The Many Messages in a Book Collection

This post is about my book collection. It’s also about my religion. It’s also about who I was five years ago, who I was a year ago, and who I was yesterday.

I decided a few days ago that my book collection needed a “purge.” I didn’t decide to do this because of a sudden ideological shift or a major life event or anything dramatic.

I just hate clutter.

I hate clutter, and I so often have to live with it. I have two kids and a lot of paperwork. I live in a house that isn’t tiny, but would still be considered small by most standards. We have built or installed nearly every shelf that is in our house. It often seems like every space that we have is already occupied, and – like most Americans – the amount of stuff we have just keeps increasing.

As a lifelong lover of books – the kind that are written on paper and sold in stores – I have accumulated a LOT of that category of stuff. Every few years, I gently and lovingly go through my book collection and decide if I can stand to part with any of them. Typically, I will end up with a small stack of “discards” that make the journey to the Used Bookstore where old books go to live out their final days. The problem with this strategy is that I purge specifically so that I can BUY MORE BOOKS.

I finally surrendered to the digital revolution yesterday, and decided that most of my reading will be done on my e-reader. I decided that I will limit my ink and paper books to stories that are important enough to me to devote shelf space to.

I had no idea what kind of philosophical journey this purge would end up being. I didn’t think that reducing clutter in my life would become about what is important to me now as opposed to what was important to me a year or more ago.

You see, a year ago, I decided that I needed to “take a break” from going to church. This was not an unprecedented event: I have taken multiple “breaks” from church (or religion in general) in the past. This particular break, however, felt different than others had. The reasons for my breaks in the past had typically been emotional: something happened that made me question my faith or someone hurt me at church.

The break that I started a year ago was different. Nothing in particular happened that caused a question or a crisis. I can’t point to a specific belief or sermon that I took issue with. I just stopped.

I stopped wanting to go to church every Sunday. I stopped wanting to share my religious beliefs with people. I stopped wanting to consult the Bible every time I was confused about an issue. I stopped trying to mediate between my conscience and what my faith said about any given issue.

I stopped caring what happened in the Church, or what Christians were doing in the nation or the world. I stopped seeking to learn about the history of my faith or the deeper tenets or mysteries of my faith.

I didn’t realize all of this at the time. I just knew that I was tired one Sunday, that I didn’t want to go to church to hear more about how I was supposed to live in the world. And, I just kept being tired.

The realization came in part yesterday, and in part this morning.

Yesterday, as I was cleaning off my shelves and creating a discard pile, I realized that most of my religious books were making their way into the pile. The book that I bought about Scriptural hermeneutics a few years ago left my hands easily. The giant tome on the history of Jesus in America was gone before I even thought about it. All of the books exploring apologetics and deeper questions of faith left my shelves and my life with little to no remorse.

I ruminated on that yesterday evening because, as I told my son, what you display on your bookshelf says a great deal about who you are. It tells the people that enter your home not only what you read, but what you think is important for them to read. It invites conversations about why certain books are important to you. It invites the most wonderful question, “Do you mind if I borrow that book?”

For years, I kept dozens of religious books prominently displayed on my shelf. I wanted everyone who came to my home to know how important my faith was to me. No matter the questions or challenges that I had concerning my faith over the years, those books remained.

Until yesterday, when I decided that they no longer had a place in my life. Until yesterday, when I decided that the works of Arthur C. Clarke and J.R.R. Tolkein had more to say to me and to my guests than the works of Bart Ehrman, Phillip Yancey, or N.T. Wright.

(Of course, I kept some. I kept my C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship”, “Dark Night of the Soul” and Henri Nouwen. Those books speak to me on a level that goes beyond religion, and their books are so often treatises on how to live with despair and pain.)

This morning, Facebook gave me another reason to think on this, to consider why these books left my life. In its ongoing campaign to inflict me with permanent nostalgia, Facebook reminded me of a post that I made five years ago:

“This morning, I apologized to W (my elder son) for the past few weeks, in which I’ve selfishly valued my sleep over getting them breakfast at an earlier time. W responded, “It’s okay, Daddy. I love you just the way you are.”

So, I said, “You love like Jesus loves, W. You forgive like Jesus forgives.”

W replied, “I’m a follower of Jesus.” And, then B (younger son) chimed in, “We LOVE Jesus!”

Tears came to my eyes, and gratitude came to my heart. I’ve tried so hard since coming back to my faith to maintain a balance: to introduce my children to faith, without going down the road of brainwashing or indoctrination. They’re not experts on doctrine or theology. They’ve never been made to feel afraid or unworthy because of religion. They only know that Jesus loves and forgives us when we mess up, and that we want to do what He told us to do. And that simple faith is enough to cause a 6-year-old make a spontaneous profession.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them. For the Kingdom of God belongs to them.””

 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with teaching your kids about faith, especially when that faith is about kindness, generosity, compassion, and forgiveness. But, the zealousness of it disturbed me a little, particularly in light of how easily I rid myself of religious literature yesterday. It made me think on what has changed in my life over the past five years, the past year, the past few days.

Then, as though a ray of light from the heavens illuminated my mind, I came to a conclusion.

Religion has done all it can for me.

It’s not about renunciation or denunciation. It’s not about hating faith or being hurt by faith. It’s about moving through it and past it.

Five years ago, I was leaving almost nine years of military service. I was a year past a suicide attempt. I was hurt and confused and unsure of my place in the world.

Faith gave me the answers that I needed at the time. Faith helped me shape who I wanted to be after the Army.

Faith ensured that compassion became my highest value, that God or the Universe became about love and justice and doing what’s right no matter what it costs me.

Faith gave me the strength to teach those values to my children, to create an entire life around those values.

Now that my life is centered there, I don’t need the extra trappings of religious faith. I don’t need the mysteries of Genesis or the proper reading of Romans. I don’t need the songs and the prayers and the professions.

I don’t need all those books.

All the extras of religion will remain an important part of my memories, and they continue to be important to so many of my friends and family. I won’t mock it. I won’t belittle it.

But, I won’t argue with you anymore about whether or not the Bible approves of this or that. I won’t worry about whether this social issue or that person fits in with the “Christian” view of the world.

My criteria for living remains the same.

Is it compassionate?

Is it just?

Is it right?

I just no longer need to ask if the Bible or the Church approves.

But, thank you to all those who taught me about faith. Thank you to those who helped shape the language of my life. You remain important, just like those books – even if they’re no longer on my shelf.