Whether you’re a practising believer, a casual believer or, conversely, an atheist, you cannot help but be taken aback by the fact that one of the earliest images of God we have in Scripture is an unexpected one for those times: the image of God writing (Exodus 31:18).
God wrote in the language of the Jews who had just been freed from Egypt, and He also commanded Moses to “write this on a scroll” (Exodus 17:14). However, God isn’t the only one who writes. When He speaks of the qualities that the future king of the Israelites should have, He adds that he should know how to write so that he could personally copy the Book of the Law (Deuteronomy 17:18). Then we learn that the priest also had to be able to read and write, because he sometimes had to write for the sanctuary service (Numbers 5:23). And if this seems too much to ask of slaves freed from a land where only a small elite could read and write, let me remind you that the Law of Moses said that any man who wished to divorce his wife had to “write” a certificate of divorce for her and give it to her before sending her away (Deuteronomy 24:1).
At no time does the Bible support the idea that writing or reading is reserved for a select few. On the contrary, everyone should have reasonable knowledge in this area. The Bible speaks of writing and reading with the same ease as we do today, even though they had neither paper nor sophisticated writing instruments. David wrote to Joab (2 Samuel 11:14), Jehu wrote to the elders of the city (2 Kings 10:1), Jezebel also wrote (1 Kings 21:11), the young man captured by Gideon gave Gideon the names of the elders of the city in writing (Judges 8:14)—all these instances use language that seems to make those who lived then contemporary with us, even though the biblical characters lived at a times when whole peoples had not yet discovered this form of communication.
We should not forget that while for the vast majority of the surrounding peoples the most sacred object in their temple was the statue of their god, for the Jews the most sacred object in the Sanctuary was the Ark, in which were two stones inscribed on both sides by the finger of God. For the Jews, God’s self-discovery was linked to writing; their God was the God who writes. Moreover, Old Testament believers were convinced that God also writes in heaven, so much so that Moses, out of love for God’s honour, asked that his name be removed from the book written in heaven if it would mean salvation for his people (Exodus 32:32). David knew that all the days ordained for him were written in God’s book (Psalm 139:16), and Daniel prophesied of a day when judgement would be pronounced and the books opened (Daniel 7:10).
The New Testament is also full of references to writing and reading. Not only does John call Jesus the divine Logos, the Word who was in the beginning with God and who “was God” (John 1:1), but the New Testament authors write letters, do extensive research, carry books, and call those who read blessed (Revelation 1:3). Jesus Himself writes and reads, quotes passages from the Old Testament from memory, and acknowledges what is “written” as the supreme authority in His life (Matthew 4:4, and others). Here we can also recall the Apostle Paul, who asked Timothy to bring him scrolls, “especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13), and who could easily quote from the Greek poets, suggesting that their writings were not unknown to him (Acts 17:28).
However, in addition to the simple knowledge of letters, Scripture adds an indispensable element—understanding. “Do you understand what you are reading?” asked Philip of the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading attentively from the book of the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:30). Jesus said to the people of His day, quoting from the Old Testament, “let the reader understand.” And to a scholar interested in the truth He asked not only, “What is written in the Law?” but also “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26).
Nevertheless, in the Scriptures we find not only books that are written, but also books that are burned. During Paul’s two years in Ephesus, some of the new converts who had practised witchcraft in the past brought their books, worth over 50,000 pieces of silver, and burned them in front of everyone. Nowhere are we told that the apostle asked them to do this or forced them to give them up. It was their decision to show that they wanted nothing more to do with that way of life (Acts 19:19).
Despite the Bible’s perspective on the value of reading and writing, Christians today are sometimes more associated with the burning of the famous Library of Alexandria and the “Index of Forbidden Books” than with the amazing images mentioned above. In the end, how should a Christian relate to reading?
What should a Christian read?
Some believe that Christians should only read the Bible and devotional literature. However, if we examine the Bible carefully, we will find that the emphasis is on what to read rather than what not to read. Neither Jesus nor the apostles gave us a list of forbidden titles. Contrary to today’s prejudices, the Bible emphasises individual freedom and the reader’s ability to choose between right and wrong. As in the Garden of Eden, the path to the forbidden tree is open to anyone who wants to choose something other than what they know is right. One idea expressed by Paul is this: “I have the right to do anything, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 6:12). We need to acknowledge that it is not only Christians who have, or should have, concrete criteria for their choice of reading. No one believes that every book is good for every reader. So the mere existence of criteria for selection is not a restriction of freedom, but precisely the assurance that our freedom will not be compromised.
Therefore, an important principle that we take into account when evaluating our reading is the value that the Bible places on the human being, and especially on our minds. “Above all else, guard your heart,” said Solomon (Proverbs 4:23), and Paul said that we must be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2). Because we live in a universal conflict between good and evil, it is very important that our minds are able to make the best decisions every day. Our mind (or heart, as the Bible calls it) needs to be fed with those readings that can help it grow, better understand the world around it, and develop accurate perspectives on reality. And this is where the second principle comes in—the unity of truth.
Solomon said: “Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27). To embrace Christian identity is to embrace a system of values based on the authority of Scripture. Scripture is and must remain the supreme standard of truth. Certainly, not all the authors we read will share our understanding of truth or of the world, but we must accept that what we read is intended not only to convey information but also to impart values and principles of life. If these values differ from those we have adopted and found in the Bible, it is always worth considering whether it makes sense to continue reading, to what extent, and for what purpose.
Another criterion to consider is the practical usefulness of a text. The Bible says that “none of us lives for ourselves alone” (Romans 14:7). Jesus Christ gave the whole world the great challenge of loving God and loving one’s neighbour, which radically changes the selfish paradigm of society.
As we read, let us ask ourselves how what we are reading can help us to love God and our neighbour more.
When we read in this way, we are filled with enthusiasm to tell others what we have discovered.
The Bible also adds an aesthetic criterion to our reading choices. Paul said that we should be inspired by “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). We could also add the image that Jesus uses in the Gospels, that of the merchant seeking “fine pearls” (Matthew 13:45). We should develop our sense of aesthetics, because everything that comes from God’s hand is beautiful, and our readings should educate us to think in this way. They should help us learn to express ourselves with grace, to behave with kindness and elegance, and to behave in a manner worthy of one for whom God paid such a high price.
How we read is as important as what we read
In the early 1940s, a book was published with a title that would soon become a bestseller—How to Read a Book, written by the German-born American professor and philosopher Adler Mortimer. The book was then substantially revised by the author and republished in 1972, this time co-authored by Charles Van Doren. The two have sold over half a million copies and have inspired many other writers since then and to this day.
Surprisingly, in the preface to the revised edition, Mortimer notes that one of the fundamental problems of society at the time of the first volume (1940) remains the same in the year of the revised edition (1972), namely that all formal education in reading ends with primary school. Unfortunately, the situation is no different in the field of religious literature. Entering the great Christian family does not automatically bring new reading skills. The Christian must therefore know not only what to read, but also how to read.
For this we must remember that, from the Christian point of view, God is the source of truth (John 14:6). People have a limited understanding of truth, so we need to maintain a “sober judgement” about ourselves and others (Romans 12:3). To avoid drawing the wrong conclusions, we need to start from the right premises. And these are an understanding of the context in which the author wrote, the original recipients, the literary genre of the work, and the author’s use of certain key terms. Even if we use the same language, sometimes the meaning of words may be different for different audiences, or different for us, depending on our level of training in a particular field. Then we have to pay attention to the way the author constructs his arguments, the logical thread of the book.
Oftentimes we get so caught up in the text and the conclusions the author draws that we don’t notice that they are based on arguments like “it is said”, “it is believed”, “we all agree that…”. We need to consider the authors’ qualifications in the field in which they are writing and how they quote from the work of others. Lack of proper quotation, inaccurate quotation, or taking statements out of their original context can be signs of dishonesty—a strong enough argument to stop reading the book in question. Last but not least, we need to look at the extent to which the conclusions or recommendations are accurate and actionable, and the direction in which they tend to take us.
We don’t live on bread alone
Reading is undoubtedly more than a relaxing exercise. It is a challenge to change. Every book is an encounter with the author and the characters or protagonists of the book and, whether we want to or not, we exchange ideas, values, and perspectives on life with them.
That is why we need books, why we need to see the world through other people’s eyes, so that we can understand it better, so that we can be useful to others, and learn how to be happy. Writing is also, to paraphrase Michelangelo, a wing that God has left us to reach Him. Christians can be proud that they have a God who is passionate about writing, and they can demonstrate their sense of pride through good reading and writing habits. Only in this way will people learn to use this wing to fly heavenward.
Adrian Neagu believes that our spirituality is directly influenced by our reading habits. As someone who has used words a great deal, God is concerned about their power in our lives.