Here’s a question for you to consider: How important is reading for achieving success in life?
Leading educational reformer E. D. Hirsch Jr. offers his perspective:
“We all know that reading is the most important academic skill, and that there is a big reading gap between haves and have-nots in our schools. We know that reading is a key not just to a child’s success in school but also, in the information age, to his or her chances in life.”1
But let me now ask a deeper question: How important is reading in living a good life?
The profound statement, “Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life” is often attributed to educator and philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, a renowned twentieth-century public intellectual. I don’t know if Adler said it but I do think he would agree with it.2
For context, I think a good life involves living a life of truth, goodness, and beauty.3 From a Christian perspective, those three transcendentals reflect the very nature of God. Thus, a good life ultimately involves knowing, loving, and serving the triune God. Does reading help us attain the three transcendentals?
I placed this quote about reading and the good life on my Facebook page and received an intriguing comment. Here’s that comment paraphrased along with my response:
I love to read and I’m glad I’m capable of doing so. But how did the early Christians grow in their faith since 95% of them were illiterate? As I see it, they could only listen as the Scriptures were read to them. Thus, it appears that reading was not required for spiritual growth. I wonder from a certain vantage point: Is the ability to read a liability?
You’ve raised some thoughtful questions about the “reading and the good life” quote. Here’s my response:
- Being made in the image of God means that human beings are exceptional creatures endowed with profound intellectual abilities. In fact, an important part of loving God is loving the Lord with the gift of our mind. The Bible speaks not only about moral virtues but also intellectual virtues, including checking sources, mental renewal, discerning, reflection, and testing (see Acts 17:11; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 14:29; Colossians 2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:21).
- Judaism and Christianity are “religions of the book.” That distinction makes them different from the pagan religions, which were not tied to a revealed text. Christianity’s bookish emphasis led to an extraordinary growth of texts within the first couple of centuries of the faith. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic monasteries preserved learning and by the High Middle Ages the great universities of Europe were born (Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Padua, Naples, Florence, St. Andrews, etc.). It was these Christian universities that gave rise to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. The Protestant Reformation also contributed to an ever-growing rate of literacy among the populace.
- Concerning the apostolic church and reading, since slaves made up a significant number of early converts to the Christian faith, illiteracy was initially very high. But because the early church had a large portion of people who couldn’t read doesn’t mean the church should stay that way or that there’s something spiritual about not having the capacity to read. Learning was still very important in a predominantly oral tradition culture and those who could read served those who couldn’t. For example, even people who were illiterate learned communally through memorizing God’s Word. In fact, memorization at the time of Jesus was high. Some scholars say that rabbis were expected to have largely memorized the content of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) along with knowing the 613 laws (Mitzvot in Hebrew) of Judaism.
- Intellectuals may suffer from snobbishness and pride, which can be a real stumbling block spiritually. But there are also people who are spiritually proud in other ways not involving the life of the mind. Rather than reading being a spiritual liability, anti-intellectualism in the evangelical church can be a big concern. Anti-intellectualism hurts evangelism, discipleship, apologetics, and even reflective worship. If I understand your concern correctly, it’s the attitude about what we’ve learned through reading, not reading itself, that we need to watch out for.
- In terms of the general value of reading, one extensive 20-year study indicated that the number of books in the home that children are exposed to is more important to a child’s success in life than any social program promoted by the government.4 Reading is the fundamental discipline to all studies. Thus books and reading really matter.
- The quote doesn’t say reading or the intellectual life is the be-all and end-all of life. It says reading is a basic tool to living a good life, which for Christians means loving God with all our faculties. Adler was one of the most learned persons of the twentieth century and yet he was also a humble servant of Jesus Christ.5 We can learn from his example in our humble pursuit of the good life.
Thank you for your comment. Peace be with you.
Reading is an important tool in the pursuit of the good life, which includes truth, goodness, and beauty. Moreover, I think Christians need to carefully consider how they can go about loving God with their mind.
Reflections: Your Turn
What do you think the role of reading is in pursuing a good life?
- I write about the question of faith, reason, and learning along with the growth of primitive Christianity in my book Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good?
- E. D. Hirsch Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, revised and updated, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), vii-viii.
- Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).
- Kenneth Samples, “The 3 Transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, & Beauty,” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, February 2, 2021. https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/the-3-transcendentals-truth-goodness-beauty.
- Kenneth Samples, “Home Libraries Can Set a Child’s Mind on Fire,” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, May 18, 2021, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/home-libraries-can-set-a-childs-mind-on-fire.
- Kenneth R. Samples, “Wednesday Wisdom from Thinker Mortimer J. Adler,” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, April 16, 2019.