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Take Up and Read!

How many pastors today have to acknowledge that their people are not readers of good books? In the same way as there is not a great desire for sound preaching, so likewise there is not a hunger for good books. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when congregations seemed eager to have bookstalls, and publishers readily complied. It was not unusual even to see a queue forming when a new title reached a Christian bookshop.

What has gone wrong? The spiritual appetite seems to have been lost. Judging by the front window displays in many Christian Bookshops the literature in popular demand is of a very light character. We are also living in a visual age. The overhead is taking over in our churches. Items of praise and Scripture passages are projected on to a screen in front of us. Bibles are being set aside. The ‘download’ is being used more and more. It is a rare sight to see a Christian home with a bookshelf of Christian classics.

Books: the testimony of history

We have only to look back in history to see the place that books have played in the progress of the Christian Church.

There are many instances of books being used in the conversion of sinners, who then became mighty instruments in God’s hands. There is one oft-quoted chain of effect in this area. The ‘heavenly’ Richard Sibbes produced The Bruised Reed in 1630 and it was used in the conversion of Richard Baxter. The ‘saintly’ Baxter wrote A Call to the Unconverted (1657). Many years later, the book was blessed to the conversion of Philip Doddridge. His Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745) was used to bring light into the soul of William Wilberforce. Then years later Wilberforce’s Practical View of Christianity (1797) helped to bring from death into light and life the soul of the ‘Moderate’ churchman, Thomas Chalmers, who became the instrument under God of the Revival of 1839-42. We could also think of Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man being the means of the conversion of George Whitefield.

There are also instances of books that have had an influence in producing a new era in spiritual life. At the time of the first Awakening in New England, Jonathan Edwards gave an account of it in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737). Iain Murray notes: “Edwards’s Faithful Narrative was possibly the most significant book to precede the great evangelical Awakening on both sides of the Atlantic.” We have also to think of the effect that Edwards’s An Humble Attempt to Promote Extraordinary Prayer had on the Baptists in England and the subsequent rise of the worldwide missionary movement. Dr John Macleod gives an interesting example of the power of a book when he tells us of what happened in Kilbrandon (Argyll). The minister, Rev John Smith, was invited by Lady Glenorchy to translate Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted into Gaelic. “As he advanced with the work he used what he translated as pulpit matter, and when the people of Kilbrandon came thus in touch with the bones of the Puritan prophet, an awakening began, the memory of which has not yet passed away.”

We could also recall the way in which good books shaped generations of Christians in, for example, Puritan England and Presbyterian Scotland. Family religion encompassed regular family worship, the keeping of the Sabbath and the reading of good books. Most Christian homes would have a shelf or more of books some of which were “thumbed out of existence”. There were the classic writings of such men as Rutherford, Guthrie, Bunyan, Boston, Brown, Henry, M’Cheyne and Spurgeon. The books would be passed on through the generations. Of Boston’s Fourfold State it could be said, “It did more to mould the thought of a generation than anything except the Westminster Shorter Catechism.” The farm labourer had more knowledge of Scripture and a greater grasp of doctrine than many a learned scholar.

A hunger for reading

The effect of a renewed hunger for reading would do much to rectify some of the failings of modern evangelicalism:

1) Ignorance of doctrine, “children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4.14). In the words of Dr Robert Reymond, “a theological illiteracy which invites the rise of wholesale heresy pervades the Church.” The great lack of discernment, even in leaders in the Church, is alarming.

2) Lack of depth in Christian experience, “even as unto babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3.1). We have an anaemic version of faith that signs up to the benefits purchased by Christ with no evidence of a radical change in relationship and lifestyle.

3) Neglect of Church history, “There arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2.10). Many modern evangelicals think that evangelism began with Moody and that the blessings of Pentecost were discovered in the 20th century!

The love and promotion of good books could provide an antidote to these ills.

1) The Reformers knew that ignorance, not learning, was the breeding ground for heresy and superstition. Luther, Calvin and Knox flooded the market with instruction in the Christian faith. They saw the need for producing catechisms, confessions and manuals of doctrine. A solid foundation was laid in the minds of the young. How desperately our generation stands in need of that foundation!

2) The more genuine and deep the conversion experience the more likely our people are to go back to the books that came out of ‘white hot’ soul experience and have an unction attending them. George Whitefield, writing of the Puritans, said: “Though dead, by their writings they yet speak, a peculiar unction attends them to this hour, and for these thirty years past I have remarked, that the more true and vital religion hath revived either at home or abroad, the more the good old Puritanical writings have been called for”. A modern preacher presents a vivid picture of it: “As furnaces burn with ancient coal and not with leaves that fall from today’s trees so my heart is kindled with the fiery substance I find in the old Scripture-steeped sermons of Puritan pastors.”

3) It is by reading the histories and biographies of the great eras of the Christian Church that we come to be convicted of what we are lacking in our day, individually and corporately. It gives the longing in our hearts to identify with the spirit of those days and to recapture that. C H Spurgeon speaks of his discovery of Puritan classics in the room in the old manse at Stambourne. “Out of that darkened room I fetched those old authors when I was yet a youth, and never was I happier than when in their company.” Happily they had the effect of producing a God-centred, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered ministry, the effects of which continue to this day.

May we respond with Augustine to the voice which cried, “Take up and read”!