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The book and the vine

One of the more fascinating books I read last year had the ironic title The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book. It was a book seeking to persuade me that books are history.

The author, Sherman Young, ran the provocative thesis that a ‘book’ was not the outer form—the method of delivery, the ink and the paper and the cardboard; a book was the inner life and story and argument that the marks on the page conveyed. A ‘book’, in this sense, was a sustained engagement by the author with the reader in which something of the author’s mind or intentions were conveyed.

In this sense, he argued, many of the paper-and-cardboard artefacts we call ‘books’ are not really books at all! They have no argument, no life and very little mind associated with them. According to Young, the proliferation of these non- or ‘anti-books’, fuelled by the economics of modern publishing, was a far greater prob­lem and threat to the future of ‘books’ than the Kindle, the e-book and the digital revolution.

In fact, the new possibilities of distribution opened up by ‘e-books’ offered hope that real ‘books’ might actually live on and prosper, although in a different form of delivery.

Now whether Sherman Young is right about the future of publishing, who knows? But his thoughts on what made books special and valuable struck a chord with me. A good book (whether it’s fiction or non-fiction) attempts things and achieves things that no other medium can. A book draws us into a sustained piece of imagination, thought or argument. It’s a mind-meld between the author and the reader.

Christians have always recognized this, and have always been at the forefront of literacy—not least because we want everyone to read the Best Book to Read.

Books offer unique possibilities for plant­­ing and watering—for applying God’s word to people’s lives in a deep and life-changing way. Christians have also had a history of using books as a medium for evangelism, Christian growth and discipleship.

Well, until recently, anyway. I have absolutely no statistical evidence to back up this claim, but I make it unashamedly all the same: the use of books as a tool for Christian growth and discipleship has markedly declined over the past 20 years.

Notice that I am not claiming that Christians don’t read any more. We do. It’s just that we tend to read websites, blogs, Facebook updates, and magazine articles (like this one!), rather than books. And apparently we listen to lots of American online sermons.

In any case, the idea that we would address a problem or make gospel progress with a friend by giving them a book seems to be on the wane. I just don’t see it happening nearly as much as I used to in the 80s.

This is, no doubt, due to many different factors, but one of them is the problem Col Marshall and I discuss in The Trellis and the Vine: when the ‘trellis’ starts to take over and Christian congregations are dominated by events, programs and structures, ‘people work’ tends to suffer. We don’t stop and pay attention to individuals and what they need next in their growth. And so we don’t stop to consider what book we might give our friend to help them make progress in the Lord.

With my Matthias Media hat on, let me say that this is our whole reason for existing. We want to publish books (among other things) that Christians can use as tools and resources for growing the vine.

So have you got a non-Christian friend you want to share the gospel with? Give him John Dickson’s classic presentation of the gospel, Simply Christianity: A modern guide to the ancient faith.

Have a Christian friend who is newish to the faith or is struggling to put his Christian life together? Recommend he reads Right Side Up by Paul Grimmond.

Know someone who is struggling to work out where they’re going in life, or battling to make a tough decision? Put a copy of Guidance and the Voice of God in their hands.

Think your minister is working himself into the ground and needs some encouragement? See if he has read Peter Brain’s incredibly useful book Going the Distance, and if he hasn’t, buy it for him.

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