I was challenged by Mark Dever, when I suggested him flinging books out at people would not work in a community like mine, that we don’t have to accept a non-reading culture. I think there is lots we might want to say in response to that. There are lots of caveats I might want to put on it. But I think his point was a valid and fair one.
I maintain that, in a community like mine, expecting people to read certain books probably is unreasonable. That is to say, if I fling a copy of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology at them, they’re probably not going to read it. At the same time, it is not true that people in my community will not read at all. It is a case of finding the right thing and giving them that.
Of course, a lot of the time, I might misjudge that. I might give someone a book I think is easy and they hate it and find it too hard going. I might give someone a book I reckon is hard and they lap it up. You can’t always pick it. But it is fair to say that having a bit of sense about exactly what you give people might help them to read more or may be the very thing that confirms in their mind that reading is terrible and they definitely don’t want to do it.
And I can empathise. I am not a big reader. I read relatively slowly. Reading for me – though I do it – is a work activity for me. So, I very rarely read for pleasure. I read, mainly, because there is stuff I want to know. I can more easily engross myself in a film, TV series or video game than I can a novel so I wouldn’t usually gravitate towards that over those other media. But I do read.
Usually, I read when I get a particular thing under my skin. There is an issue I really want to drill into. Then, I read everything I can get my hands on about it. These days, it is often theological issues or church matters. But I remember reading the entire works of George Orwell when I was a student just because I suddenly became interested in him. I still prefer his journalistic/semi-biographical stuff to his novels. But I read when I want to understand stuff, or know something, or hear alternative perspectives, or there is an issue I want to think through. I also tend to prefer relatively easy to read books. That isn’t to say books which deal with simple ideas and cover them in the most basic way. I mean books that are written plainly, simply and don’t need the same sentence to be read 10 times before you get what it is going on about. Books that make complex ideas straightforward are great. If I have further questions and the thing is still on my mind, I know I can move on to longer and more complex books to get the answered if I feel the need.
Many of our folks are no different. They like books that are straightforward. Books written that are either interesting in their own right or written in such a way that complex and important ideas are made simple and straightforward for them. So, I tend to want to give away books that are written in a straightforward and easy to read way. If they want to find out more after reading it, I can always suggest more in-depth books for them should they want them.
But one thing I have learnt is that giving away books shows what the church thinks is important. It shows that the church thinks this topic matters. It highlights writers who are worth hearing whenever you see stuff they’ve written online or elsewhere. It gives food for thought that, even if we aren’t fully on board with everything in the book, we can chew over with other believers in the church. We ultimately want to encourage people to read, not so they will read stuff, but so they will go and chat about it with other believers. Just a simple, ‘hey, I read this and I did/didn’t like it for these reasons… what did you think?’ is a great way to think about what scripture actually says about it.
So, I do not think reading is vital for the Christian life. I do not think you will be unable to grow in your spiritual life if you don’t read Christian books. But I do think you may find, if you give books away, that the Lord may just do some unexpected things amongst your people.