All of my life I’ve been a voracious reader. Before I was born again, I had a private library of about 3,000 volumes, some of which were signed first editions. I had a Bible, too, that had been given to me by a neighbor (it had been her grandparents’, but she didn’t want it), and I dutifully added God’s Word to the collection. But I never read it.
I worshiped a constantly changing stable of writers and philosophers, all of whom were either suicidal or dead (or both). Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger, Margaret Laurence, Anthony Burgess, Jean Rhys – these were the sad souls I looked to for help as I groped and stumbled my way through the darkness. I faithfully memorized their words and tried to apply them to my life, but their ‘guidance’ only led me to share in their despair. I, too, became suicidal. I, too, threw myself into loveless ‘love affairs’. I, too, became booze-addicted. I, too, thought it was romantic to live outside the bounds of society’s norms. I, too, simultaneously disbelieved in and hated God, not realizing it was illogical to do so. I, too, learned to hate myself.
Most of these writers’ works were introduced to me through school assignments. Before I was even in my teens, I was force-fed what I know now is potent spiritual poison: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; Shakespeare’s MacBeth; Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. I read these works because I was told to read them. It never occurred to me that I had a choice in the matter. If my teachers had said: “Here’s a bottle of poison; drink it”, I certainly wouldn’t have drunk it. But no-one ever said to me: “Here’s some spiritual poison; read it.” The essay assignments came with no warning labels or disclaimers, though they certainly should have. Spiritual poison is far deadlier than physical poison, and far easier to swallow.
Of the millions upon millions of words I had to consume as a student, I was told to read from the Bible only once. It was for a university course, and by that time I was so demon-addled, I couldn’t read the Bible even though I tried. All the words ran together. They made no sense. I gave up and relied on what I’d heard in class to answer the Bible-related exam questions.
In one of those curious episodes that only make sense in hindsight through a born-again perspective, I came to read about Jesus while searching for a book of essays on Jean Rhys. I have no idea why I decided to take books on Jesus out of the library, but I did. I read them while sitting at the kitchen table smoking and drinking. I can still see the look my boyfriend gave me when he saw the books on the table. “Jesus?” he sneered. I don’t remember what I said to him in response, but I do remember reading the books. They characterized Jesus as a rebel and a champion of the underdog, not as the son of God. They were Jesus from an historical and atheistic perspective. He came across as a pretty cool guy. I liked him.
Six months later, I was born again.
Since being born again, the only book I own is the Bible. I’m as voracious a reader as ever, but now I have no desire to read anything but the Bible (and the occasional blog or newspaper). My favorite writers are Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, John and Paul. Unlike when I was an atheist, I now understand the power of words to poison or to feed a soul. I also see writing not as a craft for impressing people, but as a means to deliver God’s truth through words, the plainer the better.
In the movie The Day After Tomorrow, some characters are holed up in the New York Public Library, burning books to keep from freezing to death. Interestingly, the only book the atheist librarian chooses not to burn is the Bible. His reasoning is that this particular Bible was the first book produced on a printing press and therefore represented a seminal moment in human achievement that should be preserved at all costs. As noble as it sounds, I’m not buying his explanation. I think that he, like me when I was an atheist, recognizes that there’s something special about the Bible, something that sets it apart from all other written works. As an unbeliever, I didn’t want to read the Bible but I still knew I had to have one in my collection. I know now that the feeling of “having to have a Bible”, for whatever reason, was God sticking his foot in the door, refusing to let me shut him out entirely.