On Reading Well

I’ve been on a bit of a reading kick lately. From novels with my Kinder moms book club and middle elementary audio books on the drive home, to parenting books by neuroscientists and heady theological commentaries on the usage of a particular Greek term prior to 312 AD—I’ve been all over the place. Somewhere between Moscow, Havana, and Ancient Israel, I got to thinking about how we read what we read as Christians. How do we decide what to read, which authors to trust, and what is worth our time? Then, when this review of “Girl, Stop Apologizing” blew up my inbox last week, I figured it might be time to pen a few thoughts on the topic.

The review of Rachel Hollis’s book is rather scathing, and based on the parts quoted, probably justifiably so. I haven't personally read Hollis's work, but I am quite familiar with the genre. Called by some the “Hey Girlfriend” style, books like these purport to hand out life advice but usually fall spiritually short. These writers offer a peek behind the curtain of their personal lives, often revealing a lack of discipline masquerading as “messy,” and a blasé attitude toward sin under the auspices of “authenticity.” And while not all books in this colloquial style are bad, I tend to approach them with some caution. We have a responsibility as believers to consider thoughtfully the ideas we feed our minds before we become too chummy with the latest trendsetter.

I would be the last person to suggest that we shut out all forms of reading that aren’t sacrosanct, but I do believe that Christians should always engage with reading, entertainment, and more as whole persons. When we fail to read at all levels—emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually—we are more susceptible to false teaching and the first steps on a path away from God’s good way of living.

So, how DO you engage with a variety of content without being led to spiritual slaughter? Here are a few suggestions:

Talk back to the author. I am a big fan of marginalia, so if you thumb through my books, you will find the edges littered with notes that read “Could this be an opportunity for grace?” or “Conflicts with Colossians 3?” or “Useful in conversation about teaching,” or sometimes just “Nope.” I also use this strategy in reading aloud with my kids. We might stop on a page and ask “How do you think that made her friend feel?” or “Wow—what would happen if you behaved that way?” Besides being good reading comprehension practice, asking questions builds empathy and provides openings to conversations about God.

Consider the context of scripture references. This one can be a little more difficult if there are tons of references in a given book, but it’s really useful when you are new to a particular writer or unsure of their theology. Take a moment to look up a few of the references—especially the ones that seem a bit odd—and be sure that the original context of the verse makes sense for the point that it is supposed to support in the book. When you study your own Bible, you consider passages in their larger context, so you want to be sure that the author you are reading is doing the same.

Look for parallels. This is my favorite strategy for reading literature, pop-psychology, social commentary, and the like. The low-hanging fruit here are things like finding similar narrative arcs or character comparisons between other narratives and God’s story in the Bible. Sometimes it’s nice to close a powerful story and make time for your mind to wander into thoughts of God’s redemptive power or grace. But I also catch glimpses of the gospel message when I am reading about the latest educational trends or the struggles all millenials face. For instance, I have been listening to a secular book about growing resilience in children, and I keep having “aha” moments over the ideas they present. What they offer as mindfulness practices sounds a bit like prayer dressed up in non-religious clothing. Of course, these ideas are not a simple one-for-one (“you call it prayer, I call it mindfulness”), but in the context of the author’s advice about mindfulness, I am reminded about aspects of prayer that I should start incorporating with my children.

Read your Bible. This last point—which is really the entire point of this post—sounds so simple but packs the most punch. The best way to read other texts critically is to be as familiar as you can with the Source Text. When your mind is infused with scripture, you ask better questions, you catch misattributed verses more quickly, and you draw stronger parallels. As much as I enjoy reading compelling stories and the latest trends and ideas, if those aren’t ingested alongside a healthy dose of Bible, my frame of mind will easily begin to shift. As the book of Proverbs makes clear over and over, wisdom begins with the Lord. And so should we.

For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
(Proverbs 2:6-8)

So what does this all mean when you hear a particularly harrowing review of that best-selling book on your reading list? In some cases, I'll drop it from the queue altogether. I figure it might be more valuable to spend my time on the adventures of 7-year old misfits Ivy and Bean.