After the fire: In praise of slow reading

Back when I was a student, I was jolted by a throwaway comment by a senior and much-admired lecturer. There was nothing particularly spiritual or theological about it: he just casually mentioned that he had 're-read' a classic novel.

I wasn't the only one to feel a mixture of envy and despair at this. At our stage of learning, we were frantically absorbing as much information as we could. We were conscious of the hundreds of books we ought to have read and hadn't, and the thousands we'd like to read and hadn't time to. The idea of re-reading something for pleasure was alien to us, an unattainable luxury.


And that was before the internet got going. Nowadays we're subjected to a blizzard of images, a storm of words, a tempest of ideas, opinions and memes. Everything is immediate and everything is new. FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out – means we're constantly connected, plugged in to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Are we any better informed? Perhaps, if we've learned how to sift the wheat of truth from the chaff of fake news. Are we any wiser? Probably not. Because what it's too easy to lose in the unremitting onslaught of information is the ability to think about what we know. Wisdom is a spiritual attribute, acquired through patient, disciplined reflection, talking with people we trust, learning to pause before accepting the latest opinion, judging ideas according to scripture, and seeking the mind of Christ.

Today, the Church is often accused of being behind the times. We don't keep up with the shifts in modern thinking, so we're out of touch with how people live – as though that's a really bad thing.

Sometimes it is. But the Church ought to be slow to change. Paul wrote to the Ephesians of his hope that they would 'no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching' (4:14).

Slow reading, careful, repeated reading, helps us in this. We don't have to know everything that's happening. Sometimes reading less and thinking more is better.

In his Choruses from 'The Rock', TS Eliot says:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

So this is a plea for Christians to read carefully, slowly and thoughtfully. You can do it if you try: it's a discipline, like any other. You don't have to scroll fast down a page and click on an interesting link. You can mute those Facebook notifications. You can pick up a book, even.

Social media can hit us like an earthquake or a fire. God speaks in the gentle whisper; we need to learn to hear him.

Mark Woods is the author of Does the Bible really say that? Challenging our assumptions in the light of Scripture (Lion, £8.99). Follow him on Twitter:@RevMarkWoods