How to …

How many ways could there be?

How many ways could there be?

Advice abounds and I suppose I’m adding to the abundance.

Mortimer Adler’s, “How to Read a Book,” is oft referred to as a classic and, therefore, is one of those books you must read. I haven’t read it. I’m not opposed to it. I don’t have anything against it. I just haven’t got to it and don’t know when I will. One does wonder how many ways there could be to read a book other than reading it, and maybe that’s why I should read that book.

Some suggest you read slowly through just a few books a year to get a mastery of them and others suggest you read quickly through many books to get a broad view. Donald Carson actually said he reads 500 books a year! He does go on to qualify that there’s reading and there’s reading and there’s reading. His words could be misconstrued but I believe he made a very good point about the difference between books and the attention they should be given. My own view accords so I will get to it.

All books are not equal because all authors are not equal. Sometimes authors are not even equal with themselves when their books across twenty years or more are compared. So books are not all worth equal attention and there’s a host of factors that contribute to this such as your current position in life, time, responsibilities, etc. Let me advance my methods and then give a final piece of advice that is guaranteed to be worth exactly what your paying for it.

Method or madness?

Some people read books very slowly, poring over each phrase, footnote, or Scripture reference in order to drain every drop out of it. I guess that’s fine but I’ve never done that. If I come across a dramatically profound section in a book, I will slow down and give it more time. My method of reading a book is to start at the beginning and read at my normal reading pace to the end. Nothing fancy, but it gets the potatoes washed and peeled and put in the stew.

I have three categories for books.

  1. Books to be read. This is where the majority of books go for me. I consider reading to be starting in the front and reading my way to the back. This is the bulk of my personal reading and I try to do it across several different types of books.
  2. Books to be referenced. These are books I am never going to read front to back. I go to a book like this for a particular reason and I’m going to read the relevant chapter(s) only. This would include books like, “An Introduction to the New Testament.”
  3. Books to be discarded. These are books that are not worth finishing. I will quit reading a book if it turns out to be insufferable. I don’t start too many books that I don’t finish, but there are some. I was reading something once that referenced “Don Quixote.” It’s one of those oft mentioned classics that I hadn’t read so I started it. I got about halfway through and chucked it. I found it long, rambling, boring, and without a point. It had some good sections here and there but I didn’t think it worth the time. Maybe I’m missing something but I have too many books I want to read to fool around with books I don’t want to read.

As I read, I do a couple of things; sometimes one or the other and sometimes both. I do a lot of reading on the Kindle app so I highlight any parts that are either great quotes or things that strike me. I may also write something about it in a notebook and particularly if it’s something I want to come back to later for more thought.

If I belong to a school of reading philosophy, it is the school of maintaining one’s personal compost heap. I like to build up layer after layer and let it set and mix and decompose and let the soil be nourished. I’ve personally found this method to fertilize the mind, but maybe it’s not for everybody. I don’t know. I don’t have everybody’s mind. I’m stuck with my own so I like to fill up and sort later.

I’m sure many can find fault with me and my methods. It’s like the time I received a criticism of my beard for being scraggly. I believe that was the term employed. The owner of the criticism was blessed to also be the owner of a full, thick beard, which I suspect he had as much to with as he did the distance of the crown of his head to the floor. I could only put lips together and nod in sympathy with his assessment and lament to him that I could only grow the beard I’ve got. No matter the effort expended, I can’t grow another man’s beard on my own face. Suffice it to say I can’t read with another man’s brain. I can only use the gray matter bestowed upon me from the womb.

A couple of fragments do not a basket full make

I was asked about reading recently and this subject is also one I have been thinking about writing something on so it seemed to work together. Let me finish with a couple of pieces of final advice. Read what you want to and the way you want to. We all have differences to the way we think and learn and the constraints on our time, not to mention our differing needs. Don’t worry too much about what others think you should read and the way you should do it. You should always process advice, keep what’s helpful for you and toss the rest. Never be a slave.

Finally, you shouldn’t worry too much about the number of books read in any given time. Always keep a book with you and with mobile devices it’s easier than ever. I remember one of the puritan writers saying something about learning the value of a quarter of an hour. One of the ways to redeem time is to push reading into all the margins of life. Do you have to wait a few minutes? Good, read for five or ten minutes. You will be surprised by how much you can read doing this.

Review: Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists

Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists
Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two stars means, “I didn’t like it.” Three stars means, “I liked it.” This is one of those occasions where I’m stuck somewhere between. I didn’t like the concept of preaching presented in this book–a twenty-four minute sermon, full of literary illustrations and allusions, delivered by a man or a woman. I also didn’t like the fact most of the examples came from fiction works.

I liked the main premise of the book: preachers who read widely will most likely become better preachers. I liked the many benefits of reading explained in this book. I liked the author’s attempts to eschew the utilitarian reading-for-illustrations mindset. He wrote such things as, “Illustrations can be tricky, as we shall see, and reading expressly for them is probably not such a good idea.” And, “But reading just for illustrations feels a little too much like work. It also feels as if I am missing the point of reading, just as if I read the Bible only to see what it has to say about the colors green and red. I want to be reading stories and articles for nobler reasons while an incident or insight or saying rises up from the page and begs to slip into one of my sermons.”

Good points are scattered throughout this book. You may also have your interest piqued and directed to some new books for you. New reading ideas are always welcome. I don’t recommend reading for illustrations, though occasionally a quote or reference might be useful. I prefer reading good works the way Tolkien envisioned it, to add duff to the forest floor of your mind.

Reading is beneficial for preachers and non-preachers as well. A reading mind is an expanding mind and a non-reading one is a shrinking mind. If you choose to read this book, read it carefully with discernment.

View all my reviews

Note: This review was originally posted at Short Booklog.

Reading Altitude

What have the prophets of Israel to do with fancy dress balls?

What have the prophets of Israel to do with fancy dress balls?

Advice for preachers from Jane Austen?

Dress balls, pretentious social etiquette, and pursuing husbands. Sound like a nightmare? I know. I understand.

To get past the fluff and frills, I recommend Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals. Leithart’s literary analyses are fascinating and he helps you see that Jane Austen was a brilliant writer, story crafter, and character artisan. There is much more to her writing than balls, ribbons, and meddlesome matchmakers. Whether you ever read anything by Austen or not, I still think Leithart’s book is worth reading.

As to her advice for preachers, it isn’t delivered directly. It is a statement about reading from her horror satire novel, Northanger Abbey. It is actually about taking the trouble to learn to read and that the difficulty is well worth it to be able to read.

you … may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worth-while (sic) to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it.[ref]Austen, Jane (2013-02-11). Jane Austen Collection: 18 Works, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Love and Friendship, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Lady Susan, Mansfield Park & more! (Kindle Locations 28480-28481). Doma Publishing House. Kindle Edition.[/ref]

This quote has another application beyond the struggle to learn spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. It is also true of reading above your own head. The brain is like a muscle and reading like exercise. It stretches and strengthens the mind. Sherlock Holmes theorized the brain was “like a little empty attic” where the acquisition of knowledge was furnishing the room. He believed the walls were not elastic and after a time, each addition of knowledge caused the irretrievable loss of another piece of knowledge.

While the human brain is certainly limited, I don’t think the detective had quite the right picture. Tolkien’s appraisal of the mind as a forest floor or compost heap is more apt. He spoke of the origin of his own stories as growing “like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”[ref]Carpenter, Humphrey (2000). J.R.R. Tolkien: a biography. (p. 126). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.[/ref] [pq]All that we see, hear, read, or think is thrown “on one’s personal compost-heap” to decompose into rich fertilizer for yields in the years ahead.[/pq]

The way to strengthen muscles is through progressive resistance. You keep lifting just beyond your ability until you are truly maxxed out. You strengthen your mind the same way. Read above your head and your capacity will grow. Be advised though that reading above your head is torturous for a time. Stick to it and you will steady out.

Just one final word of caution. Remembering Tolkien’s metaphor, what you toss on the pile is not ready for immediate use. It needs time to break down and mix. Reading beyond your means can be frustrating, tormenting, and exhilarating. You will be tempted by the excitement to wax eloquent at once. Be patient. A fruitful harvest is not reaped immediately the field is plowed or seed sown, but it will come.

So it is worthwhile to be tormented for a while by reading above your head to be able to read above your head for the rest of your life.

The Reading Preacher

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. ~ Ecclesiastes 12:12

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:12

What should preachers read?

I have been asked at different times and also have read and listened to different discussions about what kind of reading preachers should do. This discussion starts on the footing of two assumptions. First, the Bible is the one book for all preachers of the Gospel. God’s very Word is the primary place of reading, study, meditation, devotion, and memorization. All further references to reading is always to be taken as less than the reading of the Word of God.

The second assumed footing is that preachers should read. I love that assumption and believe it, though not everyone shares it. Some may see reading as a luxury at best that they don’t have time to do. Others may see reading as a distraction away from the more important works of the ministry. Still others may see reading as sinister and are afraid of reading any other man unless they be led astray. Other objections are made but I don’t want to try to answer all objections just now. Rather, let me give a few brief encouragements to reading before we pass on to the substance of reading.

The pastor/preacher needs to know a little bit about everything. Consider Jesus, Paul, and Solomon in their preaching and teaching. They incorporated familiarity with about all areas of life. They incorporated pieces of agriculture, business, investing, government, sailing, fishing, travel, geography, biology, botany, zoology, building, finance, labor, philosophy, literature, history, sports, war, and more [ref]McDurmon, Joel (2009, May 15). What Does Your Preacher Know? [Web Article]. Retrieved May 15, 2009, from[/ref]

It would take a lifetime, perhaps longer, to gain experience in all these areas, but you can read about them and expand your knowledge sooner. The point here is not to gain knowledge to flaunt or act as a know-it-all. Knowledge without wisdom only tends to arrogance (1 Corinthians 8:1). You must be a thoughtful reader, reflecting on what you read, comparing with your life experience, and discerning truth. Being able to use and apply the knowledge you gain will make you a more competent teacher (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24). If you are gaining knowledge with wisdom, it will humble you as you begin to understand how much you don’t know.

Areas of Reading
With the aforementioned in mind, let me suggest that the preacher’s reading should be in different areas of emphasis. Some of these will be directly related to Bible study and others to life in the world. The following list is alphabetical and not in order of importance. Some areas will be more naturally interesting to you than others, but I think it is important at times to read outside your own niche interests.

  • Apologetics – Give preference in this category to presuppositional authors rather than evidentialist authors. It will take a while to get a handle on it, but it will be time well spent. I confess in the beginning of my ministry, I ignored apologetics altogether. I thought the subject was about nothing more than arguing with atheists and agnostics and it seemed pointless. I was very wrong. While apologetics does deal with unbelievers, it is more important to pastoral ministry. It will help you strengthen the faith of your people which is under relentless attack daily.
  • Biblical Studies – These are topical books that deal with some subject of study from the Bible. These books focus on one primary topic, such as the ten commandments, the tabernacle, the life of Jesus, etc.
  • Biography – Christian biography is at the top of this list, i.e. pastors, missionaries, etc. However, don’t discount biographies of different people in history such as generals, presidents, kings, scientists, inventors, athletes, and business men. Much can be learned in various areas by reading about people in different walks of life.
  • Business/Personal Finance/Self-Improvement – These books must be read carefully, but the preacher needs to know about business and how to steward different areas of life, e.g. money, time management, and personal discipline.
  • Church History – The folly of youth is displayed about every ten years when a college-age group of kids think they have discovered the gospel and the church for the first time in centuries. To borrow phrase of Paul, “I would not have you to be ignorant.” The history of the Lord’s church is a history of God’s faithfulness and the truth of His Word (Matthew 16:18). Neither His church, nor His gospel has been lost. His Word does not fail.
  • Commentaries – You probably won’t read a lot of commentaries from beginning to end, but you should be reading in them relevant to different passages you are studying. Commentaries sometimes provide exegetical and application help, but are usually most helpful in getting your own thoughts going about a text. They are also helpful to check your work. If no one at any time has ever seen what you are seeing in a text, you should proceed very cautiously.
  • Logic, Rhetoric, and Argument – Understanding logic and such will help you understand the reasoned arguments in the Bible, detect logical fallacies and specious reasoning in others, and form sound arguments of your own. You will become a more critical thinker and a more apt teacher.
  • Marriage and Family – This subject is of vital importance in the community, country, church, and the world. The family–husband, wife, and children–is the God-designed institution and is to be honored highly. Be careful in this area to select biblically faithful authors and not the worldly-minded.
  • Pastoral/Preaching – The call to ministry cannot be taken too seriously. The preacher needs to grow immensely in this area. You will have many experiences as you go along and reading well will help you to consider those experiences and grow in wisdom from them. Your preaching, also, can always improve and should. Your grandmother loves you and thinks you’re the best preacher since Spurgeon, but she is not exactly an unbiased and capable critic. The pursuit to grow is unending for the preacher of God’s Word. Seek authors in this area who are consciously competent to be a real help to you.
  • Sermons – Few sermons are worth reading, but those that are, are worth reading. Spurgeon’s sermons are well worth reading. You must be extremely careful here to know how to read and profit from the sermons of others. Don’t plagiarize or puppet some other preacher.
  • Theology – Read systematic and biblical theologies. They each have their place and value. Biblical theology is the fad right now and has bred some peculiar snobbery where systematics are denounced and despised. They don’t know what they are talking about and will be bumped off the bandwagon on the next bend. We need both theologies and we need to learn from both and understand what each contributes.
  • World History – All history is God’s history. He is always at work whether we can tell it or not. We need to know about the kingdoms of the world and what their place on God’s stage is for His own glory.
  • Writing – The art and craft of writing is really about thinking well and effective communication. You may not aspire to publishing but learning more about language and its use will help you in forming sermons, writing letters, and being a better communicator. It will also make you a better reader, listener, and learner.

I realize that list seems like a lot, and it is, but often one book will cover many of these different areas. It is not as daunting as it might seem. There are other categories that could be listed, but I have tried to be specific to the preacher. I have one final category that I wanted to say a little more about, so I saved it for the end.

Recreational Reading?
I do recommend reading works of fiction and literature. Stick mostly with the classic works and authors. Be very selective among any current authors. It might seem like a waste, but I believe such reading is beneficial. I don’t think it should dominate our reading, but it has a place. Think about some of these benefits.

  • The reading in the above areas is mostly heavy reading. Fiction is relaxing to the mind and provides a break. I don’t mean we should suspend reason or truth to read fiction, but such books can be refreshing. They put your mind into different avenues of thought
  • Fiction stimulates the imagination and fuels creativity. Good story will add spice to the blandness of your mind.
  • Fiction can expand your mind and your vocabulary. This helps you learn, think, and communicate more clearly and effectively.
  • Knowledgeable and professional writers across all areas agree on at least one thing. If you want to write well, read well. Reading those who are masters of their craft will teach you to be a better reader and writer.
  • Though I have grouped fiction in the “recreational” category, you can already see there is an educative value in it. Good fiction can help us understand the world we live in and the human condition. It’s not a primary source, but it is a good source. The characters and situations are fictional and sometimes the world is even a fantasy, but there are still things to be learned. This often works through comparing reality to this particular view of reality, or mythical reality. The parables use this sort of method in instructing, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

In this vein, I leave you with one last recommendation. Read the works of Arthur Conan Doyle on Sherlock Holmes. You can find these collected into one volume for cheap. Read a story from time to time. Holmes as a character is not without his flaws. He is the embodiment of rationalist modernity. Holmes’ worldview is strictly naturalistic materialism. He believes everything can be explained by natural means. However, he provides numerous examples of logical thinking and inductive reasoning. It may not suit everyone’s tastes, but I have found them enjoyable and even informative.

I hope this can be of some help. I also hope you will comment and we can have a good conversation.