LIT! by Tony Reinke (FAN AND FLAME Book Reviews)
Tony Reinke. Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2011. 208 pp. $15.99.
A few years ago, Tony Reinke wrote a great book about reading called, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books. But let me say at the start: the thought of reading a book written about the topic of reading books was a strange thought. But an even stranger thought was writing a book review of a book about how to read books. That proposition made me feel like I was standing in front of a mirror—holding another mirror. So, I’m not going to do a long review here. Instead, I’d like to offer a “miniature memoir” about why I found Lit! tremendously helpful and why I think other people will too.
From Blended Wheatgrass to Strawberry-banana Smoothies
In college, I studied Mechanical Engineering. I chose this major for three reasons. First, my father is an engineer, and so it was familiar. Second, I was pretty good at math and science. Third—and this might be the most important reason why I chose engineering—I hated to read and write. Hated it!
But maybe this feeling isn’t so uncommon. Reinke writes, “For most, reading is like trying to drink down a huge vitamin” (15). Imagine that!—drinking a tall, chalky glass of Flintstones. And, with only a few exceptions, that is what reading was like for me.
Then things changed. God took hold of my life in a powerful way. The specifics of why and how the change occurred I will leave for another day, but I should say this part now: when I began to understand God’s love for me through Jesus, I also began to realize something else, namely, Christians read the Bible, and they read lots of other books too.
This, as you can imagine, was a difficult transition for me, especially as I began to feel called into full-time ministry. For instance, when I started seminary, I struggled with the demands to read and write. I think that is true for most seminary students, but I know that I certainly felt behind. And, if I am honest, not only did my enjoyment of reading lag, but also my ability. I just wasn’t very good at it. And, even today, I wouldn’t say that I’m great at it.
However, after lots of practice—much of it forced upon me by seminary and pastoral ministry—I can honestly say my frustration with drinking down vitamins has grown into love.
A Little Summary
Now enter Reinke’s book. The subtitle, A Christian Guide to Reading Books, was just the type of thing I needed. I bought it on a table at The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in 2013, but unfortunately, as books tend to do, it sat on my shelf for a year and a half before I read it. Now, however, I wish I had read it sooner.
Lit! is set up in two parts. The first section is a theology of books and reading. In the opening chapter, Reinke explores the fundamental distinction in literature. He writes:
Somewhere around 1450 BC, on a remote Egyptian mountaintop called Mount Sinai, an author wrote something so earth-shaking that the publishing industry has never recovered. It never will. (23)
Reinke is talking about the Ten Commandments, and, of course, the author is God. Using this moment in history as a starting point, Reinke goes on to argue that there are really only two genres of literature: Genre A: The Bible, and Genre B: All Other Books (27). Borrowing words from Charles Spurgeon, Reinke frames the distinction pointedly: there is the gold bar (the Bible) and the gold leaf (everything else). Only the Bible is—in the most ultimate sense—“inspired,” “inerrant,” “sufficient,” “supreme,” and “offers us a coherent worldview” (25).
Some people, because of their high view of the Bible, are tempted to conclude that we should never read anything but the Bible. This makes some sense, right? We all have limited time, so why not make the most of our time: read the best and forget the rest?
Reinke disagrees, however. Those “other books,” the gold leaves, matter too; they have much to offer. I do not think Reinke actually uses this phrase, but we might say there is a feedback loop between the Bible and other books, especially the good ones. This feedback loop works in such a way that by reading both (the Bible and other good literature) our reading of both is enhanced.
This is where the second half of Lit! comes in, namely, practical advice on reading. Reinke is asking questions like this:
If we are going to read things other than the Bible (which he says we should), then how do we maintain the primacy of the Bible?
And if we read other books, how do we know which books? There are so many. As Solomon said, “Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
And once we have picked which books, then what steps can we take to read them well?
These are good questions, and Reinke gives good answers to them.
So Why Not Launch a Book Club?
As I read though Lit! in the fall, I was encouraged to try something we’ve never done at our church before. This year, I’m teaming up with my co-pastor to lead a book club. For this first year, we picked eight novels, books like Of Mice and Men and Pride and Prejudice. Our first meeting was last weekend—The Great Gatsby.
I suppose I probably should have already read most of these books, perhaps even in high school. But this is what I’m trying to say; I’m playing catch up. And as I attempt to make up for lost time, books like Lit! have been so helpful.
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A Few Favorite Quotes
“In non-Christian works we discover what is so close, and yet so far away, from what we read in the Bible. The challenge is to make use of the ‘so close’ for our edification and for the glory of God while being aware of the ‘yet so far.’” (Reinke, Lit!, 77)
“The imagination-stretching images [especially in books like Revelation] are God’s way of sliding the spiritual defibrillator over the slowing hearts of sluggish Christians. The images are for Christians who are growing lazy and beginning to compromise with the world, Christians who are allowing their hearts to become gradually hardened by sin. The answer is a spiritual shock. It is God’s way of confronting worldliness and idolatry in the church. When idolatry begins to lure the Christian heart, God reaches into our imagination with images intended to stun us back to spiritual vibrancy … [Thus] to view imaginative literature as a genre fit only for the amusement of children is an act of spiritual negligence.” (Reinke, Lit!, 88-9)
“The rewards of reading literature are significant. Literature helps to humanize us. It expands our range of experiences. It fosters awareness of ourselves and the world. It enlarges our compassion for people. It awakens our imaginations. It expresses our feelings and insights about God, nature, and life. It enlivens our sense of beauty. And it is a constructive form of entertainment.” (Reinke, Lit!, 128)