In today’s Times newspaper, James Marriott has a fascinating article about the sharp decline in the reading of novels in the past twenty years, and the ultimately detrimental effect that this has on individuals and on society at large. As part of his piece he quotes the novelist Sally Rooney, who opines that books and reading have become a form of snobbery in society, a focus for status anxiety, a ‘fetishisation of a very narrow form of intelligence defined by being very highly educated and having lots of books’. Marriott takes this image of ‘books as a middle class fetish’, and with considerable skill manages to maintain their continued value in modern society. It is an article worth reading.
As a Christian, however, it has stirred my thinking about the danger of ‘fetishising’ books as a mark of spiritual growth, of Christian maturity. Before I explain what I mean, it might be best for me to state plainly where books live in my life. I am a bookworm, and always have been. I adore literature of all kinds, I read theology, poetry, and fiction for pleasure, and have more than a bit of ‘geek’ about me when it comes to the form factor of books, and their organisation. I read at every moment that I can, and believe that God has used books to bring tremendous pleasure and spiritual benefit to my life. For me, a world without books would be a grey place indeed.
But books and reading are not the ultimate barometer of my spiritual growth, of my Christian maturity, of the degree to which I am apprehending and applying the demands of Christ’s lordship in my life. In fact, books can serve to mask the symptoms of spiritual decline which might otherwise manifest themselves to my conscience. I might explain away a lack of mortification or a lack of sanctification in my life by appealing to my desire to read, the benefit that Christian books are to me, and the degree to which my knowledge is developing about my faith. But none of those phenomena are signs that there is either grace or growth in me. I would happily have read my way to hell as much as I would now read my way to heaven.
There are many Christians who are not book lovers by nature, or who have never been encouraged to read books by nurture. There are believers who feel intimidated by the task of getting from the first to the final chapter of any piece of literature regardless of its length, there are others who wrestle with limitations of budget, of education, or of confidence when it comes to bringing books into their lives. Some people who hated books before conversion may find that they become voracious readers when they come to Christ, but there are many others who quite simply are not readers, and never will be.
I might try from now until I draw my pension but I will never be any use at manually skilled jobs. What my brain thinks and my eye sees, are never what my hand does when it comes to practical work. I don’t believe that I can ever change this, its part of how I am wired and that can’t be changed. Likewise there are those for whom the task of reading anything more detailed than a leaflet or magazine is constitutionally antithetical to them. In my opinion this is not a spiritual issue, but a temperamental one.
If, then, we fetishise reading and books, if we set up a kind of caste system in which growing Christians read, and non-reading Christians can’t be growing we are failing to distinguish between the head-inflating, heart-shrivelling tendencies of knowledge and the heart-melting, humble-living realities of wisdom. My grandparents’ generation were afforded neither the luxury, the leisure, nor at times the education to be deep readers or theology aficionados, and yet sample some fellowship with those who still remain from that era and you may well find a depth, an earthy spiritual honesty, and a challenging degree of intimacy with the Lord in their lives. In terms of books you will likely find one text which is well worn, deeply loved, and fastidiously memorised – the Bible. I have my grandfather’s old Scofield Bible, and while I may not share the theology of its notes, I cherish the feel of its pages, the buffed leather of its cover, its sense of having been held, and read, and marked and lived and loved.
I believe that every Christian who can read more widely than they are currently doing ought to be encouraged to, but I don’t think that reading is a reliable (even less a universal) measure of where someone’s walk with God is. I would want to encourage every Christian for whom I bear pastoral responsibility to learn to love and read their Bible every day, but I would also want to tailor that encouragement to a system or scheme which will reap them rich rewards rather than give them increasing guilt. I still contend that the reading habits of reading Christians will have an enormous impact on the life and witness of the local church, that a good book can do much good, and a bad book much harm, but over all of this I would want to write that the fruit of the Spirit does not include among its branches a wormishness about books, or a steady stream of GoodReads statuses. A believer who engages meaningfully with their Bible (perhaps emphasising quality over quantity), who attends a church where there is faithful biblical preaching, and who prayerfully asks God that they might live according to the measure of their understanding of the faith is to be much more desired than a graceless boffin who can delineate the finer points of soteriology but has not got an ounce of Christian sense, or desire for godliness and fellowship.
If you’re a keen reader, enjoy your books, but don’t worship them. Read so as to serve the Saviour and his body, the Church. Read so that you might build up other believers, read so as to deepen in your love for the Saviour, read so as to more accurately present your faith to the world you are placed in. But don’t make your books into the shape of Babel, don’t make reading your shibboleth of choice, and don’t ever make the mistake of believing that Christian reading and Christian growth are indispensably linked.