A Biblical Perspective on Reading

This new rubric, entitled “Hot Topics,” is a new one for the Beacon Lights. Writers are provided a prompt which is drawn from today’s issues. This rubric is also designed to encourage discussion about such issues among Beacon Lights readers. We encourage you to email us your thoughts regarding these issues—we would like to hear your thoughts and feedback. Perhaps enough feedback on one issue, or an especially interesting response, might require further treatment in the magazine. Email Joe Holstege ( or Ryan Barnhill ( if something sparks your interest or you want to continue the discussion.

The Prompt

Is it OK for a Christian to read books which include violence, inappropriate language, sex, etc.? Why do Christians tend to justify illicit content in books as opposed to movies? Specific authors for such books would include John Grisham and Jeff Shaara. Both of these authors include language, sex, violence, etc. in their books, yet they are read in the PRC. Can we justify reading these books? Can they be beneficial and edifying for the Christian?

  1. Introduction

Young people, what kind of place does the activity of reading have in your life? Do you enjoy reading? Do you set aside time to read every day? Surely you read the Bible, but what other types of reading do you enjoy? Some of you might be so busy that you can’t really sit down to read anything more than a few texts from friends during the day and your Facebook wall posts at night. Others might especially enjoy a certain subject at school and engage very thoroughly when reading that material. Whatever it is that you read during the day, I think that we can all agree that reading is an important and beneficial means of communication that we all couldn’t live without.

Besides being an important skill to have if only to succeed now in school and Lord willing, in your future professional or home life, reading is a very important activity for the spiritual growth and development of the children of God. The fact that you are reading this magazine reveals that you are interested in reading in order to develop spiritually (hopefully because you desire it, or even just because your parents wisely require it). Look at the vast amount of Reformed literature we have been blessed with, even if you consider only what our ministers and church members have produced. The purpose for the existence of all of this good reading material is the growth and stimulation of your and my faith (which I will remind you is in part a “certain knowledge” of the truths of God’s Word). God is glorified not only when we read good Reformed literature but I dare say even more so when we meditate on these truths and their proper application.

Reading was important for the saints of the Old and New Testament; we see witness of this in Scripture. Paul, while imprisoned, requested of his young fellow-laborer Timothy that he bring with him books and parchments, in order that Paul can continue to dwell on the words which had been written during his time of imprisonment (II Timothy 4:13). In Joshua 1:8, the Lord commands Joshua to read and meditate on God’s law, in order that he can capably lead and direct the people. King David, in the Psalms, speaks of writing down and meditating on the great works of God that had been performed for his people. These few examples begin to illustrate how reading was used by God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. I hope you will agree with me, dear reader, when I conclude that reading is an important part of the “renewing of (y)our mind” that Paul mandates in Romans 12:2.

  1. the Issue

How are we, the children of God, then to view the work of authors such as John Grisham, Jeff Shaara, James Patterson, or Stephanie Meyer, author of the ever-popular Twilight series? These authors all have several things in common: they are all extremely popular, very widely read, and frequently appear on the best-seller lists that are produced. Their novels and romances have appeal to a wide audience, though especially to the teenage generations. The themes of the work of these and other similar authors (you may take your pick, as so many of them exist) vary widely: some deal mainly with “love“ and romance, some with life and growing up, others with crime and law, and still others with war and conflict. In what light are the people of God to view works such as these? Can we read these books with a clear conscience, and ought we to do so? Should we encourage our friends to read these books, or should they have no place in our lives? It is exactly these questions that I attend to address in this article (or series of articles). It is my hope that you will read closely what I have written and offer your opinion or response as well.

III. The Viewpoints

In response to this issue, there are several different viewpoints that could be taken. Acknowledging the risk of over-simplifying these viewpoints, I have condensed all different viewpoints into three broad schools of thought, as I outline below. As you read, consider which of these viewpoints you believe is not only the most biblical, but also the most reasonable to you:

The first school of thought would say that Christians ought not to read any fiction that speaks of sex, violence, lying, or taking God’s name in vain with profanity. If one from this school of thought was reading a book and ran into content such as this, they would stop reading that book and or author immediately. This group would likely argue, among other things, that since these sins are specifically forbidden in God’s word, we ought not take pleasure in them or bring them to mind unnecessarily through our reading.

Others might take the stance that we may read books that contain material as listed above, but that the importance lies in our perspective: when we read, we must see the sins that are recounted or committed within the light of Scripture and evaluate them as God commands us to. Individuals in this group would likely contend that it would be harmful for children of God to read these materials unless they keep God’s law in mind while they do so and renew their conviction to not fall into or reproduce these same sins.

A final group, representing the opposite extreme of the first group, would argue that as discerning Christians we have the ability to read whatever we choose. This group would likely point to the reasoning of Christian liberty as permitting this practice (interested readers can study I Corinthians 8:1 –9:6 and Romans 14:9ff for a better understanding of Christian liberty). They would argue that a Christian who is strong in his faith should not have any negative spiritual effects from reading material that contains “objectionable” material.

  1. Scripture’s Teaching

Understanding these basic schools of thought, I would like to outline further my convictions on this issue and the sources of these convictions in Scripture and our Reformed confessions. I do not claim to have all the answers on this topic, and as this is the case I would like to encourage responses and dialog on this issue from any engaged readers. To set the stage for what I intend to show, however, I will take a somewhat unconventional approach. I think it is meaningful for us to first look at a select few of the truths of Scripture that apply to our Christian walk. With this backdrop in our mind, we can then more easily understand the issue at hand.

It has always intrigued me that when a scribe questioned Jesus in Mark 12 on the first and great commandment of the law, Jesus replied in the most simple of terms that we are to love the Lord our God with all our soul, mind, and strength. This all-encompassing calling is our only command; all the rest of the commandments, including the second great commandment to love the neighbor, flow out of this first commandment. Loving God means that in all that we do we desire to glorify him and do what is most pleasing in his sight. It means bearing up our cross and putting aside all “weight,” or distraction, which would slow us down in the “running of the race” which represents our walk of faith here in this world (Hebrews 12:1).

Further, by the power of God’s grace he has taken those who were dead in sin and made them alive in Christ Jesus; this is the “quickening” referred to in Ephesians 2:1-10. As verses 3, 4, and 5 of this chapter teach, we have been delivered from the power of sin and made holy. Galatians 5:16 -ff contrasts the “lusts of the flesh” in which we walked over against the “fruits of the Spirit” in which we now abide; what a glorious deliverance has been given to us. With this knowledge of what we have been delivered from, and knowing the terrible anger of God against sin (Lord’s Day 4 of the Heidelberg Catechism), we ought to shudder at the very thought of sin. God’s hatred of sin is the driving force behind our hatred of sin; David says in Psalm 139:21-22 that he hates the sinful enemies of God (and by reason, their deeds as well) with a “perfect hatred.” Sin offers no delight to the true child of God, and as I John 2:15-16 explains, the lusts of the world are not compatible with one who loves his Father in heaven.

Understanding what has just been explained, I believe that the chief criteria, or measurement, that we ought to use when judging what is proper reading material is the approach that a book’s author takes when discussing sin. What exactly do I mean by that? One can tell a vast amount about the attitude and purpose of a writer in the way that one portrays and speaks of sin in his or her books. If the writer plays sin up as exciting and harmless, then this author has a fatally skewed perspective on the Christian life. If sin is portrayed as shameful and despicable, as it ought to be, then such a work helps us to better see the glory of God.

This is an applicable point to discuss an argument that is often used when discussing literature and what content God’s people ought to enjoy. Some would say that we ought not put aside violent or offensive content in books because even the Bible contains accounts of such undesirable topics as rape, incest, adultery, extreme violence, and cursing. This argument does not have a basis, however, because the difference between the Bible and other books is the way in which these topics are presented and the reason for their inclusion.

In secular books, often the underlying reason that sin is shown is that this sin can be glorified: in the Bible, the primary reason is radically different. There, the providence of God in controlling even the sinful actions of men for his purpose is most clearly shown, in order that his people might not doubt that he truly is the ruler and creator of all things, and that all events and actions of men serve his purpose (see Lord’s Day 9 and 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, also Article 13 of the Belgic Confession). One needs to look no further than the lamentable fall of David into adultery with Bathsheba, which God used to continue the royal line to Christ via the glorious type of Solomon. The argument which states that we can’t ban any content glorifying sin because of the Bible has no merit.

Others might claim, as was mentioned in the different viewpoints on this issue, that the concept of Christian liberty can be applied here. One who holds to this view would claim that those strong in faith can partake of these types of books without any detriment to their relationship with God, so long as they do not openly attempt to offend others within the body of Christ who may be “weaker” and cannot do such things because it offends their conscience (look back to the Viewpoints section of this article for a few excellent texts on this concept). Those who hold this are correct in that the concept of Christian liberty applies to areas where the Bible does not speak directly to a topic; however, there are many biblical principles that apply to sin and our hatred of it, as illustrated above. In light of this, we ought to avoid any works that emphasize the supposed “pleasures” of sin and attempt to hide God’s wrath against it.

Finally, and on a very practical level, there is the fact that all men will be held accountable in the day of judgment for the use of their time, just as everything else that God has given to man. We ought to desire then to spend all of our time serving him, and not wasting our days with the vanities of this world (Solomon’s laments of this life’s vanity in Ecclesiastes come immediately to mind). Now, do not take my stance to mean I believe any recreation and activity of this earthly life should not be allowed. It is very possible to find books written by worldly authors that are not at all offensive and that can be enjoyed by the people of God. We are instructed in Scripture that we are to live in the world (though not of it), and this means that we are able to enjoy material, activities and other things produced by the world. However, we ought to always consider whether or not we could be spending our time reading something more profitable than the fluff that the world often puts in front of us.

  1. Conclusion

My intention in this article and in the stance that I believe to be correct on this issue is not to discourage you to read as a young person. As I hope I have demonstrated, I believe reading to be not only a worthwhile but really a blessed activity. Rather, I want to help condition you to use your discernment when you read. Scripture warns us of this; remember the ominous warning of Romans 14:23, which states that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” The passage doesn’t say that if it isn’t of faith it probably isn’t a good idea, or that if it isn’t of faith we shouldn’t do it too often. No, it goes much farther than that. If we can’t do an activity out of our faith and for the strengthening of our faith, it is sin. How serious that is!

Further, as we have discussed already, our goal ought to be the glory of his name since we truly love our covenant God and desire to serve him more faithfully. That is the sole purpose for which we have been created (Revelation 4:11). Can we grow closer to God when we read material that is partially or completely objectionable? Do we glorify the name of our eternal father when we talk of these books with our friends and family? Do we present a godly witness to others when we read these books in the break room at work or on the college campus?

To help make this difficult topic a little more tangible and to help you in your personal struggle with this (for it is a struggle for us), I propose that you consider a book that you either would like to read or have read and enjoyed. Do the following as a quick test: could you recommend this book to a Christian friend? Would you be comfortable handing that book to your parents and saying “Read through this carefully: you will like it!” (I can assure you, to my shame, that many books that I have read in the past wouldn’t pass that test!) Could you convince an elder at your church that this is a worthwhile book? Think about the plot line of the book and the purpose that the author had in writing it, if it is apparent. What is the book promoting?

Young people, I encourage you to think about these things. It may not be easy to give up a favorite author or series. This issue might not even seem like such a big deal to you that it is worth considering. Remember, however, that we have been “made free from sin” and have become “the servants of righteousness” by God’s glorious work within us (Romans 6:17-18). Our awesome calling is to serve his name with joy!