Feb 10, 2012

Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books

5 Min Read

I ended by liking Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. I came to the conclusion, well before the final chapters, that this book has something helpful in it for all kinds of people. But I must admit that I was baffled by the opening pages. The first six paragraphs of the introduction describe non-readers and give a variety of reasons why "you" (the reader of Lit!) don't like to read, concluding with the statement: "Whatever. We all have our own reasons for why we don't read." Why would a book about reading be addressed to non-readers? I wondered. Why would non-readers even be reading this introduction? My confusion only deepened when I read the opening sentence of the very next paragraph: "Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books is for any Christian who wants to read books, and read them well." Weren't we just talking to people who don't want to read books? I'm still confused by those opening paragraphs. Fortunately for me, I blew all that off and kept reading.

As a teacher of Bible, history, and literature, I want people to read! I've often said that God could have chosen to communicate in some other way, but he chose to communicate through a book. For that reason, reading is not an option. Tony Reinke made this point with great emphasis when he described God giving Moses the tablets of stone containing the ten commandments "written with the finger of God."

To this day, [writes Reinke] those words can be found in any major bookstore. Many thousands of books would later be devoted to talking about God—proving God, doubting God, explaining God. But these stone tablets held God's words. The day God ran his fingertip over the stone tablets was the day that he forever shaped the world of book publishing.

The first six chapters of Lit! comprise "Part 1: A Theology of Books and Reading." This section is full of reasons for all kinds of reading—Scripture, Christian and non-Christian works, both fiction and non-fiction. While most Christians won't argue with the value of reading the Bible, other books, especially those written by non-Christians, are a much harder sell. Students in my literature class turn in essays—coached by their Christian parents, I believe—on why reading certain classical authors is a waste of time, especially if their writing is on the "dark" side. I don't believe non-readers will choose to read this section of Reinke's material; however, I think parents, teachers, mentors, and pastors can find in it a warehouse of material that will help them convince their children, students, disciples and congregations why they should read other books as well as the Bible, and how to go about it in a way that strengthens them spiritually and makes them more useful in reaching out to a needy world.

In these chapters, Reinke provides seven worldview questions and a cluster of "touchstone propositions" by which to evaluate the worldview of any piece of literature. He gives us seven benefits of reading non-Christian literature. (As one example, "darker" fiction exposes the human heart. Sure, every Christian knows the human heart is sinful and needy. But when we read a well-crafted story or play, we see through the eyes of the non-Christian writer the despair of life lived daily without Christ. Such a story can awaken in us a horror at sin and a compassion for the lost that the bare statement "The human heart is sinful" cannot.) Part 1 also calls us to cultivate our imaginations, of great use in understanding God's promises of future reality. "Revelation," writes Reinke (and he means the book of that title in the Bible), "invites us to see ultimate reality through our imaginations, in breathtaking, earth-scorching, mind-stretching, sin-defeating, dragon-slaying, Christ-centered, God-glorifying images that change the way we think, act, and speak."

Part 2 delivers loads of what it promises: "Some Practical Advice on Book Reading." I had two personal favorite chapters in this section. The first was "Literature Is Life" on the benefits of reading fiction. Good fiction writes about common human experience, Reinke reminds us. We participate more fully in humanity when we read of circumstances that are different from our own, and how other people react to them. We become better able to sympathize with and reach out to people who don't move in our everyday circles. Well-written fiction provides us with beauty, beauty which we are right to enjoy since it is God who has created it and who has made us able to enjoy it as he enjoys it. Especially helpful were Reinke's points on the necessity of realism in fiction. Quoting Christian novelist Larry Wolwode, Reinke writes, "If sin isn't mentioned or depicted, there's no need for redemption."

My other favorite chapter in Part 2, "Driven to Distraction," describes the threat of the internet for readers. Quoting from several sources, Reinke describes the kind of habits our minds develop through frequent use of the internet. As we skim the constant streams of informational tidbits flashing by us on our screens, we train ourselves to think in short bursts. Since only a click away are dictionary definitions or the opinions of our friends, we don't take the time to think about a question that comes up; we simply click to see what someone else might think about it. Too much internet, too little book time retrains our minds—maybe even rewires them—in such a way that they become incapable of long periods of sustained concentration.

Seven other highly practical chapters round out this second part of Lit! Reinke gives pointers on: choosing what to read out of the millions of books that exist; finding time to read; reading with deliberate goals in mind; marking books in a way that helps the reader absorb their content; raising children to be readers (if you're a parent) and "raising" Christian non-reading adults to be readers (if you're a pastor or a discipler). He discusses how reading can help build the Christian community, and he gives the five marks of a healthy book reader. Part 2 has something of great usefulness for almost anyone!

An added bonus of Lit! is the list the reader can make from it of additional books and authors—on a number of subjects—to learn from later. Both in the text itself and in added footnotes, Lit! quotes from a host of helpful sources. Wherever you are on the spectrum of reading ability, wherever you are on the spectrum of reading interest, you can find something (and probably more than one something) to enrich you as a Christian and as a human being in the pages of Lit! Even if reading's not an issue for you—you read often, and you read well—there's plenty here to help you enrich the reading lives of others. You owe it to your Christian friends and family to read this book and pass on what you've read.

Starr Meade teaches high school history and literature classes for home school students and is the author of several books for children and families.