Reading: For Knowledge, For Pleasure, With Wisdom
by Alyssa Yoder
This article appears in the current issue of Daughters of Promise, entitled Story. Purchase your copy here.
I don't really remember learning to read; I only remember loving it. I devoured the Elsie Dinsmore books and the Nancy Drew series and as for Anne of Green Gables, oh, how she spoke to my soul. Books old and new, fiction and non-fiction, fantasy, mystery, Christian fiction, poetry—I read them all. Eventually, I became an English major and read still more and still more widely. However, my discernment lagged behind. As I learned to treasure excellent writing, it became my main criteria in choosing a book. I reveled in all the new reading possibilities open to me without thinking much about controlling my thoughts or how those books might be influencing me. I looked down on those who consumed only ‘mediocre Christian fiction’ and thought they were better for it.
Was I entirely right? Was I entirely wrong? Can we divide all books into Christian and good or non-Christian and bad? And if we cannot, how do we choose wisely?
ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS
Let's be clear about one thing first: choosing wisely is not optional. Proverbs 4:23 commands us to guard the heart, which is “not merely the home of affections, but the seat of the will” (MacLaren, 1904). Romans 12:2 (ESV) commands us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Our wills, our emotions, our minds—all must be protected and shaped with care.
What is less clear is how to protect and shape. Should we only read books written by Christian authors? Avoid all fiction? Drop a book at the first cuss word? The Bible may not give us detailed instructions, but it does give us general guidelines. Our purpose in life is to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), and we do this by abiding in Jesus (John 15:1-11). Is our reading contributing to that purpose and relationship—even if only by providing us with rest? Philippians 4:8 tells us to think on “whatever is true...honorable...just...pure...lovely...commendable...any excellence...anything worthy of praise.” Does our reading material fit in any of these categories? Is it making righteous thoughts easier or harder for us? Do we have faith that the book we are reading is a legitimate pleasure (Rom. 14:23)? Can we thank God for it (1 Cor. 10:30)?
These questions will develop a much healthier reading filter than the question of whether a book is Christian or non-Christian. After all, books often defy categorization. They may cover a secular subject, but contain truth and beauty and goodness. They may be non-Christian, but not actually anti-Christian. Or—trickier still—they may have anti-Christian elements, but still have much to teach us about God, mankind, and the world.
Asking ourselves questions based on Scripture lays a strong foundation for enjoying a wide variety of books. Through my reading mistakes, I've learned some strategies to help me build on that foundation.
First of all, saturate yourself in Scripture. The best way to become a good error detector is to know the Word, both the book and the Person, intimately (Ps. 19:7, Pro. 2:6). The second-best way is to study worldviews and critical thinking (Rom. 12:2). You cannot avoid error simply by sticking to Christian authors. Even Christian books can be mediocre in form and deceitful in content. Some good educational resources include Literature Through the Eyes of Faith by Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, The Universe Next Door by James Sire, and The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. Whether we are reading Christian or non-Christian authors, we must come equipped both to learn and to discern.
It is not enough to know Scripture; we also need to know ourselves. Many choices I regret are a result of my thinking that since such-and- such a Christian recommends a particular book, I am also free to enjoy it. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and different books will pull us in different directions (Rom. 14:1-6). I have learned that I may be weak in areas that even my friends with similar reading standards are not. The more I recognize those weaknesses, the easier it is for me to acknowledge and abandon a harmful book.
Once you know your weaknesses, you can set better standards for yourself (Rom. 14:22). As much as possible, specifically identify which themes and how much inappropriate material will cause you to drop a book. Then, find a like-minded reading partner. The two of you can hold each other accountable and also discuss the books you are reading. I benefit most from my reading when I am discussing it with other readers. My accountability partners have been essential as I seek to make wise choices (Heb. 10:25).
Finally, practice the skim and skip strategy. I hate not seeing a good story through to the end, and this can keep me reading while pushing down a squirmy conscience. I've found that flipping through a book before reading gives an overview of its content without giving away too many spoilers or completely drawing me in. When you do decide to read, skip any inappropriate scenes and set the book aside to evaluate or abandon if necessary. Regardless of whether or not you continue, remember that ultimately you control your thoughts (1 Cor. 10:13). It is often easier for my mind to stray when the content is appropriate than when it is not and I am more on guard. If you are in a season where you just cannot seem to win the battle, be willing to set an entire genre aside for as long as necessary, to grow in strength and discernment (Mt. 5:30).
WHY EVEN TRY?
If reading well takes this much effort, why continue to read? Though I still make mistakes, I continue to read because I love it. Reading can destroy walls, whisper truth, and delight the soul. It is a powerful tool of instruction and comfort. To ignore our desire for story and knowledge counters our God-given nature and concedes a building block of society to those who are indifferent to Christianity. All of us must read, and read wisely. We cannot afford to do otherwise.
Alyssa Yoder is wife to Ryan and mom to Luke, plus one more on the way. She enjoys reading, writing, cooking, teaching, podcasts, and me-too conversations. She detests cleaning, dislikes gardening, and makes awkward small talk. Hop on a plane, come sit on her couch in Spain, and she'll serve you coffee, bite her tongue to keep from apologizing for the store- bought cookies, and probably mention a book or a podcast somewhere along the way. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MacLaren, Alexander. (1904). Expositions of Holy Scripture. Retrieved from