‘I’ve noticed a strange thing over the last few years. During that time I have been privileged to know and work with a number of young clergy and seminarians, men and women. Most of them are gifted, hard–working, dedicated and capable. There is a lot to like about them. But one thing is noticeably missing. They don’t love my books. They don’t stare at them, or touch them, or covet them. They don’t even notice them when they come into my study. They are more likely to notice and comment on my computer.
This worries me. Can the church maintain a “learned clergy” without instilling a love of books? Is it possible that books are really passé as some say? That in the future the digital age will restrict if not eliminate their use? I hope not. Because books are more than mere information. Throughout my life they have always been my companions and friends. They can invoke wonder and create mystery. They can witness to faith. They are grist for my sermonic mill. But they are more than that. They fuel not just my work but my imagination. I wouldn’t be the minister I am without them. I wouldn’t be who I am without them’.
Yes. Yes. Yes. How can anyone ever trust someone who doesn’t read? Like non-drinkers, there’s something sinister about people who avoid books. It’s really hard to justify that one deserves dinner at the end of a day wherein one has failed to read, discuss and recommended a decent book. And I mean a book, not a blog post or anything on a screen. It’s gotta be something caressable, capable of being made love with …
At a time when theological education and training for pastoral ministry is embracing a lowest-common denominator approach, we could certainly do worse than heed the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
‘Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive. The more he reads the better and there are any authors and systems to be studied. I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other works of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading; and read the big works’. Preaching and Preachers (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 177.
I mean really, who would take advice from a doctor who hasn’t read anything since the 1950s?
But there’s more. Non-readers, or people addicted to reading trash, clearly aren’t into ‘Ahs’! (and insofar as this is true, they’re not human in any recognisable sense). Vernon Sproxton explains:
‘There are good books, indifferent books, and bad books. Amongst the good books some are honest, inspiring, moving, prophetic, and improving. But in my language there is another category: there are Ah! Books …. Ah! Books are those which induce a fundamental change in the reader’s consciousness. They widen his sensibility in such a way that he is able to look upon familiar things as though he is seeing and understanding them for the first time. Ah! Books are galvanic. They touch the nerve-centre of the whole being so that the reader receives an almost palpable physical shock. A tremor of excited perception tipples through the person … Ah! Books give you sentences which you can roll around in the mind, throw in the air, catch, tease out, analyse. But in whatever l way you handle them, they widen your vision. For they are essentially Idea-creating, in the sense that Coleridge meant when he described the Idea as containing future thought – as opposed to the Epigram which encapsulates past thought. Ah! Books give the impression that you are opening a new account, not closing an old one down’. – Vernon Sproxton, ‘Introduction’, to Fynn. Mister God, This Is Anna (London: Fount, 1979), 1-2.
And as for ‘educated clergy’, Carnegie Samuel Calian (who is President Emeritus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) put it well when he reminded us that ‘Everything we learn at seminary is for someone else … The aim of seminary education is not simply to produce an educated clergy, but even more so to build up the people of God to become an educated congregation in Christ. The practice of learning is for the purpose of giving hope to others’. The Ideal Seminary (Westminster John Knox, 2003), p. 5.
It is precisely for this end that pastors must be readers. So if pastors don’t want to read for themselves (which is a completely ridiculous position to hold, but is evidently possible), then they ought to read, read and read for those they have been called to love and serve.
[Image: Andre Martins de Barros]