My practice of reading goes through phases. There are times where I just cannot get enough of the newest Christian books, and there are times where reading yet another Christian book seems almost intolerable. In some seasons I love to read novels, and in some seasons I can’t stand them. I’m sure any committed bibliophile can identify with the ebb and the flow of the literary appetite.
Over the summer I found myself gravitating away from books written by and for Christians, and toward books meant for the general market—books on productivity and habits and software and organization and communication and life. I found myself enjoying them a great deal, and benefiting from them in unexpected ways. Though they were written by and for unbelievers, and though many were outright antagonistic to the gospel, they helped equip me to live as a Christian.
I have always been fascinated by the strange Parable of the Dishonest Manager (or Shrewd Manager, if you prefer), where Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Though Jesus could hardly commend the dishonesty of the shrewd manager, he does applaud his shrewdness, his astuteness, his ability to make calculated decisions and sound applications. I think Philip Ryken gets it right when he comments:
There is a legitimate moral difference between saying, “I applaud the clever steward because he acted dishonestly,” and saying, “I applaud the dishonest steward because he acted cleverly.” The master was saying the latter, not the former, and this is the key to understanding the parable. Jesus was not coming out in favor of fraud, or telling us that it is right to cheat people. He was not saying that dishonesty is the best policy. Instead, he was giving an example of how clever worldly people can be when they act in their own best interest.
When it came to this man’s cleverness, Jesus was willing to give him his due. And many books that exist way outside the Christian market are clever and wise and full of excellent ideas. We can be too quick to ignore them. Christians hardly have the market cornered when it comes to cleverness, to judgment, to shrewdness, to observation, to sheer intellectual brilliance. They certainly do not have the market cornered when it comes to originality.
I find myself thinking about one of my childhood hobbies. When I was a kid I loved to buy plastic model kits. You know the kind—120 pieces of molded, grey plastic and a picture of an F-16, and you’ve got the task of making that pile of pieces look like that picture. All you need, apart from the glue and paint, is a bit of skill and a bit of patience. The more skill you have, and the greater your patience, the better the final result.
And reading general market books is a lot like this. The pieces are there, and we just need to skillfully and patiently put them together by establishing their place within the grand drama of what God is accomplishing in this world. We add glue to the plastic model kit, and we add Christian thinking—Christian worldview—to general market books. In both cases, we build something much better than the sum of its parts.
As a Christian reader, my task, my challenge, and my joy, is to read with discernment, to subtract what is opposed to a Christian worldview, and to bind together the pieces through distinctly Christian thinking. As I grow in knowledge and understanding that task becomes both easier and more rewarding.