The Library as ArmoryThursday, July 16, 2015
I love to read. As a young boy, I can remember devouring Ellery Queen mysteries on long vacation drives, taking a hot bath and reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, curling up in the bay window of a local library, as rain cascaded down the glass, with a harrowing tale of Blackbeard the Pirate. I still have the copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, worn from countless readings, given to me on my twelfth birthday by my grandmother. For me, the perfect day is one with a sky full of dark and heavy clouds, promising a furious storm or inches of snow, with a fire in the fireplace and a book by my side waiting to be explored.
My love of reading as a boy grew into something altogether different when I became a follower of Christ in college. Reading took on an urgency that it had never held before. Attending a secular university as a new Christian was not an easy task. I was surrounded by very bright people who were not Christ-followers and were eager to explain why. To hold on to my faith, much less contend for it, would demand fulfilling the Bible’s clear and commanding exhortation to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). I knew I had to out-think those who were challenging my faith; and to out-think them, I knew I had to out-read them. From this, reading moved from mere pleasure to real purpose. No longer did it matter whether I enjoyed reading; it had become essential.
From reading alone could I gain a sense of the currents shaping the world; from reading alone could I understand the prevailing worldviews assailing Christianity; from reading alone could I place myself in the vanguard of taking the Word of God to the word of the world. Reading would fill my mind with virtually limitless knowledge, instruction and insight, and it would exercise my mind and force it to break through barriers of stagnancy.
So I read the existentialist philosophers, such as Camus and Sartre. I read the great Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle. I delved into history, literature and science. I read the plays of Ibsen and Beckett. I was purposeful in my approach because I was on a mission to prepare my mind to not simply understand the ideas of the world but to engage the ideas of the world. And not simply to challenge others but to find everywhere God’s truth existed – for all truth is God’s truth, and the presence of that truth is the beginning of dialogue and redemption. I was not the first to hold to this conviction. As a monk in Normandy wrote in 1170:
“A monastery without a library [sine armario] is like a castle without an armory [sine armamentario]. Our library is our armory.”
This was certainly the conviction of the apostle Paul, who even from his prison cell in Rome implored Timothy to be sure to bring him his books (2 Timothy 4:13). Reading is the foundation for intellectual development. It prepares us to think, for it is reading which allows us to understand and interpret the events of our day.
The critical importance of reading reminds of something I came across long ago – so long that the author now escapes me. But I recall it was a lament for a book never read. The loss of pages never turned, covers never opened, words never seen. A single book can deepen your understanding, expand your vision, sensitize your spirit, deepen your soul, ignite your imagination, stir your passions and widen your wisdom. There truly can be mourning for a book that is never read – mourning for the loss of what our lives could have held, and could have accomplished.
It is tempting to view the act of sitting down with a book – much less many books – as a luxury afforded those with unique schedules or privileged positions in life. In truth, it’s available to us all. It’s simply a matter of choice or, perhaps more accurately, a series of choices.
To read, you must first position yourself to read. I have learned to keep books around me. When I travel, when I take my car to have the oil changed, when I pick my children up from school, when I go to the doctor’s office, I bring a book, journal or magazine. If you were to look around my home, you would see stacks of books everywhere: on the tables by the side of beds, on the floor by chairs.
But this reflects a deeper decision in relation to reading. Having a book at hand is only of use if I choose to spend available time reading it. Key to that choice is the word available. I know that in my life, the great opposition to reading is what I allow to fill my time instead of reading. To say we have no time to read is not really true; we have simply chosen to use our time for other things or have allowed our time to be filled to the exclusion of reading.
The choice has to be made.
But what should we read? It is one thing to be widely read, but something altogether different to be well read. The difference is important.
When it comes to the actual books we open, it is very essential to be selective. As Arthur Schopenhauer once suggested, “If a man wants to read good books, he must make a point of avoiding bad ones; for life is short, and time and energy limited.”
This is not a matter of avoiding what is often termed “beach reads” – those books that are light, frivolous, page-turners. Just as exercise can and should involve play, sport and recreation, so reading should involve fun and fantasy, escape and entertainment. But if this is all that reading holds for us, our minds will quickly become the equivalent of a body that eats only fast-food.
So what are the “good” books? Where is “knowledge” gained? And what are the great books? “There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were,” writes Robert Maynard Hutchins. “They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.” The great books are those writings that have most shaped history and culture, civilization and science, politics and economics. They prompt us to think about the great issues of life. C.S. Lewis simply called them the “old books”:
“It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
Our tendency, of course, is not to read the old books at all, or at least to do no more than read books about the old books. More often than not, it is because we determine in advance that they are beyond us, are irrelevant or would be dry, dull reading. The wonderful surprise is how seldom this is true. Some might take more effort than others, but that is the point – to exercise the mind. We accept that getting into physical shape will take determination, will power and sweat.
The mind demands no less, yet offers so much more.
Of course, the foundation of the Christian mind is the great book – the Bible. It is God’s revelation to us, imparting knowledge that cannot be known apart from its revelation. The Bible alone is “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
As one would expect, this demands that the Bible be read unlike any other book. More than concentrated study of the Scriptures is called for; this is a book to be obeyed. Other books are to be engaged, understood and evaluated as to the truth and wisdom, place and purpose of their contents. The Bible must also be engaged and understood, but not for the purpose of determining whether we should take it into consideration. The Bible alone calls for complete and utter submission of life and thought.
As I have observed as both pastor and educator, there are many ways people read the Bible. There are “service” readers, those who engage the Bible when it is presented during a weekend service, and that is all. Then there are devotional readers who take bite-size bits of Scripture through secondary conduits (devotional magazines or books). This goes light-years beyond the “service” reader because it encourages reflection on a text, but it is far from the feast the Scriptures offer and the mind needs. What is required is studious reading: an open Bible, a dictionary and concordance nearby, and time to reflect on what the psalmist described as “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).
This is the foundation of the Christian mind.
A biblical worldview – a view of the world informed and shaped by the Bible – has always marked the most developed and formidable of Christian minds.
Little wonder that J.I. Packer once wrote, “If I were the devil ... I should broadcast doubts about the truths and relevance and good sense and straightforwardness of the Bible .... At all costs I should want to keep them from using their minds in a disciplined way to get the measure of its message.”
So let’s go into our armory, open a book, and get ready for the battle.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
For some suggested reading this summer, click here to read the “Summer Reading List” blog.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.