The Value of Reading Broadly (even Outside Christian Literature)

This essay is an open challenge for the Church to step up intellectually. We are commanded to “’love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the great and foremost commandment” – Matthew 22:37-38 (Jesus reciting Deuteronomy 6:5, emphasis mine).

I was jolted to think once again about my habit of reading broadly when I realized that the last three books on my reading list were authored by three men, unrelated insofar as I know, with the same last name: Wright. I do not know that that coincidence has any meaning but I found it intriguing. The first was The Mission of God by Christopher Wright, then Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, and finally, Simply Christian by N.T. Wright. The first and last are without question Christian literature. While Robert Wright touches on questions of divinity, his approach is definitely not from any particular faith point of view, in fact, quite the opposite.

This “event” in my reading got me to thinking. If one were to read through the “Suggested Reading” and “Cited Bibliography” of Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission (about nine pages total) they would discover a significant number of non-Christian entries. The Christian literature listed includes material from several different Christian traditions as well, including authors from perspectives of the Reformed, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and so on. My book shelves are lined with many books on a variety of topics, including psychology, marketing, philosophy, leadership, fiction, game theory, social and cultural development, Bible commentary, church history, theology, and the list goes on and on. (I even have one on the history of the flush toilet, Flushed with Pride, that was a gift from my sister-in-law.)

There are, I think, several advantages to reading broadly and, as the title above suggests, even significantly outside Christian literature. I will address those which seem most relevant and apparent to me: perspective, tunnel vision, and wisdom.

First is a matter of perspective. Thomas Friedman, in his seminal work on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, elucidates the advantage of having a “globalistic” view of the world. That is, he encourages the idea of becoming generalists in a world running swiftly down the paths of specialization. If one invests themselves in a narrow discipline, it is easy to lose perspective of the broader realities of the kaleidoscope of life. Our world is complex and we can quickly lose sight of how a variety of disciplines and concerns are ultimately all of one integrated whole. When it came time for me to decide whether to pursue a PhD or simply write Eden’s Bridge, I realized that I would have to give up my pursuit of the broad perspective for three or four years while narrowing my focus to the specific topic at hand. Three or four years of continuing panoramic observation amidst the fast-paced change dynamic of our hyper-speed world was simply too expensive to let go.

A significant point that Friedman touches on, and one I find especially poignant, parallels the argument for liberal arts education. If we specialize in a technical field, it is easy to get a handle on the “how” particular things work but quite possible to miss or lose real insight as to the “why” and how they relate to one another. My older brother is a world class electrical engineer, a chip designer. I also know, however, he reads a great deal other than technical journals and thus has a broader perspective on life. He may not delve as deeply or broadly as I into other materials but does so, at least in my thinking, more than most professional “technologists,” as many of those folk, especially at the bleeding edges of technology, are pressed to stay abreast of all the new developments that might inform their next moves at work. Specialization is a good thing for career development and economic progress but can create silos in which practitioners, albeit unwittingly, move away from full social integration.

The second advantage (though stated in a negative sense) is related to the first: Those who read only Christian literature (perhaps outside their professional pursuits) can end up with blinders not unlike those of a technologist in a particular specialization. We are missing too much of what is happening around us if we are effectively withdrawn from the world to which we are trying to minister. We cannot minister adequately if we have no real notion of who these people are, how they think, and the ends they are pursuing. How can we show them a better way if we do not thoroughly understand the way they are going? Jesus critiqued the critical thinking skills of “godly” people in the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16) by saying the children of the world are wiser than the sons of light (v. 8). His next statement was the command that we should “make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon (MONEY!) of unrighteousness” (v. 9).

Do not think that I want to discourage reading Christian literature. A great deal of my seminary studies focused on the content of a wide range of Christian literature. I do want Christians to read outside Christian literature simply because we tend toward that which, while expanding our understanding of our faith, might lead us into tunnel vision. If we are to affect change in the world, we must engage it, at least initially, somewhat on its own terms, just as Jesus went into the streets and marketplace of Jerusalem to teach.

For reading in Christian literature, I would encourage reading across the boundaries of denominations and traditions to engage ideas that may challenge presuppositions. There are Christians offering well documented and Scriptural arguments on both sides of most critical social issues. It is easy to become comfortable if everything we engage is “preaching to the choir,” because it can lead to rationalizing a narrowed view of reality, even Christian reality, reinforcing the point of view we already have. Also, read things that are not the pulp fiction of the Christian world. Seek out writings from recognized and critically acclaimed authors, not just the book of the month from popular leaders. I have to read more slowly with deep authors but the material leads me into a much greaterunderstanding of Scripture and Church history than most things written for the broader Christian audience.

To close: do not fear being exposed to worldly ideas but be wise as serpents amidst the wolves (Matthew 10:16). The God who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). Do not hesitate to carefully consider what may be revealed to and through those outside the Church. Even Nebuchadnezzar became an agent of God in protecting and providing for the revitalization of Israel. We should glean whatever good fruit we can from the world’s fields then prepare an open feast seasoned by our being the salt of the earth.

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