This week I read an article by a Bulgarian missionary in a small-circulation magazine that gave me a renewed appreciation for the Christian classics and the culture of reading. According to the article, this missionary and his team have devoted years of their lives and substantial financial resources to translating (so far) over 30,000 pages of Christian works into the Bulgarian language.
He stated that he sometimes has difficulty justifying this effort to American Christians from whom he requests financial support. In one telling conversation, a man told him that all Bulgaria needed was church buildings and preachers to evangelize. In his mind, “having a church was way more important than having good books on the market.” Ironically, the conversation was taking place in the biblio-skeptic’s library of several thousand titles! The missionary replied that since books weren’t all that important, the man wouldn’t mind if the missionary took all those books back to Bulgaria with him. At that point, the skeptic changed his tune.
The article went on to describe the problems familiar to most of us who have had some experience with mission efforts: superficial conversions, perpetual intellectual dependency on the missionary’s home country, churches that disintegrate after a few years. It laid some of the blame for those problems on the absence in those cultures of good books, which are taken for granted by Americans: “They are just part of reality, like Wal-mart and swimming pools in the suburbs. They are available everywhere, cheap to get, and you can even find quite a few of them at the local library. America is blessed in having every good book ever written in the world translated into English and readily available.”
Why did Christians in the church’s early centuries devote so many resources to the production and copying of books, when literacy was far lower than it is today, and to produce even one book might take a man months or an entire year of painstaking copying by hand? Why, they could have funded so many more missionaries without wasting those resources! Of course, the church did both: sent out missionaries and produced books, for they saw the potential of books to last longer and have potential for more influence than we often credit today.
Culture and civilization are the products of actions people take based on the ideas they hold, and they get their ideas either from books or from other people who have read books. The Bulgarian missionary writes, ” Take away the books of a civilization, and you will destroy that civilization.” Western civilization still has the books that have shaped it over the centuries, but today they are largely unread, removed from school curricula and ignored by most of those who have the opportunity to influence others. Into their place we have substituted many inferior things, but there’s no reason why each one of us can’t rise above the low intellectual and moral expectations placed on us by our culture.
The late Ray Muncy, professor of history at Harding University, used to kick off his Western Civilization class each semester by telling his students that their first assignment was to read one book every week during the semester, and then to continue doing that for the rest of their lives. If all the people who considered themselves educated would actually do that, we would see revolutionary changes in our culture. So which book are you going to read this week?