Recently, on a Desiring God’s “Ask Pastor John” (Piper) program, a Christian from Kalamazoo, MI asked a question about reading secular literature. Piper gave him an answer that I think is helpful.
Since this is a question that often comes up, especially for new Christians who feel they ought only to read Christian literature (and, certainly, that ought to be the priority throughout our lives), but also for mature believers, we post part of Piper’s answer here. You may either read or listen to the entire program at the link provided below.
If you have thoughts on this subject, feel free to leave a comment for the benefit of others.
Of course, the Bible gives crucial insight into these things that come from nowhere else, but the raw material of knowledge is gained, in large measure, from life experience, and then the Bible takes that common fund of human experience, of reality that we bring to the Bible, and shows how God relates to it and transforms it.
The New Testament assumes that we have not forgotten the lesson of the book of Proverbs that we should go to the ant — a little bug, the ant — consider her ways, and be wise (Proverbs 6:6). In other words, look at the world. Learn reality from the world. Learn something about hard work from the world, learn something about perseverance from the world. Grow your fund of reality experience of a thousand things that are in the world because, when the New Testament mentions those things, it assumes we have some experiential knowledge of them.
But here is the catch. Most of us live lives that are so small, narrow, constricted, and limited — we know so little about so many things — one of the ways, only one, but one of the ways that God has ordained for us to grow in our knowledge of many things, many experiences that we have no immediate experience of is through reading. This means that if we have a wide and deep knowledge of things through reading, as well as through life experience, then when the Bible speaks, for example, of the sorrow of losing ten children, we may have a greater understanding of what it is referring to — I am thinking of Job — if we walked through it ourselves, which most of us won’t. Hardly anybody loses ten children all at once. But we might read about it. We might read the various kinds of horrible things that people have walked through like that and deepen our grasp of the human spirit and the experience of what it is like to do that.
So, let me give you just a little glimpse of how this worked for the original Jonathan Edwards. He delivered a sermon about slavery to sin and what it is like to have Satan as a slave master. Now, he knows that Satan is the most wicked, crude, most fiendish master that ever was. And yet most people gladly walk in his service.
Now, how could Edwards feel this as he ought to? How could he know the reality of what it means to be ruled by Satan as he ought? How could he say it in a way that would help others know the reality? Well, Edwards had evidently done some reading about human sacrifice in the country of Guinea. And here is what it did for him. Here is what he says:
[Satan and his cohorts] do by you as I have heard they do in Guinea, where at their great feasts they eat men’s flesh. They set the poor ignorant child who knows nothing of the matter, to make a fire, and while it stoops down to blow the fire, one comes behind and strikes off his head, and then he is roasted by that same fire that he kindled, and made a feast of, and the skull is made use of as a cup, out of which they make merry with their liquor. Just so Satan, who has a mind to make merry with you.
That is pretty horrible, pretty powerful, pretty unforgettable. Edwards got that knowledge of evil from outside the Bible, and it informed biblical teaching about Satan’s horrible, fiendish, devastating, murderous rule over his people — all the while making them think they are having fun.