In 1 Timothy 4:13, we find Paul saying this: “Give attention to reading”. And in 2 Timothy 4:13, he says this: “Please bring with you … the books, especially the manuscripts.” So from the earliest days of the Christian faith we see the vital importance placed on books, reading and learning.
And it has been that way ever since. Much more recent Christians than the Apostle Paul have been saying the same sorts of things. Here are just a select few quotes:
“There never yet have been, nor are there now too many good books.” Martin Luther
“Reading Christians are growing Christians. When Christians cease to read, they cease to grow.” John Wesley
“Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.” Charles Spurgeon
The truth is, Christianity always stresses the importance of the mind. Indeed, it is impossible to not see how this is the case, given that Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is. His reply made it crystal clear: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-8 – all drawing from Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
In light of all this, it is interesting to see how great Christians approached books, reading and study. Many could be mentioned here, but let me focus on just two very famous examples: C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roger Scruton (1944-2020). I trust you know something at least about the former. But a quick write-up on each can be found here and here.
It should be evident that bibliophiles are more than happy to talk about books. And if you read the autobiographies of these two men, you will note that both have as their first chapters their love affair with books and how that came about.
Here I will simply let them state in their own words where and how their lifelong love of reading and books arose. As to Lewis, in his 1955 book Surprised By Joy, he says this very early on:
Both my parents, by the standards of that time and place, were bookish or “clever” people. My mother had been a promising mathematician in her youth and a B.A. of Queen’s College, Belfast, and before her death was able to start me both in French and Latin. She was a voracious reader of good novels, and I think the Merediths and Tolstoys which I have inherited were bought for her. My father’s tastes were quite different. He was fond of oratory and had himself spoken on political platforms in England as a young man; if he had had independent means he would certainly have aimed at a political career. In this, unless his sense of honour, which was fine to the point of being Quixotic, had made him unmanageable, he might well have succeeded, for he had many of the gifts once needed by a Parliamentarian–a fine presence, a resonant voice, great quickness of mind, eloquence, and memory. Trollope’s political novels were very dear to him; in following the career of Phineas Finn he was, as I now suppose, vicariously gratifying his own desires. He was fond of poetry provided it had elements of rhetoric or pathos, or both; I think Othello was his favourite Shakespearian play. He greatly enjoyed nearly all humorous authors, from Dickens to W. W. Jacobs, and was himself, almost without rival, the best raconteur I have ever heard; the best, that is, of his own type, the type that acts all the characters in turn with a free use of grimace, gesture, and pantomime. He was never happier than when closeted for an hour or so with one or two of my uncles exchanging “wheezes” (as anecdotes were oddly called in our family). What neither he nor my mother had the least taste for was that kind of literature to which my allegiance was given the moment I could choose books for myself. Neither had ever listened for the horns of elfland. There was no copy either of Keats or Shelley in the house, and the copy of Coleridge was never (to my knowledge) opened. If I am a romantic my parents bear no responsibility for it. Tennyson, indeed, my father liked, but it was the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Locksley Hall. I never heard from him of the Lotus Eaters or the Morte d’Arthur. My mother, I have been told, cared for no poetry at all.
Elsewhere in the book he tells us how important Christian authors like George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton were in helping him to leave his atheism and embrace Christianity. See more on this here.
And Scruton also speaks about his encounter with books in his 2005 volume, Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. His first chapter is titled “How I Discovered Books,” and in it, he writes:
Although my father was a teacher, books did not play a large part in our home. Those that could be found in the house were of a useful or improving kind: encyclopedias, the Bible, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, some gardening books, the Penguin Odyssey, and memoirs of the Second World War. By way of shielding herself from my father’s gloom, my mother dabbled a little in exotic religions, which meant that pamphlets by Indian gurus would from time to time occupy the front room table. But neither she nor my father had any conception of the book, as a hidden door in the scheme of things that opens into another world.
My first inkling of this experience came from Bunyan. The year was 1957. I was 13, a day boy at our next-door grammar school, where I learned to distinguish books into two kinds: on the syllabus; and off it. Pilgrim’s Progress must surely have been off the syllabus; nothing else can account for the astonishment with which I turned its pages. I was convalescing from flu, sitting in the garden on a fine spring day. A few yards to my left was our house—a plain whitewashed Edwardian box, part of a ribbon development that stretched along the main road from High Wycombe halfway to Amersham. To the right stood the neo-Georgian Grammar School with its frontage of lawn. Opposite was the ugly new housing estate that spoiled our view. I sat in a nondescript corner of post-war England; nothing could conceivably happen in such surroundings, except the things that happen anywhere: a bus passing, a dog barking, football on the wireless, shepherd’s pie for tea.
And then suddenly I was in a visionary landscape, where even the most ordinary things come dressed in astonishment. In Bunyan’s world words are not barriers or defenses, as they are in suburban England, but messages sent to the heart. They jump into you from the page, as though in answer to a summons. This, surely, is the sign of a great writer, that he speaks to you in your voice, by making his voice your own.
I did not put the book down until I had finished it. And for months afterwards I strode through our suburb side by side with Christian, my inner eye fixed on the Celestial City.
We could also discuss other book lovers, including Bunyan himself. Recall that his classic work was written while he was imprisoned, and it was not published till 1678. How many millions of people have been blessed by that great book? I have been greatly helped by Scruton who in turn was greatly helped by Bunyan who in turn was greatly helped by earlier writers.
Books and reading matter, and it is in good measure how the Christian faith is passed along from generation to generation. So let me encourage you to read Lewis and Scruton – if need be, for the very first time. And read Bunyan, and so many other wonderful Christian authors that God has used so greatly and blessed so many people with.