When It Comes to Book-Reading, Let’s Raise the Bar and Expand Our Minds

I write a lot of smaller books, and in some of them I try to put the cookies on the lower shelf. This is true, for instance, of my book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, The Treasure Principle, and my booklets Heaven, If God Is Good, and God’s Promise of Happiness.

However, I also write more meaty books, such as Money, Possessions and Eternity, Heaven, If God Is Good, hand in Hand: The Beauty of God's Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice and Happiness. One reason I write in-depth books is because I believe we are dumbing down not only our culture, but also our churches. I think teachers, writers, publishers and pastors sometimes greatly underestimate people's ability to study and think.

If we always put the cookies on the lower shelf, young people (and older people too) won’t learn to reach for anything higher. We popularize everything, and as a result, books and Bible studies and discussions of substance are becoming progressively unpopular. Not because they aren’t important and stimulating and enriching but because in a culture dominated by television, movies, video games and social media, our attention spans are decreasing and we’re shrinking both intellectually and spiritually.

I taught at a Bible college in the 1980s, and fifteen years later I taught again for a few years. I was shocked at the noticeable decrease in the students’ abilities to read and write—a far larger percentage of them seemed much less capable of producing quality work. What was the difference? Surely it wasn’t that their capacity for serious thought and self-expression had really diminished—somehow, serious study and thought had seemed to take a nose dive. Many teachers have witnessed the same trends.

More than ever, I believe there’s a need for pastors and teachers and writers of all sorts to encourage and not to ignore or dismiss people’s potential to be intelligent, informed, and studious and to love reading deep Bible and theology. Here’s a couple of great examples of this. Check out this picture that Tanya sent me of her 14-year-old son finishing my book Heaven. I love that he’s profiting from a book full of theology and quotations from church history!

And Heather sent me this picture of her 11-year-old daughter:

Over the years, I’ve had some great responses from young people who’ve read my more serious and comprehensive books, both fiction and nonfiction. I once had a junior high boy come up to me at church and tell me he’d read my novel Dominion, a murder mystery which deals with racial themes, six times! (It’s the largest book I’ve ever written, and he knew it as well or better than I did.)

We received this letter: “I am an 11-year-old girl from Mississippi and read Safely Home and it was life changing!” A 12-year-old boy wrote to me, “Recently, my sister, mother and I have finished reading Safely Home. …I think my favorite part was all the Bible-oriented comments that come gushing out of Quan whenever he talks with Ben. I also like the way you depicted Ben's conversion.”

I also love hearing from young adults. A student wrote about one of my biggest and deepest books: “Thank you for writing Money, Possessions, and Eternity. I am a 21-year-old college student. God definitely used it in instructing me to surrender my finances to Him.”

There are numerous examples of young people and uneducated people who’ve found their lives totally transformed by reading challenging books. I know a man who was a terrible student and a poor reader in his youth. But after he came to Christ as a nineteen year old, he forced himself to read, as difficult as it was. He read book after book, and eventually worked his way through Bible college and seminary, and became one of the most theologically grounded people I know. Why? Because he chose to read books of substance that challenged and greatly expanded his thinking. The more he read, the more he understood. Had he believed his poor grades in school reflected his intellectual abilities, he would never have become the mature thinker he is, and his pastoral ministry would have been far less impactful than it’s been.

At our church, there are various small groups studying through Wayne Grudem’s outstanding (and big) book Bible Doctrine. A number of people in the studies have found themselves cultivating a new taste and thirst for great theology. They’d never have discovered this joy if someone hadn’t put together the study and invited them.

A woman who isn’t known as a student or deep thinker has read and reread my book Heaven, which is not always easy reading, with all its citations from people from church history. She says it has changed her life. I’m sure there are quotations she probably had to reread and ponder to get their meaning. But she has done it gladly, and the payoff has been great. I’ve heard from others that reading Happiness has changed their lives—these are regular people that you wouldn’t expect to be motivated to read 440 pages with frequent quotations from church fathers and Puritans!

Many years ago, John Stott wrote an excellent book called Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life. Our minds aren’t perfect, but they’re useable; and as we use them in biblical study and in reading quality books of substance, they should be increasingly renewed and sharpened. We’re commanded in Scripture, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This change in thinking is our responsibility.  

Isn’t there room for movies and TV and kicking back and enjoying a lightweight novel? Sure, I enjoy these things myself. But I believe in an era dominated by superficial popular culture, there’s real value in expanding our thinking to God’s glory, and not just going broad but going deep. Deep is where the roots are, and they’re what keeps the tree or hedge or vine standing during hard winds and water that would otherwise erode and topple it. Likewise, deeply rooted beliefs—specifically a worldview grounded in Scripture—will allow us to persevere and hold on to a faith built on the solid rock of God’s truth.

We often forget that what ends up in the heart comes in through the head. The current tendency to minimize Bible study and sound theology in the interest of focusing on the heart is badly misguided. The anti-intellect, popular-culture-driven “all that matters is my heart” is wrong, but even if it were right, we would need to be cultivating our minds in order to cultivate our hearts.

Here are three things you can do to encourage intellectual growth in yourself and others:

  1. Challenge yourself to read Christ-honoring books of substance. Ask God’s Holy Spirit to be your teacher, renew your mind, and warm your heart (see John 14:26; 1 John 2:27). Tony Reinke’s list of the 70 best books of 2015 is a great place for ideas to get you started. Consider making a  reading goal for the year for yourself. Trevin Wax has a list of ideas to help you set and keep your goal.
  2. Encourage the young people in your life to read books that challenge their minds. Read to your children and with them and give them good books they want to read. Ask yourself, Am I helping my children stretch and develop their minds, or are my actions compelling them to just be content with not knowing and understanding? If we fail to do this, they will become mere products of movies, television, entertainment and social media. They’ll not become people of the Book, people of thought and substance.
  3. Help develop a culture of reading in your local church. Check out this article for ideas.

Here are some helpful books on developing your mind to love God:

In addition to Your Mind Matters, as a young believer I read The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires, a friend of C. S. Lewis. More recently I read and enjoyed J. P. Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. All great books, as are Loving God with All Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith and The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.

As we read, and encourage others to do so, including our children, may God help us to renew our minds, set our minds on things above, and love God with all our hearts and minds. May we raise the bar of our thinking, not lower it, and experience the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of mental and spiritual growth. 

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries