On reading 3: We need help

By Gerry Straker, 24 Apr 2020

On reading 3: We need help

In our first article in our series on reading, we saw that the place to start is always the Word of God and it’s been great to hear of some of our people reading the Word more. In our second article, we saw how in God’s light we see light (Psalm 36:9) – as we are shaped by his Word, we can see God’s glory in created things, including books that are not the Bible. The Bible is solid gold but the good in other books is gold leaf. It is because of our Bible reading, that we can appreciate, and give God glory for, the good in writing that is not Scripture. We see God's glory reflected in truth, beauty and goodness outside of his Word, precisely because we are bathing in the light of His Word. Like good preaching, good reading can deepen our appreciation of and understanding of the Scriptures themselves. And the truth is, we need help...

1. We need help, therefore read

Alasdair Paine, vicar of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge writes: ‘Reading is a mark of hunger (a desire to know and grow) and humility (for the reader admits they need help).’ [1]

It is good to be humble and hungry! Good reading is about learning from others who know more than us. As the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions put it: ‘The simple fact is that we are not the first, and certainly not the wisest, generation to reflect on the teaching of Scripture. Although we do not look to previous generations as a source of authority, they are a valuable source of wisdom. Many of the great theologians of previous generations were figures of prodigious learning, who contended for their faith in the face of extreme persecution... We want to be as sure as possible that we have understood the Bible correctly, so it makes sense to see how the great figures of the past interpreted it.’[2]

There is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and that goes for our questions about the Bible, theology and life . We want to learn from Church history and be taught by the Church leaders of old. Yes Luther, Ryle, Lewis are dead, but they are also alive in Christ, and part of the catholic Church - as we say in the Apostles’ Creed - the universal church of believers across time and place. All their faithful teaching can be used by the Holy Spirit to help us. And so if someone says to you 'all I need is my Bible', you can ask them: 'What makes you think you are wiser than all the previous generations of Christians put together?'

2. We need help on what to read

The Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the Book of Common Prayer, who was martyred in 1556, spent three quarters of his time studying![3] My hunch is that we’ll not hit those heights, even in lockdown...

According to British author and journalist John Sutherland, ‘the average literate person reads 600 works of literature in an adult lifetime.’[4] Tony Reinke imagines a very keen reader, reading a book a week for the next 50 years. That would get you to 2600. By the end of that 50 year period there will be more than 28 million books to choose from (in English). That means if you read one book a week, you would have to say no to 10,000 others![5] (Remember Ecclesiastes 12:12: 'of making many books there is no end')!

To be frank, many of us – self-included – are not going to get through a book a week. This means reading is going to require discernment; we will want to choose wisely because there are simply so many books out there: some wonderful, some terrible and a great many in between, and we want to read the best.

This means I only read books that have stood the test of time, are recommended by someone I trust, or I have read that particular author before - and that goes for fiction too (more on reading fiction another time). We must read the best, so let me encourage you to take recommendations.

If our aim is to simply read as many books as we can then we are reading for its own sake and that is a pitfall of pride. Instead, to really benefit from a best book will mean returning to it. C S Lewis wrote: ‘A book’s no good to me until I’ve read it two or three times.’[6] Charles Spurgeon said: ‘Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes of hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be “much not many.”’[7]

If we heed this advice and reread books, then this means that we will need to be even more discerning over the books we choose! So what should we read?

3. We need help, therefore read Lit!

Have I mentioned this gem of a book to you before? It’s called Lit! by Tony Reinke. It’s in my top three Christian books of all time. On the back cover it says: ‘I love to read. I hate to read. I don’t have time to read. I only read Christian books. I’m not good at reading. There’s too much to read.’ One or more of those statements is true for you, and that means this book is for you. Before I read it, I thought it would beat me up for being a rubbish reader. But no, what it did was put the Scriptures first, give me a theology of reading – why reading is a very good idea to help me and others for the glory of God - and warm me again to love reading. Not only that, but directly because of Lit! I’ve read Athanasius’ De Incarnatione (in English!) along with some of our Church, some Charles Dickens (loved it), Jane Austen (decent!) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (not for the faint hearted, and the end made me cry). I also bought some other books that I will get to one day. My point is that Reinke’s book made me want to read and put some effort in again. It has lots of useful tips on how to read well too, including reading together and helping others to read.

[1] Alasdair Paine, Foreword, in J. Oswald Sanders, A Love of Reading. (Leyland, Lancs: 10Publishing, 2017), 4.
[2] Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Trangressions, (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), 161-162.
[3] Owen Chadwick, The Penguin History of the Church 3: The Reformation, (1964, Repr., London, Penguin, 1990), 115.
[4] John Sutherland quoted by Sam Leith cited 22/04/2020
[5] Tony Reinke, Lit!, (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2011), 93-94.
[6] C S Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, (Orlando, Fl.: Harcourt, 1982), 146.
[7] Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Sanders, A Love of Reading, 27-28.