Results tagged “reading” from Reformation21 Blog

Of the reading of many books...

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"There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it." - Bertrand Russell

I've noted, with some degree of envy, the lists of pastors and others who speak of their top ten favorite books they've read this year. To be honest, I don't think I could even write a top ten list on this topic. I'm not sure I've read enough books this year to make a top ten list, and will struggle to fulfill my editor's request for the annual books in review post.

I am not against the voracious reader by any means; but I am somewhat perplexed by the penchant of some who make public their impressive reading habits. The most learned people I know don't need to tell everyone how widely read they are.  

Seeing how many books some pastors (and home-schoolers) read can give one a temporary crisis of assurance. But maybe they don't have to prepare two sermons each week, visit people, raise several children, show hospitality, pay attention to their wife, answer a hundred emails a week, and take out the papers and the trash. 

So I'm writing this short post to tell you that you can still be a Christian, even a Confessionally Reformed Christian, if you don't read more than 10 books a year. You don't need to feel (too) inadequate. You don't need to post pictures on Facebook of famous libraries, telling everyone how much you wish you could live in one. You don't need to claim this picture below is your recent Amazon book order:

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I think the only thing worse than bragging about the books we read is bragging about how little sleep you've had the previous night (or bragging that you don't care what people think, which is a dead give-away that in fact you do).

Quite apart, then, from the manner in which we inform others of our reading habits, let's not forget that the only book we actually have to read is God's book (see Matt. 22:29; Josh. 1:8; Deut. 17:18; Ezra 7:10; Job 23:12; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 17:11). His book should always be our #1 priority. Is it? We should aim to master its contents. Do we? Be a man or woman of the Scriptures. It isn't a sin to have no clue who Tolkien is, but it may be a sin to be grossly ignorant of the elementary truths of God's word because of neglect of the Bible.  

In this Reformed world where many aren't afraid to speak of their reading habits, I'm still shocked at the relative poor knowledge of the Scriptures that characterizes Western Christians who have access to a multitude of Bibles and study Bibles. Luther worried that even his own books would keep men and women from reading the Scriptures. A lot of seminarians come to Seminary with woeful biblical knowledge, and I wonder if they leave having made much improvement in this area. 

Pastors should be especially well-versed in the Scriptures. It is easy to tell when a preacher is comfortable in God's word. The extremely learned Thomas Goodwin read widely. But his own son said of his dad:

"...But the Scriptures were what he most studied..."

Samuel Hopkins observed of Jonathan Edwards that he studied the Scriptures:

"...more than all other books..."

What is the most deplorable mistake that students of theology make? According to John Owen:

"I know not a more deplorable mistake in the studies of the divines, both preachers and others, than their diversion from an immediate, direct study of the Scriptures themselves unto the studying of commentators, critics, scholiasts, annotators, and the like helps...Not that I condemn the use and study of them, which I wish men were more diligent in, but desire pardon if I mistake...by the experience of my own folly for many years, that many which seriously study the things of God do yet rather make it their business to inquire after the sense of other men from the Scriptures than to search studiously into them themselves" (Works, 4:213).

Not a few of us can relate to Owen's confession. But it is no coincidence that some of the best theologians over church history were men of the Scriptures first and foremost, otherwise they would have, like Berkhof, merely regurgitated Reformed theology!

So read a lot, but aim to read and understand God's Word, so you can form your own views and opinions:

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"Wood drastically.." - "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth"? You got that from Vickers' "Work in Essex County," page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter?

Shallow and narrow

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pile of books 7 small.jpgOne of the joys, if we choose to call it that, of the turn of the year is the "books wot I red" lists that emanate from bloggers left, right and centre. Some of them are simply crass arrogance - the "I read bigger, better, harder, higher, or simply more books than you" approach, a bit like those posts that slide out before the holidays suggesting the thirty tomes that the great and the good will be knocking back in their five days by the seaside. Some of the lists are genuine attempts to encourage and direct others in their reading or the well-meaning surveys of those who read more rapidly, more widely or in a more disciplined way than the rest of us. Some are combined with, or set alongside, the ten or twenty or fifty books that every Christian should read. So, for example, "The twenty books published this year that I read that every other Christian should read."

But when you flick through a few of these, a pattern begins to emerge. Whether or not it's your year-end or all-time lists, most of the books are often fairly predictable. What's particularly disappointing is when the all-time lists include a significant majority of predictable authors from the same circles writing over the last ten years or so. I have seen a couple recently in which, having read the first five, I could have finished off the list for the chap in question, it being so clear the trajectory he was on.

I suspect that we are all prone to this (notice, I did not yet say guilty) to some degree. Most of us, either of necessity or habit or developed preference, have a measure of limit or focus to our reading at any particular time. If I am preparing a series of sermons, researching a particular person or period, or just enjoying something more than usual, my patterns of reading will reflect an element of concentration. Beyond that, we doubtless gravitate toward what we enjoy and profit from - reliable authors, favoured schools of thought, sweet places and stirring periods. That is fair enough, and understandable over time.

However, despite the Pavlovian salivation that occurs whenever anyone mentions the sainted Lewis, well-known for his critique of chronological snobbery in our reading, few seem to be taking him too seriously (whether or not they are confessed Lewis-slobberers). Indeed, the problem spreads beyond the temporal into the topical and the authorial and the geographical.

Too many of those lists show a narrowness and a shallowness that goes beyond the myopic and borders on the deliberately blind. Few contain anything more than a passing nod to anything too far outside the comfort zone. How will we ever test and assess and grow if we refuse to read anything that does not merely buttress or endorse our own preferred authors, preconceived notions, precious systems and protected memes? Some of these lists read like little more than exercises in how to pronounce 'shibboleth' properly.

I am not saying that we should indulge an appetite for pap or an itch for poison. Less mature readers usually need safer boundaries than more mature readers. But even the less mature could and should read beyond the hackneyed round of a few religious gurus. All should read those books which - without ever going outside the bounds of substantial orthodoxy - push us to think in ways we never otherwise would. Those starting out need to get into a groove, not drop into a pit. For most of us, it does us good to be stretched, challenged, engaged, taken out of our depth. If we are well-grounded in the faith, such a process can helpfully stir us, exercise us and ultimately strengthen us.

Take a few minor examples: you are a dyed-in-the-wool right wing reactionary of the sort who believes that the injunction to be subject to the governing authorities is somehow suspended in some way when speaking of and dealing with the Blairs and the Obamas of this world. Read a little Christopher Wright, and the first time you come up against his (let the reader understand) sentimental promotion of a left wing agenda of social (read socialist!) justice in the name of the Lord and Anglicanism you shy like a startled mustang. Fine, but once you calm down, you need to ask yourself where his notions and convictions come from, and go back to your Bible, and sieve his conclusions through the grid of Scripture, and assess and learn and argue. At worst, you have tested your own convictions against the convictions of another, and decided that - though you may have a little extra nuance - you see no particular need to shift your most fundamental anchor points. You might even wonder if you have been reading the Bible with one eye closed, and become determined to be more honest with Scripture and with yourself, even if you still can't see what Mr Wright sees. Or, you are a high Presbyterian who believes that Baptists cannot be considered covenantal theologians, let alone in any way Reformed, and so you insist on referring to them as Anabaptists and dreaming of the day when a properly established Christian state is once again free to persecute such. It might not hurt you to read through some of the material recovering, interacting with and rehearsing some of the seventeenth century material and its underlying convictions, so that in the future your invective is marginally less marred by ignorance. Or, you are a persuaded cessationist, steadfast in your proper conviction that the apostolic gifts ceased with the office of the apostles while still delighting in and relying upon the continued operations of the Holy Spirit. Fair enough, but what about reading your differing brothers at their most intelligent and reasonable, so that you can at least understand why they believe what they say, can see the differences between what is claimed to be the case and what usually happens when someone lays claim to such gifts, and can more thoughtfully and graciously expose the exegetical flaws and practical dangers of their position?

Whatever our particular anchor points, it often does no harm to consider why someone would drop their anchor some little distance from our own. If nothing else, it might get your blood flowing. Who knows, you might even learn something? Better still, we should be deliberately searching out those who have gone before us with reputations for genuine godliness and sacrificial service who shake us out of our crassly comfortable little ruts and make us wonder whether or not we have ever grasped the greatness and the glory of the Lord.

So, let us get outside our own century and our own circle. Let us have lists with a little of a patristic flavour, with a few of the best medievals, a dose of the Reformers, a shot of the Puritans and their successors, a fillip of the eighteenth century men, a snack on the best that the nineteenth has to offer, and a smattering of the twentieth, as well as the low-lying fruit of the twenty-first. Let the breeze of the centuries waft over your souls. Roam the world where the truth has taken root - let the theologians of Europe and Africa and Asia and Australia, and perhaps even America, expand your sense as they wrestle with and apply theology in a context utterly unlike your own. Are you more of a historian? Read some biblical theology! Systematics your thing? How about some missiology? Linguistics float your boat? Dive into a few more biographies. Love your new Calvinists? Read some old ones - get into the Puritans! More of a Genevan? Have a dig around in the Calvinistic Methodists. Stuck in the sentiment of the Victorians? Take a bracing dose of a scholarly Scot. Mired in the multiplied divisions of the Puritans? Shake yourself loose with a canter through the church fathers. Plodding through the Princetonians? Dive into the Particular Baptists. Drowning in the Particular Baptists? Get stuck into the English or Continental Reformers.

As you think about your reading for the coming year, might I suggest that you take up something, early on, that is very much not what you would incline toward. Sprinkle a little seasoning into your reading, slide something spicy into your bland book pile, and add a little zest to your nightstand. Range righteously but rigorously through time and space and opinion. And perhaps, next year, you will produce some truly refreshing 'best of' lists that - in addition to blessing your own soul - will introduce the rest of us to a wider and more spiritually stimulating world.

6 Ways to Benefit from Reading Genealogies, by Matthew Holst

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Most Christians inwardly, if not outwardly, groan when they arrive at a genealogy in their Bible reading. This is a shame. The genealogies are wonderful and I love studying (not just reading) and preaching them.  They are compressed histories of God's faithful and loving dealings with his children, and, of his war against Satan. The genealogies in Scripture are so important that it may rightly be said that we cannot fully see the glory of the metanarrative (i.e. the storyline) of the Bible without them. Here are six tips for reading genealogies that I think will benefit the diligent reader...

Continue on Christward Collective.

Text link - http://info.alliancenet.org/christward/6-ways-to-benefit-from-reading-genealogies

Banner of Truth kindling

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banner of truth.jpgThe Banner of Truth is entering the sphere of the digital reader! A first ten volumes have been released as ebooks, combining a mix of classics with more modern treatments. Among the ancients you will find Bunyan, Owen, Spurgeon and Brown. More modern volumes include Edward Donnelly's outstanding Peter: Eyewitness of His Majesty (the sections on Peter as a preacher and pastor make this an under-the-radar gem of pastoral theology), as well as books by Ian Hamilton and Garry Williams. Fans of The Valley of Vision will be delighted to learn that this volume is also among the first tranche of offerings. All of these are available as mobi and epub files. Order options allow buyers to obtain hard copies and electronic versions in a single bundle, a nice touch for those of us who don't want to lose our 'real' books.

We are promised that further e-volumes will be rolling off the presses in fairly substantial chunks, so keep an eye on the catalogue. Banner ebooks to date can all be found here (or go here and browse ebooks).

When is a book not a book?

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There are a few things that frustrate me about a number of the books that I have read recently. One is those extravagant examples seemingly designed to showcase the brilliance of some penetrating thinker:
Barry (not his real name) is a basketweaver from Clapham. Having been reared by donkeys, when Barry married he was not prepared for Javelina's (not her real name, either) refusal to eat hay. The arrival of little Anthraxa (another made-up name, mercifully) only deepened the fissures in Barry's relationship with Javelina. When Barry first came to see me, with wild eyes and evidence of a recent hay-eating binge in his three-day growth of stubble, I could see that there was much work to do to get to the root of the matter.
Am I the only reader who has begun to twitch when I read yet another such opening to a book? Am I alone in finding these introductions slightly twee and tiresome? They seem to be beloved of those who write books about counselling. Of course, by the end of the chapter, we find that the dazzling counsellor with his penetrating insights has - over a shorter or a longer period - turned Barry off the hay and brought him to sweeter pastures.

Alongside of this are those books - often sermons turned into volumes - where the author clearly subscribes to the "open with an illustration" school of preaching and feels obliged to start with some allegedly-gripping anecdote which is then mercilessly wrestled into position and bound, sometimes by very tenuous threads, to the point of the chapter. After twenty such excursions on the trot, one becomes weary.

I am not a particular fan of study questions and guides - I think that they encourage lazy reading - but I am still less enamoured when they require nothing more than a simple regurgitation of the contents of the chapter rather than a genuine engagement with and response to the material. So, "Briefly outline this chapter," or "Does this chapter teach that . . ." (requiring nothing more than a "Yes" or "No" answer), or "What four headings divide up this material?" Inanity!

Of course, I cannot begin to describe the horrors of poor editing and bad proofreading. In a fallen world there are going to be mistakes, as any author or editor or publisher will acknowledge, but some publishers seem to have given up the ghost on this one, welcoming in poor grammar and spelling, inconsistencies of approach to all aspects of the writing, and formatting that shifts back and forth like the restless waves of the sea. Honestly, if you are in the business of publishing, it seems worthwhile to ensure that your authors know how to pick up a pen, and - if not - to employ people who can give the impression that they do. For the angst of the author with a publisher who manages the feat of introducing errors that did not before exist, I offer Wodehouse's Printer's Error as a salve for the soul (if you follow the link you will have to look in the sidebar, as - quite splendidly - the only standalone page I found contains a spelling mistake at a key point in the poem).

I am distressed by countless endorsements, many of them puff-pieces masquerading as thoughtful commendations, when there is reasonable evidence that the book itself remained unread. I am grieved by "Forwards" or "Forewards" (I am not sure whether it is worse to misspell your mistake or more commendable at least to approximate to the right word) rather than forewords. I mourn over endnotes - seemingly designed to render the reading process the most disjointed experience imaginable - and would gladly make myself available to lead an international force for the eradication of those foul blots on the publishing landscape.

However, the thing that is really getting the Walker goat at the moment is the book that is not a book. Some of these tomes also struggle with the issues given a gentle airing above, but many are paragons of virtue in these respects. What, then, irks? It is this: that they are clearly not books. Rather they are thinly-veiled theses, lightly massaged so that they include the word "book" rather than "thesis," shoved between a couple of glossy covers and repaginated. Reading them is a bit like watching a baseball player being given a cricket bat and sent out to the middle with the exhortation, "Go on, you're used to hitting the thing," and expecting him to do the business.

And so we enter a world weighed down with turgid academic prose and clunky scholarly signposts: "In this chapter, we shall consider point x, before moving on in following sections to look at points y and z." While this may be all the rage in a university or seminary, enshrined within some ancient rubric for papers and theses, it does not translate well into a book, which is and ought to remain a different beast, even when intended for a more academic audience. Perhaps it is an expression of the points-scoring mentality of academia? I recall a rather intense discussion with a tutor at university in which he extolled the virtues of a high-scoring essay in which the person responsible for the Frankenstein's monster in question had merely cobbled together all the necessary data, jumped through all the required hoops, and produced something that satisfied the department's criteria for a high-scoring essay. My point was that it was barely coherent tripe, and that surely a student of English literature ought to be able to write in such a way as to hint or suggest that he or she had once or twice been exposed to some of the finest prose stylists that the English speaking world has to offer, and - further - that it might be considered a bonus if the piece manifested the ability to spell with at least a measure of consistency if not accuracy.

Where was I? Ah, yes. I have no objection to a book being written for the academic market, but it still ought to read like a book, and not a shifty scholarly monograph. Where, I ask, is the reading pleasure? Where is the joy of being guided through a developing argument almost imperceptibly, rather than marshalled by the literary equivalent of a bossy tour guide who keeps yelling, "In a few minutes we shall be turning left to look at this statement; then we shall be turning right to look at a quote"? Summaries and conclusions can, under certain circumstances, simply impress themselves upon you almost without you realising as you are inescapably guided to the point being made; they do not necessarily need to be aggressively lit by the harsh glare of literary neon lights as the next stage in the unfolding argument.

Please do not misunderstand me: I have no objection whatsoever to scholarly research and academic labour underpinning the writing of a book, and hugely appreciate the efforts that lie behind a really good book. But the fruits of such effort ought to be the starting point for a book that is intended to be purchased and appreciated, not the penultimate stage in the publishing process. (Incidentally, the same might be said of written sermons: because it sang from the pulpit does not mean that it will soar from the page, and too many books read like what they are - rapidly transcribed and poorly edited sermons, or shoddily adapted sermon notes, in which no one has taken the time to adapt to the kingdom of the written word what once belonged to the realm of the spoken word.)

The results of such short cuts tend to be ugly, stodgy and clunky, awkward and heavy efforts that rob the reader of the experience provided by the best books - allowing the reader to devote his reading energies not to overcoming the hurdles presented by the prose but to engaging with the thoughts that the prose communicates. The best books read like what they are - like books, and not like carelessly manhandled monographs. The construction and style of the writing does not bar the gates to the reader but politely and unobtrusively opens the door to the real substance of the volume. So, please, let a book be what it is, and - whatever else you might legitimately be required to do along the way by way of preparation - when the time comes to lift the quill, grasp the pen, or lay finger on keyboard, put in the effort required to write writing for readers.

Stocking up

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A word to the wise: learn all you can while you can, because the longer you go on in ministry, the less 'discretionary time' you are likely to have.

If you are a younger man, perhaps a seminarian, you may feel busy. But you may, relatively speaking, have few or limited church responsibilities, you may be unmarried, you may have no children. If you are starting out, perhaps in tandem with an older or another pastor, or the Lord has blessed you with a smaller congregation, then while there is no end to the work that might be done and might need to be done, you may have less demands on your time and energy than a man in another or a larger sphere.

But, you will soon find that - if you discern and take and use the opportunities the Lord provides - the balance of your life will shift, and more and more demands will be made on your time and energy. While you may from time to time need to sit down, prioritise, and reclaim some of that discretionary time you once enjoyed, it will only get harder. In addition, you must remember that the pastoral ministry is a continual sacrifice, a constant giving, always pouring out and investing. Furthermore, there are likely to be periods of pastoral life - perhaps extended periods - in which you will feel that your labours will primarily be output, more intense passages of sacrificial endeavour. You may be counselling, preaching, witnessing, writing, organising, conferring, and a thousand other demands all of which draw upon your reserves (not to mention your husbanding and parenting).

That makes it vital that you take every chance you have, in accordance with circumstances, and make chances if they are not readily available, to store up truth and the understanding of it, because these are the reserves you will be drawing on and the tools you will be using for the rest of your life.

So while you have the opportunities, use every moment you have to maximise your intake. When you do not find the opportunities, carve them out. Your first priority must be the Word of God: love it and learn it and pray over it as a Christian man before you study it and labour over it as a Christian minister. Drink it in so that you become familiar with it in its broad expanses and its particular details. Then take what windows of time you have to read the classic works of trusted men: some of them are massive, others are slim (the works, I mean, although it is true of the men too). But these long-acclaimed and proven explorations and applications of truth, if well-assimilated, will equip you for years to serve the saints. Take the time while you have it to read through particular works of the church fathers, trudge through the expanses of the pre-Reformation at its best, hack your way through the rich verbiage of the Reformation, rummage through massive Puritan tomes, take on the weighty words of Scots worthies, expose yourself to the foundations and the overflowings of the awakenings, expand your devotions to read through the rich sermonic heritage of the past. Lap it up. Drink it down. Store up your heart's reservoirs and form your soul's tone from these things.

The time will probably come when you may wonder how you ever found time to read in this way, when you look with sorrow at books unread on your shelves that you wonder if you will now ever have time to read, when you mourn over wasted hours or days in which you might have been taking in so that you could give out. I think it is important and useful for a pastor to read scholarly works and to keep up with new material, but there is no substitute, in the cut and thrust of ongoing pastoral ministry, for a heart well stocked with the best and proven things, truth faithfully handled and powerfully applied, that you be not just intellectually equipped but theologically grounded and spiritually trained for the blessing of others. In this way, having been instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven, you may be "like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old" (Mt 13.52).

ETS books

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This past week I was up in Rhode Island at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.  In between attending a few great papers and bumping into people, I also had a chance to pick up a few books.  Here's the complete list of what I came home with.  Fortunately, some of these books were gratis, kind gifts from kind publishers.  But here's what I bought/got

 

From the Fortress Press table (Go Lutherans!): Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, volume 10, covering 1928-1931, and volume 13, covering 1933-9135 while DB was in London.  I also picked up I am Bonhoeffer:  A Credible Life (a novel).  Who says theologians don't read fiction?

 

From the Westminster John Knox Press table:  The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen, which, as my good friend Sean has already pointed out, is written by a Unitarian Universalist.  Hey, if you're gonna get somebody to write on the gospel who better?  I also picked up:  Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves:  The Minister in Southern Fiction (speaking of fiction).  I suspect there's got to be something in there about a transplanted preacher from Wales preaching in a southern accent and using illustrations from Bruckner.

 

From Brazos and Baker:  Everyday Theology:  How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, with Kevin Vanhoozer as lead editor.

 

From IVP:  Incarnation:  The Person and Life of Christ by Torrance; The New Global Mission:  The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone by Samuel Escobar; Salvation Belongs to Our God:  Celebrating the Bible's Central Story by Christopher J H Wright; and the very hefty (996 page) Global Dictionary of Theology.

 

Our friends from Table Talk and Ligonier were also there and Burk Parsons was kind enough to give me a copy of his edited book John Calvin:  A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology.

 

So what do you get when you cross Calvin and Bonhoeffer with Bruce Springsteen in the South all the while with a global theological awareness?

 

 I don't know.  Check back in a few weeks after I had a chance to read these.