We have an email today from Jonathan Edwards who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Yes, that is his real name. And his question is a good one. “Pastor John, I drive a forklift in a warehouse for Christian family businesses. We are allowed to listen on our trucks to music, books, and I recently started enjoying this podcast. I have been an avid audiobook listener at my job, and I would like to know your thoughts about interacting with secular literature, including fiction, philosophy, poetry, and history.”
Okay, Jonathan, here is my most recent thinking about why a measured use of wide reading, including non-Christian authors, is a wise thing. I call it the reality factor. When I am reading the Bible, there are dozens and dozens of experiences and concepts and words that I can fly right over without pausing to contemplate the reality behind the words and the experiences and the concepts. And that is what I mean by the reality factor. We need to stop, bring in the reality factor, and go deeper behind.
Now, how do you contemplate a reality without some knowledge of the reality — not knowledge of the word, but of the reality? And I would say: The more knowledge of the reality, the better, if the knowledge is true and in true proportion to its value. For example, you don’t need to know lots of knowledge about the size and species of the birds that Jesus says to watch in Matthew 6:26, “Look at [or consider] the birds of the air.” That is not the core to what he is saying. But his aim in that text is to help you be free from the experience of anxiety. But what if you had no experience of anxiety? That word would be empty to you.
“God has ordained reading as one way for us to grow in knowledge that we haven’t experienced.”
It is really important to have deep, wide knowledge of the reality of anxiety and how it works and what its roots are and what its fruits are and what forms it can take in life and how it can sneak up on you and what devastation it has had in the history of people’s lives and on and on and on. In other words, there are many realities in the Bible which assume that, from life experience, we know what they are referring to: peace, joy, fear, anger, war, deception, beauty, power, hypocrisy.
Of course, the Bible gives crucial insight into these things that come from nowhere else, but the raw material of knowledge is gained, in large measure, from life experience, and then the Bible takes that common fund of human experience, of reality that we bring to the Bible, and shows how God relates to it and transforms it. The New Testament assumes that we have not forgotten the lesson of the book of Proverbs that we should go to the ant — a little bug, the ant — consider her ways, and be wise (Proverbs 6:6). In other words, look at the world. Learn reality from the world. Learn something about hard work from the world, learn something about perseverance from the world. Grow your fund of reality experience of a thousand things that are in the world because, when the New Testament mentions those things, it assumes we have some experiential knowledge of them.
But here is the catch. Most of us live lives that are so small, narrow, constricted, and limited — we know so little about so many things — one of the ways, only one, but one of the ways that God has ordained for us to grow in our knowledge of many things, many experiences that we have no immediate experience of is through reading. This means that if we have a wide and deep knowledge of things through reading, as well as through life experience, then when the Bible speaks, for example, of the sorrow of losing ten children, we may have a greater understanding of what it is referring to — I am thinking of Job — if we walked through it ourselves, which most of us won’t. Hardly anybody loses ten children all at once. But we might read about it. We might read the various kinds of horrible things that people have walked through like that and deepen our grasp of the human spirit and the experience of what it is like to do that.
So, let me give you just a little glimpse of how this worked for the original Jonathan Edwards. He delivered a sermon about slavery to sin and what it is like to have Satan as a slave master. Now, he knows that Satan is the most wicked, crude, most fiendish master that ever was. And yet most people gladly walk in his service.
Now, how could Edwards feel this as he ought to? How could he know the reality of what it means to be ruled by Satan as he ought? How could he say it in a way that would help others know the reality? Well, Edwards had evidently done some reading about human sacrifice in the country of Guinea. And here is what it did for him. Here is what he says:
[Satan and his cohorts] do by you as I have heard they do in Guinea, where at their great feasts they eat men’s flesh. They set the poor ignorant child who knows nothing of the matter, to make a fire, and while it stoops down to blow the fire, one comes behind and strikes off his head, and then he is roasted by that same fire that he kindled, and made a feast of, and the skull is made use of as a cup, out of which they make merry with their liquor. Just so Satan, who has a mind to make merry with you.
That is pretty horrible, pretty powerful, pretty unforgettable. Edwards got that knowledge of evil from outside the Bible, and it informed biblical teaching about Satan’s horrible, fiendish, devastating, murderous rule over his people — all the while making them think they are having fun.
Now, in my case, I just finished listening to all three volumes of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, about 1,000 pages each. What an education in reality, insights into natural challenges of leadership, insights into the horrors of war, insights into the fickle nature of public approval, insights into sexual insanity of upper-class philandering, insights into the complexities of what justice looks like in public policy, insights into the value of never giving up, though there is enormous opposition, and on and on and on. What an education.
I was learning reality. I wasn’t learning my morality. Books didn’t teach morality. I wasn’t learning my morality. I get that from the Bible. I was gaining awareness of realities that come from life experience, except I don’t have any life experience of being in war. Things that are and what they are like, that is what I found. In other words, I was enlarging the raw material of reality which the Bible assumes and interprets for me when I bring it to my reading.
So, what is the aim of all this reading? All of our reading, whether it is Christian or non-Christian, all of our reading aims to know God better, to know man better, to know the ways of God and the ways of man better, to understand the Scriptures better, so that we may obey more fully what God says and be more useful in accomplishing his purposes and glorifying his name.
Amen! . . . Okay, well in representing the APJ listeners, I know they would want me to ask, how long did it take for you to get through all three Churchill audiobooks?
I started sometime in the spring. So, maybe five or six months. And when it ended, I felt sad. I really felt sad, because they were so satisfying to listen to because of the reality that they were exposing me to: so many things I didn’t know anything about. It was like reading the history of World War II and, of course, it was a biography of the man. It was a primer in political science. It was a most remarkable read.