By LeRoy Lawson
The time has come. Nearly 10 years ago I submitted my first “From My Bookshelf” manuscript, wondering with fear and trembling, Is this what the editor wants? Is it something Christian Standard readers will read? I like talking about books whether anyone is listening or not. Would you listen?
You did, and you kept on listening for almost a decade now. We haven’t always agreed, you and I, but ours were civil disagreements between friends. In today’s rancorous political climate, that civil friendship is to be treasured. I have enjoyed writing for you. Here’s why:
You made my reading more fun. For most of my adult life I’ve tried to read two or three books a week. The habit fed my speaking and teaching, but when I retired as the preaching minister of Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, the habit lost some of its savor. We read in solitude but it’s in the sharing of what’s read that enjoyment is found. “From My Bookshelf” gave me the opportunity to share again. It’s been fun.
You made me a more careful reader. Just knowing you would be reading the column every month made me pay attention. I didn’t expect you to look at most of the books I reviewed, of course, but in case you did, I had to be certain I hadn’t misled you. If you didn’t, that was OK too. You may be like a close friend who said he enjoyed the column “because after I read your column I don’t have to read the books.” He’s a real encourager.
You made me a more disciplined person. This column appeared every month, whether I was ready or not. If my manuscript wasn’t on the editor’s desk by the deadline, I disappointed him and let you down. So, I had to discipline myself, not to read but to write about what I read. Reading was the easy part. I have never liked writing. I like having written.
People regularly asked, “I’d like to read more, but I don’t have time to. How do you find time?” The answer was straightforward: “I don’t watch TV.” They changed the subject. In some classes, I used to require my students to do a personal time-study for two or three weeks. They were surprised to discover how many hours a day television held them captive (now the culprit would be social media, I suppose). No wonder they didn’t have time to read.
You encouraged me to explore a bigger world. When Editor Mark Taylor gave me the assignment, I hesitated. For a long time now, I’ve taken to heart S. I. Hayakawa’s maxim: “It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.” I like living many lives. That means, among other things, not limiting my reading to “safe” or approved Christian books.
Would the Christian Standard’s readership be interested in my forays into history, for example, and biographies, the sciences, the arts and other, sometimes quirky, fields? “That’s why we want you to do it,” he said. We share a belief that we should not limit ourselves to what people call “religious” literature. Most readers agreed.
We are in good company—you and I and the editor. Serious thinkers have often warned, “Beware of the person of one book.” The fact is that people who know only the Bible don’t really know the Bible.
Our movement has long decried the arbitrary division between “religious” and “secular,” between the priesthood and the laity. Separating “religious” books from all others is also misleading. The Bible that forms our worldview insists all truth is God’s, that facts are facts and truth is truth wherever we find it, whether presented by theologian or scientist or poet or historian or novelist. We can learn from all of them.
You have encouraged my ongoing self-discovery. These columns often surprised me. I often found myself writing things I didn’t know I knew, like the novelist E. M. Forster, who asked, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
I’m not a very introspective person. I do my best thinking out loud or on paper (or computer). Thoughts come into focus only as I express them to others. Knowing you’d be reading the column forced that focusing. I couldn’t get away with fuzzy thinking with you, and in writing to you I discovered me.
You have made me more grateful for the freedom we enjoy in Christ. The apostle Paul wrote in one of my favorite verses, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). It was because he learned to read, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln’s great contemporary, was able to escape slavery and become a powerful civil rights leader. “Once you learn to read,” he said, “you will be forever free.”
In the same way our reading frees us—if we let it—from the shackles of ignorance, prejudice, blind partisanship, and spiritual darkness. Reading carefully and widely doesn’t make one less opinionated, I confess, but better opinionated.
I must thank Mark Taylor. He has been true to his word. Many times during our years together he must have been tempted to say, “OK, Lawson, this time you stepped over the line.” But he never said it. Instead, he granted the freedom to roam wherever I wanted and to report what I learned, whether it conformed to the prevailing orthodoxy or not.
Others may have accused me of heresy, but he didn’t—or at least he didn’t fire me because of it. He subscribes to one of our cherished slogans: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things love.” Mark gave me the liberty our movement boasts about but doesn’t always grant.
Today I feel a little like Carol Burnett, who signed off her weekly show by singing, “I’m so glad we had this time together.” This is my song too. And looking back on these years together, I’ll be singing with Bob Hope, “Thanks for the memory.”
You’ll still be able to find me if you want. I’m that old guy over in the corner with his nose in a book. I won’t be reading just anything, though. At my age, there’s only time to read books that matter. Besides, I haven’t forgotten P. J. O’Rourke’s advice: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International. Keep track of the global meanderings of Roy and his wife, Joy, at www.lawsonsontheloose.net.