Instagram. Snapchat. Facebook. YouTube. So many media platforms via for our attention these days. While there are definitely good things that happen through our social media connections, there’s also something to be said for the good old-fashioned practice of reading. As Christians in the 21st century, reading lies at the heart of our identity.
What we read is important: We should read Scripture and a diverse range of other works that are good, true, beautiful and just. But how and why we read are also questions that deserve our reflection. In a frenetic age, Christians should be the ones whose lives model a different way of living and being—one that is attentive, compassionate and kind. Reading well, I believe, will guide us into this new and different way.
Religions, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, that are rooted around sacred texts are sometimes referred to as “people of the book,” an identity that we should proudly reclaim. In spite of a wide range of views about interpretation, most Christians would agree that Scripture is essential to our identity as followers of Jesus. Over the last few decades, I’ve noticed a decline among Christians in our habits of reading Scripture and our understanding of the basic threads of the scriptural story. We should do better at reading Scripture and encouraging our sisters and brothers who are closest to us to do likewise, but we can’t stop there.
Reading Scripture well requires lots of other supplemental reading. We read commentaries and other theological books to understand what a particular text meant in the language in which it was written and for the people to whom it was originally written. We might read other books to learn how a passage was understood at other points in church history. Beyond merely understanding the scriptural text, we must also explore what it means for our lives in the 21st century, and to do that, we have to understand the times and places in which we live.
From news and analysis, to fiction and poetry, to sociology and economics, reading can deepen our understanding of the world in which we live, and in which we must discern how to live faithfully to the scriptural story (Now, I’m sure that this all sounds like an overwhelming amount of reading, but the good news is that even a tiny bit of reading can help deepen our understanding, and that in belonging to churches, we have others who may be reading different sorts of things from which we can learn and grow.).
It’s easy for us today to fall into habits of reading primarily for amusement or for personal edification. Although there is nothing wrong with either of these goals in moderation, they are fundamentally both about us as individuals. Reading Scripture as I have described above, and all the sorts of books that might guide us toward a deeper understanding of Scripture, orients us toward something that is much bigger than our own personal stories. We might read similar sorts of things—books that are fun or that help us to do our work better, for instance—but we do with a bigger and more integrated aim in mind, participating faithfully in God’s story.
In addition to paying attention to why we read, it will be transformative for us to also pay attention to how we read. Unlike most others forms of media that we consume—video and audio, for instance—reading allows us to control the speed at which we consume it. Sure, we can always hit the pause button on a podcast or a video, and meditate on what we are seeing and hearing, but how often do we do that? Poetry is especially good for helping us to slow down and pay attention: Why did the poet use those precise words, or what is the image that the poet is trying to convey?
Reading fiction is especially good for helping exercise our imaginations. We may slow down through parts of a novel as we imagine the intricate details of a place in which a scene is sent, or as we imagine what it might be like to be a character faced with a particular challenge. In recent decades, scholars have been uncovering how important imagination is to the development of empathy. Imagining ourselves in a particular situation—as a person with a particular disease or a person of different ethnicity—is a critical step toward being empathetic toward someone who is in that situation. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, one of the best novels I read in the last year, is an intense immersion into the experience of migrants who are being forced out of countries in the Middle East, like Syria.
Slowing down as we read allows us not only to imagine parts of what we are reading, but also allows us to enter into a conversation with the text. What did the author mean by that phrase? Is there anything in this passage that I agree with? This kind of conversation may force us to backtrack a little and re-read with our pressing questions in mind. Oftentimes, good texts don’t fully answer our questions, but they may lead us to other similar works that help us to continue wrestling with these questions.
For all the reasons described above, I believe that reading more and reading well will help Christians bear witness to the biblical wisdom of being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Living in this way cuts across the grain of modern culture in so many ways. What if Christians weren’t the ones who were prone to knee-jerk reactions (against the right-wing ideology of Donald Trump or against the ideology of the Left).
Instead, we perhaps could be the people who dug in a bit, and tried to understand why someone did a particular thing or said what he or she said. Reading—broadly, carefully and well—can teach us how to be this kind of people. And as we are learning to slow down and be thoughtful and compassionate people, we can invite our neighbors into similar practices, creating spaces for face-to-face conversations about books, ideas and policies.
In his classic book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill makes the case that by reading, preserving books and teaching others to read, Irish Christians in the early Middle Ages saved Western civilization as we know it. I have a sense that history may be repeating itself today. Christians who are learning to read more, read well and have substantial conversations about what they are reading may be the ones who preserve civility and the witness of the Gospel in these chaotic and deeply fragmented times.
C. Christopher Smith lives and writes as part of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, where he is the Senior Editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Chris is co-author of the award-winning book Slow Church (2014), author of Reading for the Common Good (2016), and is presently finishing a book manuscript with the working title, Conversational Bodies: A Field Guide for the Journey Toward Belonging.