On Disciplined Reading (Pt. 5): Questions, Answers, and Concluding Thoughts

When I conceived this series, I hoped that it would be an encouragement to our evangelical readership to read widely, deeply, and through the lens of a Christian worldview. There was a day when Christians in general and pastors in particular were committed to sustained reading and reflection. However, the multiple cultures that have arisen from our current American context seem not to be, on the whole, prone to serious reading and thinking. (Americans tend to treat the brain like the appendix, as if it has no immediately discernable function.) As a result, most of the books being published are claptrap. (The result is that winning a “book of the year” award these days is like being the valedictorian of high school summer school.) Even book clubs (such as Oprah’s) that claim to be serious reading communities are often more emotive than rational, tending toward heavy breathing, sobbing, and hugging gently rather than conscious and careful reflection on the important questions of life.

I hope that the previous installments have been helpful. I intended to end this series with the previous installment. However, during the past two weeks, some of you have commented or sent questions by blog, email or facebook, and I have chosen to add a final installment which includes several of those questions. After so doing, I will make some concluding comments.

Comments & Questions:

How to find books to read: In light of the fact that thousands of books are being published as I write, how does one become aware of those books and choose which ones to read? Steve McKinion commented that one way to do this is to read book reviews. Reviews can be found at the back of most academic journals, as well as on the internet. I would add that it is helpful to surf the websites of book publishers, most of whom have a page advertising their forthcoming books.

How to find time to read: Several of you asked how to find time to read. This is a great question, and not easily answered in one paragraph. Here are a few pointers: Take an hour or two and sketch out your activities during an ordinary day, week, or month. Most likely, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much time you can find. I have found, for example, that (1) I can come to work an hour early in order to enjoy peace and quiet and a good book; (2) anytime I am on an airplane, I can knock out quite a few pages; (3) Sunday afternoons usually provide some time for reading; and (4) sometimes instead of watching a TV show or a ballgame, I am better served to pull out a book.

How to choose between print and electronic media: One of you asked whether or not a physical library is important in an electronic age. I think it is. Although TV, YouTube, radio, facebook, audio books and podcasts are helpful for certain things and in particular ways, print media is irreplaceable for those who want to think deeply and meaningfully about the important things in life. Reading requires sustained concentration, while TV, internet, and other sources often are less demanding. Reading fosters sustained interaction and accumulation of knowledge, while other media often let the viewer “off the hook” as they provide a blitz of images and soundbytes, without allowing the viewer time to think and interact. One caveat: Sometimes, one does not have the money or the space for a large library and in such cases it is very helpful to be able to access journals and books online or through various other electronic media.

How to keep discipline from being drudgery: One reader commented that he wants to be a disciplined reader while at the same time avoiding “dutiful, joyless” reading. How can reading be a pleasure rather than a pain? Here are a few thoughts: Make sure that you are (1) selecting books that are worth reading, (2) disciplining yourself to read books from a variety of genres and disciplines, and (3) allowing yourself some flexibility and freedom within those parameters. When choosing your next book, select one that you feel like reading. If you want to read it, and feel like reading it, you likely will get more out of it. Save the book that you do not feel like reading, but need to read, for a later date.

How to retain and organize what is learned from a book: This is a great question. I am not completely satisfied with my method, but here is what I do. (1) If I am reading a serious book, I underline the author’s main points, with pencil and ruler, in such a way that I can follow the author’s flow of thought. I also underline significant quotes and make comments in the margins containing my reactions to an author’s points. This way, I can pick the book back up several years later and be able to “read” the entire book in 10 minutes by reading the underlined portions and annotations. (2) If the book is excellent, I will make a brief outline of the book for future reference. Note: There are very few excellent books. (3) I have a file folder system for topics and sub-topics of interest. When a book makes interesting or helpful (or outrageous) points, I take notes and file them. (4) Write about the book. Post a review of the book at Amazon.com, or on your blog, or in a journal. Writing will force you to think more clearly about the book and will help you to retain what you have learned from the book.

How to read with comprehension: Several questions and comments could be summarized by the question: “How do I learn to read with comprehension and with an appropriately critical eye?” In response, I will recommend three books. The first book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading is the classic text on how to read a book critically and with comprehension. After laying the foundation for such an activity, he writes specifically about how to read different kinds of books, such as imaginative literature, plays, poems, history, science, math, philosophy and the social sciences. The second book, James W. Sire’s How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, is similar to Adler and Van Doren’s text, but is written by an evangelical Christian who reads and critiques books through the lens of a Christian worldview. Finally, Gene Veith’s Reading between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, is an excellent guidebook for those who want to learn how to recognize books that are spiritually and aesthetically good. He focuses on imaginative literature.

Concluding Thoughts:

Let us conclude the way we began, by reminding ourselves that reading is an inherently theological activity. The Triune God created through the Word and speaks through the Word. Indeed, the Trinity is a model of accomplished communication, as God the Father speaks, God the Son is the Word, and God the Spirit enables the reception of the Word. Further, God created us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and imaginative capacities, which are precisely the capacities needed to read. May we use our capacities in a manner that glorifies Him.

Note: In the near future, I will provide suggested reading in various disciplines and genres such as theology, intellectual history, missiology, international affairs, fiction, history, and current affairs.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 8): The Danger of Missing Out

This series arose out of extended reflection on the Scriptures, out of which the Lord has made clear to me some of the perils of seminary, many of which I have succumbed to or been tempted by over the past decade and a half. I have attempted to communicate these perils to those of you who would read this post and might benefit from it. Although I have interjected humor at several points, I could not be more serious about the dangers I mentioned. After having written on those dangers, however, I would be remiss not to include one final danger: the danger of missing out on all that a good seminary has to offer.

I will never forget the first day of Systematic Theology with Paige Patterson. I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?

In all seriousness, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constrictivist and human response models). After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel. From Dr. Patterson, I learned not only theology and research, but also how it is that a teacher really challenges those whom he is teaching.

My biblical languages and biblical studies courses were of inestimable value. One of those courses was book of Isaiah with Gary Galeotti. It was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life, as we studied Isaiah, line by line, for an entire semester. I realized that Isaiah understood Christ 800 years before the Lord’s coming better than I did 2000 years after. In addition to learning the book of Isaiah, I learned what it meant to be a godly preacher and teacher of the Word. Day after day, he opened the text of Scripture, expounded it, applied it to our lives, and challenged us to embrace and obey the words of God. He aimed not only for the mind, but for the heart.

I took Christian Philosophy, Apologetics, Christian Faith and the Modern Mind, and several other courses with L. Russ Bush. In these courses, I learned to give a defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Dr. Bush was a man who had thought deeply and broadly and was able to speak cogently on any issue across the range of the disciplines. At his fingertips were theology, philosophy, history, world religions, and current affairs. It was in this class more than any other that the Lord distilled in me a love for reading widely across the disciplines.

Alvin Reid was my professor for Introduction to Evangelism. I had never been around a man with such a contagious enthusiasm for the gospel. His courses were an extended argument for evangelism, missions, and revival. He argued from the text of Scripture, illustrated from the annals of church history, and applied it to our contemporary milieu. Between his evangelism course and Keith Eitel’s missions courses, I found myself under conviction every week. They continually impressed upon me the fact that a love for God and His Word necessarily issues forth in a desire to commend Him to a lost world.

John Hammett was my professor for courses such as Ecclesiology and Baptist History. Not only was I forced to study the doctrine of the church in depth, but I encountered a man who was the consummate scholar. In presenting his own views, we recognized that he was rigorous in his research and unflinching in his argumentation. In presenting views that differed from his own, he was unfailingly even-handed. He did not need to misrepresent his opponents in order to refute their views. One of the things that most impressed me about Dr. Hammett was that one could be a tough-minded theologian and at the same time have a gracious demeanor.

From Andreas Kostenberger, I encountered not only the New Testament but also a man who embodies the severe discipline necessary to “leave no stone unturned” in the study of the Scriptures. From Steve McKinion, I imbibed not only the writings of the church fathers but also learned that one could be a missionary to the academy; he could research and write and speak in such a manner that he reaches an audience extending far beyond the bounds of the evangelical world. From Dan Heimbach, not only did I learn Christian Ethics, but also observed the life of a man who had advised the President of the United States and gave lectures at the Naval Postgrad School and the Marine Corps University Staff and Command College and who was willing to leave all of that in order to teach ministers of the gospel. And this is just the short list of men from whom I have learned.

Last, but not least, I want to encourage seminary students to learn from those who God has put in leadership at their seminaries. It is God who has placed these men in such positions and we would be remiss not to learn from them. The lessons learned from each president will vary according to their personality, context, and relative strengths and weaknesses. Since I live and write from within a Southeastern context, I will mention our own President, Danny Akin. If I had to limit my thoughts to only one thing that I have learned from watching him, it would be that he has modeled for us what it means to hide behind the cross. I think it was James Denney who said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Our president models this in his preaching, as he keeps the text of Scripture front and center, and puts himself in the background. The lesson here is that we should not allow our personalities or agendas or sense of humor to overtake the text itself. He also models it in his leadership. It is not often that one has opportunity to sit under a leader who is genuinely self-effacing, consistently willing to admit his faults and ask forgiveness when wrong, committed to visit and serve his missions students on the field (in less than ideal conditions), and willing to spend time with students in spite of his multiple responsibilities.

I was very, very close to eliminating this installment because I was afraid that it would seem like an extended piece of flattery. After all, in trying to give a brief exposition of God’s grace to me in a seminary context, I have focused on the faculty as much as (or more than) I have the curriculum. There are two reasons why, in the end, I decided to post this installment, First, at a good seminary, the faculty and curriculum are in a sense inseparable. That is the whole point of having a seminary community. We are drinking deeply from the well of the Christian Scriptures at the feet of men who have walked with the Lord and who have studied their chosen disciplines with more depth than we likely ever will. Theology, pastoral ministry, and leadership are caught just as much as they are taught. Second, with all of the emphasis on young leaders in our convention, I thought it fitting to focus on the benefits of listening to, and learning from, the older leaders whom God has set before us. Young men are most likely to become leaders by sitting at the feet of their elders.

In conclusion, let me affirm what I wrote in the first post, “I can say that life in a seminary context has been good in many respects. It is a place where I learned to study God’s Word and relate it to all aspects of His world. I was introduced to church history, systematic theology, apologetics, and much more. I formed friendships that will last for a lifetime, and was taught and discipled by men who had walked with God for many years more than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.” Let us live and study and teach and worship in a manner worthy of our calling.