On reading

I think it’s possible to be able to read, and yet to be kind of illiterate.

There was no encouragement to read when I was growing up. Very rarely, my family would read for entertainment, in the same way you might switch on the television, but with no desire to grow, gain a wider understanding on life or on any particular subject. Perhaps there was a concept that such reading was the reserve of the middle classes or ‘the clever’. Maybe there was a sense that there was no space in your average working class life for ideas beyond your station, or something to that effect.

I didn’t have a passion for reading as a child maybe because of some of that. If I read, it was at school and because I had to. Even into my early teens, the only books I had a working knowledge of were Ladybird Books – largely fairy tales. Now, granted, they have a power of their own. Who, upon reading the story of Chicken Licken, can fail to get some sort of grasp between the sky falling down and being hit by small falling tree debris – valuable tool to understand life events at times! That, and living a rich childhood vicariously through the exploits of Our Wullie.

It was my Christian conversion which lead to a passion for reading. My earliest serious reading forays were into my small red Gideon’s Bible. I don’t really believe I got beyond the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel (the first segment of the New Testament) before I was, as they say, ‘hooked.’ I was confronted by ideas of integrity, intentionality, purpose and someone and something bigger than my small self and my small community to something which was epic. The gospels were my mainstays for many years in that initial period, but transformative nonetheless.

I very soon picked up a passion for evangelism as the reality of this change of life became increasingly real. I wanted to know how to explain faith to others and how to go about it. Amazingly, this did more for my grasp of the gospel than it did for my evangelistic efforts but that’s another story!’

My passion for learning how to share the gospel were then fueled by the great corpus of Salvation Army literature – from stories of the pioneering history of the movement to the writing of the Booths, and then to more contemporary reflections on life lived in the context of ‘The Army’. I devoured everything I came across because it was just so fascinating. I was thrilled, and my horizons grew. There are so many of their lives and passions which still inspire me today – these mission pioneers were my pin ups!

At the very basic level, I was in the process of becoming increasingly literate and it changed me. It is still changing me. And THAT, for me, is the richness of reading. For me, it’s the process of moving beyond being a small thinker with simplistic ideas based on small assumptions about people, the world and what makes it tick. It is to step beyond the mindset of my own indigenous tribe and realise that people live and think differently. I realise that whilst there are things that I believe to be true and right, I don’t know even 1% of things that can be known in the entire world and that, really, I should remain inquisitive and open.

This has been particularly true in my continued reading as a preacher, pastor, missioner, chaplain, evangelist and mission leader. I’ve been infuriated, inspired, bored, challenge, affirmed, scared, and radically altered by the ideas of others. The perpetual challenge is to help it all land – to ground it in experience. I enjoy the out there ideas as ‘thought exercises’, but I’m always looking for ways that integrate my learning into life, an in particular, into life and ministry.

I think it is also so important, as inferred above, to read out of your silo – to burst out of your echo chamber – and to either learn to think differently, or at least to be able to just see where someone else is coming from.

There’s a big difference between being able to read and being literate. In whatever format that learning comes, be it books, interviews, podcasts, audio books, art, music or [insert your own thing], deliberate consumption of enriching material is one of the most valuable things you’ll ever do for yourself, those you live round, and – without being overly dramatic – the future of common humanity!

Hope you have some books on your Christmas list. What are you reading at the moment? What is it showing you?