Winter Reading Challenge, 2022

At the beginning of this Winter Reading Challenge, consider for a minute this question: Why read books? There are lots of reasons, some personal, some societal, some relational, some intellectual, and so on. Here are a couple thoughts about the role which reading can play in our lives not just as people who can learn from reading, but as followers of Jesus. Sometimes someone just says something well. Here I’ll pass on a few ideas about why to read.

Reading gives perspective to see

Think for a moment about the way that good writers become windows through which we come to see things we did not see before.

“C. S. Lewis regularly emphasized that great writers sought to share something with their readers – something which they themselves had grasped or seen and wanted to pass on to others, so that they might benefit. The best writers are not self-promoting narcissists who demand that we look at them, but those who invite us to look through them at what they have seen, enabling us to share in their experience. They are thus windows to something greater. Lewis himself saw authors not as spectacles to be admired, but as a ‘set of spectacles’ through which we can look at the world and see it in sharper focus and greater depth.”

Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, 2.

Reading brings challenge to certainties

One aspect of good writing, especially fiction but also non-fiction, is that it provides an arena in which to challenge our certainties. Now, we must be careful. There are many things in life which we should be certain of and stand on. However, we are always in danger of becoming certain about what is merely our own limited vision of things. And when we become certain, we tend to demand others to live according to what we are certain is correct. This can cause all sorts of problems. Literature can bring us into another world and there unmoor us from what we were so certain about so that, when we come back to the real world, we are forced to ask questions of ourselves we would otherwise stay blind to.

“One aspect of this capacity to be multifaceted means that reading a good novel, or seeing a great play, we are conscious again of the complexity of human life, the ambiguity of so much behaviour, the mixture of qualities and motives in all of us. All this is a very healthy and important antidote to moralism. There is a human tendency to divide the world up into goodies and baddies. This can be so if religion is brought into it, though moralism certainly isn’t the preserve of religion. One of the great themes of Jesus in the Gospels is the way he tries to shake us out of all easy moralizing. We are directed to look at ourselves, at the great plank in our own eye before we call attention to the speck of dust in our neighbour’s eye. So literature, in bringing home to us the complexity, ambiguity and thoroughly mixed nature of human behaviour spells out and reinforces one of the central elements in the New Testament.”

Richard Harries, Haunted By Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith, ix-x.

Reading can challenge staleness

And finally, perhaps at the farther reaches of what literature does for us, is that it helps give us categories of thought and belief which make sense in a fresh way to us. It helps us to think about the questions of life we have in language that makes sense to us today.

“At a time when so much religious language has become either unbelievable or alien to many people it is in works of literature that we can begin to discover what the Christian faith is about and what is at stake.”

Harries, Haunted By Christ, x.

There are many wonderful works of literature and theology from years gone past. Being a fluent and dedicated reader requires at least periodically venturing into the great tomes of bygone years. Yet, even spending a short amount of time in a book of a different century often feels like venturing into a foreign land. While the great authors of the past are writing about universal human issues, they do so in a way that often is foreign to us. Indeed, sometimes so foreign that it evades our understanding entirely.

In a similar manner, sometimes the religious and moral answers to life’s questions which we rely on belong to a different dialect, a different time and place, and have lost some of their forcefulness. Literature can shake up our thinking and help us keep speaking the language of our hearts in this day and age, rather than the language of peoples’ hearts from 100 years ago.

Finally, and related, literature is one of the means we can become aware of the ways Christ minsters to us in this time and place, and the ways we need to be broken out of this time and place:

“To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for eighteenth-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, and exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 11.

To live now means to be hyper-aware of certain realities of the human experience and to be hyper-blind to others. There are whole ranges of the human experience which we see as half-shadows, or in various degrees of light. The first way we turn to Christ for rescue is doubtlessly in terms of one of the hyper-aware realities of human life in this day and age. Those are the types of brokenness which constantly smack us in the face. But Jesus came to rescue and restore not just those aspects of human life which our day and age lionizes. He came to redeem humanity in its totality, with all its endless complexity.

Reading can help us see the depth, the greatness, the height, the bigness of just what it is that God is doing in restoring the world through Jesus. And to see how he is doing that in our lives.

Happy reading, and may your journey through books bring you to places you never would have dreamed you could go, but to the very places your heart has always been restless to find.