’t leading me there…well…see paragraph one above.
The Spiritual Goal of Reading 
Steve Jobs said of the invention of the Kindle by Amazon, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” He may be right. The truth is, I care very little whether people read or not, at least in a general sense. Our culture has put large stock in education as a way to be "saved." If only we could get everyone educated, we would end poverty, violence, enthusiastic interest in professional wrestling and all the other ills that plague us. It feels like a kind of Western Culture version of nirvana where all is well and at peace if we could just figure out this “education” thing and get everyone on board. And reading is a significant part of that.

I hope that, as serious Christ-followers, we see through that façade. It’s not that education isn’t important–in fact it was Christians who invented universities for learning to happen. But education (which has to be defined to make sense) is a part of the path to the answer, not the answer itself. I think the case could be made that, as a people of a specific culture, we actually read a lot—at work, online, when trying to assemble our new entertainment center, when trying to fill out our tax forms. Maybe we even read for entertainment once in a while. But we probably don’t “READ-read” much anymore as a people, because reading has been supplanted by digital input. News, news analysis, entertainment, history, learning, and more—all of these that used to come by book now come by other, more convenient means. So in that sense, Mr. Jobs was probably on to something. Christians have access to some of the same digital and visual sources for ways to grow in their faith. I love using a set of videos (accompanied by a well-organized workbook) produced by Dr. Tim Keller on what it looks like to be a mature believer living in the City. It’s shot with Dr. Keller speaking about faith-life, with skyscraper views of the City in the background. It’s well done and powerful. We have taught it as an Equipping Class several times, and haven’t retired it yet. Ancient books by Christian authors are available as audiobooks. No need to read, just listen to Jonathan Edwards as you drive, or soak in a hot bath (I can never do that. I fall asleep and drown.)

But I submit to you that there is something curious and unique about reading. We readily slide into a secular view of life that I am here—and here alone—in myself. I interact with others, but when they are gone, I am me, and somehow IN me—and in me alone. But, for the Christian, that understanding is incomplete. It is true that we are each here—somehow separate inside our bodies—even as married people, and as families. There is a separateness that ultimately shows itself. I have stood beside people near death who have begged me to somehow accompany them over that threshold. It cannot be done. They (we) must die our own singular death. Reflection on this brings me back to my sense of my own aloneness (Others, by the way, have had a different experience, turning from me to someone else who seems to welcome them, and died without even so much as a goodbye to those seemingly left behind…leaving me, at least, with feelings I have no words to describe to you. But that’s for another blog.).

Reading as a Christ-follower, with words from a book, seen, translated from an image of letters in your brain and given meaning, and then pouring into your aloneness, seem to find their way to the spot where God shows himself within me. The impact of the words change. They even seem to change on the page as I see them. God seems to have had a handle on bolding long before printers and writing programs came up with it. I can show you my books where I have underlined what God has bolded for me. Some books are practically underlined all the way through.

I don’t read for the love of reading. I read for the love of my Savior. I look very forward to spending eternity with him. As a dear friend said some years ago as she was near death, “I don’t mind the prospect of physical death—in fact I look forward to what (and Who) is beyond it. It’s the process of it I’m not looking forward to"—a very insightful distinction. In the meantime, God seems to use reading, and the quiet and aloneness that create its richest environment, as a particularly nourishing time for reflection, depth of insight, application to situations in my life and the lives of my family of faith, prayer and preparation for the life yet to come, and all those other descriptions of change in us we categorize under the phrase “spiritual maturation.”

So, yes, I am a “book-lover”, but only in a very narrow definition of that term. I discipline my time, my energy, my resources, my attention to make room. It may not always be as much as I might want, but always with an eye toward growing it like a fruit tree that gradually supplants the weeds in my mental back yard.