I Read Dead People

“What do you read?” That’s a common question among bookish pastors. Sometimes I hear it phrased, “Who do you read?” which is, among ministers, akin to dogs smelling each other’s hind quarters. We’re trying to determine one another’s theological scent and whether or not we belong to friendly or rival packs. (I once saw the hair stand up on a Calvinist upon hearing that his ministry colleague was reading Rob Bell.)

However, in most cases the question, “Who do you read?” is asked without malice. Pastors are simply looking for reading recommendations that will encourage their souls or sharpen their skills, but my answer usually surprises them: “I read dead people.”

What do I mean? In my previous role editing a magazine, I received dozens of books every week from publishers. They were looking for some good press, an endorsement, or a review in our pages. Although some remarkable new books did cross my desk, most were immediately forgettable or cringe-inducing drivel. After years of exposure to this parade of publications I decided to turn my attention away from what’s new and toward what’s timeless.

I figured that if someone has been dead for a while and his or her book is still in print and widely read, then it’s probably worth reading. And, if we’re honest, there are precious few books written by Christian authors today that will still be read in 24 months, let alone 24 years. I want to use my reading time to immerse myself in powerfully formative material, and not just flash-in-the-pan trends by the latest pop star pastor.

Does that mean I never read living authors? Of course not. But if they’re not dead, I like them to be pretty close. I can usually trust that an author looking down the barrel of eternity is not going to waste what time he has left on this earth writing bloated sentimentalities or mere ministry mechanics.

A few years ago my “read dead people” axiom was affirmed when Bill Hybels conducted an interview with Steve Sample, president of USC and author of The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Hybels, who is a voracious reader, was surprised to learn that Sample recommends reading less and not more. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

Hybels: One part of this book made me laugh out loud, because these are some of the strangest views I’ve ever heard—about what leaders should be reading. Tell us your theory.

Sample: My theory is that, to a greater extent than most of us realize, we are what we read. I think it was Thoreau who made the observation that reading one book necessarily precludes your reading hundreds of others. You have to make hard choices with respect to reading. If you’re in a leadership position, the least important things for you to read are newspapers and trade magazines and the like. Thomas Jefferson once said “The man who reads nothing at all is better informed than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” I allow myself 10 minutes to scan the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal and that’s enough. But the other 20 minutes has to go toward reading substantive material.

Hybels: I’ve been telling leaders this for a long time: read everything you can read about leadership. You took my counsel one step further. You said, “Don’t read just anything about leadership; read the ‘supertexts’ about leadership.” What are you talking about?

Sample: Of the hundreds of thousands of things that men and women have written 400 years ago or before, only about 25 to 50 are widely read today. So there’s something very special about these 25 to 50 texts. They influence everything that is written and spoken in our society to an unprecedented degree. You can usefully spend your time reading any of the supertexts, even over and over again, because they probably tell us more about human nature than anything else we have at our disposal. But for books that are not the supertexts, I think a person has to be very, very selective.


So, who are some of my favorite supertexts and dead people? I’m obligated to say C.S. Lewis (you know, for credibility), but in the area of contemplative reading and spiritual formation I also appreciate Thomas Kelley, Henri Nouwen, Theresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, A.W. Tozer, and Thomas a Kempis. It’s difficult to find better theological reflections than those of Calvin, Barth, or Augustine whether or not your theology always conforms to theirs, and I am indebted to Xavier Loyola for the expansive spirituality he bestowed on the Jesuit tradition. Every pastor should also read Eugene Peterson (from the Not Dead Yet category) and Dallas Willard (from the Recently Departed category).

Charlie “Tremendous” Jones is fond of saying, “Five years from today, you will be the same person that you are today except for the books you read and the people you meet.” Therefore, choose your books, like your friends, carefully.

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