Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Escaping the Idolatry of Books

Considering that as a teenager I did not enjoy reading, and I struggled in literature classes, it’s somewhat surprising that I turned out to be a bibliophile. But I am. Libraries, bookstores, Amazon.com – I love them all! And I love scout and scrutinize their volumes of collected wisdom.
Love is a powerful and dangerous thing. God’s good gifts become insidious idols when grateful enjoyment of things mutates into devoted service to things. Knowledge is not exempt. It, too, can seduce us to worship.
I’ve often struggled with loving books too much and buying too many. This was especially challenging during seminary. The library hosted used books sales. The bookstore was truly a bookstore, with a book-merchandise ratio quite opposite most so-called “bookstores,” which carry a surplus of gifts and music and a small selection of books. (I’m distressed whenever I wind up in one!) The first shelf in the seminary bookstore displayed all the enticing new releases. The rest of the shelves were jam-packed with weighty tomes from every theological discipline. Each semester’s academic sale offered tables full of deeply discounted commentaries. And in the absence of a sale, the store usually rewarded my patronage by offering me the best deal they could. Needless to say, I visited often, invested a lot and built a terrific library.
I was rarely rash in buying. Money was tight, so I thought carefully about each purchase. I kept a prioritized list. I consulted annotated bibliographies. I planned long and hard before each academic sale, considering how to get the most bang for each buck on the most purposeful purchases. At times, it was consuming. Sometimes I literally lost sleep.
As a result, most of my buys were wise. A few were stupid. In the years since seminary, I’ve made a concerted effort to buy less and read more of what I already own, to fulfill the unspoken agreement I made with myself that I was buying these books to read! Prudent purchasing is hard with the plethora of new publications and the alluring recommendations of friends, bloggers and my personal Amazon page. (Just today, two “new for you” titles caught my eye!) In my effort to buy and read more wisely, I’ve refined the questions I subconsciously ask myself to guide my purchasing. I think the following are worth considering.
1.       How important is the book? I want to buy and read the best, most influential books, so I ask questions like these:
·         Is this a classic that has stood the test of time and proved its power to shape culture (Plato’s Republic)?
·         Is this book already, or will it likely become, a seminal work in my field (Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism)? Or does it significantly advance a discussion (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God)?
·         Does this book apply truth to current realities with wisdom, precision and passion (Willard, The Divine Conspiracy; Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor)?
·         Or, is this merely a distillation or re-expression of others’ ideas that adds little to the discussion (West, TOB for Beginners; Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation).[1]
I should read and consider purchasing books in the first three categories. Those in the fourth category are only valuable insofar as they present crucial and complex ideas with exceptional clarity or beauty, apply them in fresh ways, and/or make them accessible to a new audience (as do the two cited above). They may also summarize recent research. These books are useful when diving in, or introducing others, to a new subject (so they make good textbooks). But we must be careful to find the best ones and consider whether we need to own them.
2.       Will I return to this book? Various books suggest a negative answer:  insignificant books that catch my fancy while I’m browsing through a store; obscure (and often expensive academic) works meet a short-term need or popular books that are making a splash in the church or the broader culture (Brown, The Da Vinci Code; Young, The Shack; recent works by Malcom Gladwell). None of these need empty my wallet or fill my shelf. On the other hand, if it’s clearly tied to my research and teaching, it may be worth owning (C. Wright, The Mission of God).
3.       Is it smarter to borrow or buy this book? The answers to the first two questions suggest the answer to this third. If it’s not influential or enduring, or if it is expensive, borrowing may be the better bet. It was easy to borrow books in seminary, where my daily work was carried out in a world-class theological library, just steps from my home. It got harder when I moved, but I’m learning to think ahead and request titles from my local library. They haven’t yet turned down a suggestion for purchase! Their budget is bigger than mine. If they’ll buy the titles I want to read but not own, I’ll have more resources for the best books.
4.       When should I buy this book? If I’m not ready to read it today, I don’t need to buy it today. This is a tough principle to follow. Sometimes a great deal may override this rule, but a deal must not trump questions 1-3. A bargain won’t make a bad book better or give me any more time to read it. I bought many books in seminary with good intention to “read them eventually.” I’m working through the stacks, but some of the best deals I scored may never reach the top of my list. Unless it’s a classic, it may be outdated, updated or replaced by the time I get to it. The point is, I can make the most informed choice when I’m actually ready to read the book.
If we don’t prioritize, we’ll end up with shelves full of words rendered worthless through negligence.  A wealth of wisdom would sit silent. A wealth of money would be wasted. This would be tragic, considering Jesus’ call to stewardship and the poverty of many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. Recognizing the proclivity of our hearts to idolatry, let us not displace devotion to God with veneration of knowledge.

[1] Some people “Wright” books to summaries their own work; sometimes I’m guilty of buying these (Surprised by Hope) for the sake of expedience: I can read the digest to get the main ideas and read go back later to tackle the monster(s).


  1. Buddy...I couldn't agree more on this post! People like us need to think carefully before buying as opposed to renting. We'll have to keep each other accountable on this one...

  2. Yeah, Jeff, you were one of the first people to help me start thinking about this. Thanks for planting those seeds. It's tough to be disciplined, but the alternative is worse. Shalom.