On the top shelf of my living room bookcase sits the red-jacketed volume 54 of the American Edition of Luther's Works: Table Talk. Right next to it, of course, sits the yellow-jacketed volume 53, Luther's hymns and German language liturgy. On the other side is my 40-year-old copy of Williston Walker's History of the Christian Church.

I love these books, but I rarely take them down and read them. I can't remember the last time that Table Talk came down from its perch.

Since I got the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Classics CD a few weeks ago, I have consulted Table Talk multiple times on my laptop computer.

The traditional bookcase has become something of a shrine, something like an old-fashioned china cabinet in which we kept our best dishes—the ones we prized but rarely used. My computer, on the other hand, is my constant companion and servant.

Back to Luther. At the beginning of May, I realized it was the 500th anniversary of Luther's first Mass. That was a troubling day for him and a hinge on which the door to the future Reformation swung. So I opened the CCEL Classics CD and read his later reflections on how he had then viewed the mass:

When I first began to celebrate mass in popedom, and to make such crossings with marvelous twistings of the fingers, and could not rightly hit the way, I said: "Mary, God's mother, how am I plagued with the mass, and especially with the crossings." Ah, Lord God! we were in those times poor plagued people, and yet it was nothing but mere idolatry. They terrified some in such sort with the words of consecration, especially good and godly men who meant seriously, that they trembled and quaked at the pronouncing of these words: Hoc est corpus meum, for they were to pronounce them, sine ulla hesitatione; he that stammered, or left out but one word, committed a great sin. Moreover, the words were to be spoken, without any abstraction of thought, in such a way, that only he must hear them that spake them, and none of the people standing by.

And while rummaging through the CD-ROM's electronic pages, a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings, I had a serendipitous moment. With all the renewed discussion of gun control, I ran across Luther's take on the topic: 

Cannons and firearms are cruel and damnable machines. I believe them to have been the direct suggestion of the devil. Against the flying ball no valor avails; the soldier is dead, ere he sees the means of his destruction. If Adam had seen in a vision the horrible instruments his children were to invent, he would have died of grief.

I own a few of the books on the new CCEL Classics CD. But there are many more that are not on the church history, theology, or devotional sections of my bookshelves. The 118 titles on this CD-ROM tilt toward the devotional classics with a salting of theological writings.

Thus you'll find Madame Guyon and Francois Fenelon, William Law and Brother Lawrence, Ignatius of Loyola and Catherine of Siena. And some of the more theological works remind us that the theology of earlier generations was written with a largely pastoral purpose. Thus Richard Baxter's Saints' Everlasting Rest and Jonathan Edwards's A Treatise on the Religious Affections. But there is formal theology here as well, if you have a hankering for Aquinas and Anselm.

The CCEL Classics CD comes with CCEL Desktop software that mimics the display and navigation conventions of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. (For background on CCEL, see my article, "Preaching Augustine," from May 2005.) If you're a confirmed user of the rich and deep resources of that website, you'll feel at home here. If the navigation and search conventions are new to you, it will take a little while to get used to them.

One of the main reasons for acquiring these books on CD-ROM is to avoid being tethered to an internet connection. The system worked well for me at first, but then I started having difficulty opening books on the disk. The CCEL Desktop was fighting with my firewall. But a quick scan of the troubleshooting document showed me how to find a directory through which I could open any of the books in .pdf format. I found that I preferred reading the .pdf versions and have been going that route ever since.

Now, when I'm in an airport lounge where I don't want to pay for a wireless connection, or on an airplane where none is available, I have a large Christian library tucked away in a small space in my briefcase.

If you don't travel and you're always online, there is still a good reason to purchase this CD-ROM. Sure, you can access any of these books and hundreds more at www.ccel.org, but the Christian Classics Ethereal Library is a labor of love that has greatly enriched the Christian community by its offerings. CCEL deserves ongoing support. Even though the scanning, editing, and mark-up are all done by volunteers, the web costs and other overhead are still real and ongoing. Support the project with a purchase (http://www.ccel.org/store/store.html).

Some additional advantages to the CCEL Classics CD:

  1. You can download additional books from among the hundreds available at CCEL and integrate them into the library on your hard drive. There is no fee for these additional downloads, but they would appreciate a donation.

  2. The text of these books is fully searchable using the CCEL Desktop Software. You must, however, actually install the books you want to search on your hard drive. You can't search feature books that remain resident only on the CD.

  3. When used in conjunction with the three Bible translations, the search software will cross-reference Bible commentaries and dictionaries—and even creeds and catechisms, giving you a quick shortcut from verse to classic commentary. Like all classic Christian material, these commentaries must be read in their historical context, however, and the careful Bible student will want to search out more contemporary scholarship as well.

If there are classic Christian writings you are likely to return to in preparing sermons, Bible studies, or other writing, this is a good way to create a good research library. Want to know what the Ante-Nicene Fathers or the Reformers thought about a subject? You could have much of that material resident in one place on your computer and survey a topic rapidly.

The book is evolving. The way we read and the way we study are changing. The CCEL Classics CD is a welcome addition to our brave new bookshelf.

David Neff is executive editor of Christian History & Biography and editor-in-chief of the Christianity Today Media Group.