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A Gospel-Plea for Reading


2 Timothy 4:13


“I know a man”, says Paul, “who, 14 years ago, was caught up to the third heaven…. and this man heard things that cannot be told, which no one may utter.” Who is this man whom Paul knows? It’s Paul himself; he’s talking about himself! He was caught up to the third heaven. The “third heaven” was an ancient way of speaking of the most intimate, most intense, most vivid presence of God. At that moment, 14 years ago, the apostles wasn’t “seeing in a mirror dimly”. (1 Cor. 13:12) At that moment he was bathed in a splendour and frozen in an awesomeness and scorched by a blaze all at once. All at once he was transfixed by the purity of God and prostrated by the enormity of God and dazzled by the brightness of God.

Isn’t it odd, then, that the man whose experience of God was so intense that he cannot speak of it then writes to the young man, Timothy, and asks for books? “Be sure to bring me the books.” Books? Why would he need books? What could a book do for him?

Paul’s experience of 14 years ago wasn’t the only time he had had an electrifying encounter with God. Three years before he was “caught up to the third heaven” he had been crumbled on his way to Damascus when the risen Lord had arrested him. In addition to the Damascus road experience Paul had had a vision of the man from Macedonia who had pleaded with Paul to go there with the gospel. In addition to the Macedonian episode Paul had fallen into a trance while praying in the Jerusalem temple, and while in the trance had been told unmistakably to get out of Jerusalem. The apostle’s experience of God had been vivid over and over.

And now he wants books? Compared to his experience of God reading a book sounds so flat, so pedestrian, simply so dull. Yet he wants books! Obviously he thinks he needs books. Books are essential to his discipleship as a Christian as well as to his vocation as an apostle. Obviously (note this point carefully!) he thinks that his vivid experience of God does not render books unnecessary; his startling awareness of God doesn’t render reading superfluous.

Books are vital. People who read books are very different from those who do not. A society that reads books is very different from a society that does not.

In his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell depicted a society crushed in the tentacles of cruel totalitarianism. One feature of such a society, Orwell insisted, was the banning of books. The oppressor would continue to oppress his victims by many means, not the least of which was the banning of books.

Aldous Huxley, in his novel, Brave New World, didn’t fear a society where books were banned. He feared something worse: a society where books weren’t banned simply because no one wanted to read a book.

Do we want to read one? read many? Some people who lived a long time before us, and who are foreparents in faith, have wanted to.

Like the Jewish people, in whose house all Christians are guests. In the year 799 Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the coronation he was supposed to sign his name to a document. But he couldn’t write (or read). However, he remembered seeing his name written in Latin: CAROLINUS. He recalled that one letter (“U”) had two vertical strokes in it. Whereupon Charlemagne grabbed an instrument of some sort and made two crude strokes on the document. Meanwhile, the Jewish people were 100% literate. In whose house are Christians guests? Abraham and Sarah are our foreparents in faith, not Charlemagne.

And then there are the Puritans. Don’t listen to those who defame them wickedly! When persecuted Puritans left the old country and settled in New England every Puritan minister was given 10 pounds with which to start a church library. Between 1640 and 1700 the literacy rate among men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was 93% — while it was only 40% in England. (The rate of literacy among Puritan women in the new world was 62%, 10% in England.) Six years after these people landed in Massachusetts they voted 400 pounds “towards a school or college.” The “school or college” they built was Harvard (1636).

By 1650 virtually all New England towns had developed grammar schools. As people there learned to read, the effect of the printed page was immense. People were released from the domination of the immediate and the local. People who don’t read live in a very small world, a world of the immediate (in time) and the local (in space). Books are vehicles that convey us to a different era, a different history, a different geography, a different culture. Books free us from the domination of the immediate and the local.

Are we ashamed of our parents? That is, are we ashamed to be spiritual descendants of the Puritans? I’m not. Yes, our immediate spiritual roots in Streetsville Methodist Church obviously lie in Methodism. To be sure John Wesley imparted his own ethos, his own spirit, to the Methodist communities. Nonetheless the substance of Methodism is largely Puritan. Of the 50 books in Wesley’s “Christian Library” (books that he expected all followers to read) 32 are by Puritan authors. I am as little ashamed of my Puritan ancestors in faith as I am of my Jewish ancestors.

The single largest anti-reading force today is television. Where reading is profound, television is shallow. Reading encourages critical reflection; television encourages uncritical absorption. Reading forces us to think; television numbs us with mindless trivia. Reading presents us with ideas for thoughtful evaluation; television presents us with flitting images for our amusement. As soon as the politician goes on TV what he says is of no importance; what matters is how he appears. Is his tie knotted properly? If it isn’t, he can’t be elected. Menachem Begin’s media advisors told him he had to stop wearing shirts with oversized collars, since a shirt with an oversized collar makes a man appear terminally ill. John Turner’s media advisors told him he had to break his habit of licking his lips. “Who is going to vote for a man who looks like an anteater at a picnic?”, they corrected him scornfully.

Television doesn’t encourage thinking; it encourages emoting. TV turns human anguish into entertainment. A “good” TV program doesn’t end with critical reflection; it ends with mindless applause. Reading presents us with arguments that we have to assess; TV presents us with impressions that we merely blot up.

Television moves from a disaster in Chile to a house-fire in Buffalo to a baseball score to a weather forecast to an advertisement for mouthwash — all in five minutes. The effect on the human mind and heart is deadly. Never forget that the average TV news story lasts 45 seconds. It is impossible to convey a sense of seriousness about the most momentous occurrences in 45 seconds, especially when a 45 second “blip” is followed by a 45 second replay of the pitcher’s last three strikeouts of last night’s game. Visual stimulation is a shabby substitute for thought, just as emotional manipulation is a shabby substitute for verbal precision.

Are we going to read or are we going to sit, hour by hour, in front of what Northrop Frye called “the boob tube” back in the days when “boob” meant “simpleton”?

Surely we are no longer surprised that the apostle wrote, “Bring me the books.” Then what books are we going to read?

Biography is one of my favourites. As we read biography we realize we are not alone in the Christian venture. The book of Hebrews tells us that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The cloud of witnesses lives. These people nourish us.

I was 19 when I came upon a biography of William Edwin Sangster, an English Methodist preacher, scholar, writer, evangelist. Sangster died in 1959 at age 59, and died miserably of a neurological disease, progressive muscular atrophy. Like all us “general practitioners” of the ministry Sangster was a pastor as well. One day a distraught, middleaged woman called on him and told him brokenheartedly she had just received word that her daughter, a woman in her 20s, was going blind. Would Sangster visit the daughter? With leaden foot he trudged to the hospital, not knowing what he was going to say. He was standing, tongue paralyzed, at the bedside for several minutes when the young woman cried out, “God is going to take away my sight!” It was a hideous moment. Sangster croaked, “Don’t let him. Don’t let him take it from you. Give it to him.”

When I was a young minister in rural New Brunswick I had to call, one day, on Emma Nolan. Emma had been a registered nurse, and had worked for years in New York City. I often called on her just so we could discuss city-life together. Because of her nursing background Emma always accompanied me when we had to drive psychotic villagers to the provincial psychiatric hospital in Campbellton. We had made several such trips together, trips of pure anguish. Emma hadn’t been feeling well for several weeks when she betook herself to Saint John (200 miles away) for a checkup. She was told she didn’t have much longer to live. Emma had had a hard life: an abusive, alcoholic husband, derailed children, several years of widowhood. When she was back from Saint John I called on her. She chit-chatted about this-and-that, plainly avoiding any discussion of her imminent death, when suddenly she cried out, “God is going to take away my life!” What could I say? “Don’t let him, Emma, don’t let him take it. Give it to him.”

Charles Colson. I knew of his unflinching devotion to President Richard Nixon and his part in the Watergate affair. Colson had headed up the committee to re-elect the president. He had boasted that he would cheerfully run over his grandmother if it meant getting Nixon elected again. Then he was arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned. Then there was an arrest of a different sort at the hands of him who had arrested Paul centuries earlier. When his autobiography, Born Again, appeared, I purchased it expecting the worst of American religious “smarm”. Anything but. Colson, a lawyer, is as profound as he is brilliant. He has written a dozen books since. His grasp of the church’s mission (as well as his grasp of the church’s dereliction) is without peer in North America.

Biography. It keeps us surrounded with the cloud of witnesses.

Don’t forget history. The Christian tradition is rich. We are not the first generation of believers. Neither are we the first to be perplexed, harassed, misunderstood, or ignored. A familiarity with history provides us with a wisdom we should never generate ourselves, even as it describes pitfalls we should never be able to avoid ourselves. G.K. Chesterton stated simply that tradition extends voting privileges to the dead. To the extent that we are serious about history, the dead can vote.

I often approach history from another angle. The person or institution without any acquaintance with history is like the person with amnesia. Amnesia is total loss of memory. Loss of memory is bad enough; worse still is what follows loss of memory, loss of identity. To have no memory is to have no identity. To have no identity is to be like a tree without roots or a sailing vessel without ballast in the keel: the first strong wind overturns it. It’s not the case that persons and institutions with no memory are extraordinarily nasty. They aren’t. It is the case that persons and institutions with no memory tend to be quixotic, erratic, unpredictable, inconsistent, always controlled by the latest fad, fashion, whim, notion or scheme.

All of the mainline denominations of North America demonstrate this over and over. All of the mainline denominations have chosen to ignore history. They have assumed either that history has nothing to teach us, or that history can teach us only what is better left untaught; namely, old-world theological wrangles and old-world political intigues that have no place in the churches of the new world.

The result of this neglect of history? A huge loss of Christian memory in the churches of North America, a dreadful case of ecclesiastical amnesia. That’s why North American Christendom is theologically quixotic, erratic and faddish.

To be acquainted with history is to draw from a tradition that allows the dead to vote. We can’t afford to shun the dead. A knowledge of history, however slight, will prevent us from being victimized by our own amnesia; this in turn will keep us from victimizing others.

What about fiction? Too many people regard fiction as a waste of time. “Why give up precious reading-hours for something that isn’t true?”, they ask. Who said fiction isn’t true? Because stories are stories rather than reports they certainly aren’t factual. But to say they aren’t factual isn’t to say they aren’t humanly true.

Think of our Lord’s parables. “A sower went forth to sow.” “Once upon a time a man had two sons.” “Did you hear about the farmer who woke up one morning only to discover that some stinker had sown weeds in his wheatfield?” The parables of Jesus are sheer fiction, every last one of them! An opponent challenges Jesus; a “wannabe” disciple needs the last bit of misunderstanding cleared away; a sermon has to be illustrated. On the spur of the moment, off the top of his head, Jesus makes up a story. Fiction! “Not true”? No! “Not factual”. Yet 100% true — and, say Christians, eventually the Word of God written.

Fiction. Start with someone like Madeleine L’Engle, an American whom I bumped into in a church-library in New York City while Raymond Cummins explored the Anglican Cathedral where she worships.

John White, a psychiatrist (now retired) and preacher (not yet retired) maintains that a good fiction writer (good, not necessarily Christian) has more insight into the human heart than the best of the social scientists. He’s right. We can’t afford to be without fiction.

And then there are the books that train us in discipleship. Richard Foster, a Quaker, has written the best book on prayer, and another on spiritual discipline, that I have read in the last 10 years.

Jacques Ellul (only three months dead and therefore still a voting member of the church), a lawyer and professor in France whose work on the dangers and dehumanization of technology ought to startle you as little else does.

Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor-turned-Roman Catholic priest; his book on the ministry is superb.

John Stott, an Englishman, has written on almost every aspect of the Christian life. He is said to be the most influential Anglican of the 20th century.

We shan’t live long enough to ingest the provender of these people.

“Bring me the books.” The apostle’s experience of God was indescribably rich and unspeakably awesome. And still he needed books!

Yet there was something he craved even more than books: “above all the parchments”. The parchments were scrolls of the Hebrew bible, what we of this congregation call the older testament. Books were crucial; yet most important were the parchments, the scriptures. By extension “parchments” refers to the newer testament as well.

We have to school ourselves in scripture relentlessly. But where to begin? Begin with a small paperback by George Caird. Caird began and ended his teaching career at Oxford University, with a mid-life stint at McGill. Years ago Caird wrote a brief commentary on Luke’s gospel. When it came into my hands I thought I had come upon a new planet. The book is a gem. There are dozens more like it. From time-to-time I recall the metaphors which different biblical authors use to speak of scripture as a whole:

– food — for newborns, necessary if they are going to thrive
– a mirror — it lets us see ourselves as no other book does
– a lamp — its light forestalls groping, stumbling, tripping up
– a fire — it consumes everything about us that should be consumed
– a hammer — it crumbles even rock-hard resistance
– a sword — it penetrates like nothing else.

We haven’t time today to develop a detailed exposition of the nature of biblical authority. We can only conclude with a story told by Charles Spurgeon, a superb 19th century English preacher.

When people asked Spurgeon how they might be convinced of the power of scripture (and therefore of its authority), he replied with a story about lion. “Imagine a caged lion. Someone could bring forward any number of arguments aimed at persuading onlookers of the lion’s nature and the lion’s strength and the lion’s tenacity, and so on. Some onlookers might believe the arguments while many would not. But there is a sure-fire way of convincing everyone about the might of the lion. Let the lion out of the cage.”

An argument about scripture might convince some, and then again it might not. Far better to open up scripture every week. As it is opened up and God owns the Word written, hearts are pierced only to be healed.

“Bring me the books, and above all the parchments.” Books are essential, even as the lion — “The Lion of the tribe of Judah”, in the words of John — has to be let out of the cage.


                                                                                              Victor A. Shepherd
October 1994

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas,
also the books, and above all the parchments.”