I pulled three paper backs off the third shelf of our bookcase along the western wall in our living room at 2:00 a.m. this morning. Bodily discomforts of various sorts had awakened me. Sometimes I can return to sleep, but other times my body insists, “Forget sleeping!” My mind was immediately at work on a subject that has been toying with me for a number of days. Reading. What to read, how to read, when to read, and why read — all danced in my thoughts.
Quietly, I shuffled out to the living room, intent on not awakening my Paul. To the bookshelves. Taking the three volumes, I slumped in my leather, La-Z-Boy, covered myself with a blanket, took a colored pencil and a regular pencil, and opened the first book.
Jews and Christians are called “The People of the Book.” The Bible. We wear that label with great pride — both good pride and bad pride, I suppose. Books agitate. Whether you agree or disagree with an author, writing stirs up thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and can influence perspectives and decisions. Books and people’s responses to books (and to any sort of writing) impact me on a number of levels.
First, I love good books and like to recommend books to others. I’m like my mother in that way. Second, I love the holy Scriptures; this is the book I most want to recommend, but like an aged grandfather, it needs to be handled appropriately. The Scriptures require the skills of respectful listening and interpreting and the art of respectful appreciation. Third, I write. Writing is the big outlet God has left in my path. If I don’t write and share some of it, I contribute little to the world. (Of course, I always contribute by taking care of my Paul, but it seems he takes care of me more than I do of him. No wonder we wear wedding rings: the giving cycles round.) Anyway, I’m being squeezed by a prenatal book that is paining me to be born. What niches can my book and various writings hold and what blessings can they offer?
Recently, I’ve been struck by the divergent opinions we Christians hold regarding certain books. One book is seen by some as a beautiful picture of Christian growth while others see the same book as suspect, promoting some unbiblical way of thinking and living. Now, there is no perfect book or example outside of Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ. Flaws are to be found in books (and not all flaws are equal), so readers need to be observant and analytical, asking the Holy Spirit to infuse their thinking with spiritual discernment.
I do not want to tell you the names of books yet. It’s not the time to agitate that much yet. Instead, I want to note that I observe that one reason for broadly differing perspectives by Christians is a misunderstanding of a book’s genre and purpose. If I think a book is a hammer when it is a screw driver, I will reject the book in frustration.
What three books did I turn to this morning at 2:00 a.m.? The first, by James W. Sire, is How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind.* The second is How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom. The third is the classic, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler** (1940; revision with editorial help from Charles Van Doren in 1972).
The third book may be the one I’d recommend first to Christian readers, even though this book was not written by an evangelical Christian. Adler shows you how to approach many kinds of books.
In Howard Hendricks’ classic text, Living by the Book (subtitle: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible), he describes the influence of Adler’s How to Read a Book upon his own education and life. Claiming that the book had “changed my education for the better,” and predicting that the book “will revolutionize your life,” Hendricks then tells his story:
“You see, I graduated from high school with honors. I even received the English award. Then I went to college. Unfortunately, I’d never studied in high school . . . . So after arriving on campus, I took an aptitude test, and they put me in the lowest English section in the school. This, despite my English award. Pretty humiliating. (It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, because they gave us remedial students the best professor in the place.)”
After six weeks of study and questioning whether he could make it in college, Hendricks approached his professor. “He was very straightforward with me: ‘Howie, your problem is you don’t know how to read.’ And he introduced me to Mortimer Adler’s book. I read it, and it transformed my study skills. In fact, it changed the course of my life. And that’s what it can do for you in terms of Bible study.”***
Hendricks goes on to explain how Adler’s book helps a reader approach any piece of writing. If this master Bible teacher, Howard Hendricks, found this book to impact his reading and studying so much, it’s a book worth exploring. (Of course, a short cut may be to read/study Hendricks’ Living by the Book. His was not one of this morning’s three books. I thought of it later today. It lives in another bookshelf with Bible study books in another room.)
So, I’ve been thinking of developing some tools (and/or finding some existing tools) to help us place each piece of writing we pick up into specific categories based upon purposes and usages, so that we can make better judgments about what to read, what not to read, and how to think about (observe, interpret, evaluate, and use) what we do read.
I don’t know if you are interested in this. I’ll try to break it down with some charts or lists. If you have some ideas or resources, add your input in the comments below! This topic relates to my own work of re-writing my dissertation into something you can appreciate. I’ve read and am reading many books on my subjects of suffering and joy, and I’m trying to place them in categories, so that I can discover where my writing fits and doesn’t fit. Writing demands design as well as expression. And the good reading of the Good Book and good books involves design — intent and purpose — to stir us to change — to grow, to be transformed, to move us beyond.
God is the God of words. In the beginning, God spoke and it was so.
“In the beginning was the Logos. . . and the Logos was God” (John 1:1).
Thank You, Lord God, for blessing us with language, so that we may commune
with You and be the Body and Bride of Christ.
* James W. Sire, the first author mentioned above, is an author worth investigating for the serious reader who wants to invest in understanding worldview issues from the vantage of a Christian worldview. I hope I can write about him and a few of his books someday.
**Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) was born into a Jewish family in New York City. He was an American professor, philosopher, and writer who was an academic traditionalist and promoted the study of western civilization ( one of the developers of the Great Books series as well as working with Britannica Encyclopedia). Of course, he was a voracious reader. Adler’s studies of Christian philosophy (especially the writings of Thomas Aquinas) led him slowly to Christian faith. Late in life he became an Episcopalian and by the end of his life he embraced Catholicism.
***Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks. Living By the Book. Chicago: Moody Press, 2007, 68-69.