I hated to read growing up. I like to blame that on the fact that I am incredibly hyper, and sitting still long enough to read a book was too painful. I also often had to reread pages because I did not pay attention to what I was reading the first time through. My Reading ACT score was by far the lowest because I do not think I read any of the passages except for the first one… which I probably had to read several times just to get one solid read through. I always read what I was assigned to read for school (unlike the majority of my students), but the only book I ever remember enjoying was The Hobbit. It is still one of my top favorites.
Needless to say, when I finally did start to enjoy reading, I felt like I had several years of catching up to do. I learned to read with focus when I first became a Christian. Reading books about theology and walking with Jesus was something I wanted to do; my desire to grow in my understanding and relationship with Jesus fueled my enjoyment of reading those books. I still never really picked up any fiction novels though. Sometime near the end of my college years, I very slowly began reading works of fiction, mostly really just The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings though. Reading changed for me when I moved to Italy and started riding metro trains to and fro about the city all day. I needed something to occupy myself on those train rides but iPhones were not an option. Thus, God made books.
I borrowed a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia from a teammate and fell in love with stories on train rides. I lugged around heavy books everywhere I went for several months until I finally bought a Kindle. It made my life easier and my shoulders much happier. This is about the time that I began to feel as if I was behind and had missed out on years of reading and knowing. I started setting goals for myself and intentionally trying to read a certain amount of books or a certain type of books; I was officially on a quest. Almost ten years later, I am now smothered in reading working towards a PhD in English. It’s funny sometimes how God works in small ways over the course of many years that eventually leads us to a place we never would have imagined.
I’m not really a person to have New Year resolutions, but there is one goal that I have set at the beginning of each new year since falling in love with reading ten or so years back. I stumbled upon Goodreads when I first started to set reading goals for myself. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it, but it is the only sort of “social media” that has stayed with me through the years. At the beginning of every year, I set my reading goal, along with millions of other readers around the world, and I track all of my reading on Goodreads throughout the year. Most years I have met my goal; occasionally my goals were more enthusiastic than I really felt that year. I probably average reading around 60 books a year. This year, I decided to set my goal at 100 books, and I have decided to make that my goal for the next three years. I admit, this is a rather ambitious goal, even for an English PhD student, but it is doable if I am intentional. I am a competitive person, but I have other motives than simply achieving my goal here. To start out the new year, I thought I might share my thoughts on why I think reading fiction is a helpful practice for a Christian.
It is good for your brain.
The teacher in me couldn’t help but throw this one out there, and I already know the responses I will hear because I hear them on a daily basis. Reading just might not be your thing. I know. I get that. I used to hate reading… remember. Skipping dessert is not really my thing, but if I do not practice some discipline in this area, my pants will begin to grow tight. Just because something is not “my thing” or I just do not like something doesn’t negate its value to my life. Most children do not like broccoli, but parents and doctors still insist that children eat it because it is good for their bodies. Reading is beneficial for your brain as a muscle. Your brain needs working just like any other muscle in your body. Muscles need to be used, stretched, and challenged, or else they will atrophy. The brain is no different, and reading is one of the many ways to exercise your brain. Now I know that there are many many ways to exercise your brain other than reading, even on the slew of electronic devices that are so successful in numbing our brains, but I am not arguing that reading is the best way; I am just saying that it is a way. John Piper wrote this great little book on thinking entitled Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, and in it he describes the value of reading and what it does for the mind, specifically for a Christian. His premise centers around reading as thinking and specifically reading as thinking that leads to thinking on spiritual matters. I agree with his explanations (you will have to read the book yourself to find those out :), but I also think reading fiction, specifically, is good for the Christian for practical reasons.
Stories happen all over the world.
Perhaps one of the top reasons I love to read is because I can experience through reading all the many things of this world that I will never actually get to experience. This is not a new concept; teachers and librarians have been proclaiming it for as long as I can remember, but it should be a concept that peaks the interest of a Christian. We live on a planet with billions of other humans, few of which experience life the same way that we do. Reading provides a lense to the many other ways that life is experienced on Earth. This should matter to a Christian because one of the last things Jesus said while on Earth was “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18). Novels bring the nations to you in a very unique way. Through the eyes, lives, and experiences of characters in novels, we can discover and learn of new people, countries, and customs. We can learn about the diversity in the world, the troubles in the world, and the joys in the world that are not possible or experienced in our own tiny sphere. Sure, ideally it would be best to actually go and experience these things in those places, but reading books is way cheaper and more feasible for the average person. Reading even opens up the possibility of God drawing our hearts to a place He will eventually send us. With the amount of literature available to us today, God could use literature to speak to our hearts, work in our hearts, and even develop a burden in our hearts for the people of the many nations on Earth that He has called His followers to reach.
Stories are about people.
I know; this one seems like a no brainer, but hear me out. One of the things that I often teach to my students, and that my professors are still teaching me, is that we connect with stories because they are ultimately about us. Stories are about us if we had grown up in that place, or not had these opportunities, or experienced different circumstances. Stories are about humans, and all humans are essentially alike. Even I cringe writing that last statement; I like to think that I am my own person, unique in many ways, but ultimately, we all come from the same Creator and can only be as different as what constrains us to being humans. At the core, humans function the same way, different from massive blue whales and tiny red ants, but alike in human functioning. That being said, stories can then teach us about ourselves without us ever having to actually live through an experience. While I am grateful for each and every difficult experience I have lived through because of the lessons I have learned, there are a few that I would have rather read about than experienced. Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “wisdom is learning from other people’s mistakes.” Stories provide the perfect conditions for gaining such wisdom as we read about the mistakes of characters just like us. Reading allows for pausing and breaks from one reality to the next. Reading affords us the time and ability to stop and think, to process what is happening, to reason and form logical assessments. Life usually only allows time for this after the situation is over. Stories also teach us about the very core and nature of the human heart. Read enough stories, and you begin to see the trends, patterns, and threads woven throughout every story. The lost and empty world comes to life on the pages in front of our eyes. For a Christian, this fuels the burden, need, and desire to continue loving and living as Jesus in order that His love might reach the world.
Now, I’m not saying you need to set a goal of reading 100 books this year, but why not consider picking up a few works of fiction and seeing what lessons you can learn about your own life or the people around you and how that might look differently with the gospel. If you do happen to jump on the bandwagon and join Goodreads, add me as a friend.