How to Read Christianly

If you’re a student of apologetics, it’s likely that you’ve read or heard a Christian thinker stress the importance of the life of the mind. Jesus calls us to love God with all our minds (Mark 12:30), and Paul calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and to take every thought captive to Christ (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5). Since humans act based on what they believe, what happens in the mind determines how we will live our lives.

One of the primary ways we can shape our thinking to reflect God’s will, of course, is by reading Scripture. Peter urged believers to “crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). As God’s inspired revelation, Scripture will always be the primary source of our knowledge of everything pertaining to God. However, that does not mean we should limit ourselves to Scripture for spiritual growth and insight. Just as we glean spiritual truths from pastors who preach sermons each week, and Christian friends who share their spiritual insights, we can benefit from the knowledge and experiences shared by Christian, and even non-Christian, writers. Christians have a rich history of creating and preserving books that over time have become spiritual classics.1

As God’s inspired revelation, Scripture will always be the primary source of our knowledge of everything pertaining to God. However, that does not mean we should limit ourselves to Scripture for spiritual growth and insight

Since the life of the mind is fundamental to living the Christian life, I want to explore here some ways that we can read non-biblical literature Christianly. We might even think of reading as a spiritual discipline, alongside others like prayer, giving, and fellowship. I hope church leaders, especially, will be encouraged to read for spiritual growth (as many already do), since they are called to teach God’s people, and that they’ll encourage their members to do so as well. As Proverbs exhorts us, “let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance” (1:5).

Why Read Beyond the Bible?
Before looking at some specific ways that we can read Christianly, it will help to address a common objection. Some believers will raise the question of why we should read anything except the Bible. Scripture is God’s inspired Word and free from error, so why spend time reading something that falls below that standard? There are several reasons why reading outside of the Bible is a valuable pursuit.2

First, we gain insights that we would otherwise be ignorant of. As Jessica Hooten Wilson points out, “Our eyes are not enough by which to see. The time and place in which we live blinds us to other perspectives and ways of being that are not of our own experience.”3 Leland Ryken and Glenda Mathes add that “to live well and responsibly, we need to know the truth about ourselves, our fellow humans, and our world. God expects us to possess this body of truth, and it is part of the spiritual life.”4 Much of what we need to know to live wisely and effectively in the world is found in God’s general revelation (creation) rather than his special revelation (Scripture). Entailed in what’s been called the “cultural mandate” in Genesis (1:26-28) is the expectation that in the process of drawing out and working with creation’s inherent potentialities, humans will accumulate a reservoir of knowledge that stands apart from (but not in contradiction to) God’s verbal and written revelation.5 Books of all kinds allow us to share this knowledge with one another.

To live well and responsibly, we need to know the truth about ourselves, our fellow humans, and our world. God expects us to possess this body of truth, and it is part of the spiritual life

Explicitly Christian literary works can be a great source of encouragement. A career missionary told Ryken that a line from one of John Milton’s sonnets “‘was a source of strength to me during our twenty years in Japan,’ as well as later when waiting for a position to open up.” The same verse provided “spiritual direction and sustenance” to a former student of Ryken’s who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome.6

Second, becoming better readers helps us to grow in our understanding of Scripture. Ryken and Mathes observe that “at least three-fourths of the Bible is literary in form. In other words, literature is the most customary vehicle for conveying truth in the Bible.”7 And since “a story is a story, and a poem is a poem,” each “format operates exactly the same in the Bible and beyond the Bible.” Thus, as we improve in our ability to interpret literary narratives, poetry, and other genres, we’ll also become more skilled interpreters of Scripture.

As an aside, when it comes to Scripture, British poet Alexander Pope’s aphorism rings true: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”8 The late pastor and author Eugene Peterson humorously noted that “It is not sufficient to place a Bible in a person’s hands with the command, ‘Read it.’ That is quite as foolish as putting a set of car keys in an adolescent’s hands, giving him a Honda, and saying, ‘Drive it.’ And just as dangerous.”9 Without guidance from mature believers (like pastors) and trustworthy books, misinterpretation of Scripture can lead to hazardous conclusions.

Finally, familiarity with literature can help us reach nonbelievers. There is a remarkable biblical precedent for this in Paul’s address to the Council of the Areopagus in Acts 17. There, in an effort to contextualize the gospel using a cultural reference point his audience would have been familiar with, Paul quotes two Greek poets, Epimenides of Crete and Aratus (Acts 17:28). We can likewise use familiarity with well-known books today as points of connection that point toward the gospel (the Christian elements and themes in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are two ready examples).10

In addition, a number of people have come to faith through literature. Wilson relates that “George MacDonald’s novels moved the young atheist C. S. Lewis to become a Christian. Likewise, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky compelled Walker Percy to convert to Catholicism, and his novels returned the former Communist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the Russian Orthodox Church.”11

How to Read Christianly
In light of the great value of reading and literature, how should we approach reading as Christians, in a way that leads to spiritual growth? The following points, though not comprehensive, provide guidance.

First, although it nearly goes without saying, we should never lose sight of the difference between Scripture and any other written word. Wilson writes, “Over years of reading, we may begin to trust certain authors and regard them as teachers, but there remains a difference between their genius and the authority of the apostles. . . . no matter how much truth or beauty these writers engender, they do not possess the apostolic authority granted to the writers of Scripture.”12

Instead, Scripture should be our conversation partner as we contemplate what we read. Wilson suggests “underlining sections of books and identifying the truths that accord with what we know of God. . . . Our reading of other literature should be in constant dialogue with our Bible reading.”13

Second, we should look for the true, the good, and the beautiful in what we read. Edifying books can help us cultivate our mental lives according to Paul’s instruction that “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Regarding truth, as Ryken and Mathes state, “all truth, wherever we find it and whatever its secondary source, is precious to a Christian.”14 Because of God’s common grace, there is something we can learn from everyone, even nonbelievers.15 Louis Markos adds, “The Christian need not reject the poetry of Homer, the teachings of Plato, or the myths of the pagans as one-hundred percent false . . . but may affirm those moments when Plato and Homer leap past their human limitations and catch a glimpse of the true glory of the triune God.”16

Concerning goodness, stories are an ideal medium to explore the outworking of both virtue and vice in human (and non-human) characters. Stories can accomplish this in a way that a mere set of propositions can’t. Ryken and Mathes observe, “The goal of Christians is to behave in a moral way, but we need to know the difference between virtue and vice before we can live virtuously. Although the Bible is our ultimate sourcebook, we find a testing ground in moving vicariously among examples of moral and immoral conduct in the pages of literature.”17

In relation to beauty, when we see and delight in it, “we are seeing and delighting in a quality God has created. God is the source of beauty. He created a beautiful world and gave beauty as a gift to the human race. To delight in beauty is to delight in a quality of God himself.”18 Beauty seems to have a unique ability to delight and refresh the soul.

In some types of literature, especially those that focus on the darker aspects of human experience, or in writings that are antagonistic to the Christian worldview, the absence of truth, goodness, or beauty is itself a kind of testimony to these qualities that flow from God’s nature. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, God’s presence sometimes implicitly “haunts” such works. In some cases, a despairing lack of truth, goodness, or beauty can for that reason turn readers toward God. A soon to be released book, in fact, relates the stories of 12 contributors who all attribute at least part of their conversion to Christianity to the writings of Richard Dawkins!19

In some cases, a despairing lack of truth, goodness, or beauty can for that reason turn readers toward God

Finally, it can be encouraging and edifying to read in community. Wilson contends that the “reading life is not isolated or hermetic. Those who have experienced memorable literature classes or book clubs or family read-aloud time recognize the joy of reading in community; it bonds family and friends and neighbors in unquantifiable ways.”20 We should all be so fortunate as to have a group of fellow readers (and perhaps writers) like the Inklings, which met for about 17 years and nourished the creation of series like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.21

With all the pleasures and benefits of reading, Wilson urges that we Christians “should continue to be those weirdos who spend less time in the virtual ether and more time in stories, poetry, and drama. . . . for in the beginning was the Word, and in the end is the book of life.”22

Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance.  He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, and other sites.