Reading widely provides a sure-footed stance when a preacher gives facts in teaching and preaching; it produces interesting illustrations; it guides him away from time-wasting topics when evangelizing the particular group to which God has called him; it produces applications that have a ring of authority; it lends credibility to his ethos in preaching; it hints at the blindspots in his own life; it highlights the traces of grace from the image of God in man; it gives him joy in the immense reach of the sovereign hands of Jesus Christ; it tunes his imagination so that all the metaphors of Scripture have brighter colors and return more frequently to his prayers and preaching.
These benefits do not speak against reading the Bible and books that directly deal with Scripture. Yet if there is truth in general revelation, we should not despise it. Unconverted historians, philosophers, and storytellers have found some aspects of truth through God’s common grace the way diamonds were found in Kimberly, South Africa. At first they stumbled on something, and then they had to labor for years. The years they have taken honing their skills are like the infrastructure that goes into making a successful mine. If I am a rich businessman dealing with real estate, I would do well to listen to men who for years have made fortunes from diamonds.
Some examples, historian Martin Meredith helps me when I preach to Tsongas who are subtly self-righteous. They think that the Afrikaners are evil because of apartheid, but when I explain how evil Shaka or Mzilikazi was they are humbled because far greater sins are lurking within their own homes.
Theologian Wayne Grudem’s Politics gives me the statistics to show that government cannot produce wealth and so the Tsongas must not trust or even receive the government grants. Nor should they support through voting those groups that give out grants and thus defeat their own long-term ability to support their own pastor or send out missionaries.
Doing Their Own Thing by philosopher and linguist John McWhorter teaches me that cultures that rebel against absolutes in general and God’s authority in particular will devolve. I use this commonly as I train the young couples and my own children to have godly standards and traditions. I can speak with confidence about sinful musical styles because McWhorter carefully explains how these styles support his godless philosophy.
Wide reading does not draw a man to Christ apart from Scripture anymore than amazing banyan trees save a man. But wide understanding of the world does help us to worship Christ when coupled with knowledge of Scripture.
Reading fiction gives a preacher pictures for the greatest truths in Scripture. Through J. R. R. Tolkien, I saw more clearly than ever before the depths of depravity and the effects of sin as it cripples and corrupts and confounds Gollum. I have seen the need for initiation in friendship because of Sam Gamgee. I have seen what a gentle authority looks like with Aragorn. As pastors read commentaries to gain insights, so I have gained a library of pictures that speak to me daily about the greatest realities in the universe.
- Les Miserables: Grace is far more glorious than law. I must learn to default to a gracious, serving spirit.
- The Scottish Chiefs: True masculinity will not lose its morality even in war.
- The Iliad: The Greeks thought every turn in life was somehow caused by the gods. Why don’t I see every turn in life as controlled by the one true God?
- Pride and Prejudice: When men aren’t men, everything goes wrong. Almost all of Austen’s plots revolve around a masculine weakness, and the tension resolves when the men change their ways.
No man can understand Scripture who does not speak the language of metaphor, and therefore, the best fiction bows in front of the preacher offering the most memorable, lasting images of the most rock solid truths.
With all these benefits, there is a danger of loving gift more than Giver, serving the creature more than the Creator—reading widely because we are unspiritual. But the danger is not removed by only reading the Puritans anymore than it would be removed if we plucked out our eyes so as not to see the world around us.