Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The need to read

I have recently been reflecting on a few things that people have said to me at various times about reading. I remember, as a teenager, attending a presentation made by an evangelist who was critiquing a controversial book for the youth group I belonged to at the time. I hadn’t heard of the book before that presentation but it sounded like an important book to read. I approached the evangelist at the end of the program and asked where I could obtain the book. He wouldn’t tell me, saying that you had to be a strong person who knew the church’s doctrines well before reading the book. I was very annoyed that someone else believed that his job was to censure what I read and make judgments about my ability to deal with the contents of the book. It wasn’t until some years later I was able to locate the book. I read it and gained an enormous benefit from it.

On another occasion, I had a Christian friend tell me that he never read anything about the Bible - no commentaries or books. He believed that he only needed to read the Bible and accept what it said and that reading anything else was merely contaminating Scripture by other people’s opinions.

Finally, I have had a number of people warn me that reading so widely, particularly material that contradicted what the denomination of which I was a member taught, would inevitably lead to the loss of faith or the adoption of error.

Many people seem to fear reading widely as if, somehow, they will be unwillingly entrapped. The problem, however, is not so much what is read, but how one reads. I would suggest that, in fact, it is essential to read widely if one is to avoid erroneous thinking and that those who, out of fear, confine themselves to reading only what they agree with are the very ones who are in danger. Reading widely brings with it a number of benefits.

It provides an opportunity to test our thinking. By reading widely and exposing ourselves to other ideas and critiques of our own ideas, we have the opportunity to reflect on issues and questions that may lead to a refinement of our own beliefs and values. The reality is that our own thinking may be wrong. It is inevitable that, at some point, it will be wrong. By only reading what is agreeable to us we merely reinforce our own beliefs and values. For some people, that is what they want. They fear being exposed to ideas or thinking that may challenge their own and only want confirmed what they already believe to be true. But those who wish to pursue truth must be willing to take the risk of examining alternative views to their own. So reading widely provides us with the opportunity to test our thinking.

It avoids cultic manipulation of one’s beliefs. One of the favourite techniques of cults, in controlling their members, is to control the information that is fed to them - what they hear and what they read or see. By refusing to read anything that challenges our beliefs or gives us information not consistent with what we already think, we are essentially choosing to apply cultic mind control to ourselves. Many Christians only read what they find in their Christian bookstore or published by their denominational press. By making this choice, they do not need to ever deal with genuine challenges to their thinking or what they believe. And although this may be a voluntary restriction the effect is the same as if it was imposed. Organisations and denominations may also subtly "encourage" their membership to limit their reading by producing their own material in such quantities that, if a person has so much available, they may not ever have the "need" to read outside that particular world view. So reading widely prevents any form of cultic manipulation, however subtle that might be.

It enriches understanding and experience. The practice of reading widely is to enter into dialogue with other people. By sharing others’ perspectives and ideas we enrich our own view of the world and, as we think about these varying perspectives, our experience is also enriched. The way we think affects our emotions, the decisions we make, and our behaviour. By exposing ourselves to the thinking of others, we open ourselves to the potential to live differently and experience life more fully. Increasing our knowledge and information also increases the resources that are available to us in making decisions. Reading widely has the capacity to significantly enrich our understanding and experience.

There is nothing to fear from reading widely. It allows us to test our thinking; avoid manipulation of our beliefs, however subtle; and enriches our understanding and experience. Reading widely without thinking critically may be dangerous because we would tend to adopt the position of whatever author we happened to be reading at the time. But approaching our reading whilst thinking critically about what we are reading, evaluating ideas as we proceed, is an absolutely essential part of our spiritual journey if we are to mature and grow in faith.


  1. It would be nice to think that a religion which fancies itself as a "people of the book" would have a sufficently robust faith to encourage reading beyond their own authors and bookshops. I guess its a bit similiar to when a speaker comes to town who has previously been defroked by a particular religion for "heresy", members are discouraged from attending. I suppose a fragile faith cannot take a view that is different.