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Christians - and Protestants especially - have been known as ‘the people of the Book’, meaning the Bible. That is not so obvious today, and there is now an obvious and alarming decline in Biblical literacy, to the point where a report from George Barna at the end of 2008 noted that the favourite verse of most American Christians is ‘God helps those who help themselves’. The decline in biblical literacy has been accompanied by a decline of evangelical interest in Christian books in general. This has had observable effects. Back in 1994 Mark Noll made his infamous remark that ‘The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.’
As always, there are dangers on every side. Christians ought to be readers, but not be bookish; discerning but not looking to criticise; growing in understanding but not proud; and rational, yet, like Blaise Pascal, knowing that ‘the final step of reason is to acknowledge that there is an infinity of things which go beyond it. It is weak indeed if it cannot go far enough to understand that.’
We ought to be readers
As Timothy prepared to leave Ephesus in order to meet Paul in prison at Rome, the great apostle asked him to bring the cloak that he had left in Troas and also the books, especially (or perhaps 'that is') the parchments (2 Tim.4:13). Almost fifteen hundred years later, William Tyndale was in prison in Holland. He asked for a cloak, a woollen shirt, a warm cap, and his Hebrew Bible, grammar, and vocabulary book. Both the apostle and the Bible translator had physical needs i.e. to be protected from the cold, and intellectual and spiritual needs i.e. to grow in understanding. Both saw the need for Christians to read. Indeed, the apostle Paul knew the pagan Greek poets, and cites Epimenides and Aratus in Acts 17:28, Epimenides again in Titus 1:12, and Menander in 1 Corinthians 15:33. As Origen and Augustine were to put it, Christians could plunder the Egyptians (Ex.12:36), meaning that they were to make use of pagan works in the cause of Christ.
C. S. Lewis advised us to read as many old books as new books. That is good advice. The Christian will also seek to read as many Christian books as possible compared to non-Christian works. If possible, we ought to read from the works of Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, John Owen, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Yet - again, if possible - we ought also to read widely.
J. Graham Miller, a much-loved Bible teacher, pastor, and missionary, recalled some of the many blessings he experienced while being raised in a New Zealand manse. For one, ‘Our reading habit was cultivated from any early age.’ He further records that there was breadth in what the children were given to read: ‘We never had to seek out books in a Public Library. Father and Mother taught us that the old Roman boast is proper to a Christian if one changes the first word to read, Christianu sum nihil mihi alienum est. (‘I am a man; nothing human is alien from me’ was changed to ‘I am a Christian; nothing human is alien to me’)
That Reformed view of the universe is expressed by John Calvin when he speaks of “the beautiful theatre of the world”, in which the church is the orchestra. “Christ has restored to believers the inheritance of the world.”’
In his Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis recalls something similar. He noted his father's practice of accumulating books: 'My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.'
That is a description of another world. In the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain even poor evangelical households would read from the Bible, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Nowadays, the family study tends to be dominated by television, along with DVDs and electronic games.
Christians are those whose minds have been renewed (Rom.12:1-2). Hence there are injunctions such as we find in the book of Proverbs: 'Wise people store up knowledge' (Prov.10:14). Part of being a Christian is to love God with all our being, including our minds (Matt.22:37), and to destroy arguments and take every thought captive unto obedience to Christ (2 Cor.10:4-5). Our love is to abound with knowledge and all discernment (Phil.1:9-11). This requires study and meditation - hard thinking in fact.
We ought not to be bookish
It must be granted that bookishness is not godliness: 'Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh' (Eccles.12:12). Reading needs to go hand-in-hand with living. It is easy enough to become yet another learned idiot. C. S. Spurgeon in introducing his John Ploughman’s Talk pointed out that ‘There is no particular virtue in being seriously unreadable.’ There are dangers in being light-headed; dangers in emphasising only the intellect and not the emotions and the will; and dangers in being led astray by books that teach error.
There is a way of adding to our knowledge which reduces us as real persons in God’s world. We do well to heed the words of a Christian who spent his life studying and writing literature. For all his wonderful learning, and his deep love of it, C. S. Lewis clearly asserted the Christian perspective: 'the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world'. Literature is a wonderful gift from God, but it finds its meaning in something higher than itself. We are in the business of seeing people saved from sin and judgment more than we are in the business of reading books. The latter is to aid the former. A. W. Tozer put it truly: ‘The work of a good book is to incite the reader to moral action, to turn his eyes towards God and to urge him forward.’
Loving God with our minds
Matthew Arnold, an archetypal Victorian, saw religion as 'morality touched by emotion', and portrayed the essence of Jesus' religion as His sweet reasonableness. That is to ignore the saving truth of Christian doctrine. Just this week I had a Muslim tell me that we were obliged to do good. Of course, we are, but we need to know more than that. We need to know our sinfulness and God’s holiness, and then the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. These are hazardous days, not unlike those in the times of Hosea where people perished for want of knowledge (Hos.4:6). Books will not solve that, but the gracious use of books can do much to promote the gospel or prepare for it. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis put it, rather cheekily: ‘A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.’
Peter Barnes is the minister at Revesby Presbyterian Church and has read lots of books (and written a few too).