I once read a delightful little essay entitled ‘Confessions of a bibliophile’. (For those of you who don’t eat caviar, a bibliophile is an avid lover of books.) In it Keith Mathison mused on his lifelong love for reading and how reading has shaped his Christian life and love for Christ. As I read it I couldn’t help but consider the similarities in our experiences, but also vast differences.
Like Keith, I too am a bibliophile. After inheriting a couple of significant collections of books (and spending scads of my own money), I have somewhere close to seven thousand volumes, mostly works of biblical and theological scholarship. I read several dozen serious books a year and can be found reading at some rather unusual times and in some unlikely contexts (I’m currently reading a biography of Bonhoeffer while I brush my teeth). I actually get a little bit giddy when I can’t sleep, since it means more time for reading. And, like Keith, books have had a profound impact on my love for Jesus.
However, this love for reading has not accompanied me all throughout life. Unlike Keith, I was not devouring Tom Sawyer as a child. In fact, I don’t know if I read twenty books between my birth and high school graduation. (How such a person could not only graduate but be accepted into college is a great mystery we won’t pry into here.) I was very much your typical American teenage dude. Instead of Edgar Allen Poe and Tom Sawyer, I spent my time with The Legend of Zelda and Rambo. An ideal Friday night for me was not curling up with a good book, but a six-pack of root beer while watching several hours of professional wrestling with friends, almost all of whom were “lewd fellows of the baser sort” (Acts 17:5, KJV). Obviously, this approach to life would not produce a bibliophile by any stretch of the imagination. So what made the change?
The short answer is that God’s Spirit worked in my life. I accidentally wound up attending Bible College (another story I won’t bore you with) where I was surrounded by people who had a fiery passion for God. We didn’t use this word back then to describe it, but they were definitely ‘radical’ in their approach to Christianity. Eventually this began rubbing off on me and, with time, I too wanted a passionate walk with Jesus Christ.
Somewhere along the way I came to the conviction, probably subconsciously, that it’s pretty difficult to grow in your relationship with the Lord without books and reading. This was simply part of that radical approach to Christianity. Obviously reading the Bible was an essential, but also reading the works of those God has gifted to teach the church. As time passed, I spent less and less time with Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and more and more time with a lot of different guys who were curiously all named John (John MacArthur, John Piper, John Owen, John Gill, John Bunyan, etc.). Then I began reading the Puritans and more technical biblical scholarship. Eventually I found myself, first a college graduate, then a seminary graduate, and then a preaching pastor of a local church where I’ve been ministering for nearly a decade. It was all so very slow and gradual. But how this happened to a once professional wrestling/video game addict is simply a marvel of God’s amazing grace, and something I don’t think I’ll ever get over.
But as far as reading goes, here’s the big point: for most of us, a serious and growing walk with the Lord is inseparable from spending a considerable amount of time reading good Christian books. Obviously there are exceptions. I know there are those who struggle with dyslexia or dementia or diminished mental capacities. Others, for a variety of reasons, are functionally illiterate. Others have demanding jobs that leave them with essentially no free time. All of those exceptions exist and are real and should be acknowledged.
But I tend to think that most of those reading this blog aren’t in those categories. So, to be intentionally redundant, I’ll say it again: for most of us, a serious and growing walk with the Lord is inseparable from spending a considerable amount of time reading good Christian books. And if we fill all or most of our free time with Netflix or Angry Birds or NFL and then neglect thoughtful, repenting, prayerful reading, we shouldn’t be surprised if our walk with God suffers. We shouldn’t be surprised if we are regularly terrorized by worry or can’t stop ourselves from looking at stuff we know we shouldn’t look at.
Should every Christian aspire to be a bibliophile? Only if every Christian desires to be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.