The Elders were recently asked to write about three pivotal moments in their Christian formation and many have generously offered to share them in the newsletter. Look for a different story each month. If you would like to share about God at work in your life, contact Mary Grimm.
By Jeff Baker
If I’m honest, I would have to say that reading has been one of the most deeply formative practices of my journey with Christ. And here I include reading not only Scripture, but books by Christian authors. This is the kind of practice that can, of course, get out of hand. There is an old Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last” about an old man who hides in a bank safe to curl up with a book. The Bomb falls while he’s inside, and he escapes to find himself the world’s sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Seeing piles of books lying around, he’s elated—until his glasses fall and shatter into pieces (I thought of that moment in June when I sat on my own glasses on Day 2 of a pilgrimage walk in Spain).
But in our age of perpetual distraction and on-line diversion, I still think that the practice of reading can offer one path of resistance. And like many of us, I suspect that I am less in danger of literary overconsumption than simply finding any time for sustained reading.
I want to emphasize that Scripture is our primary book. I discovered the Bible via a strange path. I grew up in an Episcopal church that was better at preaching manners and politeness than the Gospel, and can still remember clandestinely buying my own story bible and being fascinated by the colorful stories—especially in the Old Testament. I started reading actual Scripture in 8th grade after getting a copy of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, a rather colorful apocalyptic thriller that did at least prod me to open the Bible. And when I heard the lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar, the only rock album allowed in our household in 1972, I started reading the Gospels, wondering how many of the lyrics were really in the New Testament.
Looking back, I see a pattern here. C.S. Lewis spoke of how his imagination had to be baptized before he could believe. I suspect that a similar kind of “baptism” was taking place in my own story well before the moment when I received Christ during my senior year of high school. It happened through reading the plucky adventures of a little misfit hobbit (not unlike myself), and C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, which I read before any of his nonfiction.
I think I may have consumed just about every book Lewis wrote on Christianity while I was in college. Now I struggle just to stay awake while reading at bedtime. I still try, however, to remember something Lewis wrote that I have never forgotten: reading old books frees us from the parochialism of the present. It can be hard to get past differences of style or assumptions, but it is really amazing when you can connect with a Christian from a different era. I read Augustine’s Confessions while walking on a dark road myself, and was deeply affected by how my own struggle with the world’s brokenness echoed the words of someone who lived over 1500 years ago (even if my transgressions were rather comparatively mundane).
I still agree with Lewis’ comment on reading to challenge parochialism, but would add that you don’t have to go back in time to do this. Lately I’ve been reading the autobiography of Pauli Murray, a woman who grew up in Durham and later became both a civil-rights pioneer and the first African-American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal church. Her life was utterly different than mine in so many ways, yet she clearly witnessed to a powerful Christian character in her life, hard work, and convictions. Paul Murray, to be sure has been embraced today by a very different crowd than the C.S. Lewis club, and I am still getting acquainted with her story. My point is that it’s very different learning about her from her own book rather than a google search.
Again, I want to put these thoughts in perspective. My time devoted to this kind of reading is mainly limited to late evenings (if I’m awake) and Saturday mornings. My more consistent daily practices center on morning Scripture, reflection, and prayer. I try to memorize scripture, often carrying an index card, though am not very good at it. I still struggle with breaking down the lines between my inner life and how I actually live. I have much to learn, and far to travel on the road ahead. To paraphrase a line from The Hobbit, I am only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.