In a world saturated with social media tempting us toward pride and isolation, books can expand our horizons and deepen our empathy for people unlike ourselves if we make an effort to diversify our reading.

Feb 6, 2018   |  

Topic Pride

In 2017, I read 123 books. Some of you might think, “That’s nothing. I’ve read 150 books a year every year for a decade,” (Let’s be friends?) but I expect more of you are thinking, “Where did you possibly find time for that?” The easy answer is I worked part-time, I don’t have kids, and reading is really my only hobby. While I’m not here to tell you to follow me in forgoing all other pastimes in favor of reading, I do want to encourage you to make time this year for books. Our world is saturated with social media tempting us toward pride and isolation, but books can expand our horizons and deepen our empathy for people unlike ourselves.

Books Versus Blurbs

Reading books can draw us in and engage our minds in different ways than social media. Twitter may have doubled its character limit, but a book lets you know its characters to a greater extent. Reading a book is a time commitment, while scrolling Instagram is a time-filler—something most of us do in the gaps of our daily schedules, like standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for our kids to finish soccer practice.

I’m not here to tell you to get off social media altogether. There’s much good that can come from it. My own grandmother used it until she passed away at the age of 92; with family spread from Washington state to Texas to Vermont, it was the best way for her to stay in touch. We can enjoy the ease of connecting with old friends and distant family members by “liking” photos of their kids and watching Insta Stories, but we also should recognize the ease of isolation and the snare of pride through using these tools.

We generally follow people who follow us, who “like” our posts and think like we do. We follow people who share articles we enjoy and news sources with which we agree. We can also, at the click of a button, unfollow those who rub us the wrong way, whose opinions differ from our own. Or, we engage in fruitless debate that’s simultaneously public, yet impersonal, as we hide behind our keyboards, typing things we might never say aloud.

I think the dangers of fighting online are apparent (that’s a topic for another article), but the danger in only connecting with people with whom we agree may not be so obvious. We miss seeing the other side. God made people—all people—in His own image, not the image of some ideal person. He made humanity diverse, with different gifts, skills and experiences—all of which are needed parts of His family. He tells us to love our neighbor, and the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 teaches us that “our neighbor” means everyone.

Opportunities for Diversity

I grew up in a diverse part of Texas and attended college at a university with the largest international student population of any school in the state. Growing up, I had close friends who were immigrants (or their parents were), who spoke a different language at home than they did at school, who ate very different foods for dinner than my family ate, celebrated holidays I didn’t celebrate and practiced various religions (or no religion at all). I got to see life through their eyes, which helped me to grow in empathy, compassion and humility. I learned the limitations of my own preferences and perspectives and how to love them well despite our differences.  

But not everyone has this opportunity. Now, as a 20-something, white woman working at a church in the Dallas suburbs, I encounter less diversity in my day-to-day life than I did in high school and college. But I have always loved to read, and over the last few years, I have discovered reading can help me to expand my horizons and grow in empathy in a similar way—as long as I’m reading diverse books.

I’ve discovered if I’m uncomfortable in my reading, it’s because someone else is uncomfortable in their daily life.

The same temptation to isolate with books exists just as it does with social media; we can choose to read nothing but true crime novels or dystopian fiction, books by authors whose backgrounds look at lot like our own. Reading content outside our comfort zone is risky, challenging and sometimes even uncomfortable. But I’ve discovered if I’m uncomfortable in my reading, it’s because someone else is uncomfortable in their daily life. The profound ignorance I felt reading Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair was a reminder that I won’t ever fully understand the struggles an African American woman faces day after day. And I must recognize this, humbly admitting my own ignorance to ask for help as I try to love my sisters well.

Sometimes a book can make us uncomfortable because of the depravity it depicts. Sin entered the world in Genesis 3, and it’s here to stay until Jesus returns and defeats Satan for the final time. So it makes sense that our stories contain all the same sins we see in the world around us. People are sinners, and we shouldn’t shy away from their stories. Now, if a book is leading us to sin (for example, graphic sex scenes that feed a lustful heart), we need to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and put it down. “It’s just a story,” is not a good excuse if the story is negatively affecting the way we look at other people—or ourselves. But the presence of sin should make us uncomfortable. We should be righteously indignant toward injustice; we should want goodness to win in the books we read just as we should pursue justice in our everyday lives.

Radical Empathy

In an interview for The Atlantic, author Min Jin Lee said, “I’m interested in creating radical empathy through art.” Learning about other people leads to empathy and understanding, which leads to compassion, love and service. I can’t love and serve my neighbor well until I know how to love and serve them in a way that is meaningful to them. Lee continues, “I think literature is especially good at awakening that part of our capacity. It’s one of the few things that can really convince human beings to view each other as human beings.”

Though Robinson’s essay collection is a work of nonfiction, reading fiction allows for this type of learning as well, because even the wildest fiction is based in some reality; after all, every story—every creative work—stems from the Creator. Our creativity is really just moving around things God already created, “an echo intended to inspire worship of your Creator,” as Jen Wilkin says in her book None Like Him. When a fictional character is living a homosexual lifestyle, lying to her parents, getting an abortion, abusing drugs or only looking out for his own self-interest, we’re getting a picture of our neighbors—the people God has called us to love and serve—and, if we’re honest, of our sinful selves, too.

By diversifying my reading, I’m realizing how much I still don’t know.

Reading diverse books gives me a taste of the world outside my bubble, a glimpse into the lives of people who are very different from myself—and yet, made in the image of the same Creator God I worship and reflect. While reading over 100 books a year could be a point of pride, it serves instead to remind me how much there still is to read. And as my desire to read more books increases, my desire to fill time on social media lessens. By diversifying my reading, I’m realizing how much I still don’t know. It keeps me humble. It keeps me curious. It keeps me growing in my love for all people everywhere, and it keeps me falling more in love with the God who made them. And it keeps me reading.