There is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body.Ecclesiastes 12:12
A classmate back in my grad school days had this above verse from Ecclesiastes on his office door. A subtle reminder, I guess, of the ongoing toil (and toll?) of academic endeavors.
But, yes, there is no end to the making of books. Especially if you add e-books to this equation.
Now the truth is there are a lot of books in our house. All of us are readers of one kind or another. We have three large bookcases in our living room that are filled with books. And we have books that won’t fit on the bookcases.
I also have an entire wall filled with books in my office at our church. There might also be books in piles that won’t fit on the shelves.
And there are still books on on my Amazon wishlist that I hope to someday purchase and read.
So, yes, I like books.
All well and good, but how is opening a book a spiritual practice for an accelerating age?
First, there’s this: opening a book–and yes, for the time being I am talking about physical books–takes us away from our screens. Almost anything that reduces the amount of time we spend staring at our laptops, TVs, and smartphones is undoubtedly a good thing.
In my previous post in this series I wrote about turning off our phones as a spiritual practice. One of the things I have noticed about my own smartphone habits is that if I want to turn the thing off and take a break from it, it helps to have another activity or practice to take its place. Opening an actual book and engaging your mind in another, possibly more meaningful way is key to this spiritual practice.
Secondly, opening a book and reading makes us slow down and pay attention. If you’re actually reading, you can’t do it mindlessly or certainly not passively. Whereas scrolling through Facebook or YouTube requires nothing of me, reading does. It is a deliberate and thoughtful action. To follow either a good story or an interesting theological argument, I can’t remain docile.
Not only that, but opening a book and reading means sitting. It means not making noise. It means focusing. It means giving our attention to a narrative, a memoir, an account of history, poetry, or the author’s ideas on a given subject. Allowing our eyes to pour over the words on the page, and giving ourselves the time to ruminate a little, can cultivate in us (even if gradually) a quality such as patience. It can reduce anxiety and enable us to feel less hurried and distracted. Opening a book can actually have an effect on us that manifests itself elsewhere in life.
Of course, we might bristle a little at the idea of being still, of not getting this or that done, of giving time to something that doesn’t seem (or simply isn’t) especially productive. We might find the physical act of sitting and reading uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons. We may not enjoy it at first. We might even feel guilty about taking the time to do it.
One important aspect of spiritual practices is their capacity to create self-awareness. They provide the space for otherwise hidden thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface. A good spiritual practice ought to challenge and unsettle us. Because the ultimate goal of spiritual practices (obviously from a Christian perspective) is not necessarily to make us feel better but to draw us nearer to God. To be drawn nearer to God means also becoming more aware of who we are. Spiritual practices require me to pay attention to myself and to God.
Thirdly, opening a book can stretch our thinking and imaginations.
Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of fiction. But over the last couple of years I have read (or in some cases re-read) C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George Orwell’s1984, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Some I enjoyed more than others (Middle Earth is much more engaging than Narnia). Some took awhile to get into (Dostoevsky) but were still incredible. Others were brilliantly and frighteningly insightful (Orwell and Huxley).
I’ve also recently read a bunch of non-fiction, usually theological or spiritual books. These are the sorts of books that help to me understand my faith more, or give me language to express it more meaningfully. I think of works like Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy (which I am currently re-reading) and Tozer’s 2 volume collection of sermons called The Attributes of God. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self helped me have a better grasp of how our culture has reached the point it has on matters relating to sexuality and gender. As a part of an online pastor’s group I read Henri Nouwen’s Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope During Hard Times. And Nouwen is always perceptive when it comes to the inner workings of our spiritual lives.
Your reading list, if you have one, no doubt looks different.
The point is that we need help to understand what it means to live in this world and to do so well. Throughout my life authors have become traveling companions. I think of writers like C.S. Lewis (not only because of Narnia but because of Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and The Screwtape Letters). I think about reading theologians like Augustine, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I think of all the Eugene Peterson books on my shelves. I think of N.T. Wright and especially his book, Surprised By Hope. Every one of these writers have shaped me in one way or another. It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything they’ve written. In fact, authors can shape our thinking because we react against what they’ve written. They can stir us to examine what we believe.
Fourthly, if we’re Christians, then we ought to open a book because we are people of the Book, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Indeed, if we can only read one book, then the Bible needs to be that book.
Now, the thing about the Bible is that it’s not so much a book as it is a collection of books or a collection of different kinds of writings. There are books of narrative, books of poetry, apocalyptic books, history books, and letters. Most Christians no doubt gravitate toward some parts of the Bible more naturally than others. My late mother preferred the epistles (letters) of the New Testament or a books like Job and the Psalms. Others find it easier (and maybe preferable) to read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A lot of Christians struggle with reading (at least some parts of) the Old Testament.
Whatever our preferences are as Christians, or however we feel about the Bible, it is supposed to be our authority in matters of faith and practice. At least that’s true of most evangelical Christians. In other words, we’re supposed to turn to the Bible to know what God is like and what our lives as followers of Jesus should look like (individually and as the church).
And while this is true, we need to be careful not to approach the Bible as a sort of theological and spiritual encyclopedia of easy to locate answers. From start to finish, the Bible tells the story of God, his creation of the world, and his calling together of a people to give witness to his character and will. It is embedded in the history and culture of the various authors, testifying to how God reveals himself in the time and space of the world he brought into existence.
So to read the Bible well, we need to do a bit of work. Because the Bible was written for us but not to us. In other words, we are not, for example, the original recipients of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The Corinthian Christians were.
Yet, God inspired Paul to write 1 and 2 Corinthians in such a way as to both address what has happening amongst these new believers in first century Corinth and to have meaning and relevance for Christians down through the ages, including today.
But to understand the meaning and relevance for us, we need to have some understanding of the original historical and cultural context.
All this to say, the Bible is necessary for us to read, but not necessarily easy for us to read. But in a way that far exceeds any other book, it has the power not only to stretch our thinking and our imaginations but to transform us.
I think of Augustine’s famous telling of his conversion, of how he heard a voice from a neighboring house say, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” He obeyed the voice, which God used, and turned to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The rest is history.
Opening a book–especially the books of the Old and New Testament–is most definitely a spiritual practice for an accelerating age, when people usually share their thoughts and opinions on TikTok or Facebook or Twitter. Or in an environment where the capacity for deeper reflection and an openness to having our own thinking challenged and changed is quickly disappearing.
Opening a book is to accept an invitation to listen, to learn, and hear from voices other than our own. In its most profound moments, opening a book means discovering how the Creator of the universe speaks words of life into his creation. That makes it a spiritual practice well worth our time.