The Dancing Puritan

Monday, January 6, 2014

Reading Non-Christian Books

To read or not to read, that is the question regarding non-Christian literature.

Jerram Barrs in the book Echoes of Eden writes, “Should Christians only enjoy the art of fellow Christians?”  He then considers how Christians use and participate in all sorts of things that were made by non-Christians.

   . . . there is not a Christian in the world who does not daily benefit from the creative gifts and hard work of the unbelievers around him or her. Our clothes, our food, our homes, our public buildings, our transportation, our furnishing, our machinery, and our technology—the greater part of all this has been designed and made by people who are not Christians.” 

The first question on whether to read non-Christian literature, concerns the rightness of such reading. Is it biblical?  Immediately you are faced with the challenge of no explicit passage that deals with the question directly. However, do not be dismayed. When there is no direct instruction on a particular topic, then it is important to look for principles and examples in the Bible (for whatever the question may be). There are several guiding principles that can be garnered on the subject of reading non-Christian literature.

The Principle of Cleanness
The Apostle Paul writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14). He is speaking specifically of food and drink but there is application for anything else. Paul is interested in Christians showing love to one another. He wants them to consider one another, even in their eating and drinking. Everything is clean, Paul says (vs. 20). However,  Christians should not create situations that cause other Christians to stumble.

I Corinthians 8 is a similar passage. There Paul deals with whether Christians should eat meat that has been offered to idols. Since idols have “no real existence” (4), then eating food offered to idols is not a problem (unless a weaker brother is hurt as a result). Comparing reading non-Christian books to eating or drinking is not exact. However, eating, drinking, and reading all require intake. The food offered to idols in I Corinthians had been touched and handled by non-Christians. However, it was acceptable for Christians to enjoy, as long as they were committed to loving their fellow believers. Reading a non-Christian book, in and of itself, is not an issue. However, flaunting the freedom to read such a book before a weaker brother/sister who is opposed to such reading, is a problem. The problem is not the book; the problem is a lack of love. Assuming that a non-Christian book does not dishonor God, nor hurt a fellow believer, then the book (like food handled by non-Christians) is acceptable. It is clean when bathed in love.

The Principle of Goodness
God created everything good and nothing, unless explicitly sinful, is forbidden. Because of sin, all good things are not as they ought to be and they stand in need of redemption. An unbeliever cannot please God because faith is required, which the non-Christian does not possess. However, that does not mean that the non-Christian cannot do anything of value.

Interestingly, that which is produced by sinners will ultimately be fully enjoyed by believers. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes, “For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God . . ..” (2:26).  Philip Ryken observes:

Sometimes the transfer of property takes place in the present life. There are some good examples of this in the Bible, like the Canaanites who lost their cities to the children of Israel, or wicked Haman who had to dress his mortal enemy in the royal robes he thought to have claimed for himself (see Esther 6). 
That doesn’t always happen, of course—at least not right now. In fact, one of the vanities of a fallen world is that while the righteous suffer affliction, many sinners seem to prosper. But it will not always be like this. At the end of history, the wealth of all nations will be brought into the kingdom of Heaven (see Revelation 21:24). The meek really will inherit the earth, as Jesus promised (Matthew 5:5). According to the justice of God’s sovereign providence, his people will receive what sinners have gathered. As Jesus said, ‘To everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Luke 19:26). Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Crossway Books).

Since Christians will enjoy fruit from the labors of non-Christians, then such things may be enjoyed today, in a redemptive way. All literature (Christian and non-Christian) is produced under the impact of the Fall and is in need of redemption. As well, the Bible never necessarily forbids Christians from partaking of those things, produced by non-Christians. Should it be imagined that only Israelites under the Old Covenant, or Christians under the New Covenant, planted, cultivated, and gathered all of the food that was prepared, the wine that was enjoyed, or the carts upon which goods were transported? Nothing in Scripture implies such a thing.

The Old Testament account of Daniel is instructive. Even though Daniel and his friends would not eat the king’s food or drink the king’s wine, they still ate food that was planted, cultivated, and harvested by the king’s men, albeit vegetables.  Even if it could be argued that the vegetables were planted and cultivated by Israelites, they were still a part of the king’s kingdom.

Daniel and his friends were faithful to obey the Old Testament dietary laws. They were also faithful not to eat food that was intimately connected to false religion. Beyond that, the Scripture tells us, “As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (Daniel 1:16). What was their curriculum? Their studies were made up of the “literature and language of the Chaldeans” (4). The Bible does not condemn Daniel and his friends for working for the king, (a fully secular workplace), eating vegetables grown in the king’s domain, or reading and learning the literature of the Chaldeans. Many of the things in the king’s kingdom were good. And though Daniel and friends refused some things, they did not refuse all things (vegetables, water, literature, employment). They redeemed their participation in government and their eating and their drinking, by not violating God’s law.

Certainly it is clear, that it is possible to participate in a secular government, and to eat and drink food and wine produced by non-Christians, in a way that is honoring to God. If Christians were to have no contact with non-Christians then they would have to leave the world. Admittedly, the references mentioned, mostly have to do with eating and drinking, but we are drawing application concerning anything produced by non-Christians. Christians are not forbidden to read non-Christian books and, as in the case with Daniel, it is possible to read such books in a redemptive way. This does not mean, of course, that Christians are free to indiscriminately read Christian or non-Christian books.

The Principle of God's Glory
Christians can enjoy anything that is not forbidden (explicitly expressed, or by necessary implication) and do so to the glory of God. God provides, for his people, “everything to enjoy” (I Timothy 6:17).  Paul condemned, on the one hand, an ascetic religion where folks withdrew from pleasure out of a false sense of spirituality. On the other hand he combated putting one’s hope in riches. Paul’s point is that Christians are not to trust in riches but they are to trust in God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Everything, not sinful, can be enjoyed by believers. Paul writes, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). The “whatever you do” would include anything that is not forbidden by Scripture.

There is a way to read a non-Christian book to the glory of God. How? Reading for the good of others is but one way. To apply a part of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 10, Christians who are invited to dine with an unbeliever are free to do so if they want, even if the meat served was offered to idols. They are free because “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (vs. 26). Imagine a scenario where a Christian is given a popular book on business that was written by a non-Christian. Perhaps the Christian prefers to only read books written by John Piper. However, he realizes that he can show love to his non-Christian friend by receiving the gift of a non-Christian book. He is free to receive and read, if he can do so without sinning. He is also free to fully enjoy, to the glory of God, reading the book.

The picture that emerges from Scripture is that God has created a bountiful earth occupied with creative people made in his image. Yes, his image has been marred by the sin of those people. Nevertheless there remains evidence of the image of God. The character of God is written even on the heart of the non-Christian. One might look into a broken mirror and see an imperfect reflection, but a reflection nevertheless of the real person. The reflection is distorted but still exists. God’s image remains, even in fallen man, in some way. When excellent non-Christian literature is produced, then God gets the glory, because man is made in his image. The excellent literature displays the creativity of God. The Christian can glorify God by receiving God’s gifts with prayer, thanksgiving, and in accordance with Scripture.

The Principle of Sanctification
Christians, who read non-Christian literature, should make their reading holy. They do this by thanking God for the gift of creativity in their fellow man. They do so by prayerfully, asking God to protect them from being led astray by and to teach them lessons from their reading. They do so by examining everything that they read by Scripture. If they are reading something that is contrary to God’s will, they should evaluate what is read in light of the Bible. They should be led in their reading to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is commendable . . .” (Philippians 4:8).

Clearly, pornography is an example of a type of literature that is forbidden. However, that does not necessarily mean that all literature that deals with inappropriate sexual relationships is forbidden. The Bible gives us, in some detail, the sordid account of David and Bathsheba. However, never in Scripture is sexual immorality glorified. When reading the story of David and Bathsheba, the Bible does not use salacious language, and it does not present the story in a way that is sinfully provocative. Sin is presented in all of its ugliness and against the backdrop of God's redemptive grace. It is possible, even in non-Christian literature, to present a story of sexual immorality in such a way that the awfulness of sin is magnified and the grace of God is exalted. The Bible is not a clean book in the sense that it does not whitewash sin. It addresses sin, sometimes by way of story. Therefore, when encountering sin in a story written by a non-Christian it is not correct to assume that reading the story is necessarily sinful.

When reading non-Christian books it is important, upon encountering accounts of immorality, to not be provoked to sin. Discernment will be needed and godly counsel should be sought. The distinctions between good and bad should be obvious. Thinking on what is pure, does not necessarily mean never reading about murder, violence, and sexual immorality. However, one should be very careful, prayerful, and safeguarded by Scripture. The same is true when considering genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and various forms of mythology.

We have a daughter who enjoys reading and has benefitted from the books of Rick Riordain, author of the Percy Jackson series. We allow her to read those books, but not without further instruction. We also provide books for her that are explicit in sound doctrine. And she is faithful to read the Bible.

If reading God’s Word is not a priority, then there is an obvious problem. The Bible teaches the importance of reading, meditating on, memorizing, and obeying Scripture. The Bible is the only book that is inspired by God. It, therefore, should be front and center of every Christian’s life. The Bible is the book by which all other books must be measured.

Reading non-Christian literature can be an exciting adventure of experiencing beautiful language, engaging topics, and result in numerous benefits. When reading such literature it is important to be well grounded in the Bible, prayerful, thankful, and discerning. It is also important to consider others when speaking or writing about such literature. Though there is freedom in Christ for such reading, wisdom is required.

Think of all the things, enjoyed by Christians, that were made or designed by non-Christians. Jerram Barrs in Echoes of Eden writes, “This truth should not trouble us at all, but rather cause us to magnify the grace of God, who gives to all so generously.”  He concludes, “The question we need to ask about any human artifact is not, Is this made by a Christian or a non-Christian? But rather the question that Genesis 1 prompts us to ask: Is this good?”

Next time: A Simple Plan for Reading Non-Christian Literature