When our family gathered (virtually) last Christmas, I was delighted to find several books among my gifts. To be honest, I usually receive books for Christmas, but this gifting was unusual. Most years, the books come from my wish list; perhaps one or two find their way under the Christmas tree. This year, there were six, all from a single friend. Not one was on my list. My friend, who would far rather watch the movie than read the book, spent hours online searching out books she thought I would enjoy. She read synopses and previews. She searched out which book store carried each one and made multiple trips to pick them all up. This was a true gift of love.
A few years ago, the Parish of St. Peter, Winnipeg, formed a book group called Reading for Life Together. The group meets about seven times a year, with participants taking turns selecting the books and facilitating the discussions which are wide-ranging and dynamic. I think all who participate would agree we’ve become better readers because of them. This group is also a gift of love.
The connection between my Christmas gift and Reading for Life Together is that the books are not my choice. They take me out of the well-trod path of my usual reading and expose me to ideas and authors I might never have considered on my own. At times they challenge me personally in ways that are uncomfortable, and it takes real determination to continue reading. In those times, commitment to others gives me the motivation to continue on.
The declared purpose of the book group is learning together to read for the deeper questions of life and faith. That is, in our discussions we hope to learn how to read books with discernment from the perspective of our faith in the Triune God. We want to learn how to read like Christians.
Not everyone will have the same idea of what it means to read like a Christian, which is hardly surprising in a landscape littered with multiple versions of what it means to be a Christian. While I cannot style myself as an expert on the subject, I have a pretty clear idea of what I think it means to read from the perspective of a disciple of Christ. I have an equally clear idea of what it doesn’t mean.
For a start, reading like a Christian is not (for the most part) about the kinds of books you read. It doesn’t require confining yourself to scripture, devotional reading, and theological texts. It is not reading novels exclusively by authors known to be Christian or those with explicitly Christian storylines. Nor is it reading books that have no sex, no violence, and no swearing. There are exceptions here, but I will get to those in a moment.
When it comes to how we read, reading from a Christian perspective does not mean approaching a book like a treasure hunter seeking Christian themes hidden beneath the text. Not that such themes cannot be found – David S. Cunningham, author of Reading is Believing, uses the works of authors as varied as Shakespeare, P.D. James, and Nikos Kansantzakis, to explain core beliefs of the Christian faith. However, any such connections, if they are there, are best left to appear of their own accord rather than distorting one’s reading by explicitly hunting for them.
So, with all those ‘nots behind us, how does someone read like a Christian? In his book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, author Tony Reinke writes that “lit from within by the Holy Spirit, a Christian reads in the light of Jesus Christ.” This is an excellent orientation but turns us towards the same problem I noted earlier: not every professing Christian will agree either on what exactly the light of Christ reveals or what we ought to do with it.
Whatever the style or content of the book we pick up, reading requires discernment from the one who engages in it. From the start, when choosing a book, we exercise discernment as we select some titles and leave others behind. Once we begin to read, we exercise discernment as we go along: Does the book make sense? Does it fit with our worldview or does it challenge our worldview in ways that make us think? Is the author an engaging writer? Am I comfortable with the content of the book? If not, what does my discomfort mean? What reading from a Christian perspective does for these and many other possible questions is provide the foundation from which our discernment flows.
Our starting point as Christian readers, then, is to know our own story from creation to Parousia. Through our faith we develop a specific worldview that places Christ and not ourselves at the centre. We are creature and not Creator and we are, as the body of Christ, a people of community. Within this community, we learn how to love one another as Christ loves us.
Being a Christian gives us a particular hope for the world and the responsibility to work toward the fruition of that hope. We know that our lives are not in our hands and our future is secured by a God who loves us without limit.
With that as our grounding, we can read critically, engaging in informed discussion with the author, discerning where their worldview and ethic intersects with ours and where it diverges. We may find that reading a book we wholly disagree with actually helps us clarify our own thoughts. Equally, we may discern that a given book is not for us. As I suggested earlier, there are books whose content or purpose – exploitation, glorification of violence, racism, or misogyny for example – are incompatible with a commitment to ‘respect the dignity of every human being.’ It may be wisest to pass those by.
The gift of books we do not choose offers us the chance to hone our skills in critical discernment from a Christian perspective, but we should not stop there. Bringing the same discernment to our old favourites may well result in surprising discoveries that bring our appreciation to a whole different level.
Shelagh is a member of St. Peter’s Winnipeg, where she is Deacon, Parish Administrator, and Theological Advisor to Outreach Ministry. She can’t imagine a life without a pile of books waiting to be read.