Age 13, Buying a metal album of my (then) favourite band The Lost Prophets (much to my parents’ displeasure)?
Age 16, Sitting in the school changing rooms for a full period, having said to the teacher we were off playing with a school sports team?
Age 18, trying to out-sell an uncopyrighted product that my schoolmates had worked for months to make?
Yes, I’ve had quite a sheltered childhood. While one teenager who attended my church youth group was off killing someone in the local area, others were trying drugs. While many friends had rebelled with alcohol, wild hair colour, skipping school, or abandoning their conservative upbringing, I was happily enjoying a quiet life. But there was still one thing I was told I was being rebellious in….
I did. not. read. books!
And before you roll your eyes too much, let me put it in context for you. I grew up in a house of books. One could have been forgiven for thinking that it was actually built from books, such were the stacks of books and walls lined with bookcases that surrounded most rooms of our house. My father was a bookshop manager of a Christian bookshop in Belfast and my family were bookworms. Many a Sunday afternoon was spent pouring over theological books. And many an evening, my sister and family would be found curled up in a ball on the sofa, indulging themselves in every and any genre of book – fantasy, murder mystery, history, ornithology, biography, medicine, mathematics – their love for God overflowed into a love for learning about all aspects of this world.
In this household, I was the black sheep.
I’d read adventure books and biographies but apart from that, very little. That was, until someone in the family passed me Philip Yancey’s “What’s so amazing about grace?“. It set my heart alight with astounding stories of the grace (unmerited favour) of Jesus that far more clearly dawned on me than ever before. Not long after that, AW Pink’s tiny book “The Attributes of God” helped me see that books weren’t just to tell me what I should be doing with my life. Instead, Pink gave a couple of pages on each attribute of God, packed full of scriptural references in every sentence, and caused me to marvel afresh at who God is, and meditate on his character with awe.
Seeing God like that freed me to read. And read, and read and read. From not seeing reading as exciting at all, compared to other things I did, I suddenly realised the impact reading good Christian literature could have on my character and life. It would be naive to put it only down to those few books: the upbringing of being bathed in the good news of Jesus at home, and amongst church community was combined with my awareness of how little I knew in the world, as United Beach Missions exposed me to so many people who knew far more than me (both Christian and not).
“How do you read so much?” I often get asked.
Without wanting to lose a heart for being real with people in the world, it was in Sundays, summer months, bus journeys and other random moments that I would pick up a book or two and read a chapter. The intense hockey regime with trips across the island, the musical concerts and exams, the attempted diligence in work and love for those who didn’t know Jesus continued at just the same rate. Because reading could easily just be fitted in, during five minute gaps. A book, soon demolished chapter by chapter at that rate.
“But I’m not a reader” people normally say to me.
Soon, bookcases were filling up and I was getting a reputation for being a reader, as I spent hours mining the second hand section of the Evangelical Bookshop Belfast to find cheap reads. I still chuckle within. “A reader” is not how I feel. I read because it warms my heart. I read because it opens my mind to the Scriptures more. I read because it works. Perhaps not always immediate benefit, but arriving into university, my grounding in theology and the scriptures from my local church and my reading, was huge, as I sat in Islamic Society meetings and Secular Society gatherings week by week.
Knowledge puffs up
Of course there were dangers of arrogance (of which sadly my schoolmates could tell you I was prone to); dangers of delighting in knowledge for knowledge’s sake; dangers in not being able to relate to my youth club mates back in inner city Belfast; dangers of reading rubbish or of reading other things at the expense of the Bible.
And so why have I been moved to write a book, despite the dangers and the thousands of books already out there?
Well, I hope that it’s not a book that tells you how to live your life (primarily). But one that persuades you more about who God is, in unusual ways, and leaves you with questions that you hunger to have answered as we travel and explore this world together. I would love it if this book was the start of your reading journey. Not because I think we need to generate middle-class readers who have their heads stuck in the sand.
But because Christianity is primarily a religion that doesn’t want you to cast away your mind, and that calls us to be transformed through the renewing of our minds, regardless of whether we’re the visually impaired student I audibly study the Bible with, the homeless beggar who I sit down beside on MacCurtain Street in Cork each week, or the person who has no written language in an unreached people group I recently visited this summer. The biggest readers, are often the biggest players in the Christian scene internationally, and locally. Action and change, will flow from us being slowly changed, bit by bit.
I grew to love books, through many years of rejecting them. I hope you’ll see the joy sooner. And for those of you who are already readers? Perhaps such storied-packed pages can even be helpful for us, as we learn how to communicate God’s panorama, to an apathetic world, which has been distracted by taking selfies when there’s so much more on offer!