Why Christians Must Read

As a young man, I considered going into the ministry, but after two years of study at a divinity school I moved back to Texas and began the long process of figuring out how to become a writer. Since 1983, I have been employed by a dog named Hank.

In the process of building an audience for my stories, I did thousands of author visits to public schools and for home school groups. After years of doing programs that gave kids an incentive to read, I began to realize that the educators who invited me into their schools were always Christians—and that they viewed my work as more than mere “literacy.”

Instinct might have told them that there is something deeply Christian about the act of reading. We were always intended to be People of the Book, and our fourth gospel even begins with the statement, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

When God chose to give us His law, He did not draw pictures. God’s law was written so that it could be read. When Paul and the apostles wanted to record the events they had witnessed, they wrote them down so that they could be read by future generations.

Gene Edward Veith, one of my favorite authors, points to the difference between our language-centeredness and the “electronic graven images” of mass culture.

The centrality of the Bible means that the very act of reading can have spiritual significance. Whereas other religions may stress visions, experiences, or even the silence of meditation as the way to achieve contact with the divine, Christianity insists on the role of language….

The priority of language for Christians must be absolute. As the rest of society abandons language-centeredness for image-centeredness, we can expect to feel the pressures and temptations to conform, but we must resist. One way to do this is simply to read. [Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, pp. 17 and 25]

The point here is that the medium itself (words vs. images) might be more important than the content. Images appeal directly to the emotions and bypass the rational mind. Words engage the mind and help us develop such skills as logical reasoning and the postponement of gratification.

That is a very interesting concept, and it has sweeping implications for any discussion about “What is Christian entertainment?” Veith is saying that it is more Christian to read a book than to play a video game or watch a program on TV. Words are more Christian than images.

That is why Christians must read. The very act of reading binds us to a tradition that goes back to Mosaic law, three thousand years of rabbinic scholars, the written Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the church councils, Augustine, the King James Bible, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation.

Hence, when a nine-year-old, non-reading boy falls in love with a Hank book and devours the whole series, he is being tutored in the Judeo-Christian tradition and does not even know it. When a family reads a book aloud at bedtime, they are recreating the forgotten memory of early Christians reading the Scriptures aloud in the sewers of Rome.

We hope that, after reading a good novel, they will want to read and study the Bible, but whether they do or not, reading in itself is a form of worship. We are exercising a discipline that God chose for communicating with His people—the absolutely stunning process through which scribbles on a page acquire meaning and become something more than scribbles on a page.

C.S. Lewis said that the best kind Christian message is one that contains the beauty and truth of our faith, without announcing it to the blare of trumpets and the roll of drums. A written story that seeks beauty and discovers justice contains a powerful Christian message, without ever quoting Scripture or revealing from where it came.

If reading is a form of worship, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that writing is a form of ministry, or should be. I never dreamed that writing funny stories about a ranch dog in Texas would acquire a spiritual dimension, but it has turned out that way.

It took me about thirty years to absorb this truth. Teachers and home school parents figured it out long before I did.