On the Value of Short Books

March 14, 2019

I can tell you exactly where I finished John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I read the novella on a day off one summer after I graduated from college. I started the book on a whim (I grabbed it from a cheap paperback sale), and I devoured it over the course of the day. Sitting outside, I read every word of the sad tale of George and Lenny, closing the book as daylight shifted to pink twilight. 


I had to sit in silence and collect myself. 


Not bad for a book running less than 120 pages. Not bad at all. 


When you think “theology book,” what sort of image comes to mind? I would bet something like this:


For much of my adult life, I thought the same. The way into the deep things of theology and doctrine laid between the covers of books of a size qualifying them as trebuchet ammunition to fling at Sauron’s hordes from the walls of Minas Tirith. I promise, one copy of Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God could bring down an oliphaunt (but it still only counts as one, Legolas).  


I do wish to commend to you many thick tomes of Christian thought. If you embarked on a journey through John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, you would find yourself challenged and impressed by the depth of the man’s thought.


However, for most disciples of the Lord Jesus, such books remain inaccessible due to length. One finds difficulty in harvesting enough time from the day to take in such a work. Can one still become well-acquainted with the various contours and facets of sound doctrine?




First, understand this: the measure of sound doctrine rests between the two covers of the Bible. It stands as the only book written by the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit himself, expressing himself through many different genres of literature. Lest you take issue with the Holy Spirit expressing himself, note his expression comes with divine authority. The Bible does not represent his serious phase; the Bible reveals the eternal character and desires of God. Consider its composition—so many short writings! One can read The Epistle of James in less than 20 minutes, yet become shaken to the core over James’s warnings to his people. Meditating on something like 1 John, Galatians, or Colossians provides thought of a depth to bury a large mammal. 


Yet, sometimes we need help putting the ideas and propositions together in a way which makes sense. God intended Scripture, after all, for preaching, and we see Peter and Paul do such preaching in Acts. 


Short books enter here. 


Let’s take a difficult doctrine, the Trinity, for example. Could someone possibly write a short book on the subject? Let’s just say someone did, could you possibly understand it? 


Three books immediately jump to my mind: On the Incarnation by Athanasius, On God and Christ by Gregory of Nazianzus, and On the Holy Spirit by Basil of Caesarea. Each of these three books hails from the early days of Christianity before Christians held anything close to a majority in anything anywhere. Athanasius suffered several exiles as a proponent of biblical orthodoxy, and both Basil and Gregory lived at the end of the era in which Christian suffering commonly occurred. They wrote as theologians, but not as men in book-lined offices (like my own) out-of-touch with the world around them. Basil, for example, received much attention for his ministry among the poor. None of these books crosses the threshold of 200 pages; my personal top recommendation, On the Incarnation of the Word has a length of 119 pages (and includes a well-renowned forward by C. S. Lewis). Each book (On God and Christ collects several speeches/sermons given by Gregory) served the purpose of preserving the true faith in Christ from the corrosion of heresy and still educate today.


Contemporary publishers also release books of short length, easily accessible. J. D. Greear’s Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart serves as a fast read on the doctrine of assurance, and 9Marks, a ministry associated with Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., published several short volumes on different aspects pertinent to Christians in local churches. Having read five offerings in their series, I found myself helped each time. I personally recommend picking up the entry, Conversion by Michael Lawrence. 


Can a short book make a big difference? Since childhood, I continue to daydream about passing through the back of a closet and entering into a world of talking animals, messianic lions, warriors, and excellent food. Seven little books draw me back to Narnia again and again. The Last Battle, more than anything else outside of Revelation itself, helps me yearn for the return of Christ. 


Friend, take up and read. You don’t have to hurt your back to do so.

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