Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Losing My Library

When I was nine years old I fractured three vertebrae in a fall, and I had to take it easy to allow them to heal properly. So that summer I read books. Lots of books. I remember reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on the lawn outside my house. I think that gave me respect for Twain’s unconventional views on religion later in life.

In seventh grade I struggled in Ancient History class. To keep from failing the class, the teacher said I could read books for extra credit. Each book earned me one extra point added to my grade average. I recall sitting for hours in our finished basement reading about the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East. That paved the way for my later interest in history. While in high school I worked in the school bookstore.

Books have always had an important place in my life. In college and seminary I surrounded myself with academic volumes. My dorm rooms and apartments were lined with bookshelves. Theological books played a major role during my spiritual search in college and while training to be pastor in seminary. I accumulated books - and bookshelves - while in ministry. In Pennsylvania our finished basement had wall-to-wall books.

My church office always held lots of books: biblical commentaries, theological tomes, and practical books on pastoral ministry. I was proud of my personal library. Books meant education, knowledge, expertise and wisdom to me. As a theologian I believed truth could be found in books, especially the “book of books,” the Bible (a word which simply means “book.”) I assumed truth was found in ideas, which were contained in books. My library felt like an extension of my brain. They were my memory.

When I moved back to New Hampshire in 2011 I left almost all my books in Pennsylvania. There was no room for them in our new home. My daughter and her family moved into our previous house, on the condition that I could store my extensive collection downstairs. I figured I could always have access to the books if I really needed them. Then one year water got into the basement. The moisture became mold. My prized theological library turned into mounds of mold. Thousands of dollars of books ended up in a dumpster.

Strangely I didn’t mind too much. By that time my attitude toward books had changed. I no longer depended on them. I still read books. These days I finish about two books a week, which means a hundred a year. I have been here in New Hampshire for twelve years. You can do the math. That doesn’t count all the books I purchased but never read. These books are not stored in bookshelves, but on my Kindle, where I can access them and search within them easily.

I learned something in the process of losing my library. I realized that truth is beyond books. At least spiritual truth is beyond books. Books contain knowledge, and knowledge is good. The trend in our nation to ban and censor books in school libraries is one of the surest signs that our culture is in decay. Without free access to uncensored books, facts are lost, ideologues win, and our culture will descend into a new Dark Ages.

As important as books are to a society, they do not contain the deepest spiritual truth. That type of truth can only we found by direct experience. At best spiritual truth can be pointed to by those who have found it. Books can only point obliquely to this Reality that is beyond words. 

Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. He pointed to it using parables, which are stories, metaphors and similes. Spiritual truth is not something you possess. It possesses you. It is not something you understand; you understand all things by it. It is like light, which was one of Jesus’ metaphors. You do not see light, but see things by light. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

Spiritual wisdom is alive and active. It is not passive, waiting for someone to take it off the shelf. For me the best books point beyond ideas to the Source of all ideas. These books point beyond books. I find such books to be timeless. They direct us to truths beyond religious traditions and norms. Usually these spiritual books are old books. I find that the best of these are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

Sometimes they are written more recently. For example I am presently reading a book that was written in 1939. That is ancient history to those generations who are identified by letters of the alphabet.  Yet these books feel timelier than books written this year. I am discovering – and rediscovering - ancient religious texts of East and West. These old books point to timeless truth that are as valuable today as they were centuries ago. These are the books I value most.

I still read new books for fun.  A lot of fiction: historical novels, adventure, sci-fi, thrillers and mysteries. Every day I read a portion of a spiritual book. Unlike fiction I go through these books slowly to savor them. I no longer feel the need to accumulate facts. I read to learn how to articulate truth that cannot be found in books, expressing old truths in new words. Knowledge changes daily in our fast-paced culture. Truth abides forever. Books grow moldy. Truth is as imperishable as gold. This spiritual gold is what I value most.

1 comment:

Kathy J said...

I always eagerly await your posts… thank you for investing the time to write them.
Kathy J