On Books …

BooksRick writes:

‘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]


  1. great post… reminds me of a joke zizek tells. when people asked stalin what they should do, he would reply ‘learn, learn, learn’, and the slogan appeared everywhere during the stalinist era. the joke, then, goes like this. marx, engels and lenin are discussing the following question: given the choice, would you have a wife or a mistress? for marx, occupying the moral highground, the choice is easy: a wife, he says. Engels, the bon vivant, says, no… a mistress is much more fun. they then turn to lenin, who pauses for a moment, and then declares that he would have both a wife and a mistress. marx and engels are a little shocked by such decadence and call for an explanation, which lenin calmly provides: i would choose both, he says, so that i could tell my wife that i am going to spend the night with my mistress, and my mistress, that i am going to be with my wife, and then I would go off to a quiet place with my books and ‘learn, learn, learn’.

    engels, marx and lenin


  2. i wonder, however, whether some of the broadly-moral issues lurking in the background here are not more unstable and difficult than, say, the ideas that non-readers are “not human in any recognisable sense”, and that the pursuit of learning is an important part of the pastor’s service to his or her congregation, might at first (an important qualification!) suggest. One issue here concerns the moral cost of learning. Wittgenstein used to tell his students to do something else if they could, and at least one became a builder on his advice. George Steiner’s reflections on the moral ambiguity of culture are important here too, as are his thoughts on the rivalry between the word and music. also, the explorations of what conrad called “the heart of darkness” in modern literature – dostoievsky, conrad, faulkner, henry miller, thomas mann, saul bellow, cormac mccarthy, etc – itself questions the benefits of culture. And then, of course, there is Ecclesiastes.


  3. Andre, point taken.

    But, and just to clarify, the statement “they’re not human in any recognisable sense” is a reference not directly to non-readers (this would be going well beyond my point here, and would, in fact, distort it at best) but to those for whom the experience of wonder – of ‘Ahs’ – is nonexistent. Reading is only one possible avenue of experiencing ‘Ahs’, but it remains one of the best.


  4. Hey Jason. You’re right… it was a distortion. My apologies. I suppose what I’m after is the idea that one way (there are, of course, many) of construing the importance of literature is that literature (fiction, theology, philosophy, and so) is what some of us turn to when, having experienced some kind of crisis, we don’t really know where else to go. I turn to Dostoivesky, not so much because I want to learn about the world or broaden my horizons, and certainly not because I want to help my congregation, but because things no longer make sense to me, because I’m dissatisfied with what I have been told, because I find myself staring into an abyss… and I need some means of articulating this epistemological/spiritual crisis to myself. Gillian Rose once said, “If I knew who or what I were, I would not write; I write out of those moments of anguish which are nameless and I am able to write only where the tradition can offer me a discipline, a means, to articulate and explore that anguish.” To those who do not suffer from this nameless anguish, and who do not then need to turn to the tradition to find a language in which to explore it (or simply to find others who have also suffered), I don’t know what to say. To a certain extent, I envy them. The figure of Monica haunts the Confessions, reminding the reader that it is to those of simple faith – the “little ones” – that the kingdom belongs. And perhaps this figure is not so different from the students that Lionel Trilling refers to in his famous essay on modern literature, who greet the abyss politely, and then go on their untroubled way. Perhaps theirs is the kingdom too. Finally, for those of us who do, in some sense or other, suffer the anguish that Rose mentions, and turn to the tradition in the hope of finding a language with which to articulate it, who is to say that we will successfully avoid falling into the darkness? In Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, we are given two pictures of the life of serious learning: one in the figure of the powerful and dangerous magus, the other in the impotent, indecisive scholar.


  5. A wonderful quote from Gilead that is somewhat related to this:

    “Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. “The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.” There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.” (pg. 39?)


  6. I appreciate that there are some pastors who have no burning desire to read – and I agree that this is sad indeed. However, there are congregations who persist in believing that reading is not part of the pastor’s work, and so must be relegated to his/her relaxation time. To spend time wrestling with difficult issues, stretching mind and spirit to be better equipped to serve in the church, and then to be told that this is not work, and certainly not a justifiable use of working time is demoralising in the extreme.


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