What Kind of Reader Are You?

Hopefully you and I are readers, period.

That assumed, it remains to examine one’s approach to reading.

Unlike TV or movies, you can’t really go passive in the discipline of reading, especially works of nonfiction. You have to engage.

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren argue in their book How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading that reading more actively vs. less actively makes for the better reader who actually demands something of himself as he reads. Therefore he earns a higher return on his investment as opposed to the more passive type that coasts through a book or article.

Nowhere does this show itself more plainly than in tackling the work of a more demanding author. Case in point? William Wilberforce and his Practical View of Christianity. I saw that deer-in-the-headlights look from some of our men at Saturday’s Oxford Club meeting as we tried to make sense of the introduction. I likened the book to treasure to be mined, not at six feet under, but more like 600 feet under. It won’t give way to its rewards without a lot of digging.

In the interest of warding off attrition in our club meetings and in promoting the virtue of reading in a demanding kind of way, I pulled Adler and Van Doren’s book from the shelf looking for help.

Perhaps more insight will come in further posts, but let me start here with their simple prescription for active reading: Ask questions while you read–questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. What questions, you may ask? They suggest the following:

There are four main questions you must ask about any book.
1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.
2. What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.
3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.
4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.

You don’t have to participate in the Oxford Club for Men to aspire toward becoming a demanding reader.

As for me and my house, the more demanding readers in our church, the better.

Why Read Old Books & How Often

This Saturday our Oxford Club for Men dives into the introduction and first chapter of A Practical View of Christianity by William Wilberforce. For information on the meeting click here.

I confess I am eager to tackle such a challenging manuscript by someone long since gone to his heavenly reward for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this counsel from another voice from the past, C. S. Lewis:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books…. Now this seems topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old…. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light…. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between…. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books (“Introduction” in On the Incarnation by Athanasisus, 3-5).

I can smell the salt air already. Hope to see many of the brothers on Saturday at 7.

A Frightening Prospect

Someone has said, “You’ll be the same person next year except for the books you read and the people you engage.” Surely it isn’t as simple as that, but the force of the statement makes a valuable point. What we read and who we engage do make a difference in to what extent we grow from one year to the next. When Paul tells Timothy to demonstrate progress evident to all (1 Tim. 4:15) I take it to mean that logging another twelve months on the calendar with little to no recognizable change is something to fear in a good sense of the word.

So, how goes your reading this year? No book matters more than the Bible. Are you in the book of books? Are you persevering with your reading through the Bible in a year? Moses emphasized the importance of reading here above anywhere else with these words in Deut. 32:47 – “For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life.” But what about other books?  It’s already March. When was the last time you read a book on theology, marriage, family, parenting, the church, evangelism, prayer, missions, or a host of other weighty subjects? You make an investment in your spiritual progress when you read substantive books. Why not make a goal to read nine books between now and 2013? That’s only a book a month.

What about the people in your life? Paul writes in 1 Cor. 11:1 – “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” With whom are you spending time for the purpose of spiritual formation? Whom do you know going so hard after God that to imitate them would be for you to imitate Christ? When did you last ask someone to disciple you? To mentor you in spiritual things? To join you in a Fight Club? Nobody grows by accident. Perhaps it is time to get intentional about making progress in the things of God by connecting with others who will challenge your socks off.

What kind of people will we be come January 2013?

May our progress be evident to all for the books we have read and the people we have engaged!

Vacation – Hunting, Fishing, & READING

Though I spent numerous hours tracking wild game and fishing deep waters these past two weeks, I also managed a fair amount of redemptive reading time. Though I don’t rival Mark Dever in his book devouring pace (nor, I admit, do I wish to!), I do relish the prospect of using time away for tackling reading material in a sustained and concentrated fashion that downtime allows.

I actually got to read through nearly all of the current issue of Christianity Today. I particularly enjoyed the article by the late John R. W. Stott entitled, Salt and Light: Four Ways Christians Can Influence the World. A favorite quote from that piece? Christians are sober-minded, biblical realists, who have a balanced doctrine of creation for redemption and consummation. We are not powerless. Stott’s article offered some helpful push back to Gilbert and DeYoung’s new book and a tinge of pessimism therein. More on that later in this post.

For leisure reading I thoroughly enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s book, now a hit movie, The Help. I suggested this read for my neighborhood book club’s November meeting. It tells the tale of a woman who anonymously writes the account of several black maids working as servants of whites in Jackson, Mississippi homes during the awakening civil rights movement. Stockett writes with much pathos and humor. I quickly saw why it became a bestseller. A favorite quote from it? Hilly hands out lies like the Presbyterians hand out guilt. Not that Reformed Baptists aren’t capable of the same.

I took two ministry-related works with me. After our last joint leadership team meeting, particularly its marathon length, I wondered if our approach to board meetings needed some tweaking. I recalled a book in my library by Alexander Strauch I read some time ago, Meetings That Work: A Guide to Effective Elders’ Meetings. I pulled it from the shelf and determined to give it another slow going over asking the Lord for direction in how to serve better my fellow leaders in making the most of our meeting times together. Lord willing, some of the fruit of that will show in crafting the agenda for this Thursday night’s meeting. A pearl from Strauch? An eldership team that is solely work-oriented is imbalanced. It is missing out on loving relationships, a key element of a healthy church leadership team.

The other ministry related book I determined to camp out in I mentioned earlier in this post. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert recently published a timely work called What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. These men do a great job of interacting with the current debate over the nature of the mission of the church particularly as it pertains to mercy ministry and good works in the culture. My earlier remark about the tinge of pessimism (a function of their eschatology if I guess correctly) notwithstanding, I found this book very helpful in sorting through some very practical questions about discipleship and to what extent the church should take part in mercy ministry toward advancing the gospel in the world. The rub according to DeYoung and Gilbert? In a world of finite resources and limited time the church cannot do everything. We will not be effective in our mission if everything is mission. I am really glad I bought a bunch of these for $5 each when I had the chance and got to put them into the hands of some friends of mine. What a steal!

Finally, Nancy and I kept pace with our growth group homework by reading through lesson one in our How People Change work book. One of the best things about our Idaho retreats is our unhurried times of reading, conversing, and praying together as a married couple. A favorite tidbit from our friends Lane and Tripp? Christianity’s change process does not revolve around a system of redemption but around the Person who redeems.

It’s good to be home. I’m looking forward to bringing the word tomorrow in 1 Peter 5:5. But I am grateful for the respite, physically, mentally and spiritually. Thanks for praying for Nancy and me these past two weeks.

How People Change – Our Real Problem

Vacation for me, among other things, means time to read. Lots of leisurely, lovely, luxurious time to devour a book from cover-to-cover without lots of stops and starts.

I got to do that this past week in NC with How People Change (Tim Lane & Paul Tripp, New Growth Press, 2006, 258 pages).

I liked it and I hated it at the same time.

I liked it because of its practical aim. The goal of this book is to help you grasp the implications of the good news of Jesus Christ for your identity and the daily trials and temptations you face (p. 36). Who doesn’t face daily trials and temptations? Who doesn’t at times feel stuck within a malaise of difficulties that seem to leave a believer powerless and decidedly unspiritual? I know I do.

I found lots of good stuff here, biblically-based and practically-applied principles for addressing how God works through the heat of trials to reveal the thorns of our flesh to lead us to the cross of Christ to bring forth the fruit of the gospel. That’s the book in a nutshell.

I hated it because it put me on a path of examining my heart that revealed way too much of its sinfulness. Don’t you hate that?

This book reminded me of one of the truths I have struggled most to accept in the process of my personal sanctification. In the immortal words of Pogo, We have met the enemy and he is us!

While external conditions can be very influential in our lives and should not be ignored, the Bible says that they are only the occasion for sin, not the cause. Difficulties in life do not cause sin. Our background, relationships, situation, and physical condition only provide the opportunity for the thoughts, words, and actions to reveal whatever is already in our hearts. Our hearts are the ultimate cause of our responses, and where the true spiritual battle is fought … [while] we must never minimize our suffering – ours or anyone else’s … we must make the important distinction between the occasion for sin and the ultimate cause of sin. This will determine what you think the solution to the problem will be …The bible says that my real problem is not psychological (low self-esteem or unmet needs), social (bad relationships and influences), historical (my past), or physiological (my body). They are significant influences, but my real problem is spiritual (my straying heart and my need for Christ). I have replaced Christ with something else, and as a consequence, my hearts is hopeless and powerless. Its responses reflect its bondage to whatever it is serving instead of Christ. Ultimately my real problem is a worship disorder.

So during my week of vacation in NC the Lord confronted me with my impatience, my hero-worship, my love of comfort, my sense of entitlement, oh I could go on. But how depressing a thought is that?

Thank God Lane and Tripp take the reader to the gospel, my only hope and your only hope.

If you are feeling stuck and won’t mind the pain to get to the gain of the gospel, get a copy of this book and read it before you go on vacation so you don’t ruin your vacation.

Read or Get Out

Another Oxford Club meeting for men lies just around the corner a week from Saturday. I just finished reading chapter 13, The Leader and Reading, in Oswald Sanders’ Spiritual Leadership.

In it the author cites the example of John Wesley as a model for leaders who wish to lead well.

John Wesley had a passion for reading and most of it was done on horseback. He rode sometimes ninety and often fifty miles in a day. He read deeply on a wide range of subjects. It was his habit to travel with a volume of science or history or medicine propped on the pommel of his saddle, and in that way he got through thousands of volumes. After his Greek New Testament, three great books took complete possession of Wesley’s mind and heart during his Oxford days. ‘It was about this time that he began the earnest study of “The Imitation of Christ,” “Holy Living and Dying” and “The Serious Call.” These three books became very much his spiritual guides.’ He told the younger ministers of the Wesleyan societies either to read or to get out of the ministry!

Apparently Wesley’s students had little doubt as to just where he stood on the importance of reading to the life of the pastor!

While I don’t recommend imitating Wesley’s example in a modern day version of reading while driving, there is something to be said about mastering some books thoroughly as opposed to reading widely alone.

Charles Spurgeon apparently agreed:

…master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and re-read them, masticate them, and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times, and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, … Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. In reading let your motto be “much, not many.”

C.H. Spurgeon, To Workers with Slender Apparatus, (Sword and Trowel, December 1873)

Brothers, I invite you to join us next Saturday, July 24, at 7 AM, at the church office, for discussion and prayer around these and other provocative thoughts concerning the leader and his time and his reading.