A liberal education does not consist in knowing the contents of a large number of books, or even in book learning as a whole. It consists in knowing those books which clarify one's own life experience, and which act as a true lever to his faith. When the light fell into Paul's heart from the face of Jesus at Damascus, that great scholar did not give up his reading, but he was far wiser after the word of God became to him a living oracle, and the range of his authors diminished while the dimensions of his reading increased.
"The books" which the aged and learned apostle wrote his young friend to bring him were few and great—evidently a small and select library which Paul kept close at hand during his famous journeys. At least Timothy seems to have experienced no difficulty in deciding upon the volumes requested. "Wear the old coat, buy the new book," was not an empty aphorism with Paul. In the chill of his cell he felt the need of his coat, and he hungered for the mental and spiritual food to be found in the parchments. He needed both and wanted both, "but especially the books"—always the sign of a scholar.
In books we have the richest treasures of the earth—the supersifted output of the best minds of all the ages. We value them not so much for what we see in them as for what we see through them. They begin where our problems begin, and show us the way over or around the difficulties on the path we must travel till we reach the place where the problems end. But we cannot know the power of a book, we cannot appreciate its charm or discover its secrets, unless we make its intimate acquaintance. To know it intimately we must get near to its heart. There is only one way to do this. We must read its message, reflect upon its sentiments, and meditate upon its philosophy. From a distance as we observe it in calm repose on a bookshelf or a table, we may sense something of its dominant character by the title or by its general appearance. But without reading it we cannot really know a good book or appreciate its worth any more than we can attain to an intimate and understanding friendship with a great man by merely seeing him pass by in a crowd.
We begin to know a book, or rather the man behind the book, as soon as we read his preface and the introduction. These tell us who he is, what he is, and why he has put his thoughts into book form. We learn more and more as we read the first chapters. His ideas and ideals, comments and intimations, open to us countless aisles leading our own thoughts into wider, richer fields, for a good author always suggests more than he says. And finally, when we have come to "the end," we have gathered into our reach a whole new section of the world.
North, east, south, west, our eye sweeps mile after mile of the vital, stupendous picture of life as seen by our mentor. Through his larger vision we look down, around about, and up. A hundred, five hundred more square miles of life's thought, vision, and experiences are at our feet. After he has explained it, all this acquisition, to all essential purposes, is as much ours as his. In a few hours of mental activity we have journeyed from the ordinary, familiar region of our own thoughts to a land that is far away and totally different. Our guide has quickly carried us to the pinnacles which he has scaled only after many hours, months, or years of patient, persistent effort. A magic carpet could not be more effective.
John Ruskin's definition of a sermon was "thirty minutes to wake the dead." Most sermons are prepared for oral delivery and sometimes lose much of their awakening quality unless the preacher has a trained voice and a magnetic personality to give added force to his thoughts. If he lacks these, there may be found in his sermons a trace of what Sydney Smith called "the sin against the Holy Ghost in the pulpit—dullness," for the personal equation counts in preaching, as in everything else. Nevertheless, there is comfort in the fact that much effective preaching is done by men without prepossessing personalities.
Such a man was Dr. J. H. Jowett, the news of whose death a few years ago sent a pang to the hearts of Christian men and women everywhere. There was nothing sensational in his ministry, but he was a prince among preachers and always preached to a churchful no matter how capacious the building. He lacked oratorical temperament, his pulpit methods were singularly quiet, and he made sparing use of gesture, but he was an intense student of Scripture and a wide reader of literature.
Doctor Jowett spent several hours each day buried in his books, living with the greatest preachers and thinkers of his time and earlier times. Himself keenly observant of the life of men in books and in the flesh, he drew audiences of the highest type. His greatest gift was preaching to preachers, and a census of the pews would always show that scores of ministers of all denominations were in his eager congregations. He held a pastorate in New York City for seven years, and during that time many thousands of people from all over America came to hear him and were strengthened for life's burdens by his consecrated insight and the universal appeal of his message.
His sermons were a tremendous stimulus to healthy, vigorous thinking, and no one could listen to them without experiencing a singular exaltation of spirit. To him every event and object was suggestive. Wherever his glance struck it ricocheted to something else. His eyes were like the poet's which see a poem hanging on the berry bush. What he found in books and saw in life was brought to his sermons in so captivating a way, and took and held such a clutch on one's attention, as only those can appreciate who have sat under the spell of a great preacher who knew how to touch common life and make it grow.
We are more and more convinced that this reading habit of the scholar has much more to do with really great preaching than does genius or magnetic personality. We commit this fervent judgment to cold type with no cautioning sense of overstatement, for we verily believe that the Sabbath sermon will always betray where and how the preacher has spent his week.
"That day is not lost which is spent in the hunt," says an old Arabian proverb, nor is any time lost for the gospel worker who spends some time each day with his books. Younger workers, especially, too often neglect this great source of creative ideas.
I like the reply William L. Stidger, of Boston University, when lecturing to a group of preachers in the Middle West. "I told that audience," says Doctor Stidger, "that I had read an average of a book a day during all of my ministry, which was true—and I still do. One old brother in that audience seemed to doubt it ; so, in the open forum which followed, he sarcastically yelped at me : 'Young fellow, you say that you read a book a day—which I doubt—but all I gotta say is that the average preacher hereabouts doesn't read a book a month.'"
The old preacher then sat down and acted as if he had settled something or other. Doctor Stidger made the humble and modest remark : "And, my brother, that is exactly why he would be the average preacher—or the average doctor, or the average lawyer—or the average anything in professional life."
The most ancient surviving portrait of Thomas a Kempis shows him in a cell with a book in his hand, and at his feet an open volume bearing an inscription, written partly in Latin and partly in Dutch, to this effect : "In all things have I sought rest, but nowhere have I found it save in a nook with a book." It was one of his favorite sayings, and as long as he lived he loved a book and a quiet corner.
Like Paul the apostle, a Kempis was a busy man, an inveterate worker in the ways that were open to him in his day. He was not only a noted preacher and teacher, but a laborious copyist and a writer of many books. He spent seventy years in a monastery away from the noise and stir which fill our modern lives, but even within his cloister walls he felt the need of the solitude of his cell and the companionship of his books. His watchword, "In a nook with a book," has drawn to him many companions and imitators, of whom I may be last and least, but I am one. For from strenuous toil, from social intercourse, and from journeyings constantly renewed, I always return with eager expectancy to the nook and the book, and they have not failed me yet.
The preacher's library is the preacher's workshop. His books are his tools, and proper tools are as essential to the success of the minister as to that of the craftsman. His efficiency depends a great deal upon the equipment he has in hand in his library and the use he makes of it. The craftsman finds it necessary to retool from time to time—to add to his equipment for greater productivity. As he grows in skill and acumen, his ideas demand a greater assortment of tools. As he uses these tools, the deepest-lying springs of his own life will be broadened, deepened, and enriched, and he will become something more than he was before.
The imperishable creative and recreative influence of the ministry of books on the preacher's life is set forth by Dr. Wallace H. Finch in these choice words:
"Did I say a preacher's books are his tools ? Let me change the figure. They are his daily bread ; they are sustenance for his heart, his mind, his spirit. Let me change the figure again : they are the source of his divine fire. Often he will come to them spent and exhausted, his torch gone out. They will kindle him again ; they will set him on fire. The smoldering spark he holds, under their contagion, will burst into flame.
"Let me change the figure again : they are his unfailing spring of refreshing waters. The sun of a pitiless publicity beats upon him. He is every man's servant. The streets he treads and the roads he travels are dry and hot ; they consume his moisture. His books are an unfailing spring of refreshing waters ; they slake his thirst, rest his weariness, invigorate and inspire him.
"Let me change the figure of speech once more : a preacher's books are his living, breathing, blessed companions. They will talk to him with companionable intimacy when he is lonely; chide him when he lags behind his best; banter him when he is thinking too much of his precious self ; laugh with him at the idiosyncrasies and oddities of the human crowd ; joust with him upon the mimic field of imagination, and sit with him in the cool of the day at the door of his tent like visiting angels."