I have often heard criticisms within Christianity about what Christians should or shouldn’t read.
The first criticism says Christians should read the Bible and nothing else. Nothing else could possibly help their faith and nothing else could possibly be as important.
The second criticism is an opposing side to this view which says Christians should read as much as possible and specifically, read everything that is opposed to the Christians worldview in order to gain a broader and more strong perspective.
There aren’t too many who write about reading. In fact, there are so many books in the world that have been written and I having only one lifetime to try to read what I can and being relatively young in that lifetime at that, it does make me question my own qualifications to write on the subject of reading at all. So, I will proceed humbly into the trenches of these common criticisms within Christianity.
The first criticism says I just want the Bible, nothing more. Give me the Bible and I’m all set. Give me the Bible and all the knowledge I could possibly hope to ascertain in life and in the world is at my finger tips. Why would I possibly want anything else? If the God of the Bible is the one true God, then why would I read things that are not inspired by God?
This is, in fact, a common criticism of reading within Christianity. It seems to be the pious route. This route assumes that one has the Bible and that nothing outside of the Bible is important, absolutely nothing. Well, that is problematic. To start, the Bible was written in a language that has been given to us within a culture and that culture and language within a specific time at that. Then, the Bible was translated into newer languages first for the church and academy, then for the common people. This process of translating the Bible into the more contemporary and more localized language spans a rather long frame of time.
So, it would seem that if one desires to read the Bible, though inspired it is in fact a book in a language, one would need to learn a language in order to be able to read it. Then, there is the challenge of understanding parts of the cultures within the Bible today. There are some things which sound similar and are quite different (i.e. slavery in Philemon). There are some things which sound so radically different because our culture is so far removed from that of the text, we have difficulty understanding the meaning even if we read the text in our language (i.e. things specific to Hebrew culture or Greco-Roman Culture). Then, there are things in the Bible that sound like something we are familiar with but in fact have quite a different meaning and usage in the Bible (i.e. many objects in Revelation, Jesus’ parables and analogies, war still existing though in a more archaic form in the Bible, etc.).
Now, the Christian critic who holds to this first view would say, ‘Hang on, you’re not off the hook yet. Doesn’t all of this undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in helping the believer to understand the text?’ That is a good question. However, again, did the person come from the womb having a complete working knowledge (or an American knowledge) of the English language, general understanding of mathematics, knowing how to operate an automobile or ride a bike or eat solid foods? No. There was hard work and learning that had to happen for that person to come to know how to do these things.
It isn’t a matter of undermining the Holy Spirit in helping the believer to understand the text, but it’s a matter of using the intellectual capacities that are already there for God’s glory (Christian works) as opposed to one’s own (pre-Christian efforts). When one becomes a Christian, their mind isn’t suddenly dead and all that they have learned is gone and all they focus on in the future is literally what is in the Bible. On the other hand, the Bible does become central for the Christian, but only because God is revealed through it. Any other pursuit of understanding the Bible is either highly moral, highly academic, mere curiosity, but not explicitly Christian. There is a truth in what this critic proclaims, though subtly, and that is that the Bible is more important than any other book in the world.
That is absolutely true. God reveals himself to us fully in Jesus Christ. Jesus has ascended into heaven, so now God reveals himself to us today through the Bible, being the Old and New Testaments which testify concerning Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that Jesus is our intercessor to God and that Jesus is in fact fully God (and fully human). The Bible tells us this. The Bible is indeed the most important book in the world that has ever been written. If it is true, and I believe it is, then it means all the world to all the world.
However, if one cannot read and doesn’t know any language that the Bible is written in nor any language that people speak on the earth (this is of course, hypothetical), than how could that person read or come to know the Bible? It would seem that they would need to learn a language first to communicate to others and to read a translation of the Bible. Therefore, on a foundational level, the Bible assumes that the reader would have a basic knowledge of a language and that basic knowledge of a language is not present in the Bible itself. Secondary reading is required.
Some might object saying that all of this is present when one comes to read the Bible, but it is after when they come to understand the Bible that all else becomes irrelevant. The issue here is that basically all other functions and walks of life would then have to cease to exist. Work would not exist. Eating would cease. Exercise would cease. And basically anything that had any rule or instructions that required any reading at all. This is of course a silly thought, but this is precisely the point. Either the critic’s claim is that they should only read the Bible and whatever they desired as necessary to live (which negates their prior claim to begin with and holds to a willful ignorance of not understanding anything else), or the critic’s claim is wrong from the get-go.
The Bible doesn’t tell us to abandon our minds, our labors, and our lives, it redeems them for God’s glory as opposed to our own. When we work we become better workers than we were before while also caring more for others than looking out for ‘number one.’ When we are parents, the Bible redeems our parenting so that we become better parents, loving parents with a love that our lives were ignorant of before. And so on… Also, culture changes and is different based on a number of factors. The claim that the Western mind can automatically understand every aspect of every culture (apart from the human condition, for we are all human) is an exceedingly arrogant claim. What did the apostle Paul do when he traveled as a missionary? He sought to understand the culture and even quoted things that were not explicitly from Jesus in order to engage the world with the Christian worldview. Paul had a profound knowledge and education being a Pharisee before becoming a follower of Jesus. He also had a knowledge of some of the classics of Greek literature such as Menander which is quoted in the Bible. Yes, the Bible actually has secondary/secular material within it. It’s not simply used for it’s own sake, but it used for the sake of reaching out to other cultures and to different people in order to share the Gospel.
This brings us to the second critic who claims Christians ought to read everything especially that which is radically opposed to Christianity. This is the other extreme from the view mentioned above. This view equates Christian knowledge with everything else, in a way. It says that Christian knowledge is valid, but is weak in itself when compared to everything else that is out there. It is important, then, to get out there and strengthen one’s mind by reading everything. The more one reads of things opposed to Christianity, the more one’s faith becomes strengthened and that person can become a sort of intellectual giant who can refute all claims in the world. Now, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration of the claim itself, but you get my point.
The idea here is that the Bible is not only not enough for the Christian, but it is far from sufficient for the Christian. The Christian requires everything in a sense in order to be satisfied and fulfilled and complete. This is why this view is dangerous for the Christian.
The idea that one’s fulfillment and satisfaction comes somewhere other than God is explicitly non-Christian. Now, this person can delude themselves for a time by saying they are building a sort of arsenal of knowledge to combat the Evil One or to combat non-Christian critics, however, the more time one spends outside of the Bible the more time one whether indirectly or directly minimizes the importance of the Bible and it’s place in the Christian life. When that is done, the center of truth in that person’s life can waver and move to really anything. God then becomes secondary to the pursuit of things, specifically, the pursuit of knowledge.
If God is secondary in your life, it is likely that you are not a Christian. I know many who desire to spend a great deal of their time in philosophical works as opposed to the Bible. Now, there is much to be gained from understanding philosophy and all Christians, I believe, would gain quite a bit by having a firm grasp of philosophy especially modern to present day philosophy. The danger is in reading many of the modern to present day philosophers, one is spending a lot of time reading and admiring the work of people who are passionately against the concept of God and many who are passionately against Christians as well. One can avoid this for a time, but the more time one puts into spending time with these very passionate dead modern philosophers and the less time one actually spends in God’s written Word, the Bible, that person drifts in their faith because God’s revelation of himself has become secondary to other things. It isn’t a surprise then, that many of these folks tend to build a hatred of Christians, the Church, and perhaps even have issues with God.
I believe there is a middle ground to find between these two critiques of Christian reading. I believe that God has even redeemed not just our work, parenting, lifestyles, but also our reading. The Christian pursues God fully by reading the Bible daily and not in a legalistic (“I just need to read this chapter and I’m done and can check that off the list.”) sort of way. The Christian reads the Bible and puts it at the center of their lives because God is revealed through it. It isn’t a one time revealing either, it is a continuous task of going to God’s Word in order to better understand God and to better understand ourselves. Sanctification for the Christian, that is becoming Christ-like, is the aim of everything he/she does. If the Bible is removed from the picture, one has really taken God’s revelation out of the picture. It is a serious thing for the Christian to not read the Bible or to not spend time in God’s Word. After all, the strength of the Christian comes in spending time in God’s Word, spending time in prayer, spending time with other Christians, and spending time helping others. With God’s revelation out of the picture there is not a clear presentation of who God is anywhere else, so one can devote oneself to a distorted idea of God and forget or neglect the true God found in Scripture.
Also, if one spends too much time in the Bible and doesn’t ever engage people oor the culture around them, they can become incredibly knowledgable about the Bible, but prove to all that they don’t actually believe it because faith without works is dead according to James and the Bible is concerned with revealing God to us, but also with how every person ought to live their lives. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is loving God and others, and his commission to his disciples is to make disciples in the world, teaching, baptizing, and going. The Christian is called to live in community because it is the signpost of the new creative work that God is doing in bringing humanity back to himself as it was back in Genesis 2 and because it is the gift that God has given humanity in blessing humanity with a loving community as God is a loving community. Also, the Christian community is a sent community. God sent Jesus on a mission into the world to love it and save it. Jesus sends his disciples out into the world to love it and save it.
The desire to be stuck in the Bible and not engage others is not a Christian desire, you see. James tells us that it is good to know God’s Word, but what good is it to simply say to someone cold and hungry, “Be warm or Be full.” It is nothing but a pleasant way of saying you won’t do anything for them at all. Christians are the redeemed people sent to redeem culture and to redeem the world with the message of the Gospel of Jesus both in word and action.
It is important to read secondary books because you can understand the context of some of Paul’s letters or the circumstances that surrounded some of those early churches that were in fact far from perfect. You can understand the differences between your culture and those in the Bible. You can grow in your faith by dwelling on specific parts of the Bible and studying them in depth because God has called some Christians to work tirelessly at helping others to understand the Bible and they write what they learn for others to read and to grow. The modern way of education says you have to go to a special graduate school to understand the Bible in depth or Bible college. However, this is simply not true. It is helpful, but the books one purchases in seminary or grad school or Bible college are available on Amazon.com or elsewhere typically and anyone can purchase them.
Anyone can read the Bible, but it is helpful for everyone unless they believe they are smarter than everyone else alive (an arrogant claim for a supposed Christian called to be humble) to read commentaries on the Bible, and read works of theology, and to read some of the classics of literature ancient and modern. However, the Christian should always keep the Bible as primary in their reading because if they aren’t devoting themselves to God daily in reading the Bible, we as fallen, sinful people will inevitably devote ourselves daily to something else.
So, Christian brothers and sisters, read! Read! Use your reading to help you understand the Bible more, to grow in your faith, to understand theology (to understand God better), to understand the world and the culture in which you live (literature and philosophy), but always know that the Truth is found in God’s Word, the Bible. Never move on as a Christian to something beyond the Bible, but always keep the Bible at the center of your life and may you seek to grow in your faith and use your knowledge of God, the Bible, and the world to love others more and to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.