Sunday, November 5, 2017

Four Helps to Better Reading

Bring the Books 8

Sir Francis Bacon
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
-Sir Francis Bacon

Assigned reading in college is practically useless. It is not useless because the books assigned are poor books. It is not useless because the idea – that a minister should learn to read as he learns to study – is a bad one. It is not useless because it is badly applied on the part of most Bible college students, though it is more often badly applied than not. It is useless because the typical independent Baptist Bible college student does not have time to read. He is most likely paying his own way through school, which necessitates a full-time job. He is pushed, prodded, harassed – I am sorry; I meant to say motivated there – to give his weekends away in ministry. At the same time, his heart and mind are constantly taken up with the fascination of one woman or another, until he settles on one in particular, at which point his attention is even more devoted to her. During all of this he is taking a full load of classes, juggling various assignments and tests. And into the midst of this maelstrom every professor drops a few of his favorite books, expecting the young man to carefully and thoughtfully plumb their depths. It cannot be done, nor will it be done.

Consequently, one of the first things I had to do in the ministry was to unlearn the process of reading that I had been forced to undertake in Bible college. I had to learn to read again how I had read a teenager, in a word, slowly. And that is the first counsel I would give you. In books of depth, worth reading, do so slowly.

I surrendered to the ministry at 14, and by 15 I had begun to raid my father's library. One of the most helpful books I found there was John R. Rice's Our God-Breathed Book - the Bible. In it Rice deals extensively with both the means and fact of inspiration, frequently citing numerous other authors in order either to support his own position or attack theirs. It was the first scholarly theological work I had ever read, and I was forced to read it slowly. It was either that or do not read it at all. I devolved upon a relatively simple plan. I would read slowly, and re-read any paragraph I did not understand until I did understand it.

It was this process – which I had abandoned in Bible college – I rediscovered after entering the ministry. Toward the end of my first decade of pastoring my preaching shifted rather remarkably, and it was due in part to this process. I came across Robertson McQuilkin's book on hermeneutics, Understanding and Applying the Bible, and I read it slowly, painfully so at times. I did not have a class on hermeneutics in Bible college. I had classes on preaching, which majored on presentation, but had learned little about how to grasp the words God had written. McQuilkin's book became my class, only one I taught myself, desperately thirsty to learn how to preach God's words rather than my own. Countless times in the years since I have opened a carefully selected work, and taught myself a class on Christ, on prophecy, on eschatology, on holiness, on music, on grace, on fundamentalism, etc.

The second simple piece of advice I offer is to take notes. I never, and I do mean never, read a book without a pen either in my hand or within inches of it. Some men preserve their books; I use them. They are tools, not museum pieces. When I am done with a book it is marked up from stem to stern, the margins are filled with barely legible scrawls, there are things circled, underlined, arrowed, and highlighted, and the pages are dog-eared. I do this not only because it helps me to mentally engage with the work, but more importantly, it helps me to remember what I learned when I come back to that book later. I can pick any book off my shelf that I have read in the last 15 years, and give you a detailed synopsis of its strengths and weaknesses, and especially of its unique, thought-provoking facts and concepts. Notes are how you remember something long after you have originally had a thought. Of all people, ministers who regularly outline sermons should understand this. I do not mean to imply that you need to use my casually evolved system, but one way or another you need to take notes as you read.

My third recommendation is that you add to your reading audio books. I do not read theology or church books, as I call them, on Audible. That is because I read them slowly, marking them up as I go along. But there are other types of books that are helpful for a minister that do not require such absolute concentration. Those are the types I purchase and read in audio format. For my purposes, these are almost exclusively history and biography.

I first began this program when I discovered the huge Chicago Public Library would ship any audio book they owned to my closest library, then later to an app on my phone. After reading most of the ones I desired I discovered that a small monthly fee would give me the right to purchase from a much wider range of materials on Audible, plus I would own the book when I was finished. In the past three years, in this manner, I have read biographies of Robert J. Oppenheimer, Napoleon, Churchill, Hitler, Tesla, Lawrence of Arabia, Steve Jobs, Custer, George H. W. Bush, and Ulysses Grant. I have read eight history books on WWII, one on Vietnam, one on the Crusades, two on the Revolutionary War, two on the Olympics, one on the Romanov dynasty, one on Al Qaeda, and two on the mafia. I have read the first three volumes of Will Durant's massive History of Civilization. I have read four works on various aspects of the Roman empire. I have read books detailing the history of various commodities such as oil, cod, and salt. I have also read several books that discuss the invention of the internet and of the growth of online platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

"Tom, unless you are sitting down and reading a half dozen hours a day that is implausible." Exactly. I read these when I am not sitting. If I am not working on something that requires my mental focus I am reading an audio book. I read when I am getting ready in the morning, when I am driving anywhere, when I am eating a meal alone, when I am at the gym, when I am working around the house or the church, and when I am sitting by my fire pit of a cool October evening. In this manner, I average several hours a day, hours in which my body is doing something else but my mind is relatively unoccupied.

My fourth recommendation is that you prioritize building a library. I do not mean the physical shelves. Those will come of necessity all on their own. I mean that you prioritize purchasing good books. If I go to a conference I block out several hours to spend prowling the tables full of materials. If I have a guest speaker coming in, and my work load is thus lighter that week, I will try to sneak away for an afternoon to one of several excellent used bookstores here in Chicago. If I am traveling I will almost always do the same, finding the used book stores in that area, and spending time in them. (The best one for religious books I have ever found is in Fort Wayne, Indiana, of all places.) When I come across a book referenced by someone else that looks intriguing, all other things being equal, I will add it to my Amazon wish list. That is a running tally of all the books you would like to buy if you ever got the money.

Speaking of money, how do you get it? In my case, and this is what I suggest to you as well, I went to my church and asked them for a sum of money I could spend every year on continuing education. I pastor many professional people, and they understand the importance of the constant learning that is necessary to stay on top in any particular field. They also expect the cost for this continuing education to be borne by their company rather than themselves. My situation is similar, and it was not difficult to get them to see this. Some years, I use that money to take classes on a subject which I feel needs strengthening. Other years I simply buy books with it. My church and I both benefit from this; it is a win-win.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not trying to set myself up as some kind of an expert. Many ministers read as much or more than I do, and they have excellent systems of their own to aid them in this. I am not saying that you must do each of these four things in order to be an effective minister. But if you do not have your own system, and you know your reading needs to improve, choose one of these to implement this year. Add another one the following year. Along the way, as you prioritize reading, you will develop in ways that naturally suit your own style of learning. And getting you to that point is the entire point of this blog series.

My college president used to often say, "Set your goal; plan your work; work your plan; and don't get sidetracked."

Good advice, that. Now go apply it to your reading.

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