John Mark Reynolds, 2005.
Part III — On Books
She turned and said with a thoughtful manner, she always had a thoughtful manner, “Books are no longer the literature of our culture. Movies are now way the masses receive truth.” So a seminar speaker, long ago, introduced me to the idea that perhaps literacy is a thing of the past. We are, she proclaimed, “a post literate people.”
If I accept this, I still wonder at accepting it. For some reason, we are to rejoice in it instead of combating it. This is deemed progress so it must be opposed, but there is nothing progressive about it. It is simplest to see it as a return the slavery of illiteracy. Even the phrase “post literate” is nonsense. Christians have always taught people to read. God, after all, sent a book not a video. We did not let the pagan Irish wallow in their symbols of other gods rudely painted on stone walls. Why should we let the pagan Americans sink back to pictures flickering on modern walls? I do not hate movies. Indeed, I own hundreds of them!
However, they can never replace books and I do not express this view because I am old and simply love books. There are good reasons to think that all Christians should learn to read and to read well. Books make arguments. As a result, leaders will always read. Leaders are persuaded by arguments while slaves listen only to their passions. What other form of media can contain the carefully weighed exposition of a fine philosophical argument? Movies cannot argue only cajole and persuade. This does not make them bad, just different. However, it does leave books an essential task: making the arguments only books can contain. Arguments are the orderly discovery of truth, goodness, and beauty. Learning to love a good argument opens the minds a leader to new possibilities based on reason and orderly thinking. The alternative is (to paraphrase Mary Poppins) “disorder, chaos, in short you get a ghastly mess.”
Arguments do not mean meaningless disagreement, of course. A good argument moves from the known carefully through the unknown to new discoveries. An easy example of this process is found in natural science. Science will never be done in movies, but in print. Scientists will always be literate as a result. As science exercises great power in our culture, there is no place for leaders who will not read. Books require dialogue in a depth no other media can allow. The author speaks to us, but his message is heard in our minds. We create part of what he leaves hidden. Just as a comic book requires more imagination than a movie, since we must fill in the “action” between the frames of the comic, so a book requires more imagination still. Even the most descriptive writer leaves great scope for the imagination. Until the film, there must have been millions of images of Gandalf in the minds of readers of Lord of the Rings.
This use of the imagination is good for the mind. Books bring new friends. Only books can carry the messages of long lost civilizations to us. Whatever its merits as a medium, Plato did not have a way of making movies. To lose the ability to read well is to leave most of human wisdom as lost to us as Atlantis. God wrote a book. That fact alone has inspired thousands of Christians to give their lives to teaching others to read. If we love God, then we will love His book. Why would we want someone else to read it for us? Why would we want someone else to tell us what it means when we could unlock those precious truths for ourselves? The “post literate” Christian has turned over his theology to someone else. He could not possibly check the abuses of his leaders nor could he gain the joys of the text on his own. Both joys and sorrows will come from his masters who tell him what God’s word says.
Why would any Christian do this? Of course this raises the obvious question, “Why read a book other than the Holy Book?” I am tempted to say, “Well, you are reading these words now. The least you could do is use your down time to read Plato! But that is a flippant answer to a serious question.
First, other books open us to the possibility of our own error. Is Christianity true? The good Christian will explore this idea openly. If God is Truth, then He does not need to be defended by ignorance or fear of other ideas. Instead, we honor Him best when we explore the possibility that we are wrong about what He has said. I have found this process only deepens my faith and makes me more secure and not less.
Second, other books open us to deeper truths in God’s Word. Much of the cultural background to Scripture can only be learned by grasping the culture that formed the languages of the Bible. Of course this includes Greek and opens up the great works of classic civilizations as important to the believer. However, this is not all. Great minds often expose ideas that are found in Scripture by seeming chance. Each great writer contains the image of God in his soul. He writes as best he can and sometimes God gives Him a fragment of His great wisdom. Because this wisdom comes to us in a new and fresh language it often illuminates truths in Scripture that have become old to us or we have missed in a familiarity that should produce love but often breeds complacency.
Third, the Bible does not contain all truth, just all truth necessary for salvation. Much of good human life, appropriate human activity, is not the focus of the Bible. The Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation, but man is not merely a creature to be saved. He must also be civilized since he must live today in the cities of men and cannot live yet only in the City of God. Even in the garden which man tended, he had homely tasks (compared to his relationship with God) that are not the focus of Scripture. That homely wisdom about jobs, family, and the cosmos is the proper subject of our reading in other books.
Having said that, I can honestly say that the more I have learned to love and honor Plato, the greater my hunger for God’s Word. It shines greater by far in comparison. My love for my wife does not dim my love for God, just points the way to it. Even Republic could no more overshadow the Bible than a star could overshadow the rising Sun. For me, great books have only driven me deeper into a devotional and educational life centered in the Greatest Book. Avoid any education that claims to dispense with books. Shun any person who would have you read books about books, textbooks, before reading the great texts themselves. Bask in great ideas, beautiful words, and high culture. Why? Some Victorians, and even twentieth century Americans, believed the great books or noble words themselves had saving power. Culture could be saved by reading the great books. This was wrong, of course. A great pearl of truth does nothing for a swinish man, but condemn him. Only persons of character can benefit from texts. Those of us who want character bask in great books not because they save us but because it is a deeply human thing to do.
Books are little creations of men created in the image of God. Men who love the Word speak words. These words are not permanent in themselves like the True Word. Instead, they are written down and so given a form of eternity. In reading them, we share in the community of human beings acting as God made humans to act. We are sharing in naming, one of the first acts God gave man. Reading ignoble texts or base books mocks that calling. Reading the classics fulfills it. There is no real education without books.