Years ago a wise Episcopal priest and college professor told me something that has stayed with me. He was describing a surprising discovery he made while meeting regularly with college students in his office. “First they talk about class matters, then boyfriends and girlfriends; and if you pass that test, they will start opening up about their sexuality. Later, if they learn they can trust you about these matters, and only then, they will talk about their deeper secrets, their experiences of God and spirituality.”
This revelation from my friend has two parts. First, that our deepest selves, the internal places that, for many people, only come out in the safest of conditions, are where we store our deepest beliefs, our most formative experiences, and our biggest questions. And second, our lives, both within the church and outside it, have taught us not to open the door to this inner room too readily or often. All of us have either witnessed or experienced what happens when we cast our pearls before swine: judgment, harsh reactions, loss of relationships, turmoil, mockery, and so on. And so we keep these doors shut most of the time.
But what happens if we do not have the fortune to be assigned a priestly professor or his equivalent? How do we nurture this secret inner world? How does this protected level of our souls grow and develop?
By reading books. At least, that is a big part of the answer.
When author Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, he addressed all those who had questions about hell even though many were part of churches that affirmed the traditional doctrine. Several leaders of conservative churches criticized the book. But Rob knew the questions about hell were in those interior places, in that internal, deeper realm. Despite what their leaders said publicly, many bought the book. We may line up with our friends demographically, but no one really knows what is going on on this deeper level. Books can go in and dance with our deepest questions with our leaders never even knowing.
Think of all the times where you have been smacked by a new idea, something that has altered how you live your life. How many times has the smacking resulted from or was at least followed up by reading a book? For me, almost always. When I read, the “me” who is doing the reading is this deeper me. As I encounter another’s voice, another’s story, another’s ideas, my soul can respond and react directly, not needing to be protected or cautious or anxious about what others think. And when I think about all the contexts where my inner self is fed and nurtured, the majority of times are through books.
Books are God’s instruments for feeding and growing our souls. Not the only instrument, surely, but a major one, one where we commune with the saints, become inspired, and grow. And, yes, this inner work needs to be outed to be fully realized (God does not go in for mere head games). But it is as I read C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor, Diana Butler Bass, Desmond Tutu, Dallas Willard, James Martin, Richard Foster, Frederick Buechner, Gerald May, and many others that the light comes into this inner space and my world and my self expands. This is how I am fed spiritually and what God uses to shape me.
And this is exactly what we are all about at HarperOne, encouraging this deep work, book by book, soul by soul. Yes, we talk budgets and bestsellers, margins and marketing, but what moves us and what motivates us is providing the tools that do the deep and divine work spiritual books can do. We are not a creedal house and certainly do not have a theological agenda. We like books that provoke, stretch, and help people grow, that target those inner worlds directly.
This is the third anniversary of our little newsletter, News and Pews, where we try to announce and highlight what is most exciting in our world of religious publishing. Many find it surprising that in this new world of electronic fellowshipping, it has become more difficult, not less, to get the word out to those in the church and spiritual communities about new books. This newsletter is our attempt to encourage an age-old practice—cultivating our interior selves by encountering books by those with the experience and wisdom needed to move us forward on God’s path. But we cannot do it alone. We need your help. All of us who value this ministry of the depths must become active in the “underground library.” Like the underground railway secretly transported slaves from the South and brought them to freedom, so the underground library works to liberate souls from faddish shallowness and intellectual bondage and free them for the deeper work God is doing today among us. What role can you play? Recommend soul-shaping books to others; review them on Goodreads, Amazon, and other sites; forward this newsletter to others; start a book-discussion group; or simply read good books. The goal of the underground library is to create those spaces, like my friend did with his student advisees, where we can discuss and think about the deep questions about God. Please join us.
P.S.: On the occasion of our third anniversary, we would love to hear from you about how we can serve you better. Feel free to send in your questions or suggestions—whether about the newsletter, about religious publishing in general, or about HarperOne—and I can address them in a future News and Pews column.
Senior V.P. | Executive Editor | Director of Bible Publishing