By Derek Duncan
I have a theory. If you stop reading, you die. Maybe I should expand on that just a little. If you stop reading, you stop growing, you stop learning, and then you die.
Our advanced and technologically driven culture is causing people to read less and less. Sometimes I wonder if the innovative media we have created (radio, television, movies, Internet, cell phones) actually are contributing to illiteracy. We are satisfied with looking at things passively instead of poring over a written text that forces us to think.
Mortimer Adler, in his classic How to Read a Book, puts it this way:
The packaging of things in our society is done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged option into his mind. Somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player, he pushes a button and plays back the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having to think.
A great difference exists between assimilating information and the critical thinking process that helps us arrive at an understanding. There is an even greater disparity between understanding and being able to process the information well enough to explain it to other people.
Reading is one of the main contributors to my life as a pastor—not passive or casual reading, but reading that really stirs my mind, provokes my imagination, and causes me to form my own views. I believe something happens inside our brains when we read. Reading triggers mental pictures, so we can literally “see” our way to a more imaginative and clear idea of what the author is trying to say. In movies, the pictures are provided for us, so our brains don’t have to do the exhilarating work of imagining the tone, texture, and colors of what we are reading.
For example, the first time I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I envisioned the island in my mind. I could see in my mind’s eye some of the great adventures that I could experience one day. It was almost like I was actually living the adventures I was picturing on the old and worn pages.
God has given us the unbelievable gift of engaging a written text to gain knowledge, think critically, develop wisdom, and deepen awareness of the world and ourselves. This literate foundation, along with the divine help of the Holy Spirit, enables us to effectively communicate and engage people. So I have some recommendations related to reading.
Spend as much time reading as you can. Read as much as you can. Put a book in your hands and feel the pages. Revel at the tactile experience of turning the pages. Ponder the words and ideas that will improve your critical thinking, help you develop new ideas, and give you more metaphors for communicating life-changing truths.
Get better at reading. This happens only if you read something above your current reading level. I’ve heard the average American reads at a fourth-grade level. That must change! Stretch yourself by reading more challenging works.
Classic literature is invaluable for this purpose. There are no substitutes for Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, The Lilies of the Valley by John Updike, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These books will improve your reading level and cause your brain to better understand and assimilate information and engage the world more effectively.
Christian books like Miroslav Wolf’s Exclusion and Embrace, N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and all the works of C. S. Lewis will stretch you as well. Wolf’s book addresses the nature of true forgiveness, selfless love, and the difficulty we have fighting injustice, genocide, and other terrible crimes that humans perpetrate on one another. His writing skill was honed by witnessing the unthinkable Serbian crimes of concentration camps, the raping of women, the burning down of churches, and other atrocities inflicted upon his native Croat people. Could he really embrace and forgive a Serbian fighter? This unique and challenging perspective deepened my understanding of Christ’s sacrificial love, and how I am called to love my enemies.
Join a reading group where you can discuss the ideas that are challenging you. Try to find people with similar interests and a burning desire to learn. Vary your reading from fiction to nonfiction, from classics to Christian devotional literature.
Don’t be afraid of engaging books and ideas that are different from your own beliefs. This will help you understand the nature of man and increase your own convictions. Then explain what you are reading to another person. You have not truly learned unless you can unpack your ideas to someone else. The effort of reading will deeply reward your desire to teach, comfort, and engage with people.
In light of our current economic issues, the ups and downs of the stock market, and the ever-declining value of our retirement accounts, I want to stress that reading is free.
When was the last time you visited a library? Libraries are keepers of the riches and legacies of the human race. You can discover great authors and poets like Anna Akhmatova, Leo Tolstoy, and the strange, radically interesting, and sometimes depressing poetry of Alexander Pushkin. All of these things are available to you for free!
INCLUDE THE BIBLE
I want you to deeply engage in reading, which will enhance your ability to grow, learn, and help others. And, lest you thought I forgot something really important, we need to read the Bible most of all. It never gets old! It never ceases to amaze me how I continue to learn new things from passages I have read countless times. The Holy Spirit is an amazing teacher and helper. It is true that the Bible is the foundational book of all faith, thinking, and wisdom.
However, there is nothing wrong with stretching your mind and imagination by reading other things. These authors influence our way of life and thinking, so we need to understand and relate to their ideas. Although the Bible is by far the most important book in history, one cannot understand and engage the world without reading other types of literature as well.
So keep reading. You will be blessed by it, you will grow in your understanding of people, your pocketbook will feel less pain than going to movies will cause, and your imagination will be stretched and fulfilled. The ideas you glean will improve your ability to talk about Jesus and improve your fellowship with the community called Christ.
Derek Duncan has been senior pastor with East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana, since 2003. Prior to coming to Indiana, Derek served as senior pastor of Northshore Christian Church in Everett, Washington. He has traveled to India, Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan, and Costa Rica serving in various capacities.
Derek and his wife, Julie, have three children. In addition to time spent with his family, Derek enjoys anything involving racing, sports, reading, hiking, and kayaking. He considers being a pastor one of the greatest joys of his life. Derek also loves teaching God’s Word, developing leaders, helping people come to faith in Jesus Christ, and encouraging them to grow in their relationship with the Lord.