For us bookish types, an armchair and reading lamp can provide just as inspiring a worship experience as a Gothic cathedral. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of myths, described this particular form of devotion the best. When asked what spiritual practice he followed, he said, “I underline books.”
I also am quite certain that God shares this passion for reading, for why else would he use books so frequently to send messages? There’s the Bible, of course, but think of how often the right book seems to fall into our hands just when we need it most. Clearly God must subscribe to a wide variety of book review publications.
Then again, perhaps he simply browses the shelves at Loome Theological Booksellers in Stillwater, Minnesota. When I visited there, I was enthralled by the tens of thousands of books that line its shelves. Located in a former Swedish Covenant church, the store is the largest secondhand dealer of theological books in the world.
Current owner Christopher Hagen told me that the business was founded in 1981 by Thomas Loome, a theology professor who had caught the book-buying bug while in graduate school. His hobby became a full-fledged business after he started purchasing the libraries of Catholic monasteries and abbeys during an era when many of them were closing.
“He bought this church to store his growing collection of books and he and his wife raised their five children amid the stacks,” Christopher said. “As he bought more books, he just kept adding more shelves.”
Today nearly every square foot of the church’s balcony and main floor is crammed with volumes, creating such a warren of corridors and cubbyholes that patrons often must borrow the store’s flashlights to better decipher the titles. Here you can find John Henry Newman and Reinhold Niebuhr, St. Francis de Sales and Teihard de Chardin. Looking for Arthur James Balfour’s lecture series on Theism and Thought delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1922-23? Here’s the place to get it, along with Ceremoniëel volgens de Roomsche Kerkgebruiken ten dienste der religieuzen clarissen coletienen van het Klooster van Gent (an 1890 volume, still in good condition).
While much of the store’s business is conducted on-line, Christopher says that collectors come from all over the world to visit in person.
“This is what can happen if we let our book-buying habits get out of hand,” I said to my husband as we browsed. “Consider this place a warning.”
But I also know that neither of us is likely to curtail our literary indulgences. After all, one never knows when God is going to leave just the right volume sitting on a bookshelf at eye level, its spine slightly pulled out so we’ll notice it. It’s not as dramatic as a booming voice from the clouds, but it works.