For much of my life, I read books and other things in a frankly desperate, craving way, hoping to find The Answer to the problem that was given to me when I was born. It took several decades and college degrees, and the cultivation of a hyper-developed intellect stocked with more texts than the Library of Congress and the Library of Alexandria combined, for me to arrive, not through reading but through realization, at the recognition that the answer isn’t in a book at all but in the one who reads books in search of the answer.
Something like this realization—less fully realized, no doubt—has been nagging me for some time. Early January will be the 20th anniversary of our departure from Christian fundamentalism and for the entirety of that time I have been hoping to find The Answer in books.
The fundamentalism my wife and I left was intellectually incurious. I started to say it was anti-intellectual but that’s not quite right. Intelligence was valued as a gift of God. That gift, however, could only be put to narrow uses. College education was tolerated for men for the purpose of establishing a career. Reading was encouraged, as long as you limited yourself to the list of acceptable writers. Preaching was typically more emotional than intellectual, but intelligent teachers were valued for the purposes of Sunday School.
More than anything else, it was when Rachel and I realized that these bounds of acceptability not only ruled out people who were clearly devoted and sincere Christians but also were limiting us in harmful ways that it became clear that we needed to get out. We’ve often described our exit as the world opening up for us—an almost physical sensation of walking out of a dimly lit room into brilliant sunshine and blue skies.
So you can imagine how 27 year old me—curious and intelligent, finding the world open—devoured book after book after book. Even academic work that I barely understood but had the virtue of exercising my mind with ideas that were just out of my reach. After a few years of that, I had a broader and richer understanding of theology than some of the seminary-educated ministers I knew.
In the years that followed, I chased ideas—whether they appeared in books or online. With every new idea came the hope that this would be the one. Then the midlife transition arrived (I do not say “crisis,” though there were many critical moments) and I began to wonder if this was all just a monumental exercise in compensation and fear and trauma. This is the idea that has nagged me for much of my forties, particularly since that time in mid-2020 when I shut down all my social media accounts, quit the news, and started reading about hermits.
Wise teachers keep telling me that in order to become wise I must become a fool—yet I keep building teetering piles of books around me. Little by little, though, I manage to laugh at my piles and glimpse the lie hiding within them. Eventually, perhaps, I won’t need them any longer.