Amazed at how much they’ve learned

There’s a well worn quotation – often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain – which goes along the lines of ‘by the age of seventeen I realised that my father knew nothing. By the age of twenty one I was amazed at how much he had learned’. Regardless of who coined this phrase, it carries a disarming amount of truth. Sometimes what we perceive to be a fault in someone else’s personality or perspective can, in fact, be owing to our own faulty ideas or habits.

This is true of our relationship to books as well. I came into pastoral ministry in my early twenties, and quickly wanted to read some of the ‘big’ texts of theology. Over and over again I would come face to face with a highly recommended author or title, only to feel disappointed that my expectations exceeded my enjoyment of the work or scholar. Perhaps they addressed issues that I didn’t see as being of primary importance, or perhaps their phrasing seemed excessively preoccupied with precision, or maybe the book was just plain boring.

Revisiting many of these authors some years later, I’m amazed at how much they have learned! That book which seemed to be taking its time over a seemingly insignificant detail was speaking into centuries of theological conversation which I hadn’t been privy to, that author who would choose arcane events or ideas as their focus could perhaps see a significance in the modern church which I was de-sensitised to, and that ‘boring’ book was just an honest attempt to deal with important things without a concern to be its own publicist or to pander to of-the-moment stylistic preferences. Coming back to these texts has been eye-opening to the pride and arrogance that can attend the act of reading, and perhaps speaks to the position of unearned authority in which my liberal arts education background had placed the reader.

Some books undoubtedly are irrelevant, naval-gazing exercises in boredom, but I have been humbled to see that sometimes the issue isn’t content, but end-user. Iain H. Murray has wisely said that God puts particular books into our hands at specific times for his purposes and this is undoubtedly true. God can also bring us back to books which we have abandoned in a cursory or fickle way, show us their worth, and humble our pride. So a hard lesson I’ve learned is to suspend judgement, to be more self-conscious, and acknowledge that some reads need me to be more mature to appreciate their vintage and benefit.

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