Friday, January 31, 2014

Making time to read

A common comment I receive whenever a conversation turns to reading is a sheepish and slightly embarrassed confession of a lack of time to devote to the endeavor. If this is you, let me assure you that you are not alone! We are all busy and, if you're like me, reading sometimes feels like a guilty pleasure I can't afford.

However, I think we've made the case over the past month's worth of posts that reading is not only fun but beneficial. How then do we make it a priority? Maybe we want to revisit some of the comfort books Persis mentioned or read a book or two on the atonement from Rebecca's list, but life is busy and complicated and we don't have two or three hours in our day to sit down and "just" read.

I find Doug Wilson's advice in his book Wordsmithy to be encouraging. True, it's a book for writers about the writing life but he devotes a chapter to the advantages of reading and reading widely. He advises readers to...

Pace yourself in your reading. A little bit every day really adds up. If you only read during sporadic reading jags, the fits and starts will not get you anywhere close to the amount of reading you will need to do. It is far better to walk a mile a day than to run five miles every other month. Plod. Make time for reading, and make a daily habit of it, even if it is a relatively small daily habit.

Further,

I believe firmly in plodding. Productivity is more a matter of diligent, long-distance hiking than it is one-hundred-yard dashing. Doing a little bit now is far better than hoping to do a lot on the morrow. So redeem the fifteen minute spaces. Chip away at it. For example, I usually have a stack of books that I am working through on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Don't despise a page or two of each book every time you sit down to read.

So let us plod on, sisters, and determine to make the time, however small the increment, to read. In so doing may we know the pleasure and the benefit of the discipline.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Comfort Books

I had the opportunity to go on a cruise a couple of years ago. It was quite an experience, especially the dining. We had our meals in a fancy floating restaurant three times a day for an entire week. At first it was fun tasting all the exotic dishes, but by the end of the trip, I was hankering for plain, ordinary, comfort food.

In a way, books are like this. The world of fiction is a big smorgasbord with a volume to suit every taste. There are books that stretch your mind and cause you to think deeply. If you want to travel into the future or journey into the past, there's a book for that. There are even books that reveal the dark side of human nature and the power of redemption. But at times, I want to read a nice book. Nothing profound. Nothing angst-y. Just nice. So I go back to my choice of comfort books - children's literature.

I rediscovered children's books while I was in graduate school thanks to a snowstorm. The semester had just started when classes were cancelled, so I had very little studying to do. Since I was bored, I bundled up and walked to the public library in search of something to read. Due to the ice, the only working entrance was through the children's department. I happened upon the fiction shelves and rediscovered a treasure trove. I found the Little House books, the complete Anne series, A Little PrincessThe Cricket in Times SquareMrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and the "Shoe" stories by Noel Streatfeild. I was like a kid in a candy store and never made it to the adult section. Needless to say, my snow days were well spent in a reunion with long-lost friends.

I'm afraid I am rather out-dated in my choice of children's stories. I would rather go boating with Mole and Rat or take a drive with Milo and Tock than fight zombies or pine after sparkly vampires. But these comfort books have endured the test of time by capturing the imagination of boys and girls for decades. My "friends" may be old, but they are worth keeping.

A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest. 
C.S. Lewis


So what are your favorite comfort books?

Monday, January 27, 2014

In Praise of the Audio Book

For as long as I can remember, I have had a love affair with words, specifically written words. For me, there is little more as satisfying as reading a well-written book. Just this week I read a quote attributed to Colin Firth, which eloquently sums up the reading experience for me.
When I'm really into a novel, I'm seeing the world differently during that time - not just for the hour or so in the day when I get to read. I'm actually walking around in a bit of a haze, spellbound by the book and looking at everything through a different prism.
Someone who does not have a passion for reading may think Firth is a bit silly, but I completely understand what he's saying because I feel that way myself. There is something eminently pleasing about getting lost in a good story, of putting yourself in the story line, of investing in the characters. I find that if a book is exceptionally well-written, everything around me goes quiet and I am transported into the author's make-believe world.

Which is why I scoffed at audio books. How could I be enraptured with a story while driving? Then a friend offered to lend me Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. My library didn't have it, and though I didn't want to buy it, I desperately wanted to read it; I had no choice. Halfway through the first CD, I was hooked. I discovered that listening to a book is a different experience altogether, but no less delightful.

After Bonhoeffer, I listened to Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (as an aside, Edward Herrmann is my favorite non-fiction reader, hands down). Then I forayed into fiction. I believe Gilead was the first and it was wonderful, like a good conversation over a cup of hot tea with John Ames.

In the past three years, I've listened to many audio books, including books I've already read. I've found that the right reader can move me to tears, laughter, and incredulity in the same ways written words can. And although in most cases, I prefer the written word, I have discovered that audio books offer their own enchantment.  Here are a few of my other favorites:

I, Coriander reader by Juliet Stevenson, who is simply superb. Her interpretation of this magical tale drew me in.
Persuasion, also read by Stevenson. Even though I'd read the book, I gained a new appreciation for this lesser known of Jane Austen's works. In fact, it became a favorite after hearing Stevenson's rendition.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, read by Kate Burton. I'd never read this book, but I fell in love with Francie Nolan after listening to Burton tell her tale.
Speaking from Among the Bones: A Flavia de Luce Novel, read by Jayne Entwistle. Entwistle brought one of my favorite fiction characters to surprising, hilarious life.
March, read by Richard Easton. An amazing work.
John Adams, read by Edward Herrmann. I could listen to Herrmann read the phone book, but a fascinating story also made this a favorite.
Cranford, read by Nadia May. I felt as though I were right there with Miss Mattie and the rest of the Cranford ladies.
Wives and Daughters, another outstanding job by Nadia May.

Lord willing, I will always read books; however, the audio book has a certain place in my heart. What about you, reader? Have you listened to any audio books? If so, do you have any favorites to recommend?

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Atonement Short List

This week I received an email asking me to recommend a book on the atonement that would not be too difficult. It got me thinking about quality books on Christ's death that are accessible for the ordinary believer. Here are four suggestions. The season leading up to Easter is an especially appropriate time to read any of these.


What John Piper has done in this book is take fifty of the results of Christ's death given in scripture and listed them for us as fifty reasons why Jesus came to die. That, of course, makes perfect sense because any results of Christ's death are intended purposes of Christ's death, since God has the power and wisdom to do things so that only exactly what He wishes is accomplished. This means that there are no unintended results from anything God does, only purposed results. And any purposed results are rightly called "reasons why."

Each of the fifty reasons is allotted two pages of text. First, supporting scripture is given and then there are several paragraphs of explanation. This makes the book especially suited for devotional reading, two or three reasons at a time. Anything more than that might be too much, as there is so much reflect on in each little section.

I'd call Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die an introductory level book—there's nothing difficult in it—and yet I'd say almost everyone will learn a thing of two from it. And who among us doesn't need a reminder of the infinite wisdom of God in the cross of Christ?



The Great Exchange: My Sin for His Righteousness
by Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington


The bulk of this book examines the apostle-authored texts dealing with Christ's atonement, moving from Acts through Revelation. Over and over, page after page, the authors show us from numerous biblical texts that the apostles are teaching us a precious truth:
[T]he Great Exchange that results from the death of the perfect sacrifice is a twofold substitution: the charging of the believer's sin to Christ results in God's forgiveness, and the crediting of Christ's righteousness to the believer results in his justification.
There you have it: the great exchange of Christ's atonement. If you desire to better understand and appreciate this great exchange, this book is the right place to start. It's good theology coupled with writing that anyone can understand.




Leon Morris wrote the definitive scholarly work on the cross of Christ, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Happily for those of us who aren't exactly scholars, he took the material from his big book and made a shorter version just for us. In The Atonement, Morris explains the terms associated with the atonement, like justificationsacrifice, and propitiation, so the lay Christian can understand the meaning and significance of what Christ accomplished for us. 

What's more, even though it was written in the 1980s, drawing from research done in the 1950s, many of the arguments in The Atonement, especially those found in the chapter on propitiation, are applicable to current debates about the nature of the atonement. 

I've recommended this book here before, but it needs to be included on this list, too. It's the one I suggested to the emailer mentioned at the beginning of this post.



This book makes the case for one of the most precious truths I know, that Christ's death on the cross was a penal substitutionary atonement. The first part "sets out the positive case for penal substitution," showing us the biblical evidence for it, the theological framework undergirding it, its pastoral importance, and its place in church history. Explaining the theological framework is especially significant, because objections to penal substitution are often not primarily scriptural, historical, or even pastoral, but theological. Without the proper theological foundation, penal substitution won't make much sense, and the majority of objections to it grow out of theological systems that clash with it.

The second part of Pierced for Our Transgressions contains responses to specific arguments made against the doctrine of penal substitution. The authors "outline every objection we have been able to find... and respond to each in turn." I enjoyed this part because I love analyzing arguments and responding to them. You may or may not enjoy it as much as I do, but either way, this section will be a valuable reference when you run into one of the arguments in a book or article—or maybe even from a real person.

While this is a scholarly book, it's surprisingly accessible, especially if you're willing to take your time with it. Christ's penal substitutionary death is the grounds for the big "Yes" to all the promises of God that you enjoy. It's the center, the heart, the hinge of your spiritual life. Pierced for Our Transgressions will help you learn it, love it and thank God for it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading for the fuzzy brain

Today's post is directed to the older woman. While younger women often find their biggest struggle is carving out time for reading, this is for the women who have the time, but may be struggling with a fuzzy brain.

For women, age brings quite specific physiological changes. Weight gain and mood swings may be a battle, but so also might fuzzy thinking, which is brought on by hormone fluctuations (to any men reading, I apologize for using the "h" word).

While I haven't experienced this as profoundly as some of my friends, I do have more occasions now when I struggle to concentrate and focus. On those occasions when I stand there trying to remember why I have come into the room, I am reminded I'm not 21 anymore. This phenomenon, of course, affects reading. I would like to offer some suggestions to help us older women take measures to foster better concentration while reading, specifically through writing.

One way to do this is to keep a reading notebook. Some people call them "commonplace books." In history past, commonplace books were a little bit like a diary, but were considerably less self-focused, and were more of a record of the content of reading. I think today's commonplace books can be a reflection of both what we read and how we react to it. Susan Wise Bauer in her book The Well-Educated Mind explains what this might look like:
It is neither an unadorned collection of facts, nor an entirely inward account of what's going on in your heart and soul. Rather the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader's own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought.
If you're interested at all in looking at "how to read" books, Bauer's book is a good one, as well as Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. Adler's book is much drier than Bauer's but addresses a wider variety of literature.

Applying the principle of the reading journal as Bauer describes it is a way to keep focus and retain more.  Quite a few years ago, I read David Wells' No Place for Truth, and I kept a very detailed journal. That book has definitely stayed with me more than other books which I simply opened up and read.

You needn't buy an expensive journal, although doing so may inspire you. You can use a three ring binder and divide your reading by category. I did that for a while last year, but found that the binder was too big to take with me in my purse, and I like to have a book with me when I go out. I switched to Decomposition Books because they're inexpensive and my pens don't bleed through. Of course, the ever popular Moleskine notebooks are easily available. I don't care for the texture of their paper (pencil smudges), but they come in such pretty colours now.

If you don't like paper, you could also try Evernote. My daughter, a grad student, loves Evernote for note taking because it helps her juggle many notebooks easily. Tim Challies recently wrote a very good commendation for Evernote. Another paperless route is to start a blog. Writing for a blog we expect people to read encourages us to be certain we have really understood what we've read, and the actual writing of the blog posts processes what we've read.

Notebooking works great for Bible study. As you study a book, or as you read through the entire bible, whichever you do, keeping a notebook not only focuses your concentration, but when you're done, you have something your children might be very happy to have some day, when you're gone. Journals become artifacts, and artifacts help us preserve history.

Improving concentration may necessitate making changes. One thing I have done recently is to turn off all notifications from social media sites and email to my phone. That has helped a lot. Another thing I've done is to set a specific time duration for reading, 20-30 minutes. I take a little break and then start again. And I prefer to read in silence. Silence is a lost commodity these days.

If you aren't a woman who struggles with fuzzy thinking, these suggestions can work for anyone. If it is your goal to be more active in your reading, writing about it is a valuable exercise.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Recommending Books

A few years ago I recommended a book to a friend. I liked the story and the characters. I appreciated how even the flawed characters were likable. My friend, however, was offended by the book. The main character, who was agnostic at best, had not lived a morally upright life. Though there were consequences for the character’s choices, my friend didn’t think they were serious enough.

While I respect my friend’s opinion, I don’t share it. I don’t expect non-Christians to act like Christians do. The conviction the Holy Spirit brings on believers is a foreign concept to the unbeliever. And besides, anyone who is still walking around breathing has not gotten what they deserved.

But that experience has made me cautious. We have a responsibility to our fellow believers to not cause them to violate their consciences (Romans 14:1–4). Christian fiction is one option, but don't think it's always the answer. Yes, some of it is good, but some of it is propaganda. Besides that, I’ve encountered books that promulgated some horrible theology.

I don’t think there are cut and dried answers here. I have no rubric that will tell you what is okay and what is not. I also don’t consider myself an expert, just someone who has gotten this wrong a few times. I have some suggestions, though, based on situations I’ve encountered.

Know yourself

I have a friend who once told me she had stopped reading a book I had enjoyed. It focused on a dysfunctional family similar to her own. She worried that the story would be too real for her, and she didn’t want to relive that time. Other people may not have such a problem. In fact, seeing a situation through the eyes of a fictional character may help them process things in a helpful way. My friend knew herself, and she decided she would rather miss a good book deal with painful memories.

Know others

I’m cautious when I recommend a book (or movie, or TV show) to someone else. If someone has lost a child, I wouldn’t recommend a story where a child died. Love stories may make someone who is deeply unhappy in their marriage more bitter. I try to stay mindful of that person's situation.

If in doubt, don’t read

The world is full of stories, and few (if any) need to be read by everyone (except, perhaps, Pride and Prejudice). Put it down and move on to the next one.

I don’t think any story is safe. I’ve heard people use the Old Testament to justify sinful behavior. If the situation is right, even the noblest hero story can make a person long for a different sort of life. But we do need to guard are hearts, especially when we’re lost in a story and our guards are down.




Other blog posts that have covered similar ground:

Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck

6 Reasons Men Should Read More Stories Than Men's Books

Friday, January 17, 2014

Repeated reading

My son is reading Pride and Prejudice for school. This makes me so happy.

He said to me, "You know, Mama, if I ever have any questions about the book, I'm just going to ask you because you've read it like a hundred times."

This too makes me happy.

And a hundred? Could be. Maybe more. (*wink*)

I remember when I first read dear Jane's definitive novel. My husband and some of the children, I can't remember who or how many, had been gone for the day and I, eager to spend some quality (and quantity) time lost in the pages of a novel, grabbed the slightly tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice that my mom had picked up for me a few years prior; she nabbed it for me from a pile of my great aunts' stuff that no one wanted upon the division of their possessions after their deaths.

Though it seems inconceivable to me now, I was at that point a complete stranger to Darcy and Lizzie and the pride and prejudice they were each guilty of. All I knew was that this particular edition was old and that the novel itself was maybe a classic, I wasn't exactly sure.

Despite my ignorance I read the whole thing in a day.

And many times since.

I wonder sometimes what makes a novel re-readable. Not all are, you know. But there are those, like Pride and Prejudice, for which the experience is all the more pleasurable upon the second...and third...and fourth reading. And beyond.

It's an exclusive club, those books I can't stop re-reading. Dear Jane's novels, but of course. Jane EyreAnne of Green Gables. Harry Potter.

Speaking of Harry Potter, it matters little how many times I've read them nor how familiar I am with the story, there are certain parts of the novels that bring me to tears, in The Goblet of Fire and The Half Blood Prince particularly.

Sharper minds and more astute literature scholars could tell us the whys and wherefores of what makes a book re-readable. I think that the best books, the books we read again and again, are more than mere mechanics of characterization and plot and theme. Our repeated reading of a particular novel surely speaks to the emotion and feeling evoked as well as to the larger story the book tells, the story beyond the actual plot, the story of ourselves and the human condition and beauty and good and evil and joy and sadness. Books speak and some of the best books are worth listening to more than once. Besides, it's a comfort to visit old friends, is it not? And, hey, it's fun too!

Do you often read a book more than once? What books are on your repeat list?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bible Study: It's never too late to learn

I've been a Christian most of my life. I was encouraged to read the Bible from a very young age, but no one taught me how to study the Bible. As a result, I had no clue about the basics of interpretation. Context? Genre? Author's intent? Original audience? What was that? I thought the Bible was supposed to help me make decisions and give a daily emotional boost?

Consequently, I favored the Carly Simon method AKA "You're So Vain, You Probably Think This Text is  About You." I cast myself as the good guy in every passage, and the bad guy stood for whatever difficulty I was facing. I was so busy making the text say something it never said that I completely overlooked the fact that the Bible was God's revelation of Himself.

I realized what I was missing when I joined a local church and began to sit under regular expository preaching. When the pastor went through Hebrews verse by verse, I felt like a starving woman who was served a good square meal for the first time in a very, very long time. Before the sermon, Pastor Ryan would often pray that we would place ourselves under the text and not make the text subject to our ideas. This was radically different from my previous understanding or lack thereof, but this steady diet of sound preaching began to change my approach to the Bible.

I purchased my first study Bible, a larger-print ESV as big and heavy as an old Sears catalog. I began to read books on Bible study. My pastor spent about 12 weeks teaching hermeneutics, principles of interpretation, to the women in the church. To borrow from the psalmist, this opened my eyes to behold wondrous things in God's law. (Psalm 119:18) It was like reading a brand new book because I was looking for the author's intent in the text, not my own. It was neat to look at the context of a verse within a chapter within a book and then see how it related to all of Scripture. Learning about the different styles of writing and their proper interpretations added to the beauty of the God's Word - a book unlike any other book.

There are times when I regret the years I mishandled the Bible, but I'm so thankful that it's never too late to learn.


Bible study resources:

40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer, Kregel Academic, 2010.
Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word by Kathleen Buswell Nielson, P&R Publishing, 2011.
Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul, IVP Books, 2009.
Living Word Bible Studies by Kathleen Buswell Nielson, 10 Bible studies published by P&R Publishing.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reading Intentionally

My bookshelves groan under the weight of unread books, some of which have been waiting for years to have their bindings cracked open. My love of books has often been a double-edged sword.  I've tried to read too many, gotten sidetracked by the latest "must read", and generally been overwhelmed so that, at times, reading has been a chore.

Not wanting to continue down this path, I've formulated a reading plan that allows me to immerse myself in certain topics. This year I will be leading a monthly study of Aimee Byrd's Housewife Theologian: How the Gospel Interrupts the Ordinary. In order to give this study the attention it deserves, all of my reading - including fiction - will be focused on the subject of each chapter. The list of books I'll be reading can be found in the Reading Intentionally in 2014 tab of my blog.

I got a sense of how this will change my reading during December, when all of my reading was focused on the Incarnation. Even though I was reading several books at once, everything fit together. All of a sudden, I felt like I was seeing the bigger picture. It was eye-opening. I'm already seeing the fruit of this approach to this year's reading list.

How did I choose the books I'll be reading? Many of them are already on my shelves or my Kindle. Several are available at my library, and some I'll be borrowing. If I recall, I will need to purchase two. I tried not to overload myself, and to make it interesting and fun. For instance, July's topic is Mentoring. I choose Gospel-Centered Discipleship because in order to teach others to be a disciple, I need to be one myself. And how fun will it be to read Emma with an eye toward the relationship between Emma and Harriett? Spiritual Mothering: The Titus 2 Model for Women Mentoring Women is a re-read that I'll get to if time permits.

One last element of this reading project is accountability. I drafted a couple of friends to join me in a no-pressure book club. We're all reading Housewife Theologian, but then it's every woman for herself (as long as the books are relevant to each months' topic). We'll be sharing what we're learning and encouraging each other to stick to our plans. I'll be blogging as I'm learning, both here and at my personal blog.

I'm excited about my reading plan, and praying it will change the way I read (and feel about reading). Do you have any reading plans or goals for 2014? If so, we'd love to hear them!



*Portions of this post first appeared here.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Reading in the Seasons of Life

Imagine the refrigerator. The rest is accurate.
When I was a child, it never took me more than a day to read a book. I read straight through, pausing only for school—or chores done quickly, to minimum acceptable standards. And my mind never left the book at all.

I kept my compulsive reading habits right into adulthood. Once I'd started reading a novel, I couldn't concentrate on anything else until it was finished. One day, when my oldest children were toddlers, I found myself reading a novel, sitting in a rocker I'd pulled into the kitchen beside the fridge. When one of the children fussed for my attention, I'd open the fridge door and toss a snack to keep things quiet while I read just a little longer—to the end of the chapter, then a few paragraphs into the next, and with yet another tossed snack, the rest of the new chapter, too.

When I write that I "found myself sitting in a rocker" tossing snacks, that's exactly what I mean. I snapped out of a book fog into reality and didn't like what I saw. I don't know if I gave up reading novels immediately—I'm pretty sure I finished that one, at least—but in this moment of awareness, I knew my reading habits were harming my children.

I stopped reading novels for a while and cut down on all my book reading. For a few years I read mostly magazines articles, essays, or short stories, pieces with natural stopping points—or built-in mind breaks. I still read; I still learned by reading. But I couldn't be the reader I once was without neglecting my young family.

Now my kids are grown and I have more time for reading. I can lose myself in a book and nobody suffers. I'm reading novels again, although not as many as I used to. Sometimes I read for a whole afternoon, or, especially in January, a whole day. The season of my life changed and my reading schedule changed with it.

If you're reading along here this month, or reading any of the many posts on reading that show up this time of year, and you think, "Top ten books? I didn't even read ten books last year," remember that life has its seasons, and we're all different. It's true that reading (including fiction) is one of the best ways to learn, so a wise woman develops a habit of reading, but the way that works out—the reading plan, if you can manage one—changes with your own circumstances and abilities.

This principle applies to Bible reading, too. There was a year when I read psalms and not much else. My circumstances were difficult, and concentrating on larger passages of scripture was impossible. A psalm or two was all I could handle—and exactly what I needed.

When God wanted to tell us about himself and his work, he put it in a book, and reading it is the best way to know him. We can read the whole Bible straight through in one year, do rigorous studies of one book at a time, or read a psalm or two to quiet an anxious heart. Read in a way that suits your season. Just don't ever stop reading the Bible.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Books Have Been My Tutors

I have always loved to read. I have fond memories of going to the public library with my dad on Saturday mornings. I loved (and still do) stories, and I read my favourites over and over. Once I was converted to Christ, I liked to read the bible, but I had been a Christian quite a while before I began reading theology.

A number of few years ago I went through a spiritually dry period. I felt very far from God, and I had a lot of questions; questions that seemed to surprise and irritate those around me. I had been a Christian for about fifteen years at the time, and I did really not know why I believed what I did. I had basically taken everything I was told without much question, and when I began confronting different doctrines, I did not know how to handle them. I thought it meant my faith was slipping. There were contradictions, like the sneaking suspicion that "No Creed But the Bible!" was actually a creed.

When I began homeschooling, I got to know some Christian women who were Reformed. One of them told me about Ligonier, and I got a copy of their catalogue (back in the olden days, when catalogues were made of glossy paper). I wanted to begin with understanding grace, because I knew deep down, I wasn't showing much to people.  A title caught my eye: Grace Unknown. I ordered it. That title today is called What is Reformed Theology? After reading that, I discovered in our book collection at home, a book that my husband had picked up somewhere: The Holiness of God, by R.C. Sproul. How providential was that? After I discovered Ligonier I was introduced to Monergism It was, as the saying goes, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I have always tried to be a constructive reader, but reading theology helped me to become a more critical reader. And by critical, I mean reading with a purpose. When I began reading to understand doctrine and theology, it was with a purpose: to know God. I knew a lot about what I was supposed to do, but I didn't know a lot about God's character. I chose reading material that talked less about what I was supposed to look like and more what Christ looked like.

Reading Reformed theology led me to the Reformers, of course, but also to Augustine, the Puritans, and the Great Awakening. I remember being absolutely blown away the first time I ever read anything by B.B. Warfield. Reading these great works revealed to me how much I don't know. That is one of the reasons I read theology: I need to be reminded that I do not, and cannot know it all, but the pursuit is valuable. Knowing God is a lifelong pursuit.

Reading theology does not give me faith. I already possess that by the grace of God. But it helps me to seek it more earnestly. It helps me to see what a precious gift our redemption is, how wonderful the God who grants it to us. Reading has introduced me to books that have helped me with reading Scripture more effectively. Books have been my tutors. It has been like having a host of scholars and pastors right at my finger tips.

Reading books doesn't replace the preaching at my local church or my participation in it, but I think it has helped me become a more active listener, and a more faithful member of the church. It has given me a venue for discovery of the wonderful attributes of God, and the preciousness of my redemption. I'm so thankful God for these tutors.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fiction. It's a Good Thing.

The close of a year always brings out “best of” reading lists. I love these lists, as I love to see what people are reading. One thing I’ve noticed about some of my favorite bloggers, though, is that their lists are heavy on nonfiction, while fiction reading is sparse or nonexistent.

I can think of several reasons for that. Tastes in fiction are subjective. I sometimes hesitate recommending books because I don’t know if others will like it. A lot of contemporary fiction contains dark themes, and what is merely thought-provoking to one person may be a stumbling block or trigger for the next. By the time we give all the disclaimers we’ve spoiled the book.

But those of us who read to learn tend to neglect fiction. We feel time slipping trough our fingers, and we want to read all the books we can. I fear, though, that we’re becoming too earnest for our own good. So why read fiction?

It Makes Us Better Readers

Fiction (and to a degree, certain memoirs) engage the imagination in a way other books don’t. Our imaginations are a gift from God, and we glorify him when we use this gift. As Tony Reinke says in his book, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books,
We imagine because our Creator imagines. And with our imagination we can now “see” eternal reality (2 Corinthians 4:18). This divine imagination, this ability to see the unseen, is a skill God has given us for our spiritual profit.
     Without an active imagination, a good bit of the Bible will be hard to read, difficult to understand, and impossible to appreciate.[1]

It Makes Us Better People

I’ve never been to war. I’ve never lost a child. I’ve never been chased down a dark alley by a bad guy, and by the grace I’ve God I hope I never will be. I would never be so obtuse as to claim I know what these things feel like because I've read fiction, but seeing each of these situations through the eyes of characters in a novel gives me a glimpse of the emotions people experience during these times. Most of our worlds are pretty narrow. It’s good to consider experiences different from ours. [2]

It Makes Us Better Writers

Sometimes when I am reading an article or book I start feeling as if I’m hurtling downhill, unable to get my footing. Usually If I take time to examine why, I notice the pattern of the piece is usually like this: fact, fact, fact, fact, point, fact, fact…you get the idea.

If it’s a situation that requires my feedback—like a review—I usually say something like, “It was kind of dense. Maybe some word pictures would help?" But what I’m really thinking is, “For the love of all that is literary, add some illustrations!”

Jesus, who understood how humans learn better than anyone else, used word pictures in his teaching. A good word picture will let your readers catch their breath and apply all those facts you’ve been giving them. It’s akin to handing your reader a labeled file folder and saying, “Put this idea here.”

I’m sure there are some excellent writers who never read fiction (there are exceptions to every rule), but many writers could improve if they exercised their imaginations through good stories.

It’s Fun

We need to relax sometimes. Enjoying good things is another good gift from God. There’s nothing wrong with certain TV shows or video games, but reading for pleasure is an option that we pass over too often. It’s entertaining and edifying. What more could you ask for?

I’m sure some of you are still unconvinced, and I know reading time is precious. But you’ll never know if you’ll like it until you try it. Consider adding a little fiction to your reading list.

What about you. Do you like to read fiction? Why or why not?

[1] Tony Reinke, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Crossway Books, 2011.

[2] Tony Reinke examines this point in a slightly different way in this post, and also on pages 120–122 of Lit!.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Reading the Bible

This month we're about all things reading related here at the blog and for a lot of us January marks the start of a year-long reading project, that of reading through the Bible. I'm thinking Genesis 1 is probably the most read chapter of the Bible, what with so many of us starting the new year with a new plan!

A simple Google search would no doubt turn up hundreds of options for Bible reading plans. There are bookmarks to print and email reminders to sign up for. There are canonical plans and chronological plans and one year plans and two year plans and New Testament only plans and plans with daily readings from the Pentateuch and the Prophets and Wisdom literature and the gospels. Truly the options are endless!

As are the opinions on the best approach. Get a good study Bible, don't use a study Bible. Engage commentaries, read without any commentary. Read voraciously and voluminously, meditate and marinate in only one or two books across the calendar year.

It's all rather confusing.

In choosing a particular approach for our personal reading, we need to take care to remember the goal: knowing God by knowing His Word. We are to be people of the Word, yes and amen. Whether we read ten chapters a day or ten chapters a month, what's important is that we are reading to know, that knowledge fueling a greater love and devotion to our Lord. For some of us, this will mean taking a slower, more meditative pace. Others of us will read with a broader perspective.

I subscribe to the latter approach. I view my Bible reading as more devotional than studious. Because I teach Bible study and I have the privilege of hearing God's Word preached expositionally and in great depth week after week at my church, I am graciously afforded opportunity for deeper Bible study. Thus my aim in my Bible reading is twofold: I read for increased familiarity of the text and I read to see the big picture, the single storyline of the Bible, God redeeming a people for Himself and His glory. This year I am using the ESV Study Bible plan comprised of four readings from four parts of the Bible.

Whenever one speaks of plans and such there is usually a caution against legalism. Beware those checkmarks, the warning goes, you don't want to be legalistic! Let's be clear: having a plan is not legalism. Being organized or disciplined is not legalism either. Legalism ties the performance with God's favor. We have vast resources at our disposal; I mean, really, we can read our Bibles on our phones for goodness' sake! It is wisdom, not legalism, that takes advantage of a systematic approach to seeking God by reading His Word. Legalism tells us we are somehow better or more blessed for the checking off; wisdom knows the usefulness of the discipline. Let's be wise.

One final word about Bible reading and having a plan: you are not a slave to your plan. By that I mean that if the particular plan you choose is too much (or too little) then by all means adjust both your expectations and your methods! The goal is not the plan; the goal is reading the Word. Along those lines, there is nothing magical about January 1. Haven't started yet? Begin today! There is nothing magical about beginning in Genesis either. You are free to start in Matthew or Romans or Psalms.

I have found reading the Bible through in a year to be challenging but rewarding. Grasping the big picture of the Bible as a whole is both awe inspiring and humbling. Our God is working through history and we are part of His glorious plan! I hope that you too will be encouraged and challenged as you determine to devote yourself to the reading of His Word. His Word is living and active and will accomplish His purposes, yes and amen!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reading in the New Year

Happy New Year! It's that time again - time to make resolutions, turn over new leaves, write book lists, and chose Bible reading plans.

At Out of the Ordinary, we share a love for God's Word and good books, so we're starting off 2014 with a month of reading. Our posts will focus on what we're studying in the Scriptures, books we're reading, and why we read. I hope you will join us.

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men's brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master's service. Paul cries, "Bring the books"—join in the cry. 
C.H. Spurgeon, Paul - His Cloak and His Books, Sermon 542, November 29, 1863.