May 9, 2012

A Christian Guide to Reading Books

by Jesse Johnson

Christians are readers. We love books because we love truth, and truth is conveyed through propositional statements. We love to think because our minds are in service to God, who invented thought. We love to reason, because the author of reason is the one who gave us logic. We love emotions, because they are often a reflection of the passions that God designed us to express.

Christians read devotionals to increase our devotion to God. We read systematic theologies to challenge our thinking, and to teach us about God. We read novels because we understand the human experience through opened eyes and a sympathetic heart. We appreciate beauty in story because we are participants in the most profound story ever told.

But reading can be overwhelming. Where to start, how to find time, and what to do with a bad book are all questions that Christian readers continually face.

And Christian readers read differently than non-Christians. We like different books (do non-Christians read MacArthur and Piper?), and we respond to the same books differently (I’m sorry, but non-Christians—no matter how hard they try—just don’t get Atlas Shrugged).

Tony Reinke has written a book that not only answers questions about who to read and how to read them, but also explains why Christians approach books differently than the world. Lit: A Christian’s Guide to Reading Books, is the first book I have ever read on how to read. And it is excellent. Reinke answers the obvious questions, and he seeks to be practical. He explains how to choose a book, how and why to write in your book, and when to quit a bad book.

Reinke—who blogs at—is an exceptional writer. He creates vivid word pictures that the reader can relate with, and he keeps his chapters moving. The book flows quickly, and it never feels old or redundant. The chapters are all well placed, and (with the exception of his chapter on Revelation, which I’m not sure I tracked with) they all add to the main point of the book, which is that Christians should not only read, but read well.

The strength of Lit is that Reinke approaches reading through the lens of Scripture. He divides all books into two catagories: the Bible, and everything else. Or, to put it differently, 66 perfect books, and an almost infinite number of flawed books (“paper pulp and etched granite”). However, his most insightful point was that the area where all other books are flawed is precisely the point at which they deviate from the story of the Bible. It is not just that the Bible is perfect, but it is also the measure and guide by which we read every other book. Novels falter when they deviate from the virtues of the Bible. Business books fail when they leave biblical ethics. Ditto with theology books:

Scripture is the ultimate grid by which we read every book. Scripture is perfect, sufficient and eternal. All other books, to some degree, are imperfect, deficient, and temporary. That means that when we pick books from the bookstore shelves, we read those imperfect books in light of the perfect Book, the deficient books in light of the sufficient Book, and the temporary books in light of the eternal Book.

But Reinke is not a book-burning fundamentalist. He goes to great lengths to show how Christians can and should read novels, historical fiction, poetry, etc. He explains why non-Christian authors can sometimes portray beauty in a profound way, and he gives some good guidance for how and why Christians should appreciate their work.

My favorite part of Lit was where he gave principles Christians should use to judge the worth of fiction and non-Christian authors. I may give them in a future post, but they have more to do with world-view than they do with simply literature. They are as apt for critiquing art, movies, and music as they are for books.

Lit is one of those books that pays dividends. Reading it will cause you to read other books more frequently. View it as an investment. If you want to read more, read this, and it will help you not only read more, but read better.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Dave Johnson

    Wholeheartedly concur! Read “Constructive Anatomy” to fine tune my ability to render portraits. Don’t worry its quite conservative in its presentation and respect; author dedicated his book to his mother in 1920. Its basic thesis is “Think in masses, define them in lines.” That’s true of Bible study. Read Philippians over and over and you start to “think” in masses (big ideas / flow of thought). Then the redeemed mind is compelled to define those “big ideas” into lines of truth / precepts. When it all comes together … you have a picture that others can see and make sense out of (Not a big fan of Picasso … which might be a good way to describe many post-modernists view of God) Anyway … to put an “upward” perspective on our “wide-word” journey … its always good to remember what Solomon said about books “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: (and I love this!), “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.” Wow! When that is the case … the portrait that emerges is Christ in his glorious beauty of holiness, truth and love … as seen in His perfect Word! Oh let God be all in all!

    • Well said. Pastor MacArthur always gives this advice for devotionals: read the same 5-6 chapters every day for a month. Then you start to think like that passage would have you think, and you internalize it. Thanks for commenting Dave.

  • Sounds like a good book to read.
    “Novels falter when they deviate from the virtues of the Bible”… I wonder if that’s principle has stopped many Christians fromm reading the Harry Potter books…?

    • Reinke’s point is not along the lines of “magic is bad,” but along the lines of world-view. Even fiction can opperate outside of God’s created world, but convey a world view that has elements of truth. The problem is when that world view has elements of lies as well.

  • Great post and good points — especially, as you said, “the area where all other books are flawed is precisely the point at which they deviate from the story of the Bible. It is not just that the Bible is perfect, but it is also the measure and guide by which we read every other book.”

    And how true, that the Christian worldview affects not only what we choose to read, but what we glean from them.

  • Bill

    “I’m sorry, but non-Christians—no matter how hard they try—just don’t get Atlas Shrugged”
    You do realize Ayn Rand was an atheist, no?

    • Yes, and I think that was Reinke’s point in that example too. Even non-Christians can make a world-view point that is true and edifying, even though they themselves obviously fail to understand why/how their point is so profound. If Rand were a Christian, I’m not sure his point in using that example would still stand.

    • But also Bill, since you hinted at and a few others emailed me about it, and one friend called me to openly mock that line in my post, allow me to defend it:

      The world view that Atlas Shrugged advocates is one with individual freedom, particularly in the area of freedom from government oversight. Liberty for the individual translates into liberty and prosperity for the poli, and government regulation of that liberty is exploitation, and not true freedom at all. The Christian and non-Christian alike can understand that this is what Rand is advocating.

      However, freedom for freedom’s sake is clearly misguided. Within a biblical world view of depravity, God has established governments to bear the sword and to check evil. A good government does this in a way that is noble and protects the individual freedom precisely because the individual is in the image of God–and more importantly because the individual will give an account to God on the judgment day for the way he lived.

      Christians generally favor individual freedoms ONLY because there is a sovereign God who will judge evil. It is not coincidental that capitalism and democracy both develop from a world view of a sovereign God who became a man, was betrayed and killed, and rose from the grave–giving meaning and hope to even the most anonymous and obscure of individuals. Christians probably reject Rand’s portrayal of the lower class (essentially leaches), because we get that the dignity of the individual (and not just he creator) is seen in the image of God. We also understand that the reason freedom is possible is because under God’s eye there is no true freedom at all.

      Augustine’s famous line sums up what Atlas Shrugged was going for but unable to attain: “We are only free when we our freedom is found in bondage to God.”

  • Joshua S.

    >> Lit: A Christian’s Guide to Reading Books, is the first book I have ever read on how to read.

    Lit was my second. My first was How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Thomas Foster), and now I’m on How to Read a Book (Mortimer Adler). Each one has benefited me in some way, and you may interested in those as well.