To Dust Ye Shall Return

[Editor’s Note: Recently discovered in an obscure (and very dusty) corner of the Princeton Theological Seminary library, the following anonymous manuscript reveals, with perhaps a soupcon of bitterness, the concern of a professor for his students’ well-being in a fallen world. While the date has been verified to within five years, judging by the depth of the dust in the corner, the hand is unrecognizable. It has been speculated that this document may be the transcript of a lecture, but the identity of the lecturer and/or writer currently remains unknown. – P. Britton, Research Assistant, GBU]

The Art and Science of Dusting One’s Theological Library

Given that it is every Christian’s noble calling to despise not the menial tasks of life, nor the hands that perform them (cf. Rom. 12:16), it is proper that we turn at this time to a long-neglected aspect of the divinity student’s education; to wit, the Art and Science of Dusting One’s Theological Library.

The urgency of this topic should be self-evident to anyone who has ever contemplated the potentially devastating effects of a prolonged absence from his place of study, whether on account of illness, accidents on the rails, or what have you; should, during such a providentially ordained delay, a well-meaning relation or domestic take it upon herself to Tidy Up, or, perchance, to Arrange Things, one’s peace of mind may be irrevocably shattered. It is partly to forestall such a crisis that I offer the following reflections.

What concerns us at the outset is, of course, the precise meaning of the verb, “to dust.” Whilst its lexical definitions may confound – for, as is well known, it can refer to either the application or the removal of a film of dust, as in, e.g., “dust the chicken with pepper” v. “dust the piano in the sitting room”* — here we must concentrate our attention wholly on the latter intent. However, let us not become tempted to limit ourselves unnecessarily to a narrow and technical understanding of the term, as if the wiping of surfaces were all that is in view. Even as in the case of the tithe, which in an earlier dispensation constituted but one-tenth of the firstfruits of the field or flock, and yet is, in the era of the Church, expanded to include all that the liberality of Spirit-led generosity might think to offer, so “to dust,” for the saint, may be considered to encompass more generally the setting of all of one’s possessions decently and in order (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40).

This would include, then, not only procuring a damp (not to say saturated) cloth and moving it assiduously across all planar surfaces,** but also the re-shelving of volumes used for the study of biblical texts at least six weeks prior to the present date, discarding unwanted blotters, apple cores, and mousetraps, and tending to the proliferation of note-papers, which protrude like whiskers from every crevice.

It is worthwhile to acknowledge at this juncture that while the “Art” of dusting one’s theological library involves the judicious arrangement of one’s collection according to one’s taste and needs (such that no intruder, however helpfully industrious, could ever approximate it), the “Science” of this undertaking is best described as “doing today what one would put off until tomorrow.” In his learned article on “The Sedimentation of Intellectual Debris,” Dr. Wharton warns strongly against the common clerical habit of “piling,” cautioning that haphazard towers of manuscripts, reference volumes and commentaries cannot defy gravity forever, and inevitably lead to more labor in the aggregate. Indeed, the denial of such physical realities is a regrettably docetic tendency in otherwise clear-thinking individuals; it is to be hoped that proper education along these lines will eventually counteract this trend.

In close, let me reiterate the wise counsel of the ancient writer, whose recognition that there is “a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl. 3:5a) surely reflects the experience of the reader of commentaries and the writer of sermons. May you, my students, take the time to gather not only your thoughts, but also your intellectual debris, as you proceed through your studies. And God bless you.

Princeton Theological Seminary, 1900

*To say nothing of the colloquial expression, “I’ll ‘dust’ your britches if I catch you at the jam jar again,” which meaning is certainly not in view here.

** Eschewing entirely, of course, that Philistine arrangement of plumage known as the “feather duster,” which generally serves to re-apply, rather than remove, the dust in question.



  1. jared said,

    November 9, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    So, I guess it would be ironic that this note was found wearing a thick coat of dust? This is a brilliantly constructed communique.

  2. November 10, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Wow, it really reads like a turn-of-the-(last)-century essay. Only one who reads a lot can write like this. But as one whose preferred filing method is decidedly horizontal, I am sufficiently chastened. You done dusted my britches. Nice job, Paige!

  3. Wayne Sparkman said,

    November 10, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Ah, for a return to the day when Christendom was a significant influence on the wider culture, as evidenced in this instance by the old blues standard, “Dust My Room.”

  4. greenbaggins said,

    November 10, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Paige, brilliant. So much fun. I am assuming that GBU stands for Green Baggins University?

  5. Jeff Cagle said,

    November 10, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    My house’s non-planar sections wish to file a notice of exception of substance.

  6. Paige Britton said,

    November 11, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Green Baggins U., indeed — where the tuition is cheap and the professor-student ratio is something like twenty-eight to two. I must have earned me a coupla degrees already.

    (But everything I needed to know about being a theologically literate goofball I learned from Hutch.)

  7. johnbugay said,

    November 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Much to my wife’s consternation, dust rarely has a chance to settle on my “theological library”. The stacks are never sorted in the same way twice, and are seldom in the same place.

    This was very funny :-)

  8. Cris D. said,

    November 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Very nice. I liked this: “such that no intruder, however helpfully industrious, could ever approximate it”

    Rather than “piling” – which refers to the arrangement of materials – I prefer to use the retrieval-oriented terminology, the Archaeological Approach. The more recently something was used, the closer to the top of the stack it will be found. I also prefer to call them stacks, as in, every library has stacks. Mine are frequently in horizontal stacks, not vertically on shelves.


  9. Paige Britton said,

    November 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Cris — that’s what “the sedimentation of intellectual debris” is all about, like leaves on the forest floor, or fossils in the sea…
    :) pb

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