It’s a dark, dull, rainy day today; and I am steadfastly refusing to notice. Because I don’t want to let the rain influence my mood. So far, it’s working!
We all do the same, I know. But why limit it to the weather?
Yesterday I saw, on an American Christian site, Reviewing School Book Lists, Part Four: Reading is Spiritual Warfare, which begins with the following words:
A child. Curled up in a couch. Nestled in an old oak tree with a book. What could be more bucolic? In a church I visit frequently (which doubles during the week as a school), a picture on the wall shows a prepubescent boy—no more than 6th grade, if that—holding The Hunger Games. He grips the book, looks up into our eyes, and smiles as if he is eating a strawberry sundae. Would you like to hear what he might have just read? Here’s one sentence from the first few chapters: “He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.” (p.33) Not too bucolic, is it?
Every time I see that picture, I have to fight feelings of anger. And NOT because the kid is reading a possibly age-inappropriate story. No, what makes me frustrated is that the picture illustrates a gaping disconnect between our perception of reading and its reality.
This young man is not merely having a fantastic, mind-expanding adventure as the brochure-like picture implies. With a book like The Hunger Games, he is involved in grave spiritual warfare.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t read the book. It certainly doesn’t mean the book should be banned by the government. But if reading generally is spiritual warfare, it changes everything. What we allow our kids to read and when. How they read, and the kinds of support they should receive. In short, it changes the most fundamental ways Christians ought to relate to books.
Nor is this limited to Christians, nor is it really about children, vulnerable as the latter may indeed be. The article goes on to discuss various issues, probably of limited relevance here; but it caused me to think about the question: what do I want to read?
That I have just ordered the Loeb Petronius is relevant here. I want no porn in my head. Indeed I have taken pains to purchase the original 1913 edition, in the belief that the nastier elements should be bowdlerised in it. What I want is the portrait of ancient life.
We all know that what people read influences their outlook, and the sort of people they become. Of course this was widely denied in the 60’s and 70’s, as a pretext for removing the censorship of obscene books; but those who led those campaigns are now quite happily erecting a censorship of political opinions far more intrusive than anything the old Lord Chamberlain’s office used to do. I think we can believe their actions, rather than their words. Everyone knows that books and reading change minds.
What do we allow inside our heads? What effect does it have? Does it make us happier? Healthier? And, if not, can we get it out again, or will the images be seared into memories for life?
The answers to this will vary for each of us, Christian or not. All of us remember the books of our childhood, even if we didn’t know what they were at the time. Many in later life try to track down those books which left images in their minds, and I confess that I have done the same. We know, even if we don’t acknowledge it, that what we read affects us greatly.
So what should we read? Reading anything and everything that interests us is perhaps something that most people reading this site do. But should we limit it in certain directions?
At the moment at bedtime I am reading Paupers and Pig Killers: the diary of William Holland, a Somerset Parson, 1799-1818. This I read because it consists of short entries, and is rather soothing really. That isn’t likely to affect my mood or outlook greatly in any direction; although his consistent hostility to “Methodists” does highlight the poor reputation that the “Ranters” or Primitive Methodists had in the period, which is something that I had not known.
No book will leave us unmoved, you see, if we love it and read it repeatedly.
I shall leave out of my life books dedicated to cruelty and obscenity. Indeed I have become stricter on this, in the last couple of years. I do not wish to experience either, nor to enjoy the depiction of it as entertainment, nor to become dead to it if I happen to witness such evils. I prefer my faculties to remain acute and unmarred. I wish to remain capable of appreciating ordinary things, and milder sensations. So do we all, in our saner moments.
But it’s not just what we avoid. What do we choose?
The proponents of the English classics would step forward at this moment and recommend a course of reading. (I do not, of course, refer to whatever rubbish has been advanced since 1970, but to the real classics).
There is merit in this. To learn how the best writers expressed things, to learn to enjoy what the best of men enjoyed… these are good things.
Yet even here we may divide. Dickens may be a classic, but the portraits of Victorian misery do nothing to cheer my heart. I avoid them for that reason. Jane Austen is more to my liking. Walter Scott is something I can handle in small doses.
What should we read? With that, I am reminded of Philippians 4:8 (ESV):
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
I’m not sure whether that takes us to anything specific; but it’s a great starting rule.