Why Read?

I’m supposed to give a talk/presentation at my church next Tuesday to the ladies on Reading and How to Build a Home Library. I guess someone saw my house, decorated in vintage and not-so-vintage books, and decided that book-buying was the area of my expertise. I thought I’d start out with a bit about why Christians in particular should be reading books other than the Bible. This is a draft of my notes for the talk:

Perhaps the greatest gift any father can bestow upon his children, apart from the covenant blessings of parish life and a comprehension of the doctrines of grace, is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives a knowledge of the world, and it offers experience of a wide kind. Indeed, it is nothing less than a moral illumination.
—Thomas Chalmers

WHY read?


The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not IN them, it only came THROUGH them, and what came through them was longing. These things-the beauty, the memory of our own past- are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune which we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.”
C. S. Lewis

1. God communicates using language.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1

We don’t worship books, not even The Book, the Bible. Nevertheless, God uses the metaphor of “word” to tell us us something of who He is, of who Jesus is. Language is part of the foundation of the universe, according to Genesis; God spoke and the world came into being. So we read, first the Bible, God’s word to man, and then other books, men’s words to each other through which we can receive God’s truth, too.

A book ought to be an icepick to break up the frozen sea within us.
~ Franz Kafka

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
~ Muriel Rukeyser

2. Stories illuminate truth.
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables. He did not tell them anything without using a parable. Mathew 13:34

Stories, in particular, show us things that nonfiction cannot. We ought to read both fiction and nonfiction, but stories are uniquely able to penetrate our defenses, obscure precious truths to those who are not interested enough to pursue those truths, and illuminate truth to those who are. Jesus said he spoke in parables so that those whose ears were dull and whose eyes were closed and whose hearts were fat would NOT understand. (Mt. 13:13) Conversely, those who seek will find, and often the truth is hidden in a story.

3. Books can communicate truth when we either don’t have the time or the words ourselves.
And how many people have discovered God’s truth in a book written by a man?
Martin Luther read Augustine, and he came to an understanding of sin and salvation that freed him from guilt and self-condemnation.
John Newton read Thomas a Kempis and it brought him from the slave trade to the ministry.
C.S. Lewis read G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald, and he said they “baptized his imagination.”
Chuck Colson read C.S. Lewis, and he was born again.

This excerpt from the July 26, 2008 issue of WORLD magazine illustrates how wonderful a tool the written word in the process of conversion and spiritual growth. It’s an interview with journalist Bob Beckel.

WORLD: So, how did you come to faith?
BECKEL: I was in the process of getting divorced. I was married to a professional golfer. You don’t know fear until you see a five iron in the hands of a professional golfer at two in the morning. It’s a scary thing. I had a lot of difficulties. I had retreated to a farm in rural Maryland and refused to come back to Washington to do any television appearances. I got a call one day from Fox saying, would you come and do an appearance with Cal Thomas? And for some inexplicable reason, I said yes. Five different times I tried to call and cancel. And I couldn’t cancel.
I reluctantly drove in and there was Cal. I knew him a bit, but not really well. He looks at me and says, “Is there something wrong?” Right away. Instead of saying the normal Washington thing—”Good. Fine. Great”—I said, “Actually it’s not.” And he said, “Let’s talk about it after we’ve done the show.” He spent many hours with me after that and talked about faith but never pushed faith on me. He sent me a lot of books. I was one of those people who needed to have proof. I needed to see skin and bones. The idea of whales and arks and burning bushes and opening seas—all that was just in my mind Charlton Heston.
One of the first books that Cal sent me was Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I began to read that. Cal continued to send me books. It must have cost him thousands of dollars because this farm of mine was way out and this poor postal guy kept coming out hauling these boxes of books. I read and read and read. Finally, Cal said, “Why don’t you come to church with me?” Now, I hadn’t been to church in . . . well, I hadn’t been to church. So Cal takes me to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, which is full of more right-wing Republicans than any church in all of Washington. [But] the message that day was a message that worked. It was about faith and belief and that there is a certain leap that you need to take but in the end what else is there? When you compare the rest of life, what else is there really? Slowly but surely it came to me that there was something there.

4. Great books enable us to learn from many teachers.
Where there is no guidance the people fall, But in abundance of counselors there is victory. Proverbs 11:14

Live always in the best company when you read.
Sydney Smith

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face…. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.
Edward P. Morgan

When we read we receive the wisdom of people, past and present, whom we would never have the opportunity to meet. And we and our children can examine things and ideas that we would never be able to or would not want to experience personally.
Do we want to know about China or the Olympics or the Silk Road? Read.
Do we want to understand how Christians thought about the faith in ages past? Read.
Do we want to understand the hopelessness of a life lived apart from the grace of God or the arguments of the atheist who says that there is no God? Read.

Next post I’ll write a little about how to find good books.

16 thoughts on “Why Read?

  1. Excellent post! I especially love your final point. Good luck with your presentation!

  2. My original intent was to read this on Bloglines very quickly before turning in for the night. I am so sleepy, I’m not certain fingers are on the keyboard correctly.

    However, I just had to click on over to your actual blog and comment.

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read (sleepy or fully awake)!!!!!

  3. That is interesting! Good luck on your presentation.

  4. Two other reasons why I read:
    to improve my own writing
    to interact with those around me (though I still have to be discerning in what I choose to read)

    Great post!

  5. love that. great post.

  6. This is tremendous. I have been thinking about writing a post concerning reading Christian fiction, beginning with “why read” in general, and this has many of the points I had thought of as well as many I had not.

  7. Great post! I have another great Lewis one that I’ve been wanting to work into a post at some point, but here it is, in case you can use it:

    Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

    Good luck on the presentation! I’d like my kids to hear it!



  8. You’ll have to remind them that buying the books isn’t enough, Sherry — they have to read and absorb them, too!

  9. I really enjoyed this, and was inspired to start a list too. Good luck on your presentation!

  10. Amen.

    Who can measure the power of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN in American history?

    If I didn’t believe in my core that storytellers can change the world I don’t think I could have handled the rejection that defines this business.

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