An often-unquestioned correlation between intelligence and reading has enjoyed primetime in our collective social psyche. The chronic readers in our circles tend to be revered and socially elevated. Think about it: The experts on TV almost always have books as their background or display something that highlights how well-read they are. The proverbial "in my book" has become the sophisticated way of expressing one's opinion. And there is a high probability that you have a couple of books on display in your home; it doesn't matter if you have read them or not. But the displayed books represent a sophisticated form of social currency.
The church has also adopted this unquestioned expectation to read, and I'll even argue that it is often presented as essential for salvation. In some places, there remains an expectation of having read a certain amount of Bible lessons before one is eligible for baptism. I have also seen my fair share of people who will often punctuate their ideas and opinions by saying "I have read" or "Somewhere in her writings, Ellen White says (fill in the blank)," suggesting that what is written, especially in the case of Ellen White, ends all discussions, and like them, you ought to have read and matured in your Christianity.
In Adventism, you appear as someone who takes the plan of salvation and Christianity—the Adventist brand of Christianity—seriously when you read Ellen White, the books of the "who's who" in the church, and the Bible. But does this unbalanced expectation have any merit?
The Brief History
From antiquity until recently, historically speaking, the ability to read was the privilege of the wealthy. Literacy was a marker of wealth and prestige; it identified your social rank and confirmed that you belonged. Only people with money had time to read and could afford to buy books, write books, or employ a scribe or two.
As the literacy rates kept creeping up, new categories for classing the masses had to be invented. So, the measurement of social status ceased to be whether you could read and became how much you read—and the difficulty of the books that you consume. The ability to read complicated books and clever writers were correlated with one's IQ and, thus, social rank.
Since reading is such a prestigious activity, people will often lie about how many books they have read, if they even read through the books they claim. Therefore, even as the New York Times reports a rise in reading during the pandemic, it's incredibly difficult to assess if buying the books was just a form of social currency and if the books were read at all.
The Berean Church Argument
The advocates for reading within the church often use the Berean church in Acts 17:10–11 as the gold standard. We are often told that the members of this exemplary church were avid readers of the Scriptures. "They received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (NIV).
The challenge that arises from that translation is that it negates the lived experience of humanity at that time. Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press were still in the unknown future. Most people didn't have personal copies of the Scriptures at home. In fact, most of what the ancients knew of the Scriptures had been taught to them by word of mouth, proved by Romans 10:17: "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (NKJV).
Therefore, an understanding of Acts 17:10–11 that aligns with the lived experience of the Jews in that era would suggest that the studious folks in Berea were open-minded, receptive listeners who often came back to the synagogue to discuss Paul's teachings. They evaluated Paul's new Christian interpretation of the "Old Testament" with open hearts, unlike the folks down in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9).
Reading in the Era of Extensive Media
As someone who enjoys reading and writing, it pains me to admit that the heydays of reading and writing have come to pass. There was once a time when writing and reading had an incontestable monopoly in disseminating, receiving, and preserving information. But we are quickly losing sight of those days in our historical rearview mirror.
Some people would prefer to watch a movie or documentary than read the book. TikTok and Instagram are giants in the communication industry. The industry has changed so much that writing and reading had to be reimagined, with platforms like Twitter compressing the short story genre and making it even shorter.
My point is that there have and will always be other ways to receive information intelligibly. Reading is not the crème de la crème of information technology, and we as a church should not place a moral value on it.
I think our methods of sharing Christ should aggressively keep up with the times. Let's channel funds toward high-quality, well-researched documentaries and movies. How about conducting culinary Bible studies? Let us have the culinary experts and the historians among us recreate the last supper so we can engage with the story differently. We can certainly do much to edify our Christian experience and introduce people to the Bible without placing a moral requirement to read.
Let us move away from mass mailing books to our communities. It is bad environmental stewardship and a willful disregard of the information landscape; it is, altogether, bad business.
I know some will insist that Ellen White gave prophetic instruction with prophetic authority to spread her literature worldwide (see Publishing Ministry, 361 and the Remarks of W. C. White in Takoma Hall, December 17, 1905). Her ideas make sense because she lived in the heyday of the printing press when writing was the technology par excellence for reaching the masses.
To her credit, Ellen White acknowledged the downfalls of this approach, and thus she cautioned to only give the books to those who value the information (see Testimonies for the Church 1:551–52).
Here are a few points to ponder as you reevaluate your relationship with reading and its role within your circle of influence.
• Christian growth doesn't only happen through reading. So, don't guilt yourself into reading through the Bible in whatever given amount of time is fashionable at the moment; you can also listen to the Bible.
• There is no must-read "canon" of books by church leaders. Some of the said books are great books to read, if reading is your thing, but they are not essential for your salvation.
• If it is within your means, you can also grow spiritually by taking historical tours of Bible lands and engaging with the biblical stories by using most, if not all, of your senses. Reading biblical stories armed with your concordance and your Hebrew and Greek lexicons alone in your downtown apartment can certainly rob you of a wholesome experiential understanding.
• There are several other ways to prepare individuals for baptism that don't involve reading through a given number of lessons.
• There is no direct correlation between reading the Bible or religious books and living a Christ-centered life. If there were, all Bible scholars would be practicing Christians.
• It is morally okay to be an average reader or to prefer short and simple readings that are not laden with 50-cent words. It is okay to prefer the easy-to-read versions of Scripture over the King James Version.
• Your ideas are still valuable even if you don't have a famous author to align them with.
• And finally, if reading is not your thing, remember that most—and I'd argue that all—Bible heroes were spiritually nourished by hearing the Word. And the society that preserved and gave us the stories and practices detailed in the Scriptures was one primarily of hearers and not readers.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, orator, and author currently serving under the B.C. Conference in Canada. Pastor Thandazani and his wife Matilda have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. (www.themscproject.com)
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