Reading is kind of like repairing a bicycle. Kind of. For too long now my bike has been semi-operational. It has one brake that just doesn’t want to behave and all my attempts to fix it have failed. Why? Well it turns out that I haven’t been using the right tool. To get the bike working I need to use the right tool. And when it comes to reading, well, you’ve got to use the right tool—you’ve got to know what kind of reading to do. Here are seven different kinds of reading.
Studying. Studying is reading at its best, I think, but reading that can and should be done with only the choicest books. Life is too short and there are simply too many books to invest a great deal of time in every one of them. And this is where so many readers go wrong—they spend too much time and invest too much effort in books that simply don’t deserve it. When you study a book, you labor over it, you read it with highlighter in hand, you flip back and forth, you try to learn absolutely everything the book offers. Only the smallest percentage of books are worthy of this level of investment, so choose carefully which books you study. (Suggestions:Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen or The Holiness of God byR.C. Sproul)
Pillaging. Pillaging is one of my favorite forms of reading, and especially when the book is in a familiar category and written to be very practical. I will often buy the latest and greatest books on business and productivity and read them at a rapid pace. As I do this, I am looking for tips that I can ponder and apply. I do not intend to allow these books to teach me a whole new form of getting things done—I have my system and it works well. However, I am eager to pillage these books for ideas that can tweak my system and make it better. (Consider: Essentialism by Greg Mckeown or Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott)
Devotional. Devotional reading is reading deep truths meant to make a deep impact on your faith. This is slow and meditative reading that requires an open Bible and plenty of prayer. The Christian faith has many wonderful devotional works that are drawn from the Bible and will, in turn, draw you to the Bible. Read these ones day-by-day and allow them to lead you closer to God as he reveals himself through his Word. (Consider: The Reformed Expository Commentary series or Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon)
Skimming. In recent years we have heard a lot about the evils of skimming, and it is true that for many people skimming is now their dominant form of reading. This is not a good development. But having said that, skimming still has its place. Some books are worthy of little more than a skim, and especially if you have already read extensively in that category. If you have read six books on marriage, you probably don’t need to do more than skim the seventh. Most books will benefit from a skim before in-depth reading as it will both help you understand whether it is actually worthy of study and help you better understand the flow of the author’s argument. Do not making skimming your only form of reading, but also don’t feel guilty if you find yourself skimming twice as many books as you read in depth. The more books you read, the more you earn the right to skim.
Stretch. Stretch reading is going beyond the popularizers and reading the sources. Some of us find that we much prefer reading books by the people who write on a popular level and who make their topic eminently accessible. But sometimes we ought to force ourselves to read more difficult texts—the Church Fathers or Reformation-era writers, the historians or scientists. (Suggestions: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards)
Rerun. Rerun reading is returning to an old favorite to read it again. This may be that old novel that you fell in love with so many years ago and returning to that novel is like journeying back to an old vacation spot. It may be that formative Christian living book that meant so much to you when you were first saved. Either way, your purpose in reading this book is almost entirely pleasure; you are not reading it to learn from it as much as for the plain enjoyment of finding comfort in its familiar words and phrases.
Failed. Failed reading is an important part of any balanced reading diet. I speak to far too many people who feel it is wrong to stop reading a book before they have finished it. But sometimes you just need to admit defeat and stop reading. The more books you read, and especially the more books you study, the more you earn the right to give up on a few of them.
Who is the most important person in your church? On one level it’s kind of a silly question to ask. Yet in his book Healed at Last, Scott Blackwell provides an answer that is both sweet and encouraging. He tells about his friend Steve who has been profoundly disabled since birth.
He has been forever wheelchair-bound, and his arm and head movements are often uncontrolled or controlled with difficulty—especially when he gets excited. His speech is difficult to understand, and his vocabulary is limited. Because he was born in the 1950s, those who cared for him made certain assumptions about his ability to learn, respond and understand. He was institutionalized and given minimal stimulation and therapy—such was the state of rehabilitation for the profoundly disabled back then. It was assumed he would never be able to read, so he was never taught. Now, in his fifties, Steve is thoroughly dependent on the aid of others. He requires assistance to eat, drink, bathe, dress, toilet, and so on. Steve also constantly battles the kind of respiratory and gastro-intestinal disorders that life lived full-time in a wheelchair bring. All this is so much more difficult to witness knowing that trapped within Steve’s dysfunctional body is a sharp and inquiring mind that was left untended and ignored for years.
Yet, as Blackwell points out, Steve finds joy despite such severe challenges.
Steve is the most joy-filled and enthusiastic believer in Jesus I think I’ve ever met. He’s bright, intelligent, witty, stubborn, passionate and compassionate. He holds down a job and, every time I talk with him, he insists that he is far too busy. His grin and his “G’day” is one hundred percent genuine for every person he meets. He insists on having his Bible open at the right passage with the rest of us, even though he cannot read it. The phenomenal thing about Steve is that somehow he manages to view every day of struggle as another day of triumph, and this he does, by his own testimony, through his faith in Christ. Hope and trust in God’s promises burn brighter in Steve than in anyone else I’ve ever met. In our church it’s impossible to preach about the return of Jesus, or the great resurrection day, or even death, without being interrupted by the man in the front who is madly flailing his arms around and shouting with excitement, “No more chair!”
After telling more about Steve’s deep faith and his sure hope that one day he will stand on his feet before his Savior, Blackwell says this:
Personally, I think it is possible that this makes Steve the most important person in our church. Once, during a rare moment of melancholy, he asked me why I thought God had caused him to live out his life in a chair. I thought for a long time before I said I didn’t know for certain, but that maybe his disability and his chair were meant for our teaching, blessing and benefit. I suggested that, possibly, it was God’s intention that through Steve our church might learn great lessons about patience, love, endurance, joy, compassion, hope and faith. I said to him (and I believe it is true) that he is perhaps our most dynamic and effective evangelist and pastoral worker. His look of surprise and shock actually made me laugh out loud. It had never occurred to him that this was what he was for us. He was just Steve.
Through my friend Steve, God has worked wonderful deeds of spiritual growth and maturity in our church.
I have written about envy before and have referred to it as “the lost sin.” Envy is a sin I am prone to, though I feel like it is one of those sins I have battled hard against and, as I’ve battled, experienced a lot of God’s grace. It is not nearly as prevalent in my life as it once was. Recently, though, I felt it threatening to rear its ugly head again and spent a bit of time reflecting on it. Here are three brief observations about envy.
ENVY IS COMPETITIVE
I am a competitive person and I believe it is this competitive streak that allows envy to make its presence felt in my life. Envy is a sin that makes me feel resentment or anger or sadness because another person has something or another person is something that I want for myself. Envy makes me aware that another person has some advantage, some good thing, that I want for myself. And there’s more: Envy makes me want that other person not to have it. This means that there are at least three evil components to envy: the deep discontent that comes when I see that another person has what I want; the desire to have it for myself; and the desire for it to be taken from him.
Do you see it? Envy always competes. Envy demands that there is always a winner and a loser. And envy almost always suggests that I, the envious person, am the loser.
ENVY ALWAYS WINS
Envy always wins, and if envy wins, I lose. Here’s the thing about envy: If I get that thing I want, I lose, because it will only generate pride and idolatry within me. I will win that competition I have created, and become proud of myself. Envy promises that if I only get that thing I want, I will finally be satisfied, I will finally be content. But that is a lie. If I get that thing, I will only grow proud. I lose.
On the other hand, if I do not get what I want, if I lose that competition, I am prone to sink into depression or despair. Envy promises that if I do not get that thing I want, my life is not worth living because I am a failure. Again, I lose.
In both cases, I lose and envy wins. Envy always wins, unless I put that sin to death.
Envy divides people who ought to be allies. Envy drives people apart who ought to be able to work closely together. Envy is clever in that it will cause me to compare myself to people who are a lot like me, not people who are unlike me. I am unlikely to envy the sports superstar or the famous musician because the distance between them and me is too great. Instead, I am likely to envy the pastor who is right down the street from me but who has a bigger congregation or nicer building; I am likely to envy the writer whose books or blog are more popular than mine. Where I should be able to work with these people based on similar interests and similar desires, envy will instead drive me away from them. Envy will make them my competitors and my enemies rather than my allies and co-laborers.
What’s the cure for envy? I can’t say it better than Charles Spurgeon: “The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.”
I don’t watch a lot of movies these days, largely because it’s rare that I can find something that promises to reward me more richly than spending the same amount of time in a good book. That said, I do enjoy the occasional miniseries when I can catch it on Netflix or iTunes; I guess I find it easier to part with forty minutes than two hours. Even with that limited exposure there’s something I have observed and something that has spelled the end of my interest in more than a few shows: Rape is in.
I remember reading an article a few years ago where an entertainment writer was asking, “What’s next?” She wrote about how television and movies had ramped up the sexual content on the screen, first by way of innuendo and then by way of explicit display. She suggested that the next frontier might just be sexual violence, and it seems that she was right.
Recent articles at a host of publications have pointed this out, providing a long list of contemporary shows that have made rape a significant plot point: Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Scandal, House of Cards, Mad Men, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Bates Motel—and many more besides (including a new show called Tyrant that has several rape scenes in the opening episode alone). Sometimes this rape is shown explicitly or psuedo-explicitly, while other times it is recounted as a past event. But either way, this much is clear: Television has never been crueler to women than it is right now.
I have very little experience with most of the shows listed above. I try to screen my shows as well as I can (IMDB’s Parents Guide feature is my friend) and not even get into ones that tiptoe along the edge of morality or, even worse, go barging right past it. I have an extreme aversion to sexual violence and am so deeply affected by it that I simply have to avoid it in television or movies. But as I read these articles about rape and today’s programming, it seems that rape fulfills various plot functions:
- Sometimes rape is used to explain why a character is the way she is. In these cases the rape is usually in the past and the viewers learn about it as a means to better understand a central character. This is apparently the case in House of Cards and The Americans.
- Sometimes rape is used as a means of character development. If a bad man needs to be made even worse, rape fulfills that purpose and is typically shown in some detail. This is apparently the case in Tyrant and Game of Thrones.
- Sometimes rape is used simply as a plot device meant to introduce dramatic tension, such as when the sweet and flawless character of Downton Abbey’sAnna Bates was raped, leaving the viewer to question whether her marriage would survive and whether her husband would find out and take revenge.
However it functions and however it is presented, rape is suddenly common in television programming. And it concerns me. It especially concerns me especially because so many Christians watch and enjoy these shows.
The area of Christians and the arts is one I do not write about very often, at least in part because when I have done so in the past, there is always a person way smarter than me and way better read than me who replies with an extensive theology and philosophy of art and an explanation as to why Christians need to explore depraved themes to find the redemption beyond them. There is a part of me that understands that. The worst Christian art is the Christian art that denies the obvious—that we live in world marred by all manner of depravity. Sexual violence is a sad, sick, and far-too-common fact of life in a world like this one. But does that justify its prevalence in programming? Does that justify us watching it? Does it justify it as a common theme in our entertainment?
As a family we have been reading through 2 Samuel and have just had to grapple with the sickening story of Tamar’s rape by her own half-brother (see 2 Samuel 13). This is a story of rape that God saw fit to include in the Holy Bible—one of several biblical portrayals of sexual violence. But when I look at it closely, I see a world of difference between it and television programming.
The most significant difference is this: It is not meant to be entertaining. When we thumb the remote and turn on the television, or when we open a browser and type in “n-e-t-f-l-i-x”, we do so to be entertained. When we open the pages of the Bible we do so to be changed. Within the great drama of Scripture, Tamar’s story serves not to entertain, but to inform and reform. It is sin told sinlessly. It avoids being salacious and being explicit. It displays the far-reaching consequences of David’s sin, it highlights the sickening idolatry of mankind, it explains some of the battles that will soon come. Best of all, it calls the reader to cry out for a Savior, another Son of David, who can fully and finally put an end to such horrors. It is a far cry from rape as a shocking plot twist meant to generate buzz, rape as character development when all else has failed, rape as the explanation for vengeance.
Here is what I wonder, and here is what we ought to be asking ourselves: If Christians won’t allow explicit scenes of sexual violence to keep them from watching television shows, what will? If scenes of rape are not over the edge, what is? If we won’t draw the line there, will we draw it anywhere?