Read Like a Christian

Five Principles for What and How

Have you seen the recent “colored book” decoration trend? The basic idea is to take books whose covers have the same basic palette and put them together, thereby arranging all your books by color. Some used bookstores are even offering bundles of all-blue, all-green, or all-yellow books that you can buy just for this purpose.

If you’re anything like me, you understand why this trend might be appealing, but at the same time, something in you recoils. To see books thrown together just for the color of their covers, or to see books being sold not for what they say but for what they look like, seems to betray the very idea of a book. Something inside me protests, That’s not what books are for!

A kind of alarm goes off inside us when we see something used far beneath its purpose. And the truth is, this doesn’t happen just with the physical exteriors of books. It happens with what’s inside of them too. Have you ever wondered what it means to read like a Christian? Surely it means more than being a Christian and reading. There are precious realities that shape and season what and how we read. Let me commend five principles that help and challenge me to read like a Christian.

1. Read whimsically, not wastefully.

By whimsically, I mean literally “at whim.” My teacher in this regard has been Alan Jacobs, whose lovely little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction makes a compelling case for reading “what gives you delight” (23) rather than what conforms to abstract standards of literary greatness. In other words, Christians do not think of their reading as primarily the fulfillment of a duty, but as an astonishing joy. This doesn’t exclude a place for a Great Books canon. But there is a difference between seeking out a book because others esteem it and may esteem you for reading it (more on that in a moment) and seeking out a book because its greatness promises delight.

“Christians should not think of their reading as primarily the fulfillment of a duty, but as an astonishing joy.”

Whim, however, does not mean waste. There is a way to waste your reading, and the fastest way to do this is to never stretch yourself beyond your natural comfort zone. Many readers who never try anything more demanding than a badly written paperback don’t realize how much more delight they could have by maturing their palate. If reading at whim can protect us from elitism, not reading wastefully is a reminder that good and bad are not wholly in the eye of the beholder. Excellence should delight us. We were made for a beatific vision of pure splendor and perfection. Don’t waste your reading.

2. Read personally, not performatively.

One of my favorite passages in The Screwtape Letters occurs after the demon Wormwood has apparently “lost” his patient to a profound and genuine repentance. Uncle Screwtape furiously berates his nephew for his “blunders.”

You first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. . . . How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? (63–64)

Real delight, Lewis says, belongs to the realm of God. It humbles us, quiets our anxious desires for approval, and reminds us that our soul is real and to be accounted for. Reading personally means reading for something far better than applause. As we read personally, we follow the thread of what Lewis called “the secret signature” of our hearts (The Problem of Pain, 151). Our favorite books reveal something that God put in us. The passages we laugh or cry over, even when no one is watching, can be like soul-mirrors.

To enjoy something because we find it lovely points us in the opposite spiritual direction of performing for others. In the latter case, what we are actually enjoying is ourselves. In the age of social media, this is a gaping pitfall. It is so easy to post pictures of our “current reads” simply for the purpose of gaining admiration. In some cases, we have no desire or even intention of finishing the books in our photos. Lewis warns us against this temptation, and so does our Lord: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). Let’s not deaden the purifying effects of real delight by being addicts of human glory.

3. Read with generosity, not grievance.

Here’s a diagnostic question for all of us that read and (especially) review books: Do we practice the Golden Rule? Do we read others the way we would want to be read?

Imagine the following scenario. You are reading a book by a Christian writer who is somewhat outside your normal theological tribe. You come across a sentence that strikes you as odd. It’s not clearly false, but it’s not what you would have said, either. At this point, you have a choice: You can read with generosity, meaning you note the ambiguous wording but do not accuse the writer of saying something he is not. Or you can give the words their worst possible meaning, and perhaps even label the author a false teacher.

“The Bible is the book that gives every other good book its power.”

Which of these options reflects the biblical command to “be not wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7), to “[believe] all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and to not render a verdict hastily (Proverbs 25:8)? Christians read with generosity, not because we are too timid to call out error, but because we believe truth is precious enough to pursue with patience.

These biblical warnings should sober us against the temptation to read something solely for the purpose of disagreeing with it. There will be times and occasions when we must read something we know is wrong. But the polemical muscle does not need to be flexed often. Be wary of reading with grievance.

4. Read with wonder, not weariness.

I am discouraged when I find a “What are you reading?” interview with a prominent pastor or Christian leader, and the interviewee remarks that he doesn’t read fiction. Great literature is a treasure of wonder. The best stories seem to turn the light on in our own hearts; in heroes and villains we can see the range of human nature, and in journeys and transformations we can be reminded of how much we don’t know. I sometimes wonder how much we evangelicals read simply for the purpose of accumulating more data, rather than reading so that we can move a little bit closer to the image of Jesus.

The Preacher remarks, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). If reading has become wearisome to you, consider taking an inventory. Does your reading captivate you? Does it make you forget yourself? Does it open your eyes and soften your heart? Or is it just more information to absorb? Consider the metaphors and parables of God’s Word. You and I are created to wonder at God the poet.

5. Read for eternity, not for ephemera.

We live in a noisy world. There is no end to the novelty. And the vast majority of it is meaningless: thousands of tweets, articles, and even books that will be almost immediately obsolete, millions of hours of video and audio that will hardly make sense in a week. We don’t have a choice whether we will live and read in such a world. But we can choose how we live and read in it.

The books, stories, poems, and essays that will stay with us the longest, perhaps even for a lifetime, will be the ones that make eternity come alive in some way. A theological work illuminates just how much we can trust Christ. A classic novel makes virtue feel worth the suffering. A poem’s beauty hits on our hearts like sunlight on a starved leaf. An essay makes ultimate reality just a little bit clearer. These are hours of reading that we never truly leave; the words leave an imprint on us. These are treasures that can make the noise we often consume feel as fleeting as it is.

As I read the Bible, I’m continually amazed by how its freshness grows with each passing year. The Scriptures are more than our first reading priority each morning, or the only inerrant words we can read (though they are that). The Bible is the book that gives every other good book its power. It is the epicenter of beauty, the metanarrative of meaning — every story that reverberates in our hearts comes, ultimately, from God’s Story.

As you read — books, essays, poems, plays, and more besides — look for eternity. Look for the Bible’s residual presence. Look for the aroma of transcendent truth. And with gratitude to the one who is himself the Word made flesh, let this kind of reading do its good work in you.

serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with his wife Emily and son Charlie.