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Christian vs. Secular Reading


In Church History class I had to read Jerome’s twenty-second letter written to Eustochium (a wealthy Christian living in Rome). Most of the letter contains practical advice on how to remain celibate even while living within society. In this letter, which is very long, he relates an incredible story about his own life.

He had been really struggling to prefer the Scriptures over secular literature. He had a vision in which God condemned him as a follower of Cicero rather than of Christ. This scared Jerome straight and he never read worldly books again. (However, other early Christians, such as Augustine, believed that secular books could be read so long as one exercised discernment.) Here is Jerome’s first-hand account. I wonder what you make of it.

Many years ago, when for the kingdom of heaven’s sake I had cut myself off from home, parents, sister, relations, and—harder still—from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed; and when I was on my way to Jerusalem to wage my warfare, I still could not bring myself to forego the library which I had formed for myself at Rome with great care and toil. And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero. After many nights spent in vigil, after floods of tears called from my inmost heart, after the recollection of my past sins, I would once more take up Plautus. And when at times I returned to my right mind, and began to read the prophets, their style seemed rude and repellent. I failed to see the light with my blinded eyes; but I attributed the fault not to them, but to the sun.

While the old serpent was thus making me his plaything, about the middle of Lent a deep-seated fever fell upon my weakened body, and while it destroyed my rest completely—the story seems hardly credible—it so wasted my unhappy frame that scarcely anything was left of me but skin and bone. Meantime preparations for my funeral went on; my body grew gradually colder, and the warmth of life lingered only in my throbbing breast.

Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’” Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, “In the grave who shall give thee thanks?” Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me.” Amid the sound of the scourges this cry still made itself heard.

At last the bystanders, falling down before the knees of Him who presided, prayed that He would have pity on my youth, and that He would give me space to repent of my error. He might still, they urged, inflict torture on me, should I ever again read the works of the Gentiles. Under the stress of that awful moment I should have been ready to make even still larger promises than these. Accordingly I made oath and called upon His name, saying: “Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied Thee.”

Dismissed, then, on taking this oath, I returned to the upper world, and, to the surprise of all, I opened upon them eyes so drenched with tears that my distress served to convince even the incredulous. And that this was no sleep nor idle dream, such as those by which we are often mocked, I call to witness the tribunal before which I lay, and the terrible judgment which I feared. May it never, hereafter, be my lot to fall under such an inquisition! I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, that I felt the bruises long after I awoke from my sleep, and that thenceforth I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.

Perhaps this is what motivated Jerome to move to Palestine and learn Hebrew and translate the Vulgate (the standard Latin version of the Bible that was used for centuries thereafter). Even so, what do you think? How should we as Christians balance our secular and sacred reading.

2 Responses to “Christian vs. Secular Reading”

  1. on 16 Nov 2009 at 3:49 pmKen

    I believe the word balance is key to this issue, and I believe an examination of motives is vital. The same principles would be pertinent to a consideration of watching: T.V./ movies/news/ entertainment events/ sports events, not to mention other “secular” activities and involvements.
    In Acts 17: 28 Paul evidently quotes 2 secular poets to call attention to a Biblical focus while speaking in Athens. There is an appropriate way of using familiar concepts in human culture to “bring home” a Biblical truth. Being familiar with cultural imagery could, to a certain extent, be useful.
    I recently shared a Chinese folk tale (secular literature) in which a very large family modelled peacfulness to many others. When asked by the emperor about the secret of their success, the aged head of the family wrote down the word “forgive” 100 times. When sharing this, I compared it with Jesus’ teaching of Matthew 18 (70 times 7 and the parable of the king forgiving the huge debt, etc.) The comparison made a godly impact, I’m sure, in a good way.
    Of course, engrossing oneself in secular knowledge at the expense of growing in the things of God would be a great distraction.

  2. on 16 Nov 2009 at 4:09 pmKen

    Another thought: sometimes religious or spiritual knowledge can also be a distraction for those of us who love to read. We can get so engrossed in spiritual learning that we fail to practice the truth as needed among people. Temptation is not limited to the seeing/ receiving of “secular” information.


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