In the Library: Books and Reading with Tony Payne

Tony Footer

Tony Payne began work as Matthias Media’s first editor in 1988. Since then, Tony has been a busy guy: with his wife, Alison, he has grown a family of five children (now with two grandchildren); he has completed a degree in theology at Moore Theological College; and he has written or co-written numerous ministry resources, and edited many others. As well as being a writer and CEO, he’s also the Director of the Centre for Christian Living at Moore College, and working on a PhD.

TGCA – What books made a big impact on you during adolescence?

Big sprawling novels had a huge impact on me during my teenage years because they introduced me to the power of words and stories. I read stacks of them — almost everything by Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone), James Clavell (Sho-gun), and Frederick Forsyth (Day of the Jackal), as well as science fiction by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert (almost all the Dune novels), and so on. I think when you read a lot (if what you’re reading is any good at all), you absorb a great deal about how words and sentences and paragraphs work. It’s probably one of the reasons I ended up spending my life writing. 

I also had a very good Dead-Poets-Society style of English teacher in senior high school who opened my eyes to the power and workings of literary fiction—whether The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (which I loved) or Sons and Lovers (which I hated in equal measure). 

Christianly speaking, I was much affected as a teenager by They speak with other tongues by John Sherrill, which took me into the charismatic movement for a few years. Books like FD Bruner’s Theology of the Holy Spirit and Jensen and Barnett’s Quest for Power subsequently helped me understand the problems with charismatic theology and practice, but in God’s kindness my stint as a charismatic helped me stay Christian and taught me a great deal.

TGCA – Fiction or Non-fiction?

Definitely both. Inevitably (because of how work and ministry has panned out) much of my non-fiction reading has been ‘work-related’, and that covers a very broad sweep of material in theology, biblical studies, ethics, cultural history, and so on. I do enjoy this sort of reading, and even more so if the author can actually write (which is not as frequent an occurrence as one might hope). A recent positive example is Chris Green’s Cutting to the Heart: Applying the Bible in teaching and preaching—a fresh and very insightful treatment of the subject, and very nicely written. 

I have also continued to read plenty of fiction of all kinds, not only because it’s just enjoyable, but because it keeps teaching me new and interesting ways to do things with words. And it is pleasurable — from the simple satisfactions of an intriguing story well-told (like Peter Temple’s crime novels) to the more complex joys that literary fiction provides when it opens up a new world of experience. 

Having said that, I’ve also given up certain kinds of fiction at different points, because too much of it can be bad for me. The modern literary novel is an attempt to render a world, to dig beneath the surface and explain (or show) how things really are, and who we really are. It’s post-Enlightenment Scripture in a way. The best non-Christian novelists do this so artfully and effectively that if I spend too much time with them I find myself starting to believe in their beautiful, plausibly rendered but utterly fantastical and false worlds. Bad company corrupts good morals, as the real Scripture says. 

TGCA – What non-fiction topics do you read outside your area of expertise?

Books and articles on golf, which is definitely outside the area of what I would call expertise.

TGCA – What books are currently on your bedside table?

The bedside is for fiction. After a day of reading Bible and theology (i.e. most days), I find that a happy 15-20 minutes in a fictional world eases my passage into the land of dreams. Usually there’s a pretty random collection of short stories, novels and the occasional bit of poetry. So at the moment, it’s a PG Wodehouse omnibus, one of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series of sci-fi epics, Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (a wickedly funny satire about literary pomposity), and The 100 best poems of Les Murray.

TGCA – What was the last book you left unfinished?

I’ve been an Ian McEwan fan for a long time, and have read nearly all his novels. He writes so well it makes me weep. (If you want to try him out, start with Enduring Love followed by Saturday.) But I couldn’t finish his recent novel, Sweet Tooth; when the beautiful young heroine (who is the daughter of a bishop) starts falling in love with the funny-looking middle-aged literary type about half way through, the cord of credibility snapped I’m afraid. 

TGCA – What is your favourite novel?

I don’t really have one, but I can tell you that the best novel I’ve read in the last five years was The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. It’s a kind of horrified black comedy about the Holocaust, written from the perspective of the Germans who perpetrated it. Amis somehow (and I still don’t know how) manages to convey both the evil and the humanity of it all in a way that leaves you feeling devastated and yet wiser for the experience. Not for the faint-hearted though.

TGCA – Physical, eBook, Audio, Graphic Novels?

I think my habits are mirroring the reading public, as things are shaking out. Some things I read on the iPad (work manuscripts, short informational ebooks, and so on); some things are just more enjoyable in print (novels, the Saturday morning paper over coffee, etc). The rebound in print publishing that has been happening worldwide over the past 12-18 months reflects this — people are working out what the new technology is good for. 

TGCA – What’s the best book Matthias Media have ever published and why?

Rsu 2

Oh that’s a toughie — so many gems to choose from! 

I can tell you what I think are the two most under-rated books we’ve ever published: Living with the Underworld by Peter Bolt (about demons, Satan, spiritual evil and the Lord Jesus Christ) and Right Side Up by Paul Grimmond (a book for new Christians to introduce them to the adventure that is the Christian life). Both have sold respectably, but both deserve to be massive-selling classics in my view. They are the go-to books for both subjects I think, for the general reader.