By Our Books Shall We Be Known

Dr. Mohler posted an article this morning that grabbed my attention. I had something else I had wanted to say today, but have chosen instead to interact a little bit with Mohler’s article. Mohler writes about an essay that appeared in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (the essay, sadly, is only available to those with a subscription to The Chronicle). Written by Jay Parini, who is a poet and a professor of English at Middlebury College, the essay, “Other People’s Books,” discusses just that: other people’s books. Parini discusses his penchant for examining other people’s libraries:

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It’s not only the physical aspects of books that attract me, of course. In fact, I rarely buy first or elegant editions, however much I like to glance at them; good reading copies, in hardback or a decent paperback, are just fine. But seeing some of the editions in my living room reminds me of that wonderful house in Surrey, which stirred my imagination as a young man and was part of the reason I became a writer myself.

What interests me about other people’s books is the nature of their collection. A personal library is an X-ray of the owner’s soul. It offers keys to a particular temperament, an intellectual disposition, a way of being in the world. Even how the books are arranged on the shelves deserves notice, even reflection. There is probably no such thing as complete chaos in such arrangements.

Other people’s books draw my attention, of course. They excite curiosity about their owners and the worlds they inhabit. But it’s finally my own books that matter, as they tell me about where I’ve been, and where I hope to go.

Mohler writes, “When truly read, a book becomes a part of us. That is why we are afraid to part with even the physicality of it. The book becomes an aid to memory and a deposit of thought and reflection. Its very materiality testifies that we once held it in our hands as we passed the pages before our eyes.” This is true in my experience. I can watch a movie once or twice and have no desire to watch it again. It is only on a very rare occasion that I consider purchasing a film. Once I have watched it, I rarely have any desire to keep it around or to watch it again. This is not the case with books. When I have read a book, and when I have enjoyed that book, I am hard-pressed to part with it; it sometimes pains me even to lend it. I keep the book on the shelf, hoping that I will have time and occasion to read it again. At the very least I am always sure that I will turn to it again. Sometimes I enjoy pulling a book from the shelf and reading the notes I jotted in the margins. What did I circle? What did I underline? What did I conclude about these things? Why? These are all aspects of the experience of reading a book.

Mohler goes on to state that, “To a great extent, our personal libraries betray our true identities and interests. A minister’s library, taken as a whole, will likely reveal a portrait of theological conviction and vision. Whose works have front place on the shelves, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Shelby Spong? Charles Spurgeon or Harry Emerson Fosdick? Karl Barth or Carl Henry? John MacArthur or Joel Osteen?” As a bibliophile, a lover of books, I know that a person’s library speaks volumes about him (no pun intended). I have been in homes where I could scarcely find a single book. There may have been a Bible or two on the coffee table, but there were no bookshelves, no books. I have been to the offices of pastors whose shelves were nearly bare, with only a few sparse volumes, the latest and greatest books from decades past, scattered about, long since forgotten. As Dr. Mohler writes, “For too many pastors, the personal library announces, ‘I stopped reading when I graduated from seminary.'” I have seen the libraries of pastors, men who preach every week and who earn a good and fair wage, who had but a single commentary set at their disposal. And then I have been to the homes of pastors whose libraries were filled with quality books, books written by men of God and written to aid and edify other men of God. And in these offices I have felt at home. I have felt an excitement, and, as with Parini, have wanted to know more about the owner of those books and about the world he inhabits.

“When I think of my closest friends, I realize that I am most at home with them in their libraries, and they are most at home with me in mine. Why? Because the books invite and represent the kind of conversation and sharing of heart, soul, and mind that drew us together in the first place.” For those who have had the privilege, as I have, of experiencing Dr. Mohler’s library, you will realize that it is easy to feel at home in it! But even in a library that is far more humble, the books do represent the sharing of heart, soul and mind that brought good friends together in the first place.

Dr. Mohler concludes his article by writing, “By their books we shall know them. And by our books we shall be known.” The books on your shelves tell a great deal about you. What do they say?

As I read this, I was reminded of the wisdom of Richard Baxter who, many years ago, wrote wisely about books.

Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church . . . but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.

Surely this is solid advice. Devotion to reading must never take pre-eminence over our reading of Scripture. If we spend many hours every day reading but only a brief period of time studying the Scriptures, we need to examine our priorities. When we do read, we need to give priority to good books that increase our knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. Beyond them, it is wise to study the history of the church so we can never lose sight of our roots and seek to avoid the mistakes of the past. And finally, we should avoid submitting ourselves to the writings of false teachers who will corrupt our understanding of the truths of Scripture.

As there is a more excellent appearance of the Spirit of God in the holy scripture, than in any other book whatever, so it has more power and fitness to convey the Spirit, and make us spiritual, by imprinting itself upon our hearts. As there is more of God in it, so it will acquaint us more with God, and bring us nearer Him, and make the reader more reverent, serious and divine. Let scripture be first and most in your hearts and hands and other books be used as subservient to it. The endeavours of the devil and papists to keep it from you, doth shew that it is most necessary and desirable to you.

Once again, the Bible must be pre-eminent. The Bible alone is God’s full, inerrant, infallible, authoritative revelation to us and we must treat it accordingly. All other books must take a subservient and complementary role to Scripture.

The writings of divines are nothing else but a preaching of the gospel to the eye, as the voice preaches it to the ear. Vocal preaching has the pre-eminence in moving the affections, and being diversified according to the state of the congregation which attend it: this way the milk comes warmest from the breast. But books have the advantage in many other respects: you may read an able preacher when you have but a average one to hear. Every congregation cannot hear the most judicious or powerful preachers: but every single person may read the books of the most powerful and judicious; preachers may be silenced or banished, when books may be at hand: books may be kept at a smaller charge than preachers: we may choose books which treat of that, very subject which we desire to hear of; but we cannot choose what subject the preacher shall treat of. Books we may have at hand every day, and hour; when we can have sermons but seldom, and at set times. If sermons be forgotten, they are gone; but a book we may read over and over, till we remember it: and if we forget it, may again peruse it at our pleasure, or at our leisure. So that good books are a very great mercy to the world: the Holy Ghost chose the way of writing, to preserve His doctrine and laws to the ‘Church, as knowing how easy and sure a way it is of keeping it safe to all generations, in comparison of mere verbal traditions.

Perhaps the greatest reason to read is that it gives us direct access to the God-given wisdom of some of the greatest preachers and theologians of our day and days past. While Charles Spurgeon (and Richard Baxter, for that matter) has long since gone to be with the Lord, we can learn from him as easily as people did in the nineteenth century.

You have need of a judicious teacher at hand, to direct you what books to use or to refuse: for among good books there are some very good that are sound and lively; and some good, but mediocre, and weak and somewhat dull; and some are very good in part, but have mixtures of error, or else of incautious, injudicious expressions, fitter to puzzle than edify the weak.

For every good book, there are five or ten (or, more likely, far more) that are fit only for the trash. Much of what is published under the banner of “Christian” is anything but. Be careful what you read, for a book can lead you astray as easily as it can lead you closer to the Lord. Find mature believers who can guide you to books and authors that will edify you. Let your library speak well of you.