Not everything you read is good. Not everything you read is bad. But nothing you read is perfect. This leaves you with a lot of potentially great books, yet none that are ever above scrutiny. That’s ok.
You don’t always have to agree with someone to learn from them.
Actually, it’s rare to agree with someone about everything. My wife Brianna is my best friend but we still don’t agree on what house “clutter” is; I say everything is worth keeping, while she says everything I’m keeping is worthless! Notwithstanding the exaggeration, the point remains that we still learn from and challenge each other everyday. Similarly, it is quite limiting to stick with the same tribe of authors because reading widely helps to avoid tunnel vision by providing differing viewpoints. So if you only read a single publisher, a certain author, or a particular movement, you’ll inhibit your ability to think critically. Now, you should read much within your particular tribe, if you have one, to strengthen your convictions. But being surrounded only by your favorite authors can cause you to become ethnocentric, concerned only with reinforcing your preexisting beliefs, and perhaps unable to question your own fallibility.
Now what’s the fun in that??
One of the more invigorating reading practices of mine was to broaden my scope to include more authors within the realm of Christian orthodoxy—I tend to read theology—suspecting that some of those whom I disagree with may still offer a valid and even helpful perspective. But how does one do this? My friend once told me to “chew the meat and spit out the bones” when I came across anything questionable in a book. By this he meant that I was to learn from anything valuable whilst disregarding everything else. I suppose this is a less tired variation of saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Leave behind the bad and keep in mind the good.
You’re probably doing this with my blog post. You’ve found a few helpful points, perhaps a clever sentence or two, yet are disregarding everything that is disagreeable or rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps you loved the thought of reading widely, but hated the implication that reading narrowly leads to tribalism. Perhaps you disagree with the entire premise of the post and read it with great reluctance. Perhaps you hate the cute stock image of a dog chewing on a bone. Since we are being completely honest with each other, you should admit that you skim most of my blog posts anyway. And that’s quite alright. In fact, you should hone this as a skill and use it on all authors that endeavors to persuade you. Because the reality is that everything you read is attempting to convince you of a truth claim in one form or another. Whether a classic novelist weaving together a grand narrative of suffering and God’s existence, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s the Brother’s Karamazov, the doctrinal claims of the latest theologian, or this blog post, you must discern the truth claim being made and whether it is worthy of an audience. But what to do when an author is tantalizing and at other times distasteful? Must you ignore brilliant authors because they don’t acclimate to every opinion you have? Of course not. After all…it could be you that’s wrong half the time (or more). Just chew the meat and spit out the bones. Happy reading! And watch out for those indigestibles.
Someone once remarked about how I always end up giving books I read four or five stars.
My reply was, “Well, I try not to read bad books.”
The problem is, I don’t read very fast—around 200 words a minute (one page). Since I’m such a slow reader, I don’t want to waste my time on the bad stuff. So here are some ways I go about sifting through the garbage in order to find the gold!
1. Read the cover
The book title doesn’t give a lot of explanation, but the subheading often explains in one tweetable sentence what the book is going to be about. For example, the book, Radical, by David Platt could be about anything. Radical Christians. Radical entrepreneurship. Radical eggplant soup. But one glance at the subheading, “Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream,” carries a theme that focuses on sacrificial living.
2. Read the inlet
Usually, there is a short explication of the subheading on the inside of the leaflet, or on the back cover. These are generally excerpts written by the publisher trying to sell you the book. Even though they’re sometimes embellished (like gossip on Twitter), they still give a decent summary of what the book is going to be about.
3. Read the intro by author
If the concept of the book interests me at this point, I’ll read the author’s introduction. This usually has the author’s reason for writing the book, so you can capture a glimpse of the backdrop behind the book, how well it has impacted the author in the writing process, and whether it may or may not impact you in the reading process..
This was a book title I overheard of periodically among several church-planters who all ended up moving to urban areas. Since I’m not a church-planter, I put it off for a while to read books that were more practically geared towards mission where I’m at in life. And where I’m at in life is very passionate about the kingdom of God goin g forth! But without a place to engage myself in the kingdom of God, I went where I was needed or wanted. I have had the privilege of visiting 12 different countries seeing people’s stories being developed within God’s redemptive story. But over the last year, I developed a slight tension with evangelizing the nations of the world: the world has come to OUR doorstep, by making their homes in our cities. Why would I leave to go elsewhere when world evangelization can happen within a square block of any city? Of my city?
That is the punchline of Ray Bakke’s book on cities, which can be summarized by two complementary quotes from his book,
Large cities are both magnets, drawing the nations into them, and magnifiers, broadcasting the gospel out into the hinterlands (p.1592).
Early Christians penetrated the whole city, but not by claiming space for church buildings or programs of their own. They penetrated everybody else’s space instead (p.1836).
Bakke develops all of this through a systematic view of the Scriptures in which he concentrates on God’s plan for all cities–with over “1,250 uses of the word city in Scripture,” sprawling urban environments are obviously on God’s mind (p.87). However, it doesn’t read with the dryness of anything “systematic,” as Bakke draws you through narratives of the city in both Old and New Testament, full of urban character portraits of people who cried out to God for their cities, and saw dramatic results. Much of this is interwoven with his own testimony of being pulled from his rural environment into one that was far more urbanized. Of course, one intentional character is missing from the story: the church. And this is the point of the book.“We need deep roots to survive in urban ministry,” says Bakke (p.220). This book is a call for Christians to consider living in the cities of the world.
If you have a passion for cities, your neighborhood, or simply love people, I highly recommend this book. If you like living comfortably, with little risk, but still go on the occasional two-week missions trip to spice up your life…well, I highly recommend this book to you too :-)
You can purchase this book on A Theology as Big as the City.
You can purchase the Kindle version of A Theology as Big as the City.
- Is “going on missions” a misnomer? (christopherlazo.com)
(a little break from my recent Easter blogging pandemonium)
I wrote about reading broadly to those who don’t.
Now I’m pleading that those who do, take a break on occasion….
Ecclesiastes 12:12 “But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body” (NASB)
Reading a lot is great if you can manage! But if it ever sucks your time and energy away from God, your spouse, your children, people…you know that books have become your excessive devotion, a paper-thin, unsuspecting idol.
And they will wear you out.
My last post on taking periodic breaks from apologetics got me thinking more broadly about all the stuff we study. Be purposeful in widening the scope of your study.
The fastest way to get caught up to speed on a particular subject is to read up on that one subject exclusively. Unfortunately, it’s also a fast way to develop a parochial, close-minded point of view. Think about this…
Exercising your left leg will cause you to be lop-sided.
And reading one author or publisher exclusively will do the same thing to your mind by branding you with only one person’s point-of-view. You’ll become a lop-sided “mini-me” version of the author you have a crush on, limping because you have no voice of your own. A stenciled replica with no critical insight.
- If all I read is polemics and theological debate, I may have a hard time separating myself from the need to argue and reason, since that would become my only lens to view other people’s opinions.
- If all I read is Reformed theology, I might grow less interested in some of the things that are sometimes downplayed by Reformed publishers, like say…spiritual gifts, the infilling of the Holy Spirit, and affectionate worship (I realize not all reformed circles run this way. Adrian Warnock is a great example, as are Sam Storms, and Wayne Grudem).
- On the flip side of that, if all I read is Charismatic writings, I may miss the heavy emphasis given by Reformers on treasured doctrines like Substitutionary Atonement (again, I realize that there are many people within the movement who enjoy the charasmata of God without compromising their firm embrace on sound doctrine. For example, Tope Koleoso and D.Martyn Lloyd Jones)
Another problem with reading only select authors or publishers is that an accelerated burst of expertise in one area of learning seems to have a strange affect on young people: we get a little drunk with our own expertise after reading a few books. So read a couple books on the same subject by someone you disagree with. Pastor and friend, Dave Lomas, once told me,
If you listen to one person, you’ll copy them. If you listen to two people, you’ll be confused. If you listen to ten people, you’ll find your own voice (source?)
Reading from a wide scope not only pulls from a variety of worthwhile insights, but it also serves to protect us from hibernating in the close-mindedness, arrogance, and comfort of that one author or tribe to which we subscribe. Tim Challies wrote a blog dealing more broadly with this issue, where he strongly encourages Christians to branch out from exclusively Christian reading every now and then in order “to engage with people who think differently and who approach very similar issues from a radically different worldview.” In a nutshell, it’s what you want to do when you are being exposed to a dying trend: you like it while it lasted, but you aren’t infatuated enough to go down with it in flames.