The Importance of Books in Christian History

The Way We Understand the World

Books have been a critically important part of human life as far back as history records. Lately, new technology has changed the way people access information. You may have heard about this somewhere or other, but there is good reason to expect books will continue to play a central and indispensable role in the way we understand our world. And there are particular reasons to think their role in the church, forming us for Christlikeness, will continue as well.

Of course, to say books have been important “as far back as history records” is cheating a bit. History was never recorded at all until it was recorded in books! On the other hand, just think what that very fact tells us about the importance of books as a crucial medium for organizing and understanding information.

Joy for the World

Greg Forster

Offering an antidote to the church’s cultural irrelevance, this book helps us to cultivate and live out the joy of God as the key to having a transformative impact on the world.

When Job cried out in his anguish, one of the more memorable things he pleaded for was a book to carry his message on to future generations:

“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!

Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me –Job 19:23–27

These verses are familiar to many because of the famous passage where Job proclaims that his redeemer lives, and that he anticipates a resurrection of the dead (one of the clearest references to this in the Old Testament) that will unite him with his Savior. But notice also that Job doesn’t just make this declaration. He longs for it to be recorded in a book.

From ancient times, books have had a profound and mysterious power to move us. We find this in every culture and in every time period. It’s a power that other methods for organizing information don’t have.

Books Are Primary

And the importance of books for organizing and understanding information—as opposed to just having access to it—has not been displaced, even in our Internet age. Scholars, pastors and others whose jobs center on grasping “the big picture” in some field will often have conferences about books. They rarely write books about conferences. They write articles about books but they don’t write books about articles. The books are primary.

C. S. Lewis, in the epilogue to his masterpiece An Experiment in Criticism, asks: What are books for? He rejects the view, common among Christians, that the main goal of books is moral edification. It is not obvious that reading tales of great men who are brought to their doom by a thirst for revenge will actually help me become a more forgiving person, yet this fact does not make Homer’s Iliad or Shakespeare’s Hamlet a worthless waste of my time.

Lewis suggests that books allow us to see the world through other people’s eyes. Through a book I can view the world as someone else sees it—experience their view of the world “from the inside.” This is what gives books their profound and mysterious power.

Bridging Our Gaps

We each see the world through our own window. As creatures bearing the image of God, we are conscious of ourselves and of the world in a way animals aren’t. We think, we feel, we act with real agency.

We experience this consciousness of our world individually. But we are made for life together: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” So we spend an enormous amount of our lives straining to see the world through other people’s eyes, trying to see their worlds “from the inside.” And we mostly fail.

Books overcome the chasm between us more fully than anything else. I don’t know C.S. Lewis, I don’t know what it was like to know him. But I know what the world looks like to him—I know it better than I know how the world looks to the person who works in the office next to mine.

This is why books have always been essential to organizing and understanding information—to making a pile of information into something more than just information. Using other media, I could communicate to you all the information, simply as information, that’s inside Gene Edward Veith’s classic God at Work or Tom Nelson’s Work Matters. But you won’t know what the Christian vocation to our daily work really looks like to Veith or Nelson until you read their books.

Job wanted his words written in a book because he wanted that kind of unique power to share his vision of God as his redeemer. He didn’t just want to record his complaints. He said he longed for his words to be written in a book “for I know that my redeemer lives.” He wanted to invite all humanity to know God as their redeemer.

From ancient times, books have had a profound and mysterious power to move us.

Note that it’s a profoundly personal vision: “I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” This is a rebuke to pantheists who long for the annihilation of the self.

But the fulfillment of that individual vision is to share it with others, not hoard it for yourself. Job is pointing eschatologically toward the fulfillment of all things in the resurrection. The beatific vision of God in eternity is a collaborative experience. (We also see this in Revelation 21–22, for example.)

A Sneak Peek

And books are one of the ways in which Christians today get a sneak preview of the eternal blessedness that awaits us in that fulfillment. They allow us to enter into one another’s visions of God our redeemer.

But now I come to the profoundest point of all. The irony of Job’s line here is that he’s crying out for his words to be written in a book, and we’re reading it in a book! His words did end up being written in a book, even if he never knew it.

And not just any book.

Once we see that books have this profound and mysterious power to transform us by allowing us to see the world through others’ eyes, we gain a new perspective on the fact that God’s special and redemptive revelation of himself and his work comes to his people through books.

When we read the Bible we are getting to see the world through the eyes of the human authors like Paul and Moses, for example. But also, thanks to the inspirational work of the Holy Spirit, in a creaturely way we are getting to see the world through God’s eyes.

A Tool for Transformation

Obviously we know that the Holy Spirit is at work supernaturally in our hearts as well. The Bible is not some kind of occult magical item. But once we appreciate that books have been central to the organization of human thought and culture throughout history, and that they do this because they have a profound and mysterious power to allow us to enter into the lives of others “from the inside,” I think we get a fresh perspective on the occasion and mode of the Spirit’s work in using the Bible to transform God’s people.

And I don’t think God looked at us and said, “Hmm, how shall I reveal myself to these humans? They seem to really be affected by books, I’ll use that.” No, God made us from the beginning with all his ends in mind.

The shoe is on the other foot. Books have had this profound and mysterious power over us through all history because God made us to respond to books in this way. He built this power of books into our nature, knowing that he was going to use that power for his redemptive purposes.

And of course once we are transformed by God’s books, we get our own personal, individual visions of God as our redeemer. Like Job, we’re moved to share this redemptive vision with the world: “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! For I know that my redeemer lives.”

Which is why Christian publishers don’t just publish Bibles, but other books as well. And those of us who write books are very thankful for that!

Obviously God uses many different means to build up the church. I’m not slighting or snubbing any of the other means God uses. But books have always been, at every stage of church history, one very important means God uses to build up the church.

It is a means that, humanly speaking, we really couldn’t do without. Where would we be today without Irenaeus’s Against Heresies? Without Augustine’s On the Trinity and City of God? Without Anselm’s Why the God-Man? Or Aquinas’s two summas? Without the books of Luther, Calvin and Wesley? For that matter, where would we be without Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship or the whole library of C. S. Lewis?

Books have a power that nothing else has. So whatever changes may come in the technology people use to access information, or the business model of publishing, books will continue to carry forward a vital role in the building up of God’s people.

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