I have always loved stories. I want to know the details and to think on the motivations, the “whys” of the story and contemplate. This enjoyment grew in high school when I encountered an outstanding AP English teacher that encouraged me to read wide and deep. Her love for literature fueled my love for literature and I read many classics that weren’t on the syllabus but explored for the sheer joy of the story.
Fast forward to my twenties when I was assigned a large number of reading in my literature classes, while trying to take care of a toddler and a house, and still trying to grow in my faith. Somewhere after my last paper was written and the last assigned book was closed, I decided I was done with literature.
I wish I could say that it was a purely practical move for my thinking, at the time, was that I would only spend the precious free time I could muster (now with baby #2 on the way) on books that encourage my walk with God. In my mind, that meant no more fiction. However, practicality wasn’t the only thing driving my thoughts. Truth be told, a form of legalism took root in my heart and I was passing judgment – judge and jury – on ALL fiction, dismissing it as frivolous, “secular” and a waste of time. Oh, the pain that causes me now to write that! That is the ugly truth of my ugly thoughts. If it didn’t somehow contribute to the betterment of my faith, I wasn’t touching it. Ugh. I shake my head at myself now over this pious and pretentious attitude.
But when you know better, you do better, as Maya Angelou would say.
In my 34th year on this earth, I realized I really missed stories. I really missed literature. The absence of it had left a gaping hole in my life that had previously brought joy, empathy and a way to engage with culture as a Christ follower. So, I challenged myself to read 35 books by my 35th birthday. I didn’t quite make that goal but that was ok because it stirred something awake inside of me. Outside of my college classes, it was the first time that I had immersed myself in all kinds of stories – from all cultures and viewpoints and it was thrilling! Since then, I’ve tried to keep up my reading on a wide breadth of topics, genres, cultures, and world views.
From this reformed way of thinking and reading, I learned that reading broadly is good for the heart, mind and soul. Here’s my case:
* Reading widely has taught me to seek understanding for others.
Seeing the world through the eyes of different view points, cultures, imaginations and struggles has allowed me to grow empathy and understanding for the things I don’t understand. I may not walk away agreeing with the different viewpoints, cultural practices, or imaginations and opinions but I definitely have been stretched to consider them, wrestle with them, see how they align with my own and develop a softer heart for those who may be different from me.
* Reading widely has made my faith stronger.
For so long, I was surrounded by Christians who were fearful of opposing viewpoints, opinions, and ideas from Christianity and that bothered me. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home so to have a differing thought or a cuss word drop around the house wasn’t cause to run and cover the children’s eyes and ears. When I did become a Christian, I appreciated learning what made me believe one way and someone else another and not to be afraid of being “exposed” to it. What I’ve learned is that seeking to understand something different from me and my beliefs, helps strengthen what I believe not tear it down. To roll a differing opinion around in my head doesn’t threaten my faith, it strengthens it because it causes me stretch myself to seek answers I don’t know and be sure of what I do. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in.You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.” He is speaking on temptation but it can easily be applied to our faith. Reading broadly allows us to get a little resistance build up to our beliefs and that is not something to be afraid of.
* Reading widely allows my comprehension, imagination and vocabulary to grow.
The more you read, the more you know.. in word definitions, comprehension and imagination. All three grow under a reading plan of wide variety. When sticking to one genre as I did for several years, I was stuck in a one dimensional world with regurgitated ideas packaged slightly different every few years. While imitation is the highest form of flattery, the Christian non-fiction world was stuck in imitating ideas that broader society and culture had already hit upon just a few years earlier. I may have picked up a new catch word here and there but it did nothing for my imagination. Reading with a broad reach allows the introduction of new ideas, new perspectives, and paradigm cultural shifts that are coming with each new generation – something the church should be quick to pay attention to.
* Reading widely has helped me interact with the culture around me.
Culture is defined as the “beliefs, customs, art, etc. of a particular society, group, place or time” (Merriam Webster). A large and varying reading appetite creates opportunity to interact with the culture as it’s happening; so that the references of pop culture don’t go over my head and I can participate in conversations on the merits and thoughts of the elements of current culture and, on occasion, engage culture in a healthy and respectful way.
In order for me to interact with the culture around me, I must go where the people of this world ALREADY ARE and not shelter myself from that. So, reading up on the trending YA novels that many of the students are talking about or checking out the TV shows that are heavily talked about around the water cooler. Because let’s face it.. North American culture is heavily influenced and driven by entertainment. Even if I disagreed with and flat out didn’t like them (tv show, movies, books, blogs, etc.), at least I have a leg to stand on now to participate in a well-informed, respectful conversation with others about that topic. *EDITOR’S NOTE: Obviously, I’m not talking about endorsing 50 Shades of Grey here but applying common sense. There is no need for me to read that in order to gain some knowledge of it to discuss because the culture around me discussed it at length for me (and many non-Christians opposed it or found it gross..). So, this step, requires listening to the culture around us and what they’re discussing as well (simultaneously?) uses our discernment on when we should stop reading/listening/observing.
Engaging the culture – the beliefs, customs, art, etc. of society – can’t happen if I bubble-wrap myself up in my own Christian world. Jesus went to where the people of this world already were. He went to the prostitutes, the thieves, the ones with questionable professions and/or ethics. He went to those who were hurting and in need of a hope and a Savior. He went to pagan people with those who not only opposed his viewpoints but opposed him wholeheartedly. Reading with a wide scope provides opportunities that would never be possible if I were still sheltering myself in the narrowly defined rows of Christian non-fiction.
In the end, reading brings me joy and sparks creativity in me. Stories bring me alive and keep my brain flowing and thinking instead of growing stagnant and stuck and at the same time, reading relaxes me. Jesus, the ultimate storyteller, used stories in his teachings to illustrate his points instead of spoon feeding it to them. I appreciate that about a well told story too. I don’t want to be spoon fed; let me stretch, kick, punch and wrestle with that idea or thought. I love that stories can do this for our brains and yet can also calm us, bring a sense of satisfaction and contentment, allow us to feel all the emotions on levels we didn’t know were possible and to dream.
Need more reasons to grab a book? Here you go!