One of the joys, if we choose to call it that, of the turn of the year is the "books wot I red" lists that emanate from bloggers left, right and centre. Some of them are simply crass arrogance - the "I read bigger, better, harder, higher, or simply more books than you" approach, a bit like those posts that slide out before the holidays suggesting the thirty tomes that the great and the good will be knocking back in their five days by the seaside. Some of the lists are genuine attempts to encourage and direct others in their reading or the well-meaning surveys of those who read more rapidly, more widely or in a more disciplined way than the rest of us. Some are combined with, or set alongside, the ten or twenty or fifty books that every Christian should read. So, for example, "The twenty books published this year that I read that every other Christian should read."
But when you flick through a few of these, a pattern begins to emerge. Whether or not it's your year-end or all-time lists, most of the books are often fairly predictable. What's particularly disappointing is when the all-time lists include a significant majority of predictable authors from the same circles writing over the last ten years or so. I have seen a couple recently in which, having read the first five, I could have finished off the list for the chap in question, it being so clear the trajectory he was on.
I suspect that we are all prone to this (notice, I did not yet say guilty) to some degree. Most of us, either of necessity or habit or developed preference, have a measure of limit or focus to our reading at any particular time. If I am preparing a series of sermons, researching a particular person or period, or just enjoying something more than usual, my patterns of reading will reflect an element of concentration. Beyond that, we doubtless gravitate toward what we enjoy and profit from - reliable authors, favoured schools of thought, sweet places and stirring periods. That is fair enough, and understandable over time.
However, despite the Pavlovian salivation that occurs whenever anyone mentions the sainted Lewis, well-known for his critique of chronological snobbery in our reading, few seem to be taking him too seriously (whether or not they are confessed Lewis-slobberers). Indeed, the problem spreads beyond the temporal into the topical and the authorial and the geographical.
Too many of those lists show a narrowness and a shallowness that goes beyond the myopic and borders on the deliberately blind. Few contain anything more than a passing nod to anything too far outside the comfort zone. How will we ever test and assess and grow if we refuse to read anything that does not merely buttress or endorse our own preferred authors, preconceived notions, precious systems and protected memes? Some of these lists read like little more than exercises in how to pronounce 'shibboleth' properly.
I am not saying that we should indulge an appetite for pap or an itch for poison. Less mature readers usually need safer boundaries than more mature readers. But even the less mature could and should read beyond the hackneyed round of a few religious gurus. All should read those books which - without ever going outside the bounds of substantial orthodoxy - push us to think in ways we never otherwise would. Those starting out need to get into a groove, not drop into a pit. For most of us, it does us good to be stretched, challenged, engaged, taken out of our depth. If we are well-grounded in the faith, such a process can helpfully stir us, exercise us and ultimately strengthen us.
Take a few minor examples: you are a dyed-in-the-wool right wing reactionary of the sort who believes that the injunction to be subject to the governing authorities is somehow suspended in some way when speaking of and dealing with the Blairs and the Obamas of this world. Read a little Christopher Wright, and the first time you come up against his (let the reader understand) sentimental promotion of a left wing agenda of social (read socialist!) justice in the name of the Lord and Anglicanism you shy like a startled mustang. Fine, but once you calm down, you need to ask yourself where his notions and convictions come from, and go back to your Bible, and sieve his conclusions through the grid of Scripture, and assess and learn and argue. At worst, you have tested your own convictions against the convictions of another, and decided that - though you may have a little extra nuance - you see no particular need to shift your most fundamental anchor points. You might even wonder if you have been reading the Bible with one eye closed, and become determined to be more honest with Scripture and with yourself, even if you still can't see what Mr Wright sees. Or, you are a high Presbyterian who believes that Baptists cannot be considered covenantal theologians, let alone in any way Reformed, and so you insist on referring to them as Anabaptists and dreaming of the day when a properly established Christian state is once again free to persecute such. It might not hurt you to read through some of the material recovering, interacting with and rehearsing some of the seventeenth century material and its underlying convictions, so that in the future your invective is marginally less marred by ignorance. Or, you are a persuaded cessationist, steadfast in your proper conviction that the apostolic gifts ceased with the office of the apostles while still delighting in and relying upon the continued operations of the Holy Spirit. Fair enough, but what about reading your differing brothers at their most intelligent and reasonable, so that you can at least understand why they believe what they say, can see the differences between what is claimed to be the case and what usually happens when someone lays claim to such gifts, and can more thoughtfully and graciously expose the exegetical flaws and practical dangers of their position?
Whatever our particular anchor points, it often does no harm to consider why someone would drop their anchor some little distance from our own. If nothing else, it might get your blood flowing. Who knows, you might even learn something? Better still, we should be deliberately searching out those who have gone before us with reputations for genuine godliness and sacrificial service who shake us out of our crassly comfortable little ruts and make us wonder whether or not we have ever grasped the greatness and the glory of the Lord.
So, let us get outside our own century and our own circle. Let us have lists with a little of a patristic flavour, with a few of the best medievals, a dose of the Reformers, a shot of the Puritans and their successors, a fillip of the eighteenth century men, a snack on the best that the nineteenth has to offer, and a smattering of the twentieth, as well as the low-lying fruit of the twenty-first. Let the breeze of the centuries waft over your souls. Roam the world where the truth has taken root - let the theologians of Europe and Africa and Asia and Australia, and perhaps even America, expand your sense as they wrestle with and apply theology in a context utterly unlike your own. Are you more of a historian? Read some biblical theology! Systematics your thing? How about some missiology? Linguistics float your boat? Dive into a few more biographies. Love your new Calvinists? Read some old ones - get into the Puritans! More of a Genevan? Have a dig around in the Calvinistic Methodists. Stuck in the sentiment of the Victorians? Take a bracing dose of a scholarly Scot. Mired in the multiplied divisions of the Puritans? Shake yourself loose with a canter through the church fathers. Plodding through the Princetonians? Dive into the Particular Baptists. Drowning in the Particular Baptists? Get stuck into the English or Continental Reformers.
As you think about your reading for the coming year, might I suggest that you take up something, early on, that is very much not what you would incline toward. Sprinkle a little seasoning into your reading, slide something spicy into your bland book pile, and add a little zest to your nightstand. Range righteously but rigorously through time and space and opinion. And perhaps, next year, you will produce some truly refreshing 'best of' lists that - in addition to blessing your own soul - will introduce the rest of us to a wider and more spiritually stimulating world.