August 20, 2014

Read Any Good Books Lately?

Stephen Nichols
Read Any Good Books Lately?


In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul writes: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments." We essentially have the voicing of the needs of a tired, old man. The evenings are growing chillier and he needs his cloak, and for once in his very busy life, he finds himself with time on his hands.

What we are truly seeing here is what matters most to Paul. As John Calvin says, commenting on this verse: "The apostle had not given up reading though he was already preparing for death." So Paul wants his books, and he especially wants his parchments.

Much effort has been expended in trying to identify these books and parchments. Most assume the parchments to be Scripture, as Paul asks for these "above all."

As for the books, that's another story. Were they Plato? Aristotle? Rhetoric, perhaps? Or Logic? Or Nicomachean Ethics? Maybe there was a history, perhaps Paul's well-thumbed-through Thucydides. Maybe one of the books was Agabus; Paul liked to quote that poet, and he quoted him while he was on Mars Hill in Athens. We forget sometimes that Paul was a scholar.

Books lay out for us the whole breadth of the human condition, reflect the best of man’s creative work as God’s image-bearer, and point out our need for a Savior, to the glory of God

Whatever the identity of the books and the parchments, we do know something for certain about Paul: he loved to read. This concept may be somewhat foreign to us, as reading has fallen on hard times in our technologized culture—entertainment, preferably the visual kind, is in. What Neil Postman said two decades ago is probably all the more true in our day: "We have amused ourselves to death, we have anesthetized ourselves to where we are comfortably numb. Fahrenheit 451 is, I'm afraid, off the mark. There's really no need to burn books. People aren't reading them anyway."

But what happens when we read? I can tell you a little bit about what's happened to me by reading books, especially good old books. I've read Berkouwer's The Providence of God and Jonathan Edwards' The History of the Work of Redemption, and since reading those books, I've never thought about God and what He's doing in the world in the same way. I've read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship, and his letters from cell 10 at Tegel prison, and I've been made aware that I have only a faint idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century.

I've read Flannery O' Connor, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and as I've read them I've been entertained and I've even been shocked. I've even been brought to repentance when I've been touched by their unveiling of the rich texture of humanity.

I've allowed the Prince of Denmark to remind me how stale and flat and unprofitable all the promises of life under the sun seem. I've read the tale of Lady Macbeth and of how ambition can breed in the dark chambers of the human heart and produce the offspring hatred and evil. I've learned of the emptiness of what so many value and think to be so worthwhile.

I've read John Milton, who laments the great loss of what was ours as Adam and Eve leave the garden. I've listened in as Milton has them waste away the hours in endless bickering, before Milton then takes Adam's arm and places it around Eve, and puts these words in his mouth: "But rise, let us no more contend, nor blame each other, blam'd enough elsewhere, but strive in offices of Love, how we may light'n each others burden in our share of woe." I've read Emily Dickinson the playful and poignant poet: "I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you—Nobody—too?"

And I've read the parchments by Paul himself, where he tells us: "Finally . . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8). Books help us do that. They lay out for us the whole breadth of the human condition, reflect the best of man's creative work as God's image-bearer, and point out our need for a Savior, to the glory of God.