Reading for Life

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By Bishop Dr Robert Solomon

As Christians, we are the people of the Book. God has chosen to reveal Himself through His written word. It was no wonder that John Wesley considered himself to be the “man of one book.” He built his life on the basis of the Bible and on his relationship to Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, though he called himself a man of one book, Wesley was also a man of a thousand books. He was an avid reader, with a mind that was thirsty for true knowledge that led to holiness. Because of his own experience, he expected his Methodist preachers to read widely and deeply. To help them, he compiled together edited portions of Christian classics and devotionals into 50 volumes which he called “The Christian Library.”

This collection contained some of the ancient classics such as the epistles of the apostolic fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp) as well as the writing of several Puritans. While many of the early Methodist preachers were barbers, butchers, farmers, and tailors who doubled up as part-time lay preachers in the movement, Wesley nevertheless wanted them to read good books to ground their lives and ministries in good doctrine and sound knowledge. Wesley’s collection was not the easiest reading material but they were considered essential reading by Wesley for his ministers and leaders.

Wesley’s insistence on good reading material as well as good reading habits came from his own experience. As a young Anglican priest and as a member of his Holy Club at Oxford University, he drank deeply from the Bible as well as the classics such as Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, William Law’s A Serious Call to the Devout Life, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. This prepared him for his heart-warming Aldersgate experience in 1738.

Wesley was also greatly influenced by the writings of the church fathers. For example, he was deeply shaped by the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century church father, especially as it appeared in the form of the homilies of his Egyptian contemporary Macarius (whose writings were included in Wesley’s Christian library). It was this influence and his reading of other church fathers that contributed to Wesley’s development of his key practical doctrines of sanctification and Christian perfection.

In the decades following his formative years, God was going to use Wesley to bring about a revival movement in Britain, the United States, and in other places. But as Christian historian Chris Armstrong has said, “the wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past.” And John Wesley was living proof of that truth.

Wesley was a lifelong reader. He often read books on horseback as he travelled from place to place to oversee the exploding Methodist movement. Later, in old age, he travelled by carriage and had a book shelf in it to enable him to continue his reading habits.

Knowing the importance of reading good books (especially the classics), Wesley insisted that Methodists should be reading people. He established book rooms and wrote that “reading Christians are knowing Christians,” and that “the work of grace would die out in one generation if the Methodists were not a reading people.”  

What about us today, especially the ministers and readers? In his book The Art of Pastoring, David Hansen describes how he began his pastoral ministry in a church by looking at the study of his predecessor. That man had abandoned both the ministry and his books in the study. Hansen noted that the shelves were lined with books on the latest fads and ideas – a kaleidoscopic record of the rise and fall of popular theological and ministry fads and fashions. The predecessor’s library explained why he had finally given up the ministry. His foundations were thinly laid. Hansen reflected wisely that he would rather read a few pages of Karl Barth than book after book of popular and transient fare.

Obviously what we read is important. In a sense we are what we read. Wesley has left behind an example and heritage that is particularly relevant to us today, as we live in information overload. There is a need to discern between the wheat and the chaff. Take for instance blogs on the internet. There are some good ones but most are a sheer waste of time to read. It is better to spend the time reading some of the Christian classics. (If you want to know what some of these are, try Richard Foster’s Spiritual Classics and  Devotional Classics). Reading them would be like building your house carefully, stone by stone. When the winds blow, your house will stand. That’s how important good reading is.    

--Episcopal Letter (January 2006)