As we are heading into that time of year when we buy books to read on holiday I thought it might be useful to share some reflections on holiday reading, or indeed reading at any other time of the year.
Although we seem to be moving into an age that is increasingly visual and focused on images, the Christian faith is about words, not just pictures. That might seem odd. Surely an image of something is much better? After all, as the saying goes, isn't a picture 'worth a thousand words'? For some things this may be true but not, I think, for communicating truths about how we are to live. For transmitting truth, words are less ambiguous and much easier to pass on. It's difficult to see how we could express John 3:16's 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life' as an image without it losing clarity. 'In the beginning was the Word', not the image. So reading is good and wise.
A second thing is that whatever we choose to read, we must make reading the Bible a priority. Not just uplifting verses from favourite books but the whole thing. Only that way do we get a full picture of what God has done for us in Christ. A wise practice is to try to read from several different parts of the Bible each day. So, for instance, reading a chapter of the Old Testament from Genesis 1 onwards, a Psalm and then a chapter of the New Testament. Whatever we read, let's make sure it is in addition to Scripture rather than instead of it.
On reading other books let me make four suggestions.
Read wisely. Don't go for books that you feel you ought to read because they will make you appear clever. Don't go for books you will never finish: taking War and Peace on a family holiday is probably not a good idea. Don't go for books that will make your life worse. So if you have had a tough year I'd suggest you pass on something described as a 'devastating portrayal of despair'. If you're struggling with your marriage or with singleness, a tale of romantic love may not be the best thing.
Read widely. Some people only read in one particular area: romantic comedies; the Second World War; science fiction; or detective stories. One of the great things about reading is that it broadens our minds. It opens up the possibilities of experiencing other places, times and challenges. Perhaps the worst thing about television programmes and films is that they don't allow us any pause for thought - it's a non-stop trip. Books allow us the privilege of pausing en route, of being able to reflect on what we are experiencing. We have an opportunity to put a bookmark in, sit back and think about the issues that have been raised. What would we have done under the circumstances? Books give us the freedom and space to both ponder and wonder.
Read warily. The almost magical power of words means that they can be used for good or evil. Never say, 'Oh it's only a book.' Christians, of all people, know that books can be astonishingly powerful for good. Sadly, they can also have a similar power to corrupt. We must not fall into the trap of assuming that the only thing to be wary of is sex and how it is depicted. Yes, it's a problem and we need to guard our minds in this area but there are other issues. Does a book represent violence as the only sensible response to a difficult situation? Is greed elevated to being a virtue? Is the answer to the search for happiness portrayed as money, status or possessions? Of course, when we pick up a book to read, we probably won't know what challenges we will be faced with. The point is, as you read a book, think about what you are reading. The computer you use will have a virus checker that is constantly on the alert for 'malware' - viruses and the like. When we read we should similarly be checking what we read. Books can plant seeds in our minds: greed, lust, anger, prejudice and many more. Those seeds need neutralising before they sprout and flower. So be ready to stop reading a book and discard it if it is unhelpful and unhealthy.
Read worthily. We need to be thoughtful both about our books and about how, as Christians, we approach our reading. Reading is a serious matter. Try to read good books and give them the attention that they deserve. If someone has spent years crafting a masterpiece then we really ought to give it at least a few minutes of careful thought. But we also need to read books in a way that reflects our Christian faith. Paul writes this in his letter to the Colossians: '... in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God' (Colossians 1:10). In other words, in everything we do, even reading books on holiday, we should never forget that as God's children in Christ we are called to live worthy lives.
Books and the reading of them shape our lives; let's allow them to shape us into what God wants us to be.
So my reading list this summer is:
- All the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in the Bible
- Through the Year with William Booth,ed. Stephen J. Poxon (Monarch, 2015)
- Switch On Your Brain, Dr Caroline Leaf (Baker Books, 2013)
- Miracles, Eric Metaxas (Dutton, 2014)
- Thrive, Arianna Huffington (W H Allen, 2015)