Why Read This?
I’m not a big gift-giver—my ‘love language’ is definitely not material gifts. But I remember the joy when we gave our eldest daughter her first Bible. She had learned how to read, she loved to read, so it wasn’t long before she scrawled onto her birthday wish list the simple words, ‘a bible.’
If you think about it, it’s amazing that we are allowed to read the very words of God. Scripture is full of power, timeless in truth, and clear enough for even a young child to read and understand and take delight in.
Read to Know God
When we talk about the importance of reading, we need to begin with the primary purpose: to know God. Reading is vital for many reasons, but from a Christian’s point of view, this must be central. Scripture reading and praying are vital for a relationship of listening to and speaking with God.
Here we see one of the damaging effects of learning how to read in an Internet age. When we approach the Bible, it can overwhelm us in its depth and breadth. Assuming that we’re taking a physical Bible in hand, it will strike anyone as an imposing volume: thick, imposing, easily more than 1000 pages, small print—and no pictures! What other book of such heft do most normal people choose to read?
Particularly when we’re not accustomed to reading, the Bible is a tough assignment. So we skim the Scriptures. We read the passages that we already know. We pick a shortish Psalm and leave unread vast portions of the Scriptures.
We shouldn’t be surprised that this happens. If reading isn’t promoted in general, there’s no reason to expect that our habits are going to be different when it is time to read the Bible. If I always struggle to get through a passage, I’ll become hesitant to open Scripture for myself. Or perhaps I will over-rely on shortcuts like devotionals. And this kind of practice will impoverish our faith.
More positively, it is good that we develop our skills for ‘close reading.’ This will help us to understand and apply the Word of God.
What is ‘close reading’? It means we give attention to key words and context. It means that we have an awareness of sentence structure, literary form, and the author’s original intent. We seek to read a text in a legitimate way, so that a passage doesn’t simply mean whatever we claim it means.
I want to emphasize the importance of knowing how to do this: reading responsibly. For we attend Bible study, where we need skills for patiently and wisely exploring a passage. We attend church, where we need the ability to listen to a sustained explanation of Scripture. And we each have our devotional life before the Lord, of which Scripture should be a key part.
For engaging with Scripture for the rest of their lives, we need to be equipped.
Another key use of our words relates to speaking with God. Now, prayer doesn’t need to be eloquent. The language of a believer’s heart in speaking with their God surely has its own dialect. Meanwhile, God knows what we need before we ask him. Yet there is great value in an articulated thought, a specific statement, also in personal prayer. It is good to have names for our emotions, to have words for our praise and confession before the Lord.
If my prayers are always vague, or if I am imprecise, do I really know what sins I have confessed to God, or what gifts I have asked for? There is no special vocabulary of prayer, yet it is right that we know how to pray, and to pray with words.
Read to Serve Your Neighbour
God places us in relationship with other people: friends, children, parents, neighbours, church members, clients, employees, and more. Most of us interact with other people all day long. So here is a second purpose for reading: we need to learn how to use words to communicate our ideas, feelings, and needs to others.
One aspect of this relates to our place in the world. We go to university where we have classmates, we have a job where we daily meet with colleagues and managers, and we form many other connections with people in the community. If we’re going to have useful and productive interactions, then we require a proper use of language.
For instance, the apprentice mechanic has a good idea to improve workflow in the shop. The nurse needs to describe to an elderly patient the details of a new medication. An ability with words equips us for doing effective work, and our effective work can glorify God.
And this also relates to our prophetic task. We are prophets who are called to confess the name of God. A prophet has, by definition, a speaking role. Words help us to articulate the faith when we’re talking to our children or when speaking with a curious neighbour: “Mom, what happens to us when we die?” “So why do you always go to church?” Knowing how to use words equips us for teaching our children, encouraging our friends, and giving an account of Christ to nonbelievers.
Suggestions for Improvement
Time to draw out a few practical implications. What are things we can do in order to grow as a community of readers?
The most obvious suggestion: read! And read books.
Today we’re all tempted to read only headlines and snippets of text. We need to resist that urge. Something happens to your mind and heart when you read a book, something that can’t happen any other way.
For instance, when we read novels, we get to think about characters and to imagine their situations, keeping intimate company with heroes and villains. This provides opportunities for growth in discernment. Books help us to understand how our fellow humans tick, for good books are filled with insights into things like loyalty, courage, pride, self-deception, and much more—the entire range of human experience.
When we read non-fiction works too, we can learn in ways that are unlike through other media. I once heard it said that a good book is ‘long enough to change your mind about something.’ There is a lot of truth to that, because we’re following a sustained argument, walking with the author through his deep knowledge of some topic.
Such reading expands and enriches our scope of experiences. To quote the wise words of Dr. Seuss,
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
Here I’ll pass on with appreciation the advice that Karen Swallow Prior gives in her book about reading.[i] She says to read things that delight you. Don’t suffer through an agonizing book! There’s enough books in the world that you don’t have to waste your time with a book that bores or frustrates you. Read for delight, but also read for a challenge: take up books that stretch you, books that engage you.
As we read, we’re reminded of Scripture’s clear command: ‘Test the spirits, to see whether they are from God’ (1 John 4:1). This applies to all areas of life, of course, also to reading. “Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true.”[ii] For we encounter godless agendas everywhere—in books too. On news channels we meet a worldview shaped by evolutionist science, we read blatant blasphemy in novels, and see the LGBTQI ideology being promoted on YouTube. This underlines the need for all of us to read (and watch and listen) from a framework that is thoroughly Biblical.
May I also encourage the would-be writers among us? The church needs people who can give us expressions of truth and beauty. We need people who can point us to God’s great works in the world, in people, and in his Word. We need poets and storytellers, just like we need carpenters and engineers. Those with a good ability in language are able to instruct and motivate and persuade.
Harness the Power
Reading is consequential, not just for our homes and schools, but for our churches and for our place in this world, and for all of life.
We can’t imagine life without a proper supply of words, and without a knowledge of how to use them. If words have power, then we must learn to harness this power and to shape it for the glory of God and our neighbour’s benefit.
[i] Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2018), 16-18.
[ii] Swallow Prior, Reading Well, 26.