Let me introduce you to a few of my friends and their very normal, average reading habits.
- A member of three different book clubs, Christy is a voracious reader of all novels. She loves books that keep her up late at night begging to read just one more page before lights out. Christy also enjoys poetry and has even written a few verses, but she finds books on Christian living and theology boring. As for news, Christy trusts her friends will let her know if the world is coming to an end.
- Johnny has his favorite news outlet that he reads for information, and he maybe reads two to three novels each year for fun, but that’s only if the books come highly recommended by friends. He reads reports all day long at his job, so he’s tired of reading by the time he gets home.
- Andrea has read almost every book on theology and Christian living on her church’s recommended book list, and she teaches a packed Bible study class each week. She’ll usually read a novel or two on vacation each year, but she rarely reads fiction any other time. She doesn’t stay current on news, unless she sees it on Facebook.
- Zack doesn’t really read books. In fact, Zack can’t remember the last book he read, but he reads blogs and online news sources each day, so he feels like he’s in-the-know about the world. His pastor has recommended a few books about theology, but he’s just not interested. Besides, the authors have long been gone, so he figures they probably have nothing really relevant to say.
What about You?
Consider for a moment what your reading habits are. What are your likes or dislikes? Do you consider yourself a good reader? Do any of my aforementioned friends sound like you?
It’s easy to get stuck in a reading rut until you realize the type of reading you do is pretty narrowly focused, or you realize how little you actually think of reading. Truthfully, reading is important and helps cultivate better spiritual discipline and love for the Bible. And I don’t mean just reading novels, or just news articles, or just theology and Christian living, or even just reading Christian authors. I’m talking about reading varied authors across multiple genres.
All 66 books of the Bible are written in different genres by multiple human authors. God chose the written Word in all its varied ways to communicate and teach us about Himself, about us, and about the world we inhabit – His world.
As a writer who wants to be good at my craft, I know that being a good writer means I must first be a good reader. The same is true about appreciating the varied forms of literature present in the Scriptures; to understand the Bible properly demands that I understand its literary forms.
You may know that the Bible has several genres that makeup all 66 books (historical/law, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, epistle, and gospel), but how often do you branch out and read literature, outside of the Bible, that is written in these genres?
It’s time to branch out. I’ve found that a healthy habit for reading is to plan your reading for the year and choose literature from various genres.
Here are five genres you should read throughout the year:
It’s ironic to me when people say they don’t like poetry, but they have verses from the Psalms hanging on the walls in their homes. Before stories were written, they were shared orally and usually as poetry because rhythm and cadence make it easier to memorize and recite long passages. People generally enjoy reading and reciting the Psalms more than Leviticus because the Psalms minister to and instruct us as emotionally complex beings, not just rational, logically ordered beings. The poetic form evokes something within us.
Matt Mullins, assistant professor of English literature at the College at Southeastern recently made this, by his own admission, provocative claim: “You can’t understand the Bible if you don’t love poetry.” A significant portion of the Scriptures are written in poetic form. If God saw fit to communicate to us through poetry, then we should appreciate the literary form by reading it more regularly.
We learn about ourselves and others through stories. Even Christ used stories to teach people and his disciples about himself, about Truth. We call those “parables.”
Watch little kids when stories are read to them. Their eyes light up, they lean forward in anticipation, and they listen with excitement.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by its contact with mystery” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose).
When reading fiction, whether novels or short stories, we’re forced to view things with a new or different perspective. And really, we all benefit from other perspectives than our own.
In this genre I would also include autobiographical and memoirs. The real life stories of others — their trials and triumphs, weaknesses and strengths, and the history of nations, rising and falling — are tutors to us. Reading about history and the life stories of others is important, so we don’t repeat mistakes, and t we can build on success.
Passing down history and real life stories is vital to understanding past, present, and even future contexts. There’s a reason the Lord instructed his people to tell the stories of his power and teach his law to their children and their children’s children – so they would know who they were, who they belonged to, and where they were going.
Some of you may already have a healthy discipline of reading literature on the Christian life or on theology and doctrine, but I would encourage you to expand your palate in this area across other genres. Did you know that many authors who have written about theology and doctrine have also written poetry? Try reading some of John Piper’s poems alongside his Let the Nations Be Glad, or John Newton’s autobiography alongside his poetry.
You should also cast away your fear of the dense language in theology books and dive right in to say John Calvin’s Institutes or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The Scriptures are our primary source, but literature about the Scriptures, how to read and apply them, is intended to help us know and understand them better – not hinder or derail us.
Long-form journalism such as essays or articles in peer-reviewed journals are becoming less popular in our click-bait culture. Most people tire of reading an article longer than 800 words, but it’s difficult to get a robust understanding of a complex issue in so few words.
Reading long-form journalism takes a little more time, of course, but it also forces you to ruminate on the contents longer than it takes to click “next” at the bottom of that online article. Your local library will, most likely, have issues of journals and periodicals that contain essays that allow the writer and you, the reader, to go deeper into issues and help you form a better and more critically approached point of view.
Don’t try reading all of these genres at the same time. Make a plan to read literature from each genre for the year and stick to it. Your appreciation for reading and learning will grow, and your appreciation for and understanding of the Scriptures will as well.