Learning to Read…Again

September 18, 2014

Learning to Read…Again
Andy Farmer

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Andy Farmer

Learning to Read…Again

I came to Christ as a college student. One of the first things I noticed as I ventured into the new world of Christian community on campus was how much reading was taking place. And this was not just Bible reading. Contrary to my own tendencies, which were to read as little as possible beyond what was required of me, my new brothers and sisters seemed to love reading for spiritual growth. I soon picked up the practice and it has stayed with me ever since.

I still find that Christians are unusually committed to reading for spiritual growth. But in my pastoral counseling role, I’ve seen some reading tendencies among believers in recent years that give me some concern. It’s not hard to see the cultural trends that are shaping our reading habits. We are people inundated with immediate, consumable information options that crowd into our busy lives through social media, blogs, electronic publishing, and 24-hour news and opinion services. These days if I ask counselees what they’re reading I’ll tend to get responses like, “I’m following so and so’s blog and my twitter feed keeps me up on everything else.” Or, they’ll give me a list of six books currently on their night table that they’ve started but can’t seem to finish.

Reading quality Christian books will never replace the reading and preaching of God’s Word, but it could help you hear, understand, and apply that Word with greater maturity. A good book will challenge your thinking and motivate your heart. It will dislodge error and give you an appetite for truth.

This post isn’t a rant on bad reading habits. It is an appeal and some advice on learning to read well. If you feel like you are missing something in your experience of reading—the sense of wrestling with challenging ideas, the heart impact of a penetrating insight, the satisfaction of immersing yourself in a book that could mark your life—here are some practical suggestions on how to build productive habits with the written word.

  • Always be reading something. But try to limit the number of books you’re reading for spiritual growth to around three. Commit to finishing every book you read. Two things discourage good reading—having no idea what to read next and never finishing anything you start.
  • Limit yourself to reading one book at a time on your present life experience or challenges. Don’t try to read three marriage books or books on marriage, parenting, and time management all at one time. You just don’t need that much advice.
  • Learn to read “out of your time.” Every year there are excellent books being published. And we should read the best of them. But there is an old Irish proverb that is good to keep in mind. “Whatever is good is not necessarily new; and whatever is new is not necessarily good.” Older books that are still in print have stood the test of time. And they help us think about our faith in timeless ways. Also, I tend to recommend reading deceased authors on a regular basis. Not that there are no good living writers, or that dying instantly makes bad writers into good ones. It’s just that how someone finishes their race tells me a lot about the value of what they had to say while they were running it.
  • Here’s a practical plan for Christian reading. Always be reading one book from each of the following categories: devotional theology, practical theology, and theology proper.
    1. Devotional Theology books are written to help people with their personal experience with God. They tend to be written in a very inspirational way—sometimes they are selections from a well-published author or preacher. They are often bite-sized reflections that are ideal for daily meditation. An older example of a devotional theology might be Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening. A more contemporary option would be something like Randy Alcorn’s Seeing the Unseen.
    1. Practical Theology is a very broad category of resources that seek to take biblical truth and apply it to issues of life. Marriage and parenting books, books on worry, on financial management, etc., are all practical theology. We should have a regular diet of good practical theology to help us walk in a manner worthy of our calling as believers. The challenge with practical theology is that some books can deal with the practical very well, but lack in the theology department. Or, they may be theologically sound but miss the mark where we really live. When selecting a practical theology book don’t just look at the subject matter. More gets published than you can possibly read, so be a good consumer. Read reviews, consult friends whose perspectives you value, invest your time and attention wisely. And read both current and older books. For example, if you wanted to stir yourself toward holiness you could go back in time to J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, or pick up Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in Our Holiness.
    1. The books that can intimidate us are ones we might call Theology Proper. Theology is ‘the study of God.’ Theology books wrestle with ideas, particularly about God and our relationship to Him. They address what should be believed, and why it should be believed. The best theology proper will mentally stretch us while at the same time pressing us toward the truth of God in Jesus Christ. While we often think of theology books as big dusty, musty, crusty tomes guaranteed to cure insomnia, there are wonderfully accessible but deeply profound theology works from both the past and the present that any thoughtful follower of Christ can engage. You may find the works of someone like J. I. Packer as rich in their own way as the classics of the faith from earlier centuries.

C. S. Lewis sums up my goals in reading—to learn wisdom from those who are wise:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are.

Join the Conversation

What are you reading right now? Is it what you want to read? Do you have a plan to finish it? How does your intake of other media affect your desire and attention in reading? What books are on your plan for the next year or so?