Why You Should Discipline Yourself to Read Difficult Books

Looking over the list of books I read during my sabbatical, I anticipate that some readers will find it obtuse. Many of these will be dismissed as books that only “professional theologians” have time (or interest) to read. In other words, some of you guys will leave the Augustine and Irenaeus to me, and content yourselves with Don Miller or Dallas Willard or CS Lewis.

Now, please don’t get me wrong: all reading is good reading (well… almost). I love Miller and Willard and Lewis and wish all Christians would read them. So this post is not intended to discourage that sort of reading. Rather, it’s meant to encourage you toward the more difficult sort of reading: the kind that takes discipline.

We are fast losing the discipline of reading. In our affluence and comfort, Americans have become used to reading only works that interest us; books we have immediate use for. The Information Age has led us to favor breadth over depth, as if knowing lots of facts about something is the same as knowing it. Even the school systems, in an attempt to keep unruly kids at bay, are allowing children to read more and more of what they want to read and less of what they need to.

The problem is: it’s not just the content of what we read that shapes us. It’s the practice of reading itself. In the same way that listening to accomplished musicians hones our musical faculties, in the same way that athletic exercise strengthens our physical capacity, so reading good (and difficult) literature sharpens our intellect. The payoff is not in the content we can regurgitate tomorrow, but in how our mind learns to function. Difficult reading trains us to be a certain kind of thinker.

Here’s an example: I recently made my way through one of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian treatises called “On Nature and Grace.” [Pelagius was an early heretic who denied original sin and held that moral perfection was possible for all humans without God’s grace.] It could be argued that this book has almost no practical value for a 21st-century pastor/elder. Though many Christians in our day may in fact be functional Pelagians, virtually no one is making closely-reasoned theological defenses of Pelagian theology. What good did it do for me, then, to read this work?

Simply put: it allowed me to watch an intellectual giant at work. It took me inside the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers as he debated the conclusions of a very intelligent and capable antagonist. I saw how Augustine, with grace and charity and godliness, sought to render the Pelagian point of view untenable using its own presuppositions. The value wasn’t so much theological, but apologetic: how might Augustine tackle the theological and philosophical issues of our own day?

This fall, we will preach a series at Coram Deo on Objections to Christianity. That series will require that we cogently explain biblical Christianity while earnestly and seriously considering honest objections to it. We don’t want to be those obnoxious Christians who regurgitate tired apologetic arguments in defense of our own shallow faith. We want to have the intellectual courage and theological rigor to dive deeply into the objections and criticisms of our cultural neighbors. To do that requires a certain kind of mind.

Developing such a mind is essential to discipleship, for Scripture commands us to “Love the Lord your God… with all your mind” (Mark 12:30). For us to be effectively missional, we must all seek to develop our critical faculties to whatever extent God has gifted us. As CS Lewis writes, “God… wants every one to use what sense they have… [He] is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers” (in Mere Christianity, Book 3, chapter 2).

To that end, then, may God make us a people who delight in the discipline of reading.


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  1. I couldn’t agree more. Have you read Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll? He was one of my favorite profs at Wheaton. I heard him speak on the topic as a freshman before the book came out, and with the book & later taking some of his classes, he really shaped my thinking about what it means to engage with world with our minds. If we believe in the Incarnation, then God came to redeem all parts of us, including our minds. And what better way to discpline & shape our minds than with reading and learning from those who have traveled this road before us. Love to hear more about what you’re reading.

  2. It’s also important to note that God is revealed to us through his written word. He divinely inspire sit-coms, nor dramas for us to watch, but rather letters, and history books for us to read.

  3. “We don’t want to be those obnoxious Christians who regurgitate tired apologetic arguments in defense of our own shallow faith.”

    Then why are you?

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