Leaders are Readers

This is an article about reading. If you don’t like reading, you will not likely enjoy this piece. Then again, if you don’t like reading, you are probably nowhere near this article in the first place! So for those of you who are still with me, let me make the case for the importance of reading.

First a few quotes to whet your appetite, and to introduce a bit of levity into the discussion:

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” (Groucho Marx)

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” (Erasmus)

And a number of more serious quotes can be added here. Somerset Maugham spoke of his addiction to reading: “Like the dope fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm, I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter.”

Harold J. Ockenga, who took a suitcase full of books on his honeymoon, said this: “Read to fill the wells of inspiration.” The Apostle Paul of course could tell us to “give attendance to reading” (1 Tim. 4:13). And he could plead with Timothy, “Please bring with you … the books, especially the manuscripts.” (2 Tim. 4:13, Phillips)

And of course the writer of Ecclesiastes could offer this bit of advice – and warning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecc. 12:12).

Reading is a vastly important aspect of developing the Christian life. Read any good biography of some past man or woman of God, and more often than not you will find that they were voracious readers. Many of the saints of old had large libraries. The value of reading cannot be overestimated.

Sanders on Reading

J. Oswald Sanders knew about the importance of reading. The New Zealand-born man of God (1902 – 1992) was for many years director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and was an elder statesman of the faith. He wrote over forty books on various Christian themes.

In 1967 he wrote the now classic volume, Spiritual Leadership (Moody Press). I picked up this volume in Chicago a few years after my conversion to Christianity. In fact, I purchased it on November 5, 1974 in River Forest, Illinois, to be exact!

(I always record the place and date of my book purchases, along with my name, in the inside front page. Once when living in Holland as a missionary, I read through the masterful 8-volume History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff. Somewhere there he mentions how one great leader of the past (a Reformer, or a Puritan, I forget which) had the exact same practice. ‘I am in good company,’ I thought at the time.)

Anyway, I digress. The book by Sanders should be read by all believers. It deals with the vital need, calling, and qualification of Christian leadership. Thus he speaks about the spiritual leader and his time, his prayer life, his character, and so on.

But of interest is chapter 12: “The Leader and His Reading.” This ten-page chapter contains a lot of insights and spiritual firepower regarding the necessity of reading. He writes, “The man who desires to grow spiritually and intellectually will be constantly at his books.”

He mentions as an example John Wesley who “had a passion for reading, and most of it was done on horseback”. Sanders continues, “He read deeply and on a wide range of subjects. It was his habit to travel with a volume of science or history or medicine propped on the pommel of his saddle, and in that way he got through thousands of volumes.”

He notes that next to the Greek New Testament, three volumes especially fed Wesley’s soul: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis; Holy Living and Dying by Jeremy Taylor; and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law.

What Sanders says next is a real eye-opener: “He told the younger ministers of the Wesleyan societies either to read or get out of the ministry.” Sounds like pretty good advice for today as well. He goes on to say:

“The determination to spend a minimum of half an hour a day in reading worthwhile books which provide food for the soul and further mental and spiritual development will prove richly rewarding to those who have been inclined to limit their reading to predigested or superficial books.”

Sanders then offers five reasons why leaders should read: for spiritual quickening; for mental stimulation; for cultivation of style; for the acquiring of information; and to have fellowship with great minds. He offers this bit of advice from Spurgeon:

“Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analysis of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be, ‘much, not many’.”

He concludes by referring to an Australian rural minister he knew who was a great lover of books. Says Sanders, “Early in his ministry he decided that he would aim at developing a biblically and theologically literate congregation. He succeeded in conveying to members of his church his own love of books, and introduced them gradually to spiritual works of increasing weight and depth. The result is that in that district a number of farmers have accumulated libraries that would be no disgrace to a minister of the gospel.”

Wow! Would that this was the situation found in pastorates today. As Sanders remarks, “Today, the practice of reading solid and rewarding spiritual and classical literature is seriously on the wane.” He reminds us that we have more leisure time now than ever before, so we are without excuse for this serious deficiency.

In sum, we must get on with a serious course of reading. We need to become lovers of books, and lovers of ideas. Not as an end in itself, but to further deepen us so that we might further extend the Kingdom. Chesterton once said that “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Can I suggest that a Christian who is averse to reading will likely be a shallow and less than effective follower of Jesus Christ?

[1143 words]

19 Replies to “Leaders are Readers”

  1. Thanks John

    It depends on what you mean by “like”. I must confess that although I read a lot, my reading is almost all non-fiction – little fiction and almost no poetry I am afraid. So I am far from a complete reader in that sense. Anything else you want to catch me out on!?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  2. Most of my reading is non-fiction, too. As for Herbert, do find a little time for him. He’s worth it.

    You were a missionary in Holland. That sounds appropriate. The place needs reforming. My wife’s family were Swiss missionaries in Africa. Her aunt gave the young Kenneth Kaunda Bible lessons. When he became president (and dictator) he declared himself a Humanist.

    On the subject of reading, the catalogue of Eighth Day Books is a goldmine of Christian books, all the way from the Church Fathers to Dorothy Day. Even the catalogue notes are worth reading.

    John Snowden

  3. Hi Bill
    Since I read your blog, I am very impressed by all the books you read… I am very far from being able to read that much and I would be so happy to increase my capacity of reading. Can you give me a few advices of how to manage a pastoral schedule and reading and how to go through a book ?

    Thank you and God bless you,
    Pascal Denault, Quebec

  4. Bill, you wrote:
    “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading.”

    Truer words n’er spoken my friend. I suppose the trick is knowing which books to really repeatedly dig into, and which ones to just read once and have a passing familiarilty with?!

    I can’t imagine myself reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason 20 times … I’d end up in the nuthouse!

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  5. Thanks Steve

    Hey reading Kant just once can certainly send one to the funny farm. You are to be congratulated for reading through not only him but other authors that most mere mortals would never dare to touch.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Dear Bill, You have done a great service to God’s people in advocating the studious reading of great Bible classics.

    You did well to select J. Oswald Sanders as an example of a godly scholar who cherished devotion to our Lord, seen in the cherished writings. A regular visitor to our home, he agreed to speak to the young people. When he saw about 100 gathered for the study, and their potential for Christ, he called me to examine his notes. “I will speak of Joseph and the sexual temptation. Which one shall I give?” He had 4 separate studies prepared meticulously on this chapter. 40 years have passed – yet the impact of that truth remains. Few face the dilemma of erudite notes.

    He gently nursed his beloved wife during her fight with cancer. He continued to write while tenderly helping her through that ordeal. Bible scholarship and holiness wedded.

    Harrold Steward

  7. Stephen Frost, it can pay to read a book repeatedly. Overlearn the basics and build on that. As for Kant, you have to judge if it will be worthwhile considering the time and effort. My solution in philosophy was to read the numerous short essays in the philosophy journals and, even better, the cream of the essays in the numerous philosophy collections such as “Readings in Philosophical Analysis” edited by Feigl and Sellars.
    John Snowden

  8. Many thanks Harold

    I was wondering if anyone happens to know who the Australian rural pastor was that Sanders referred to. Would you know Harold? In fact, would it happen to be you he was referring to? Just a guess.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Thanks John

    The Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Paul Edwards (8 volumes in 4) is still an invaluable and classic resource in this area. It serves as a great introduction to all the main philosophers and philosophical themes. Probably the most thorough Christian volume is Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by Moreland and Craig (IVP, 2003). But of course reading the actual philosophers, backed up by such introductions, is also of great value. But like Stephen, I too have not ventured back into Kant or Hegel or some others for a second time!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Greetings Bill in His revered name.
    No, I am not the rural pastor. Our son John suggested the following:

    -Bill Pomery, a three-time Mayor of Naracoorte, fearless contender for faith in Christ and an elder.
    -Deane Metheringham, Coromandel Valley Uniting Church, faithful bible teacher.
    -Geoffrey Bingham, New Creation, author of numerous books, has own printing press, weekly lectures for many pastors, Changi man, devout, suffered much for our Lord.
    -Reg Wright, Pastor South Perth, 4 hours daily study, spiritual father to Gwenda and me.

    Bill I practised medicine as family medicine, 7 children – one in glory. My dear wife -now limited – carried me through. Bible teaching is my special purpose in life. Website reaching nations. Christ my theme.

    Bill your writing is Christocentric. Precious in His eyes. Drawing sap from the True vine.

    PS, spent days at CLTC PNG teaching Word with him after His wife called to glory. Oswald Sanders finished has 50th book, while fighting a gastric ca.

    Harrold Steward

  11. @John and @Bill,
    Yes, I’m a subscriber to Faith and Philosophy journal, and I also do read summaries such as Yandell’s Philosophy of Religion. I’ve read Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview which Bill mentions above (I read it on his advice initially). But there’s nothing like trying to stretch and get to grips with the authors themselves. On the shopping list at the moment is Great Books of the Western World which is a 60-volume extravaganza of philosophy and theology (Plato through to Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Nietsche, et al). Rock on Christmas!
    Stephen Frost, Melbourne.

  12. I picked up a stray single volume of that encyclopaedia years ago. That might explain why there’s a gap in my knowledge outside “Psychology to Zubiri”. I recall Paul Edwards used to write for Humanist journals decades ago. He also wrote a famous debunking of Heidegger. And he was a friend and defender of Russell.
    John Snowden

  13. Thanks John

    Hey, at least that means you should be an expert on Pythagoras, Rousseau, Spinoza, Thomas Aquinas, Voltaire, Wittgenstein, and Zeno, to name a few!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. James Denney’s ‘The Death of Christ’ is a gold mine. When we come to faith in Christ, it is largely based on the acceptance of Christ’s death. However, when you read Denney, you realise just how little of Christ’s death you understood when you actually accepted it. This was the book that told me that God had called me before I called to Him. It has taken me the last 30 years to just scrape the surface and begin to understand anything of the significance of that death.
    Kerry Letheby

  15. Thanks Kerry

    Yes it is the greatest of themes to always reflect upon and be transformed by, and his is a very great book. I will have to dig out my copy, blow off the dust, and give it another read.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Thanks for the encouragement Bill. I like Sander’s five reasons – I hadn’t thought about it like that before. Especially fellowship with the greats! (For that matter, reading the Bible is an even greater honour!) And half an hour a day is definitely achievable, even for a mum with 4 young kids like me. And who knows the harvest that can be reaped from the ideas/challenges one receives each day, year after year. Worth the investment!
    Kirsten Jack

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *