Tuesday, April 24, 2007

For the love of books


I have in the last couple of weeks been dealing with that most thankless of all tasks when moving as far as we will be moving, and that is thinning my files and culling my library. I have no problem with ditching with delight and great glee tons of paper that gather in files, but books are a different. I know that I can't afford to take all of them back to England, and when I get there I won't have room for them anyhow, but thinning the shelves is like murdering my children. However, as they say, no pain... no gain!

My books illustrate the development of my thinking and my interests during these three decades that I have spent in ministry in the United States. It is interesting also to stumble across old friends that I brought with me from England in 1976, and what they say about where I was in interest and intellect half a lifetime ago.

Some of my books have been read from cover-to-cover, annotated, re-read, and literally chewed up, but of others I have read a few chapters then abandoned the work for some reason or another, and others I have hardly even opened. In fact, it frightens me just how many books I have bought but never actually read or properly used.

I remember being told when I was in seminary that you can tell an awful lot about a priest from his books (in those days there were no hers in the clergy business). As I traveled during the middle part of my time on these shores I was able to snoop through a lot of clergys' bookshelves, and these often told me things about the owner of these volumes, where they were, where they were going, and more sadly, when they stopped reading. It is surprising how many priests are still ministering merely out of the bits and pieces that they picked up during their years in seminary.

It goes without saying that most of us will buy more books by authors with whose presuppositions we are likely to agree, but it also goes without saying that an unbalanced theological library is one that is primarily made up of books written by those with whom we are most comfortable. Reading a book is engaging in a conversation, and a one-sided everyone agreeing conversation is hardly going to be particularly stimulating. Yet most of us seem to be happiest with such conversations, with the result that often the intellectual edge is missing and our creativity is never nourished.

My library illustrates the fads and phases of my life and ministry. There was a time, for example, when church growth fascinated me, and then there have been particular thinkers or writers who managed in differing ways to catch my imagination: Thomas Merton, Lyle Schaller, Eugene Peterson, Peter Drucker, Henri Nouwen, to name but a few. There are a lot of books about particular periods of history which I have drenched myself in, or odd little books that no one else seemed to appreciate, but which I have loved to death. Then there was "The Prayer of Jabez" -- how on earth did such a thin little thing become such a big best seller?

There have been those, "Why on earth did I buy that?" books. Some years ago I bought this huge turgid biography of King Alfred the Great. For weeks I struggled to get into it, and finally threw in the towel. Yet there was a genuine sadness that I hadn't been able to break into it when it joined the growing pile of those that will not return to England with me.

But biography is important. When I was setting out on my ministry I was working on a post-graduate degree in 19th and 20th Century church history. To my surprise one of my mentors became Max Warren, one of the greatest missionary statesmen of the Church of England. Canon Warren was getting close to the end of his life, his aging body had been weakened by a bout of tuberculosis contracted when he had been a missionary in Nigeria between the two world wars and then arduous ministry after that.

I remember the most wonderful day that I spent with him and his wife in his home less than a year before he died, when we worked over the thesis that I was trying to develop, him filling me with ideas and thoughts that have fed and nourished my thinking ever since. The thesis never reached the examiners, but the wisdom he shared is better than putting more letters after my name. One of the things that he taught me that day was the value of reading biography. Always try to have a biography on the go, he told me, and I loved the idea.

This is advice that I have kept, and so there is in my collection a large selection of biographies, many of which, alas, I am going to have to part company with. Much can be gained from reading the lives of men and women for faith, as well as those who might have struggled with the faith, and when the biographer is honest and gives a 'warts and all' picture it makes the subject so much easier to identify with.

My collection of biographies stretched from Winston Churchill to Max Warren himself, and from movie stars like David Niven to Christian writers like Patricia St. John. Just recently I have been reading Bill Bryson's funny autobiography, Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, about growing up in Iowa in the Fifties -- learned a lot about America from that one. I love learning about lives, and discovering the strengths and the foibles of all sorts and conditions of people has always been a great aid to being able to minister among folks and to work with them.

When I was in high school I was introduced to the Essays of Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon was a renaissance man during the time of James I whose many of whose pithy comments within the context of lucid but dense writing have become well-known quotations in the English language. In his essay on writing Bacon says, "Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man." In one way or another that piece of advice has stuck with me through my life and is reflected in the shape and content of my library.

Now I am preparing for these books that have been my collection, some of them for many years, to be scattered to the four winds. Already some are finding their way onto other people's shelves, and soon only a rump will be left for me to treasure as I take them back to my homeland and new ministry there. I am not a particularly clever individual, just average, but a lifelong friendship with books has helped me to fill in some of the gaps and to stretch the few talents that I have been given a little further than they otherwise might have gone.

I don't know how much longer the Lord intends to keep me as part of the church militant, but I hope and pray that I will always be surrounded by books. One of the great figures of the Anglican tradition in the 20th Century was Michael Ramsey. A large, brilliant, bumbling figure, we used to look forward to his visits to our seminary, although with all the self-righteousness of young men who knew that they knew best, we thought that his theology was at times a bit fuzzy.

Like the present Archbishop of Canterbury he taught theology before becoming a bishop, and was a man who loved reading and books. As his years ebbed away so did his eyesight, and I remember John Andrew, his former chaplain and at that time Rector of St. Thomas's Church, New York, telling me how at the end it became necessary to find people to read to him. I hope and pray that my eyes do not grow dim like that because I always want to be able to enjoy books.

I have no doubt whatsoever that when I get back to England and get settled, more books, with titles old and new, will find their way into our home and my office. Let me finish these wanderings with another quote from Bacon which perhaps describes the way books should be used, "Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider."

2 comments:

Lori said...

What a fabulous picture...I love my books, and would have bookshelves lining every wall of every room in my home...if it weren't for my husband and children who have other ideas! (still, it's pretty close)

Blessings as you undertake your new ministry...

Matt Wardman said...

Thank-you for posting.

I hope you don't mind, Richard - I have reproduced some snippets for my own readers.