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Rushdoony and Books

I am an unrestrained, generally unrepentant, excessive book buyer and reader. I have only myself to blame for this addiction, and a few others, including R. J. Rushdoony. For years, I read Rushdoony’s books, including the footnotes and bibliographies. Then I started listening to Rushdoony’s taped lectures on history and education. Finally, Chalcedon began a series calledFrom the Easy Chair, which were largely devoted to Rushdoony talking about his readings, mostly recent, but expanding to some of his favorite works. Rushdoony’s wide reading and discussion of books whetted my appetite for every book he mentioned.

  • Ben House,
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Books are a part of God’s creation and exhibit man’s being made in the image of God. Yet books are not innately sanctifying nor are they neutral. James tells us that the same tongue can praise God or curse God. Likewise, the same pen can write God-honoring truths or God-denying falsehoods.

Recently, I read a book called The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett. The title made me think the book could be about me, but by the grace of God alone, it wasn’t. It was the story of John Charles Gilkey, a book thief, and Ken Sanders, the book dealer who tracked him down. Gilkey connived and deceived sellers of expensive, rare, and antiquarian books. He accumulated certain collectible books because he thought it gave him a certain prestige, class, and acclaim among the wealthy and powerful.

It was an ugly story of a man without morals, and it was a distortion of God’s intended purpose for books in our lives.

I am an unrestrained, generally unrepentant, excessive book buyer and reader. I have only myself to blame for this addiction, and a few others, including R. J. Rushdoony. For years, I read Rushdoony’s books, including the footnotes and bibliographies. Then I started listening to Rushdoony’s taped lectures on history and education. Finally, Chalcedon began a series calledFrom the Easy Chair, which were largely devoted to Rushdoony talking about his readings, mostly recent, but expanding to some of his favorite works. Rushdoony’s wide reading and discussion of books whetted my appetite for every book he mentioned.

In those days there was no Internet, no easy access to new and used books around the globe, and far fewer sources for finding the books that Rushdoony referenced. But there was the thrill of the hunt. That is, there was the joy of finding a book that Rushdoony had recommended in some unexpected place.

Some years ago, a friend took me to a small bookstore near a church camp we were attending. The store seemed to have nothing of interest, until I happened to glance up at some tall books on the top row of a shelf. There I saw a book called Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age by Charles Hapgood. What an obscure book, but guess where I had heard of that book?  Dr. Rushdoony, of course, had talked about the Phoenician sea kings in his history lectures. That book had been in that store, probably untouched and unnoticed for years, but it found a home that day.

On another occasion, my wife and I were at a flea market. There I saw an older book titled Marriage and the Family by Carle C. Zimmerman and Lucius F. Cervantes. I did not buy it at that moment, but when I had the chance later that day, I picked up Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, looked in the index, read his comments on the book, and hurried back to the flea market to secure the purchase. Again, it was the thrill of the hunt, along with the securing of a useful, but at that time hard to find, book.

Reflecting on the many ways that Rushdoony has influenced my life, book buying, reading, and thinking, I would like to share some ideas on reading. These are things I learned from RJR’s example and from anecdotal stories.

Just Read

It goes without saying that Rushdoony encouraged reading. Like exercise, dieting, financial management, and so many other areas of life, the key is just doing what needs to be done. Twenty books on exercise won’t replace just taking a walk.

I am always amused when I see reading encouraged or promoted on television. Does having a popular actor telling young viewers to go to the library have any actual effect?  It would be interesting if the actor were to say, “Turn off this show and read.”

The pursuit of reading is taught largely by example. On the part of the reader, it takes discipline and determination. Everything surrounding you can distract you from reading. Reading takes a deliberate act of the will and sometimes a change of setting. The physical body and circumstances have to submit to the mental processes.

Reading is work. Quite often, the reward is an after effect of the labor. Quite often, reading, like all work, is frustrating. Usually, the fruit of reading is more a marathon-type event, rather than a short sprint. But reading is not magic. Simply put away and turn off the distractions and then follow the example of Augustine: Tolle lege; that is, take up and read.

Read Actively

We all know about the bookish-type person who reads  to escape life and society. There are readers who retreat from other people and activity by hiding behind a book. These readers have their counterparts in the out-of-shape couch potato sports fans or the young guys who live for video games.

Books make good walls. Books provide good escapes from people, uncomfortable situations, and social and spiritual obligations. It is not hard to sympathize with Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who prefers retreating to his study rather than dealing with his family problems. (In his defense, he does rise to the occasion to lead his family at critical points.)

Dr. Rushdoony did not read to protect himself from reality, confrontations, or duties. His reading was just one part, albeit a large one, in a full and active life. My favorite story in this regard comes from Pastor Mickey Schneider‘s experience when he was living in Jackson, Mississippi, and pastoring some young men from Reformed Theological Seminary. Pastor Schneider had Dr. Rushdoony over after a church service where he was able to talk to some young seminary students. At some point, one student was overwhelmed by Rushdoony’s extensive knowledge of books, theology, and other issues. “Okay, enough about all this,” he said, “What do you think about football?” Rushdoony responded, “I played football for some years” and then he went on to discuss that topic.

Rushdoony, a lifelong reader, was an athlete in high school. While on the Indian reservation, he hunted, fished, and gardened. He devoted great amounts of time to his wife, children, and grandchildren. He spent countless hours fellowshipping with other Christians and giving counsel to those who contacted him. I remember calling him a couple of times years ago and also writing letters to him. I don’t know how he did it, but he always had time for people. He loved nature and the out-of-doors and was not a recluse.

Rushdoony did not read to escape from life, but rather to confront it. He was amused, entertained, and intellectually filled by reading, but those were the secondary effects. His main goal was to read in order to teach, to instruct, to understand, and to glorify God.

Recognize Different Gifts and Callings

Another sin among literary people is snobbery. One of the temptations of books is to cause readers to assume a superiority over non-readers. Well-read people may often be superior in their area of reading. I am superior to my father-in-law in my understanding of history, literature, and theological topics. But when anything breaks in my house (a constant occurrence), I call him. His mechanical and practical skills far exceed mine. And I think we both appreciate each other’s gifts.

Rushdoony’s intellectual gifts were intimidating. He was reading 250 to 300 books a year for most of his adult life. Even more daunting were his memory skills. He had vast powers of recollection of ideas and details. If he didn’t recall the particulars, he was able to find the books, consult his own markings in the books, and access the information. He was a living Wikipedia and Google before such things existed.

For the reader who struggles to get through one book a month or tries to remember what he read last week, Rushdoony’s reading gifts seem superhuman. Most of us cannot play a Bach piece on a piano or keep up with the fast fingering of a Bluegrass musician, but most people can learn something about music and master at least some musical skills. Also, we can learn to appreciate different gifts and callings. The person who labors through one book a month can appreciate the strengths of readers like Rushdoony.

Rushdoony was an intellectual, a thinker, a man who lived the life of the mind. But he was not a stuffy academic, an ivory tower intellectual, or a literary snob. He knew and used his gifts, but he did not flaunt them. He was confident, not conceited.

Rushdoony, who had lived on a farm as a youth, wrote short articles for a paper that focused on farmers. Rushdoony wrote for busy housewives, aspiring students, and the common man. While he could have devoted himself to writing for academic and theological journals, he wrote increasingly shorter articles designed to be read in a few minutes time. Very obviously, Rushdoony was a teacher at heart. He sought to explain difficult concepts in a page or two. He explained complex thinkers in short chapters. His goal was instruction of others, not academic praise.

Certainly, Rushdoony expected pastors, teachers, and other leaders to be well read. I don’t think he would have been very sympathetic to the pastor who flipped channels on the television rather than pages in books. But Rushdoony understood that not nearly all of God’s people have the gifts, the time, and the need for the type of reading he did.

Reading Widely

The most amazing feature of Rushdoony’s reading is how wide his reading interests were. He really loved theology and history, but a glance at the footnotes in almost any of his books reveals that he read all types of books. He was steeped in the classics, well read in the theological and cultural controversies of his time, and familiar with a wide range of historical times and places. Almost no topic was outside of his interest. His library still stands as a living testament to his reading interests.

I have known some very intelligent people with academic specialties, but little knowledge outside of their discipline. As a history teacher, much of my reading needs to be about history. But I need to read beyond my intellectual parish. The problem with many advanced degree programs is that they force students to know more and more about less and less.

A part of “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” entails having a bigger and bigger view of the universe. Jesus is Lord of all, so all areas of life, and all subjects of books, fall under His lordship. But as we know, not all books consciously affirm Christ’s Lordship. So how do we navigate the vast oceans of ideas and books?

Glean Extensively

Rushdoony’s wide reading was not a blind drive across the universe of books. Rushdoony always had a mental map and a destination in mind. By that, I mean he had a set of spiritual and intellectual assumptions that guided his reading. In The Nature of the American System, he devotes the three-page introduction to how Cornelius Van Til’s mode of thinking has impacted his (Rushdoony’s) thinking about early American history.

One would be hard pressed to find anything in Van Til about Colonial America. But Rushdoony’s thought heavily leaned upon Van Til’s teachings regarding presuppositions and the impossibility of neutrality. With that grid in mind, Rushdoony raced across the scope of American history studies and radically revised the historical conclusions found among secular historians. The results can be found in both The Nature of the American System and This Independent Republic.

Quite often, Rushdoony gleaned the bad examples from the books he read. He would find the descriptive quote or idea that illustrated some aspect of wrongful or ungodly thinking. Rushdoony “plundered the Egyptians” in his readings. That phrase refers to the Hebrew children in the Book of Exodus taking gold and silver from the Egyptians. In his book On Christian Doctrine, Augustine applied it to the Christian practice of taking whatever good things had been said by the pagans.

Rushdoony read with great discernment, culling out wrong philosophies, and saving the good ideas. He often commented on a particular book by saying that it was not a good book overall, but that certain portions were worthwhile. His marking, indexing, and annotating books in his library have been noted by many of his followers.

Christians and conservatives all too often read too narrowly. We reject a writer because he does not hold to our exact theology and politics. For those reasons, way too many Christians eschew Rushdoony because he was Calvinistic, Presbyterian, postmillennial, presuppositional, and theonomic. If Rushdoony had only read authors he totally agreed with, he would have had a very small library, or more realistically, no library at all.

The case of Cornelius Van Til is pertinent again in this discussion. Dr. Van Til was not postmillennial or theonomic. (Many of us find the possibility of those positions within his thought, however.) Rushdoony lived out Proverbs 27:17 that says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Van Til was the iron Rushdoony used for sharpening his own understanding and application.

Read for Fun and Imagination

Lots of serious readers gather up stacks of hefty tomes to study. The room I am in right now is weighed down by books containing more knowledge than I can ever retain. But reading is also fun. Training a child to love books may not be best accomplished by reading both Calvin’s and Rushdoony’s Institutes to him or her while they are toddlers.

Rushdoony didn’t talk a lot about light reading, escape reading, or reading adventure stories. But there were occasions, especially in the Easy Chair talks, where he discussed books he enjoyed in his youth as well as books that he read as an adult for entertainment. As a boy he read adventure stories, including tales of heroes, both historical and fictional. To a large degree, the many reprints of G. A. Henty historical novels are due to Rushdoony’s influence. He also loved poetry, both serious poems and light verse. In some of the Easy Chair tapes, he read poetry, and, unknown to most of his readers, Rushdoony wrote some poetry. On one of the Easy Chair tapes, Rushdoony was so overcome with laughter while trying to read from historian Louis B. Wright’s autobiography Barefoot in Arcadia: Memoirs of a More Innocent Era that he could hardly get through it.

In one of his World History lectures, he retold the story of the Siege of Malta from Ernle Bradford’s excellent account, The Great Siege. That story is one of the most thrilling and true adventures in all of history, and Rushdoony’s telling of the story was itself a delight.

Rushdoony’s serious bearded demeanor and his speaking and writing style did not always bring out his lightheartedness, joy, and love of stories. But the theologian and scholar was also a man who enjoyed a good laugh, a funny story, and adventure tales.

Books Will Build the Kingdom

Rushdoony held most strongly to the Calvinistic theology. He believed in the absolute sovereignty of God over all areas of life. Like Abraham Kuyper, Rushdoony affirmed that there is no square inch of the universe where the Lord Jesus Christ has not said, “Mine.” So when he wrote about history, theology, economics, education, science, psychology, or any other discipline, he wrote with the presupposition that each area of life was God-created, God-interpreted, and God-honoring.

What Rushdoony affirmed was that God saves sinners. Continually, people blindly or, sad to say, deliberately, accused Rushdoony of legalism or salvation by keeping God’s law. Since he believed in God’s law and did some pioneering studies of the Old Testament, critics falsely concluded that he was advocating salvation by works, a return to Old Testament sacrifices, or some sort of “Christian Jihad.” 

Rushdoony repeatedly taught and wrote that regeneration was the primary need of our day. He was an evangelist. He believed in the necessity of conversion, which he viewed as a work of God, rather than a decision by man.

Neither books nor legislation, by themselves, offered any hope for civilization. Nor did church or politics. But all of those things—which encompass education, society, and culture—were areas of sanctification under God. Saved people needed to be taught. Contrary to the falsified caricatures, Rushdoony didn’t envision himself hurling stones at sinners. Rather, he lived and practiced a life of teaching. Some he taught through sermons, lessons, and lectures. Most he taught through books.

I can jokingly blame Rushdoony for bankrupting me. I confess to spending too much money at times on books. I will avoid buying a shirt I would wear many times in order to buy a book I will read once. But somehow, I don’t feel impoverished or even out of fashion. Instead, I feel quite rich.

Rushdoony, among others, bequeathed a fortune to me. Along with the many titles which he himself wrote, there are the books I have which I learned of from him. I am rich indeed.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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