Responding to Readers on Reading

February 5, 2006

Thanks to all those who sent comments and questions on my earlier post, "Some Thoughts on the Reading of Books."  I really respect your thoughtful questions, and I will attempt to respond in kind.

What About Reading Fiction?

I believe that literature and the fictive imagination are among God’s gifts.  I read a great deal of fiction, and try to keep up on what the culture is reading.  That does not mean that I always have to read what the world is reading, but I do read enough to know what is shaping the minds of those around me. Beyond that, I truly enjoy losing myself in a story.  I am a big fan of authors such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, and I read quite a bit of contemporary fiction.  Of course, one must choose carefully here, and fiction is recreational reading — not study. 

One of the main values of reading fiction and great literature is that it develops the imagination and enhances literary style.  Just admit that you like fiction, if you do — but keep it in its place.  I keep a literary project going at all times, but it falls last in priority.  Plunder the Egyptians, and read the classics of literature. 

What About Reading Bad Theology?

That is perhaps an inelegant way of putting the issue, but that’s the way it was asked.  Fair enough.  In one sense, the answer to this question depends upon your ministry and theological vocation.  Most persons should read very little bad theology, period.  That is, given the stewardship of time and attention (as well as the stewardship of mind and heart), most persons should devote themselves to reading Bishop J.C. Ryle, not Bishop J. S. Spong.  Those who will teach theology, debate theological issues, and delve into deep study in these areas will have to read a great deal of awful stuff. 

Pastors should certainly read enough to know what is going on at the level of popular theology (be brave and go into a Christian bookstore) and in the cultural conversation.  My library has an entire collection of various heretical writings, ranging from the heresies of the ancients to the heresies of the present day.  I read them in order to understand them, to confront them, and to correct their heresies with the truth.

How will you understand Augustine if you do not understand Pelagius (whose writings are mostly lost)?  How can you understand Calvin without knowing about Servetus?  Machen without Fosdick?  Mahaney without Jakes?  Oops, that last one was as yet a dream.

I have hundreds of books in Roman Catholic theology — and these make me all the more committed to the Reformation.  I can’t teach theological method to Ph.D. students without being conversant and knowledgeable in this area.  Yet, I wouldn’t put these books in my church library.  Time and place, people.

Similarly, I wrote my dissertation on the evangelical response to Karl Barth.  Barth was sub-orthodox in his general system and in the outworking of his theology, and it is important for evangelicals to know why.  So I require my doctoral students to read Barth, but I wouldn’t hand Barth to a layman looking for a book on doctrine.

Evangelical scholars have a double duty in scholarship.  We have to read the liberals’ books as well as the works of evangelical scholarship.  The liberals, on the other hand, generally do not bother to read the evangelicals.  Orthodox doctrine just doesn’t interest them, and they see us as hopelessly wedded to a dead and oppressive tradition.  We must outread the opposition.

What About Reading Big Projects?

When I talk about big reading project, I mean big.  Set the goal of reading through great theologians.  Get the works of Edwards and start reading.  Read Luther and Calvin and Bunyan and the Puritans.  Buy sets (amazingly inexpensive these days, often many times less than our forefathers would have paid, adjusted for inflation).  Don’t try to read through Luther in a month.  Set yourself a project that may take a couple of years.  Just think of what you can read in a lifetime.  I find myself constantly remembering what I have read in these great projects, because reading in a disciplined and cumulative fashion really aids memory and recollection.

What About Little Reading Projects?

Plan ahead for several smaller reading projects each year. Right now, start collecting books on a few topics for next year.  These might be projects on specific doctrines or theological issues, or on developments like the emerging church or a question related to the family.  Ask for book recommendations in these areas and create shelf space (or stacks on the floor) to collect the books together.  Then, go for it.  You can do several of these a year if you plan well and read regularly.  You will learn more, I believe, by reading this way than by reading more randomly — even if some of the same books are read. 

What About Writing in Books?

I decide what kind of marking system I will use for each book.  Books read for immediate concern that are not likely to have prize space in my library a few years from now are generally marked with pen, yellow highlighter, and 3M reading flags.  Books of lasting value are most often marked in pencil with reading flags.  The flags are made of light adhesive and mark a page for immediate future reference.  Books of great inherent value, special editions, and antiquarian volumes are not marked at all.  Forbid the thought. 

As far as markings, just develop your own.  I mark off statements and paragraphs of special interest and I even argue with books in the margins.  I often write key words at the bottom right corner of a page.

How Much Time Should I Give to Reading?

That question is impossible to answer on its face.  A disciplined program of reading (beyond sermon preparation) that averages two hours a day will accumulate to great riches.  You will lose some days in other urgencies and will find more than two hours on other days.  Think long term.  Also, different stages of life bring demand different patterns.  Don’t expect to get a great deal of reading done right after the birth of a baby in the family.  Take hold of the time you have and make the most of it.  Read Carl Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority aloud to your babies as they are rocked to sleep.  Henry’s penchant for elaborate compound nouns will work wonders on the baby.  The theological arguments will be good for your soul.  See . . . a win-win for good reading.

More to come.  Thanks for the good questions.  Your interest in these notes in reading encourages me.

Speaking of encouragement, I was really encouraged by C.J.’s posting, "A Passion form Reading and Learning."  Thank for listing Calvin and Hobbes, C.J..  Christopher and I are big fans.

Mark, I will be publishing a full review of Barna’s Revolution in about a week.  I’ll try to drop some comments before then. 

C.J., here is my Super Bowl prediction:  The winner will be either the Seattle Seahawks or the Pittsburg Steelers.  I heard that inside scoop on TBN.  Just call it a word of knowledge.

Back to reading.  Tonight I am reading Bernard-Henri Levy’s, American Vertigo.  Levy, a French philosopher (and atheist) retraces the steps of Alexis de Tocqueville (and then some).  Best lines thus far:  The banks in America look like churches.  But here is a church that looks like a bank."  (On Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.)