REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 24: The biggest nursery in the world!
It has been good to learn from a couple of friends in the bookselling game that the isolation of the pandemic has led to more books being purchased, and I hope, read. I often thank God for those who encouraged me to read after I became a Christian. Up to that time I had only read two books; The Wind in the Willows and The History of Mr.Polly plus a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, because I had to, for school. I could rattle off cricket stats and results of the 1956 Olympics since I devoured the captions under the photos in sports books, especially about cricket. Then from age 17 I started to buy books, on pay days. I am so grateful to have been encouraged to buy anything of Leon Morris, John Stott, JI Packer, Michael Green, IVP, SU and Banner. Thus began a lifelong love of reading. In our church we gave each other New Bible Dictionaries & Commentaries or Lloyd-Jones on the Sermon on the Mount for 21st birthdays.
I was glad to find St Paul’s request of Timothy (2 Tim.4:13) to bring his scrolls & parchments to him in prison, along with his cloak, before winter if he could (4:21). If it was good enough for the great apostle to seek nourishment in reading it had to be good for me. Alarming reports of increases in pornography, pay TV and streaming services, increase opportunities for us to drop our guard and invite into our homes and hearts ways of life we neither endorse nor have a mind to engage in. Good books come to our rescue. To feed our minds rather than entertain through our eyes is the way of wisdom. We see this in our Lord’s exhortation about our eyes being the lamp of our bodies and the door to our affections (Matt 6:22-23). This wisdom is seen in the modern dictum “rubbish in, rubbish out” and the older food and vege campaigns “what you eat today walks and talks tomorrow”. We can choose a good book and apply our minds without having them assaulted by our lusts and idle day-dreams. Simone Weil made a wise observation when she said: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied: real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating” (Yancey Rumours, page 99). This is the stuff of movies and many books softening us up for acceptance of evil at the expense of godliness. And the law of diminishing returns quickly sets in, feeding our need for more, not of the same, but more bizarre and evil, to satisfy unfulfilled cravings which God neither created nor designed to be sources of real, lasting and ennobling satisfaction.
“An open mind is for the same purpose as an open mouth: to clamp down on something nourishing. Otherwise it might become like a sewer, accepting everything and rejecting nothing”, wrote G K Chesterton. This is not to suggest for a moment that all books are good and all media is bad, but that by a careful choice of good books (Phil. 4:8-9 and Col. 3:2) we can more easily avoid the bad and apply our minds to the life-long transformation process (Rom 12:1-2), without it being sabotaged or diminished by the immediacy of entertainment through our eyes. It was Ravi Zacharias who commented “if a follower of Jesus does not mature in his or her reading, the church could end up running the biggest nursery in the world” (Recapture the Wonder page 152).
Since reading demands time and our attention, the pandemic has gifted us, in some cases but not all, the opportunity to revisit old favourites, sitting in our favourite chair with pencil in hand (CS Lewis I think!). Taking notes is a sure way of reminding us that we don’t read Christian books to be entertained but to mature us by honing our faith and enhancing the grace God has already granted to us in Christ. (Lest this sounds too works based or even legalistic I encourage the pondering of 2 Peter 1:3-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:9-11). Here are some thoughts that I hope will encourage us to read ourselves rich:
- We do well to remember the chorus that the best book to read is the Bible since this is our primary and only infallible God given text, that understands us better than we ourselves. The Scriptures will enable us to assess the worthiness or otherwise of every book we read. It is our canon and rule of testing all we are, do and think.
- We do well to choose well. Life is too short and our souls too important for us to waste our time on books that would fail to grow our obedience to God, our love of our Saviour and fuel the understanding and comfort the Holy Spirit longs to give us.
- Reading good quality Christian books give us an experience of the Creeds: “We believe in the communion of saints”. What a joy it is to learn from, be challenged by and give thanks for the lives of fellows from across the world and down through the ages. Not only does this keep us from parochialism, that dangerous tendency to look inwards, but gives us in its place a world vision that recognises the affirmation “we believe in the holy catholic church” with its universal presence in every nation. This is especially so as we read church history and literature about the persecuted church in our own days. We are kept prayerful and less likely to complain about petty, individual or local church problems. These books will toughen our resolve.
- Often people have justified not reading with the excuse, “But I read so slowly”. To this I reply: “this can be an advantage as the purpose of reading is to be edified, where slower is often more, deeper and nourishing”. We love our slow cooker because it delivers such nourishing and flavoursome meals. Certainly more so than fast food! If slowness intimidates you, choose a shorter book with the lines well spread. Be practical and give it a go. You will be blessed in the doing.
- A book is a great companion. Years ago I read in The Kings Business (Robinson and Winward CSSM London 1957) of a minister assigned to an isolated small parish. Encouraged by his mentor A B Bruce to seek “inspiration from your books” David Smith later wrote “that on many an evening I would come home sick of petty jealousies…and get into my study, and behold, I was in a large and wealthy place and in the fellowship of the immortals”. Such advice has been the testimony of many an isolated and lonely Christian. I well remember a friend from the mid 1970’s appointed as a graduate geologist to the back blocks of WA. Far too far away to get to a church, Trevor took with him Calvin’s 48 sermons on Ephesians, which he read on Sundays in his tent. How wise and fortunate he was to live before the temptations of mobile phones and the like that may have seen him tempted to slake his isolation with ungodly means.
- Chronological snobbery”: is C S Lewis’s exhortation to not fall in to the trap of reading only what is new. He writes: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones” And then he gives the reason: “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period” (On the reading of old books, pages 201/2 in, God in the Dock. 1970). In other words good books by orthodox writers may be better judges of our lifestyle or theological emphases than we, since we are too enmeshed in our culture(s) and sometimes easily blinded by modern trends. This is another reason for choosing our authors well, and if not adhering to Lewis’ 3/1 of new/old, make sure we are reading those who do. Accessible authors like J C Ryle (19th C),Marcus Loane, Leon Morris, AM Stibbs, JRW Stott, J I Packer, J A Motyer, (20th C) and D A Carson, John Piper, Ravi Zachariah, P W Barnett, D Tidball, S Ferguson, Larry Crabb, Tim Kellor, Peter Adam, A McGrath & Gerald Bray have helped me.
- We who live at this time are spoilt for good choices and easily confused with myriads of books on offer. The choice is between nourishment and spiritual anorexia is ours. Thankfully there are many excellent health giving Christian books available to us to choose from. Failure to choose good ones, and a refusal to grasp the opportunities before us are in our hands. We can choose to be “100 miles wide and only one inch deep”, members of a nursery class or disciples who are actively maturing. And the choice is not for us only but for the future of our churches and its witness. Given the opposition to biblical Christ honouring Christianity is increasing, decided disciples are required. Decided disciples are made. One vital ingredient to discipleship has always been a willingness to read what is good, proven and clear. Books that, after appealing to our minds, call us to an uncompromising and winsome discipleship, committed to building up our local churches and denominations and winning people for Christ are the ones to read, cherish, study and recommend.
- Practice makes permanent. For good or ill. When we stop reading seriously we will get better at it whereas when we establish good habits we will get better at them (Gal 6:7-8). The advantage of a good book above already pre-digested articles (like this one) is that we can follow the argument through, assess its truth by Scripture and then figure out what we can do to implement its encouragements and learn from its warnings. The habit is worthwhile and is not difficult. Where there is a will there is a way.
- Some habits that have helped me (all learnt from the example of others and proven in experience) include: Start today, be realistic (one book is enough), take it with you wherever you go so that you can capitalise on the 10-20 minute time bytes (on the train, dentists waiting room, etc), set aside a half-hour each day to read (sadly that is about my limit of focus these days, but is bears fruit: remember the tortoise and the hare!), use a pen to underline and the blank pages in the back to make your own notes of helpful concepts (this preserves your efforts, aids your memory: remember that an ounce of ink is worth a thousand memories!), and recommend books to your fellows (you will only do this if you are reading yourself).
- We have been blessed with so many good books: Sparklit and Langham Partnership offer excellent opportunities to bless others in nations where Christian literature is scarce through our giving and prayers.
- I have only written of Christian books. There are many excellent and non-excellent secular books. Discrimination is required for secular books, and other forms of relaxation, if they are to edify. Can I give God thanks for it? is a helpful question (1 Tim 4:4-5), and 1 Tim.4:7-8 & Phil 4:9 offer counsel in making choices.
Peter Brain 19th June, 2020