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The books I didn’t keep
They represent conflicts, relational fallouts, and even harm to me and that I’ve inflicted. So there’s pain and sorrow in the books. They are necessary losses.
I’m in my home office right now (it is also my bedroom), and right behind me, in a series of overstuffed boxes are the books from my library that I packed up as I cleaned out my old office. Besides learning the virtues of e-books, it was an enlightening process to pack away the old office. I had the chance to recall what books had special meaning to me, how they impacted me during different eras of my work as a pastor, and how I relate to them now. On my shelves were books that I had collected from college, throughout seminary, and up until now. While only a very small number of the books on my books were outright harmful, and thus didn’t make the donation pile, but rather the trash can, many of them no longer were useful to me.
When the author was an abuser who justified his abuse with his own theology, I immediately tossed the book. I’ve written before about why I took down Bruxy Cavey’s book. I kept the books that I own that John Howard Yoder wrote, not because they are edifying, but rather, because Yoder has influenced Anabaptist thought so thoroughly, that simply discarding his books fails to address the problem of Yoder. As I wrote in the post I linked above:
“The key here isn’t to burn our books, but rather to unlearn what these people have taught us. I have to repent of how Yoder and Cavey, and other problematic abusers, have influenced me. This repentance and unlearning process is paramount to Christianity. If we can’t change and grow, we make a mockery of the God who endlessly forgives and pardons. Instead of defending ourselves and our influences, let us repent of the harm we’ve caused, and unlearn the theology and ideas that led to that harm.”
There were numerous other books that I read as a church planter that formed and shaped me in ways I didn’t like or prefer, and sometimes that caused harm, that I kept for the same reason. I don’t think those books can’t be used to good ends, but I admit I didn’t use them to good ends. So I wanted to keep them to learn how to operate differently as a pastor. Church planting and pastoring are far different gifts, and a lot of times the Evangelical church fails to distinguish between these (even though the Bible clearly distinguishes apostles and pastors).
Related to that were business books that made churches follow the wisdom of the business sector. Not only does this capitalist model lead to burnout, it also produces malformed and malnourished disciples. Again, someone somewhere can find use of these business books – for example, someone running a small business – but I don’t think churches should operate as businesses, nor should they focus on growing their constituencies or attendance as if they are businesses.
For a long time, I thought that churches could learn from political organizers how to expand their movements. But I’ve found that collaboration with other churches, just as many political organizers do, is better than expanding a singular brand of a church. In fact, that sort of sectarian exceptionalism is counter to the growth of a movement (and we, in fact, see this explicitly in political organizations).
I also set aside commentaries and books from people who didn’t affirm LGBT folks. Now, I kept some books that make a theological argument for opposing LGBT affirmation, because I want to learn from what I consider to be harmful theology, but when the books were from writers who weren’t affirming, especially if they came from the Evangelical tradition, I wanted to guard myself against their theology and comments as an attempt to be intellectually humble. This isn’t “cancel culture,” it isn’t arrogance, it’s knowing when to draw a boundary, and knowing that we alone can’t discern when theology is harmful. The less clear a book was about where it stood, the more dangerous it was.
I admit there is regret in leaving the books behind. Some of them mark a time in my life when I did commit harm, and I suffer remorse about that. Others represent the kind of pastor and church planter I wanted to be, but never could be. Some of them represent my desire to please someone else and stifled my own independence. And still, some represent a past life, who I was before, and who I need to leave behind. They represent conflicts, relational fallouts, and even harm to me. So there’s pain and sorrow in the books. They are necessary losses.
I hope to hold on to the good that I’ve learned, and I hope in the theology, counseling, pastoral care, and biblical studies books I brought with me, I did just that. For now, though, what I have is a room full of books and a backache.