As longtime friends of mine know, I read. I make notes of what I read. I write about what I read. I buy books. I purchase new books. I buy used books. I frequent local bookshops and online retailers. I pick up discards and freebies. I borrow books. I use the public library. I use the university library. I lend books. I give them away. I love books.
I’ve read twelve books this year. My goal is to read sixty. I’m on pace. Of the twelve read thus far, I borrowed two from the Waco Public Library, four were given to me in exchange for a written review (on my website, on Amazon, or for a web-based publication), and one was loaned to me by a friend who thought I would enjoy it (I did, and I quoted it in this sermon/teaching). I purchased the other five.
Our home is full of books. We have bookshelves in every bedroom, in our living room, in our laundry room, in the garage, and in our study. I have more books at the office. Last fall, our family circumstances led us to sort through and reorganize all of our books. Molly and I were amazed at how many titles we had collected, and how many were past due for a new home. We gave away numerous volumes, many of them practical ministry books we’d gleaned from and could now pass on. Others were relocated to my office on campus. A colleague of mine noticed that I had placed more books on the shelves. Wryly, he said, “I guess you’re going to stick around?”
I started collecting books in college. My grandmother took me shopping at a LifeWay store in Tyler while I was home from Baylor. I didn’t really know what I was picking or why. I had not read enough to have acquired taste or sensibilities. But Bess encouraged me to look, and to choose. I did pick up C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity on that visit, I think. That shopping trip is a reason I got started.
But I was also employed over two summers as a student worker in the Tidwell Bible Building on the Baylor campus. I helped several professors move into different offices. Professor John Jonsson gave me titles he no longer wanted. Glenn Hilburn was trying to find a buyer for his library before he retired. He culled books along the way, and let me pick through titles he didn’t think anyone would want. Spending time around professors and ministers helped me see the value of a book and the benefits of reading. I was not only exposed to books, but the kinds of people who read books. I liked what I saw.
A retired history professor, Robert Reid, gave me a few of his books. One day he invited me over to pick out a few titles from his library, which included old volumes of Shakespeare, Yeats, Bronte, Burns, and many others. Those are treasures. They are on display in our living room. God bless Robert Reid.
Molly and I picked up numerous volumes of theology from the library of United Methodist Bishop William D. Oden. Many of his books were made available to Perkins students, where Molly attended seminary, one afternoon in something like a fellowship hall at the Highland Park United Methodist Church. That’s where I obtained copies of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology and an edition of Stanley Hauerwas’s Community of Character.
When Molly was a student worker at Perkins, retired pastors or the families of deceased ministers would reach out to see if any students would be interested in their books. That’s how we came into possession of John Wesley’s Works and Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology. Molly was a good fit for the Wesley set. Since Perkins was not likely to have someone interested in Chafer, Molly turned those over to me. Chafer founded Dallas Theological Seminary, where I pursued my seminary education, and from whom I received a Masters in Christian Education.
Those are examples of how and when and by what means we have built our library. Add in gifts, garage sales, textbooks, thrift stores, shopping trips, Little Free Libraries, and other pick ups, you have our collection.
Whenever and wherever I have taught Sunday school or led a Bible study, I have encouraged those in my classes to find a good study Bible, a reliable one-volume commentary, a Bible atlas, and a good Bible dictionary or handbook. For me, those are the basics, cornerstone volumes in a Christian home library. You can build out from there.
I’ve also encouraged people to read beyond those basics and to begin building a home library that is meaningful and valuable to them personally. This includes volumes they have read. I also encourage an aspirational approach to building a library, acquiring volumes you would like to read. Knowledge can puff up. Having a big library doesn’t make you knowledgeable. In contrast, if you let it, any size library can humble you. Books are a reminder that there is always more to know and that there are others out there who have thought as much, or more, about subjects you may only be beginning to understand.
Here’s Cal Newport on how to build a library:
Over the years, most of the books I’ve acquired have been in the area of theology, church history, religious studies, biblical studies, practical ministry, Christian ethics, and philosophy. But we’ve also obtained works of fiction, poetry, and history. We have books for grownups and books written for children. We’re learned from the books we’ve read. We’ve been inspired to keep reading, and to learn more. We’ve discovered the delight of books, and the pleasure of reading. Our library has helped us to mature as people of faith, and as human beings. That’s something a good library will do.
Build a library. And read.
I’ve been reading The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God by Adolph Saphir. I quoted Saphir in this blog post.
The Hidden Life is a series of expositions on James 4:8: “Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you.” Rev. Saphir claims, “Not every mystic is a Christian, but every Christian is a mystic.” Why? Because the Christian life is a spiritual life, and every robust Christian spirituality concerns itself with the mystical dimension of human experience. In God, there is mystery. God’s magnitude and vastness exceeds the human capacity for exhaustive understanding. Saphir claims that in Christianity there is hidden wisdom, hidden glory, hidden manna, and a hidden life. “If we know these hidden things,” Saphir writes, “then are we ourselves hidden ones, who shall be made manifest when Christ, who is our Life, shall appear.” That’s Colossians 3:1-4, everyone.
The Hidden Life is an older book [full text here at the Internet Archive], and it reads like an older book. It is filled with biblical quotations and allusions, and assumes an audience that is fluent in the narratives and central teachings of the Christian faith. It was published in 1877. Saphir writes about a kind of experience with God that is available to those on the inside, those who have experienced conversion and who sense an invitation from God to enter more fully into the life of faith. Saphir claims this is what we were made for: “Your mind, your heart, your will, your whole inner man, have been created for God and His word, as much as your eye for light, and your ear for sound.” I agree. We’re invited on the quest, a journey with a God who joins us on the way and transforms us from within, and a God who, in the end, invites us to fully dwell in the divine presence in the kingdom eternal. What we experience now is just the beginning. Why wait?
I recently borrowed a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. On my desk at work are copies of Abbot Chapman’s Spiritual Letters and an autobiographical compilation of narratives and stories, Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Those are the titles I have in the queue.
I anticipate I will be done with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in another week or two. Stay tuned.
Lastly, I recommend Jim Geherty of National Review and The Washington Post on Tik Tok.
Sights and Sounds
Our family went camping last weekend, so I haven’t had an opportunity to watch any movies or shows. But I did watch this Spoon performance on Austin City Limits. It’s available to stream until 3/19/2023.
On the blog: I shared self-observations of my viewing habits and how I choose what to watch.
Before I go, standard copy.
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Be well this week. Bless others.
P.S. - Bill and Vera Daniel Fountain, a spring day, on the Baylor campus.
Amen brother. That’s a good life.