Old Books and Better Stories

“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood”—Peter Handke


Books are as vital to the life of a nation as blood to the life of the body. Thoughts and words and language labor together to reveal shared longing, common struggle and timeless truth. They tell stories that reveal our oneness and stubbornly subvert our otherness.

The ones who read and the ones who write have the sort of illicit relationship that inspires the telling of secrets, the confession of sins and the thrilling satisfaction of being brought into the other’s world.

The ones who write must write, or else they will die. They are thinkers and observers, watching the world with hungry eyes until they see something that moves them to say something. The untold story is a poison in the heart of a writer. He tells it only to save his life.

The ones who read know, as others do not know, that there is some of us in all of us. They know that though the world is ravaged by wickedness, greed and unspeakable evil, it is full of truth, beauty and matchless wonder. They may not know why, but they know that one is better than the other.

The one who reads has a mind made rich by others. She has inherited the wealth of literary fathers—past and present, living and dead, men and women—truth-tellers and soothsayers who have given her more lives than can be lived in one. He will not trade them for a lesser life without words because that would be like fasting by himself at a wedding feast.

Good leaders are good readers. They read well because they want to lead well. Humanity is rudderless without leadership and leadership is lifeless without words.

We need words to write our laws, tell our stories, sing our hopes and plead our cases in the courts of law and public opinion.

No nation, people, tribe, community or company can order themselves justly without words—constitution, contract, code of ethics, company policy, common rule of law or even the unwritten words of unspoken rules for social order.

Words bind us to an identity, a purpose and a reason for being. Words turn thoughts into laws, dreams into ideals and hopes into values. They reveal our universal longings for a just society, a city of beauty and a place of peace.

But words are barely enough. They can write laws to restrain a man with a lecherous eye but they cannot make him respect a woman.

An idea can satisfy our longings about as effectively as a book about water can quench our thirst. We need the reality that the idea can only describe. We need the help that the heart can only hope for.

It is no unreasonable thing then why some people depend so heavily on an old book to tell them how to live in a new world—an old book that makes the audacious claim that word became flesh, truth became a person, God became a man.

It is natural to meet a claim like that with doubt. But when people bring questions to their suspicion and faith brings reason along with itself, the journey brings new life that turns an old book into a living person.

An idea of justice turns into the certainty of hope.

It is no wonder then that when Jesus asked Peter if he wanted to leave him like the other disciples who deserted him at the end of a difficult speech, Peter replied by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

If its words are eternal, a book will never be old.

This old book tells a story too captivating to dismiss, of a Christ too intriguing to ignore, with a hope too pertinent to neglect.

Its words are as promising in a new world as they were in an old one that still struggles with an eternal question—How do we live together without killing each other?

Eternal words are not merely for old books in an old world. They give new hearts to all people in every world. In the face of the tiring stories of our times, the hopeful story they told us yesterday will be as new tomorrow as it is today.

Image Credit: Mateusz Łapsa-Malawski

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