Ten years ago I was sitting in the study room in the house of a great Christian friend of mine, and I was sharing with him my vision for evangelizing Bulgaria and Europe through translating Christian books. Not just any books, but books that lay out the comprehensive Biblical worldview in all areas of human life and action—economics, science, education, politics, business, etc. I was telling him how Christianity in Europe has lost its comprehensive character, and it must be recovered and restored; Europeans must learn again that Christianity is not just a religion “of the heart,” it is a comprehensive solution to all problems. Such knowledge will of itself work as an evangelistic tool and can be used to turn the nations of Europe to Christianity and would create the intellectual foundation for building a truly Christian culture and civilization in Europe once again.
We were surrounded by my friend’s library, an impressive collection of a couple thousand books, at least. Theological writings, economic writings, Bible commentaries, political treatises, Christian fiction: so many Christian books that likely can’t be found in any other nation’s bookstore on the planet, much less in that nation’s own language. Such a great setting for my presentation.
After my one-hour presentation, my friend remained silent for a minute, and then asked: “Why do you need books? Why are books so important? I have always thought the important part of a missionary’s work is planting churches and converting people. Every missionary that I know does exactly that—plants churches and evangelizes. Having a church is way more important than having good books on the market.”
It was a bit of a shock to me, I must admit. But I gathered my composure and said, “You know what? You are right.” I pointed to his books on the shelves around us. “I am taking these home to Bulgaria. I suppose you don’t need them since you already have a church planted, and you do evangelize in your town, right?”
His facial expression changed as he realized what I was saying. Take away all his books? No way. He needed them, didn’t he?
Books as Building Blocks
American Christians today seldom realize the indispensable part books play for the forming of their culture. Books are taken for granted; they are just part of reality, like Walmart and swimming pools in the suburbs. They are available everywhere, cheap to get, and you can even find quite a few of them at the local library. America is blessed in having every good book ever written in the world translated to English and readily available. Of course, America is also cursed to have just about every bad book ever written available in English. Either way, books are inexpensive; it is easy to get them; and they are taken for granted.
Books in modern America are a perfect example of a vast discrepancy between the price and the value of something. Yes, the price of books is very low, but their value to the civilization in America is unspeakably high. My friend discovered it when offered the opportunity to part with his books. Books build civilizations; a civilization is not a product of material factors, it is a product of the ideas that thinkers and teachers of the past wrote down. Ideas motivate the thinking and inform the practice of builders of civilizations; those builders are seldom the generators of the ideas they use. Very often in history different peoples would build civilizations similar to each other because they read the same books and were motivated by the same ideas.
In short, a culture, a civilization, is not the product of material factors—it is the product of ideas, expressed by thinkers in their books. Take away the books of a civilization, and you will destroy that civilization.
A striking example of this truth is the last days of the Roman Empire. In the second and the third century A.D., before the legalization of Christianity, we see the disappearance of pagan literature. There were no new ideas that pagan thinkers could come up with; there was no inspiration among pagans as to how to deal with the issues of the day. The pagan authors disappeared from the market. At the same time the Christian minority produced more and more books, treatises, and confessions. Christian literature was disproportionately present in the last days of the Empire. Christian authors covered every possible subject, from family and personal faith to admonishments to civil rulers and slave owners on how to rule according to the will of God. Not all of it was perfect, and certainly not all of it had a long-lasting influence. But the sheer volume and ubiquity of Christian literature created the intellectual foundation for the future Christian civilization. Even before the Empire surrendered politically to Christ, the academic world and the publishing world surrendered, and this precipitated the fall of the pagan regime. Roman authorities could destroy churches and whole Christian populations, but they couldn’t destroy all the books and the ideas in them. Eventually, when Constantine declared Christianity legal, the church that was decimated by persecutions was able to build upon that intellectual foundation and turn the world of Caesar into a world of Christ.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Never is this ignorance of the true value of books more obvious than when American Christians talk about missions and supporting missionaries. Not understanding what books can do and have done for their own civilization, American missionaries tend to focus their main effort on short-term activities like “converting souls” and church-planting. Books are only a side activity for most Christian missions. Americans just can’t see that both planting churches and converting souls must be done in the context of an existing paradigm, an existing intellectual foundation. Without such a comprehensive foundation, converts soon become apostates, and churches disintegrate as soon as the missionary “feels called” to go back home.
Long-term success comes only from efforts that are long-term oriented. Short-term oriented activities don’t bring long-term success. That’s why the early church was so willing to spend precious time and resources building libraries and writing books. Today we can’t appreciate this adequately, given the fact that the average book in the library costs us an hour’s worth of wages. Back in the first centuries of the church, a book cost a year’s worth of wages; and yet the early Christians were willing to pay the price of producing those books and making them available throughout the known world. From an economic point of view, producing even one book was a major economic effort, a waste of precious resources. Only one copy could pay a pastor’s or a missionary’s salary for one year; for the modern mind, such expense would be outrageous. Why not just send several missionaries at the cost of several copies of a book?
But the early Christians had their priorities in place. They were building for the ages to come, and they knew that books are worth the sacrifice. And so they created the European civilization as we know it. A continent that was so unbelievably diverse and fragmented by ethnic origins, languages, cultural differences, etc., nevertheless was one civilization because it read the same books. Many of us today do not understand the obsession of the scholars in Europe before the sixteenth century with the obsolete Latin language. But for those Christian scholars, Latin wasn’t obsolete; it gave Europe the uniting principle she needed to remain as a Christian civilization. They did not see anything “magical” or “traditional” about the Latin language. It was only a tool for having the same books available throughout the continent, and thus uniting the whole continent in the same civilization, the Kingdom of God.
Even after the sixteenth century, books were still recognized as having superior value for building a civilization. Colonial America couldn’t be described as anything else but the land of readers. Given the fact that there was no direct economic benefit of printing books to the fledgling colonial economy, printers were amazingly numerous, and books were available everywhere. Colonial America was a society based on books, and later, in the Revolutionary War, it was writers who encouraged the people to revolt, not leaders.
Recently an article in a major Christian magazine stated an obvious but rarely discussed fact: “If short-term efforts produced long-term results, Mexico would be the most Christianized nation on the planet.” And true enough, in the last 200 years Christianity changed its focus in missions from long-term culture-building to short-term church-planting and soul-winning. Feeding the natives became more important than teaching them the truths of God’s Word; consequently, the focus of Christian missions changed from publishing books to “works of mercy.” The result is that today most missionaries would engage in all kinds of activities in their efforts to evangelize the natives—from welfare and charity, to entertainment, to events and conferences—but not feed them books that teach them how to build their life and culture according to the requirements of the Word of God. When conversion becomes priority over learning, long-term efforts are abandoned; with that, long-term results never come. This changed the whole understanding of missionary activity: Christianity was now something “American” that American missionaries just “dispense” to local people. Since the local people did not have the Biblical intellectual foundation that the American missionaries had, they did not think of Christianity as something that was their own. It was “American,” and therefore it couldn’t survive after the American missionary was gone.
The reality is that the individual man is not really converted unless his whole worldview is converted. If he lives in a culture hostile to his private beliefs, and if he doesn’t have a comprehensive answer to all the ideological challenges, he is not a believer, only a future apostate. The only way for a missionary to counter an anti-Christian culture is to create a Christian alternative to it. And building an alternative to a culture starts with making Christian literature available in that language. That must start before there are churches and converts because without it, churches and converts will disintegrate and fall away.
Therefore a new kind of missionary is needed today, and a new philosophy of starting and financing Christian missions. This new philosophy must go back to the priorities of the early church: make an abundance of Christian literature available in a local language before you send missionaries to that culture. The new kind of missionary must be willing to change his priorities to the long-term work of building an intellectual foundation for a new civilization; he must be willing to work for years in translating, painstakingly, word by word, the books that will help the local converts start rebuilding their society according to Biblical law. This new kind of missionary must be supported by churches and Christians who understand that church services Sunday morning and pictures of local children with rice bowls in their hands are not indicative of a missionary’s success. If America is blessed by having all the good books available in English in our bookstores, we must transfer this blessing to other nations by financing translation and publishing before we finance short-term missionary trips and events. Christian books that teach how to build a Christian civilization are our twenty-four-hour missionaries in foreign lands, and they will stay there and keep working long after the American missionary is gone. If the early church financed book publishing when it was so incredibly expensive, how much more do we need to do it today, when books are so easy and cheap to print … cheaper than missionaries themselves.
Unless this truth is understood, our efforts will remain short-term, and we will never have any long-term success on the mission fields around the world. We need to change our priorities about missions, and this is where we must start.