A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year. It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue. Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again. On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.
The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters. Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages. In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.
Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this. Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice. Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues. This is the year I catch up!
The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that. Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives. On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters. Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word. I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.
With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading. In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply. Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.
A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones. In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible. He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.
I am quickly agreeing with Tozer. It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to. And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”
What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know. It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility. One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund. Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund. But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.
There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota. The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed. The more I read, the more I know that I know not. Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.
Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either. They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality. Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length. Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading. On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature. Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate. Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that. He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time. Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out. One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism. He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.
Aren’t we all? I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years. Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!
Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday? We might be wrong about everything? There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer? Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong? Martin Luther was a heretic? John Wesley probably was too? But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!
All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true. However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer. The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered. The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced. I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.
For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.” But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely. See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.” Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.” “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!” They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!
After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!
See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!