Becoming a discerning reader can be a tricky ambition. But I am convinced that it’s a worthy one. Why? Because the alternatives are not pretty. I see three alternative tendencies in most people : (1) avoid reading – particularly fiction; (2) make a lot of rules about which kinds of books are ok and which ones are not; or (3) read with abandon. All three are hotly supported by their proponents but have inherent weaknesses. I think there is a better way – reading with discernment. In a nutshell, reading with discernment puts the onus more on how we read and a little less on what we read. But how does one navigate the world of reading with some discernment? And, really, why even bother with reading at all?
To that end, I’ve stumbled upon a book. Go figure. (Ha! A book about books!) It’s one I think should be in every Christian’s personal library. Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books is the book that I always sort of dreamed of writing. It was a pleasure to read. Author Tony Reinke combines philosophical reasoning about the value of reading with very practical tips about reading well. On the practical side, for example, one whole chapter is devoted to writing and underlining in books. Another chapter deals with barriers to reading. On the more philosophical side, he makes a compelling case for reading and the incredible power of language (even over image) in communication.
One of the things I gleaned from the book was this filter for prioritizing reading.
- Reading the Bible
- Reading other books
In a few moments, I’ll share how he further broke down the second category. But, I love that he started by setting Scripture in a category unto itself. As a Christian reader, you cannot expect to develop discernment in your other reading unless you are able to hold it up against the Word of God. The Bible stands wholly in a category of its own. It is unlike any other book and is the standard by which I judge all other books – fiction or non-fiction, Christian or non-Christian. It is the source of Truth and God’s own letter directly to the human race. If you truly only have half-an-hour every day for reading, let me exhort you to spend at least half of it in your Bible. That “how-to” book on parenting can wait. Really.
But, that’s not to say that other books don’t have value as well. They do. Non-fiction books can develop us in numerous ways. Fiction books have their own value, allowing us to enter into the human experience from various perspectives. But, the key to reading with discernment is reading all of those other options through the lens of Scripture. For instance, when I read the Hunger Games and enter into Katniss’ world, I judge her actions and wrestle with the ethical dilemmas she faces according to the Bible’s standards of good and evil. I bring my worldview with me into the book – I don’t just check my brain for the sake of entertainment and, thereby, let a human author tell me what to think. I engage my mind and reflect on the content with my Christian worldview intact. (Of course, sometimes Biblical discernment will dictate that some books aren’t worth reading at all. But, honestly, I think Christians punt to that alternative too often and forego the hard but rewarding work of reading with conviction.)
To be frank, I realize that it might seem close-minded for me to prioritize the Bible above other books. I suppose it is. But, I’m OK with that. I have dear friends who would ardently disagree with me on this point and I do love them still. I enjoy how diverse the world is and I know there are lots of perspectives out there. But, I do not think that all ideas or worldviews are equally true. If Hitler’s ideas and his supposed alliance with Jesus had been evaluated by a few more bold, thinking Christians a little earlier in the game, the world might have looked a lot different in the 1940s.
That said, wouldn’t it be nice to have some guidelines for that “other” category? Reinke goes on to share a suggested way of categorizing all the other reading one does. These are his personal categories, not a mandated list. But, I liked them. (They are not in any particular order of value.)
- Reading to know and delight in Christ
- Reading to kindle spiritual reflection
- Reading to initiate personal change
- Reading to pursue vocational excellence
- Reading to enjoy a good story
Our book choices should probably span several categories like this. If your reading repertoire has been reduced to books on parenting for the last five years, you might want to expand your book list to include more texture and stretch your mind beyond your children.
How you approach that can be varied. I typically have several books (of different genres) going at one time whereas my Rick usually alternates between a novel and a non-fiction read, one at a time. (He has high closure needs. He also has a plan for… well, everything. Remember the whole ENTJ thing?)
The point is that you have to be intentional. Being a discerning reader doesn’t just happen. You simply have to engage your mind – both in choosing the book and while you’re reading the book. Free yourself to set your own pace: your reading is not dictated by the expectations of other people. You get to choose your books. You are the gatekeeper for your growth and development. Friends might be raving about the latest best seller. Your favorite talk show might have done a book review that totally captures your attention. Your favorite author might have just published her long-awaited manifesto on home management. The pastor might have mentioned a book in his sermon. None of those realities mean that you have to run out and read those books right now… or ever, for that matter.
If it’s a book that has piqued your interest, write it down for a later date. Or use this nifty website that I found to organize your reading. That way you can stick with your plan to vary your reading but still keep that best seller in mind for another day.
I’m discovering that most of life is about being intentional. A little forethought and consideration goes a long way in living the life you really want – carry that same spirit into your reading and discernment will be easier than you think.