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On Reading

Dear LifeSharers,                                                                                                                                                February 2015 

            “The Pew Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of adults had not read a single book in the last year.  As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audio book while in the car.  The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1979.”

            The above paragraph is from Charles M. Blow in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times last year.  He went on to observe, “I understand that we are now inundated with information, and people’s reading habits have become fragmented by bite-size nuggets of text messages and social media, and that takes much of the time that could otherwise be devoted to long-form reading.  I get it.  And I don’t take a troglodytic view of social media.  I participate and enjoy it.  But reading texts is not the same as reading a text.”

            Is this diminished interest in reading books a problem?  I believe so.  Indeed, it reveals several things of serious importance – and none of them are good.  For instance, it gives us an indication of how our ultra-expensive education system is failing.  We’re paying more and more and our kids are in the hands of the state educators more and more. Nevertheless, America is getting dumber by the day. This diminished reading also illustrates that American society is corrupted by the shallow, self-centered atmosphere produced by television shows, smart phones, computers, etc. in which modern society lives and breathes.  And as Marshall McLuhan warned us long ago, our minds are being shaped not only by the content of media, but by its methodology, its sensuality (think not merely of sexuality but sensual pleasures of other sorts too), its all-encompassing nature, and its demand for our immediate subservience.

            So, yes. I think America’s decline in reading books is a big deal.  We’re becoming dumber, lazier, more superficial, less discerning, and thus more easily led by an array of elite social controllers.  Beginning to read books again isn’t the solution to the messes America is in, of course.  But I contend it can be an important part of one’s personal defense against the encroaching acculturation and, if carried out well and by enough of us, it could even help provide for others a lighted path out of the darkness.

            Why read books?  There are many reasons.  Studies reveal that reading books improves your physical health by reducing stress, providing periods of tranquility for your heart, and generating brain activity that helps stave off Alzheimer’s and other dementia.  Joseph Addison apparently was on to something when he said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”  Reading books also has been shown to increase one’s empathy, analytical skills, ability to concentrate, linear thinking, memory, and more. 

            And there is the most obvious benefit of all – reading books makes you smarter! Reading increases your vocabulary, your conversation skills, your writing abilities, and your discernment.  It makes you wiser, more reflective, more winsome, more balanced, and more likely to be effective as a teacher, mentor, and servant.  On so many levels, reading truly is fundamental.

            But I can almost hear someone say at this point, “Hey, what about Solomon, the wisest man ever?  Didn’t he say something about reading books being unhealthy and vain?”  Well, not quite.  Solomon does tell us (in Ecclesiastes 12:12) that writing books can seem an endless pursuit and an excessive devotion to it can be “wearying to the body.”  But that is an example of the overall theme Solomon was expressing in Ecclesiastes; namely, that anything in life that doesn’t fall under the Lordship of God is ultimately empty and unfulfilling.  But he certainly wasn’t discouraging writing or reading.  The preceding verse praises the “words of wise men” and proclaims that “collections” of these words are extremely helpful.  In fact, Solomon describes them as “well driven nails” which hold one’s spiritual structure in place.  And don’t forget, Solomon himself wrote a lot for others to read, writing which was inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit.  Solomon gave us Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and at least a great deal of Proverbs. I Kings 4:29-33 informs us that Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs.  The passage also suggests that he wrote essays on such varied topics as trees and bushes, animals and birds, creeping things and fish.  In these writings, he expressed his “very great discernment and breadth of mind,” wisdom that “surpassed all the sons of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt.”

            So don’t twist Solomon’s advice out of context. Solomon would agree that reading books under the supervision of the Spirit – books that reveal truth, books that contribute to one’s spiritual effectiveness, books that build wisdom and discernment, and even books that provide healthy, wholesome entertainment – is a very good thing.

            Now, reading books isn’t the whole answer to healthy spirituality.  One learns in order to do.  John Locke wrote, “Education (which, in his day, meant knowing how to read) begins the gentleman, but reading, good company, and reflection must finish him.” And C.S. Lewis adds a warning against intellectual pride (which, as Solomon suggested, some might yield to when writing or reading many books) even as he emphasized the need to act in the Spirit regarding the most practical things of life. “A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.”

            Is Bach bad?  Is Plato pernicious?  Certainly not.  And Lewis elsewhere certainly encourages the Christian to read and study, to enjoy artistic and intellectual treasures.  But avoid taking pride in your learning or your tastes.  Don’t insist that the only sources for learning or culture are the ones you choose. And make sure that your efforts to furnish your mind are under the careful supervision of the Lord.

            In that context then, I will repeat my points to date a) The decline in reading is a bad thing for America, b) There are many good reasons for reading books, and c) Reading books is a means to an end, an important way to be a more informed, more intelligent, more precise thinker who then acts to perform God’s will.  It is no accident that the Christian activists whose mentoring impact on Claire and me has been the most profound are men and women who are very well read: Francis and Edith Schaeffer, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Joe Scheidler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joni Eareckson Tada, Randy Alcorn, Chuck Colson, Ronald Reagan, and so on.  Readers of quality stuff make quality servant-leaders.

            With all of this said, it should hardly be surprising that reading books has been an important part of Vital Signs Ministries from its very beginnings.  For instance, we have given away an awful lot of books over the years at the State Fair and other information tables. We also promoted books and regularly featured interviews with authors on Vital Signs radio programs. Randy Alcorn, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Edith Schaeffer were among those who appeared frequently but we were also honored to have Erwin Lutzer, Norm Geisler, Os Guinness, Frank Peretti, James Mills, Joseph Sobran, Calvin Miller, Marvin Olasky, John Walvoord, Walter Wangerin, and many more.

            We have also promoted books (and the practice of book reading) through the LifeSharer letter, through speaking engagements, and on the Vital Signs Ministries website.  In fact, two of the articles most downloaded from the website are lists of indispensable reading for Christians.  We promote books on the blogs too, especially on our blog that is devoted to literature and the arts called The Book Den. In fact, if you haven’t yet checked out this source, a couple of recent entries might make a good start: Heroism, Adventure, and Treachery: A Brief Review of The Forgotten 500 and In An Agreeable Manner: Jane Austen's "Persuasion."

            And then there’s the Book It! evenings in which we invite people to discuss key non-fiction books together.  This is extra to our regular book club, the Notting Hill Napoleons, a group of pro-life friends who are in our 23rd year of reading classic novels every month.  But like it, our Book It! program provides an effective means for motivation, accountability, and stimulation to read books.  And those things are of immeasurable value. After all, let’s face the truth. Reading books is a lot more work than watching TV, or playing games on the computer, or engaging in hour upon hour of “social media.”  So we need all the help we can get to spend our time in better ways.

            In our Book It! evenings we have enjoyed discussions of Heaven and Safely Home by Randy Alcorn, How Now Shall We Live by Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin, Witness by Oswald Chambers, Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas by Ken Foskett; America Alone by Mark Steyn; The Grand Weaver by Ravi Zacharias, Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Problem of Evil and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, and more. We have sometimes used other approaches to learning too: Bible studies, audio files of select speakers, Christian and pro-life films, even field trips. Friends helping friends learn, serve, and grow in Christ – this is of tremendous importance.

            So what are the applications for this month’s letter, the action steps I’m suggesting?  Well, you could find several possibilities: 1) Read more.  2) Read good stuff.  3) Live life more unplugged. Don’t let the TV, computer, movies, and other electronic media steal your time and alter your value system.  4) Check out those lists of indispensable reading from the Vital Signs Ministries website and see if there are a few titles you’d do well to read…or perhaps re-read.  5) Join a book club…or start one.  6) Encourage others to read books and help them do so.  7) And, finally, consider joining us for some of our upcoming Book It! discussions.

            We are even going to try and make it possible to participate even if you can’t physically make it to the discussion meeting. You’re certainly invited to read along with us wherever you are. But, at our very next Book It! meeting, we are going to experiment with using Skype so that even folks far away can join in the real-time discussion. So let us know if you’d like to be a part. The next meeting will be at our home on Friday, April 10th and the book to be discussed will be I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. The book has recently been revised and reprinted with an introduction by David Limbaugh.  Lee Strobel says of this book, “I wish it had been available when I was an atheist. It would have saved a lot of time in my spiritual journey toward God!" It has also won appreciation from such Christian apologists as Hank Hanegraaff, Cal Thomas, William A. Dembski, Phillip E. Johnson, and Josh McDowell.  

            “Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill up its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.” (Joseph Addison)

            “The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read.”  (Abraham Lincoln)


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            Okay, that’s it for this month’s letter.  I’m afraid it has been a very busy month and that’s why we’re sending this out later in the month than usual.  The chief reason for the delay was a lengthy lecture I had to prepare to deliver to two seminars at the Rochester L’Abri conference. I also had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation to accompany that talk – a no easy task for me at all. We were delighted (and relieved) by the way it all came out. Thanks to all of you who prayed for us. February has also required our usual duties at the abortion mill, with VSM business matters, and with our “When Swing Was King” ministry. In fact, in addition to our regular 11 programs, we did a couple of extra this month, one at Emmanuel Church and another at a nursing home up in Blair.  We have also been planning for three special engagements in northwest Iowa next week and the return visit to Omaha of Hleb Yermakou, our friend and ministry colleague from Belarus. 

            As always, thanks for your prayers and support as we keep trying to make a difference in this cold, dark culture.  We are profoundly grateful.