Read Less. Reflect More.

“Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.”

Yes, but that dictum can be misleading. One does not become a leader simply by reading. And one does not become a better leader simply by reading more.

But what about those successful people who post their reading lists on social media near the end of the year? “Here are the 623 books I read this year,” they proclaim to their wide-eyed admirers. I’ll grant that there some people intelligent enough to read that many books and profit from it. But I think those people are few and far between.

And I am not one of them.

Reading serves many purposes, but the purpose of the best kind of reading—the kind that improves you as a person—is to help you think. And if you are reading so much that you are not thinking, you need to read less, not more.

In saying this, I’m in good company. In his essay “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon counsels us to read “to weigh and consider” — an exercise that takes time and mental effort. “Some books,” he continues, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Again, the purpose of reading is not to swell your brain with facts, much less to give you a cause to boast, but to discourse with great ideas, and in so doing, to raise you above the level you were. Not all books have that element of greatness, and even those that do possess them only in some parts. (This is, by the way, one reason why I think we should feel no obligation to finish a book that is proving itself to be a waste of time. Get what you need out of a book, then get out of the book!)

Another author hammers this point with even more force: “The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul. . . . The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life).

Of course, the title of this post must be qualified. You must read—a lot, perhaps— to stay current in your discipline. But don’t panic that you aren’t keeping up with all the tweets, all the blogs, all the new books.  If you are reading so much that you have little time for deep reflection, then read less and reflect more. After all, the ideas we think are new are usually just old ones recently remembered.

Center on the most important books.

Most of all, learn to think well.

What I’m Reading: Sweet Reason

Sweet Reason: A Field Guide to Modern Logic

Sweet Reason is not the sort of book that will keep you wide-eyed, turning pages late at night. It’s actually a pretty dense textbook—the kind with charts, gray boxes, exercises, and odd-numbered answers at the back of the book.

So why am I reading this? When working on my Ph.D., I was required to have proficiency in two research languages and was given the option to substitute formal logic for a language. I chose to take logic instead of a second language, and Sweet Reason was the textbook. It turned out to be a game-changer for me. As I researched for and wrote my dissertation, Sweet Reason gave me the skills to more effectively evaluate arguments and compose my own. I determined (nerd that I am) to work through the book a second time.

The brilliant thing about this book is that it assumes virtually no prior knowledge about logic, but then leads you quickly—almost without your realizing it—into some pretty complex stuff. The authors deliver the content in a whimsical but clear writing style, and they weave informal logic throughout the textbook. Despite its daunting subject, Sweet Reason is anything but dry and dusty.

Thinking—good and right thinking—takes hard work. Discovering the truth is no easy task. But those who learn to do it well are less likely to be confused or deceived; they are more equipped to articulate truth to others. As a Christian who serves the God of truth, I believe right thinking is not only personally beneficial but also a way I can worship my God. And Sweet Reason is helping me do just that.

What I’m Reading: Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan

I recently finished reading Sam Chan’s Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News About Jesus More Believable. If you’ve read Tim Keller’s Center Church or Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Every Day Theology you’ll be familiar with Chan’s concepts and efforts to make the gospel intelligible to unbelievers. Chan calls out the unfortunate tendency of Christians to evangelize the way they were evangelized. Instead, Chan insists, we must be eager and equipped to craft our gospel presentations to most effectively connect with our hearers. His book aims to give a theological justification and practical help for doing just that.

For me, the practical parts were most helpful. Chan walks his readers through a method for “storytelling the gospel,” giving a “topical evangelistic talk,” or an “expository evangelistic talk.” (The day after I read it, I used his method of storytelling when I taught a group of teens.) These chapters alone are worth the price of the book. On the other hand, I found myself cringing at some other parts. Attempts to contextualize the gospel (which we all must do when witnessing) always run the risk of melting the jagged edges of Christianity into smooth metaphors. On the road of evangelism, firm guardrails must be on two sides: one keeps the evangelist from speaking the gospel in a way that is foreign to his audience, and the other keeps the evangelist from speaking to his audience in a way that is foreign to the gospel. Some repair of the latter guardrail, I think, would make this good book even better.

What I’m Reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan is great biographical writing, and it’s hard to imagine a more intriguing person in the history of American business than John D. Rockefeller. Before reading Titan I knew virtually nothing about this Goliath of industry, besides his incredible wealth. So I was surprised to learn that he was a deeply religious man, whose Baptist disciplines were integral to his work ethic, scrupulous accounting, and staggering generosity. Chernow, in fact, draws a practical connection between the Baptist practice of tithing and acquiring wealth. Tithing requires one to be attentive to how much money one makes and spends—a habit also necessary for intelligent use of money. Rockefeller, of course, took financial shrewdness to previously unexplored heights and spent much of his life trying to figure out how to give it away. (The University of Chicago owes its very inception to a donation of $600,000—and later $80 million—to this devout Baptist.)

From Titan I’m reminded of the destructive force of bitterness, lies, and slander. Besides being generous, Rockefeller also gained a reputation for being ruthless—a cold, heartless man who would trample a widow just to extort her two mites. This unfortunate caricature, as Chernow demonstrates, is, for the most part, wholly unjustified. But it grew from the skewed investigative journalism of Ida Tarbell and McLure’s magazine. True, Rockefeller certainly had his warts. But Chernow’s well-researched book presents Rockefeller as humane, intelligent, and deeply pious, and perhaps reclusive to a fault.

What I’m Reading: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson

This is one of the most interesting, stirring, and helpful books I’ve ever read. It’s easy to see why Peterson has been called “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”—he demonstrates a grasp of philosophy, psychology, religion, and speaks to people with clarity, directness, and passion. (I’ve been listening to this as an audio book with Peterson narrating, and there were at least three times I could hear tears in Peterson’s voice).

Although many of Peterson’s ideas resonate with Christian thinking and living, his outlook is decidedly not Christian. True, he quotes and highly respects the Bible and Christian books (the Sermon on the Mount, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Milton’s Paradise Lost to name a few). But Peterson’s conception of “God” is anything but the personal, triune God of the Bible. For Peterson, ultimate reality is “Being” (perhaps, more precisely, Being and Becoming?), and ideal action is when individuals strive to achieve the delicate balance between Order and Chaos.

Twelve Rules for Life, I think, should be read carefully, critically, and humbly. Carefully, because Peterson’s theological framework is fundamentally flawed. Critically, because many of his ideas are weighty and powerful, and deserve to be thoughtfully considered. Humbly, because we Christians can learn much from him. (Peterson speaks with far more respect for his vague, impersonal Being, than many Christians speak about their God).

Wyatt Graham has posted a couple helpful reviews here and here.

What Is the Future of Libraries?

I used two libraries in the same day.

One was a seminary library. When I arrived, the door was locked and the lights were off. I meandered down a hallway and found someone in an office who sheepishly let me in and turned on the lights. The lights illumined the rows and rows of books. When I inhaled, I could smell that smell that any bibliophile knows and loves—the smell of books.

The other library didn’t have any fragrance at all. In fact, I didn’t actually visit it. Instead, I used it by listening to an audio book on my iPhone, available through Hoopla, a service provided by my local library.

These two library experiences primed my interest in James Gleick’s review of BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey. As you might guess, the question that Palfrey addresses is: in the era of technocracy, what is the value and future of libraries?

We might tend to process this question in terms of the controversies over the print vs. digital reading experience. I’ll freely admit that I’m a die-hard fan of paper-and-ink books. I tend to retain information better if I’m able to scrawl lines underneath key concepts in a book, stress the spine of a paperback at a particularly important chapter, bend the corners of the pages down, or (especially) jot down my musings in the margins. If anyone thinks I’m disrespecting a book by handling it this way, let me assure you: good books deserve to be digested. And when you digest something, you tend to change it. So, the competition between print and digital reading does factor into the future of libraries.

But the future of libraries involves much more than that. It involves the questions of who will steward the collections, of how people will sift through the mediocre to find the truly great books, and of how to democratize knowledge without defunding authors and publishers (among many other issues).

I agree with the answer that Palfrey gives. He argues that, although libraries face some difficult paradoxes in our digital age, they are here to stay, since “spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces.”

That means that the reading/learning experience will never be completely digitized: “A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly.”

So are libraries going away? No, not while people continue to value social spaces for study and perusal. As Gleick puts it, “People continue to gather in libraries, with or without their laptops and pocket devices. They sit at the old wooden tables and consult real documents and cherish the quiet aura of the books that surround them.”

The Pastor as Public Theologian

My first encounter with Kevin Vanhoozer came when I read his article “Theology and Apologetics” in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics. I found myself deeply stirred by his statement that “we need a biblically informed shape of community life fully to see, and to taste, the wisdom of God in a consistent and compelling manner.” He closes his article by calling Christians to committed discipleship as the most effective apologetic: “In the final analysis, the best apologetic is the whole people of God speaking and acting as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, arguing, living, and dying as wise witnesses to the way, the truth and the life.”

This positive memory of Dr. Vanhoozer’s article made me excited to see his new book, coauthored with Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

In his introduction, Vanhoozer presents an overview of the book’s argument. I quote this overview below, interspersed with explanatory comments from his conclusion.

Our task in this book is to argue, first, that pastors must be theologians;

Pastors are theologians whose vocation is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God is doing in Christ for the sake of the world, and to lead others to do the same.

second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian;

Pastors are public theologians because they work for, with, and on people—the gathered assembly of the faithful—and lead them to live to God, bearing witness as a public spire in the public square.

and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist.

[A “generalist” is] one who specializes in viewing all of life from the perspective of what God was doing, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, . . . one who understands all things in light of what is in Christ, keeps company with Christ, acts out the eschatological reality of being raised with Christ, and helps others to do the same.

Does God Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner?

D. A. Carson’s article on “love” in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology contains this helpful discussion about the statement “God hates sin but loves sinners.”

There is a small element of truth in this thesis. God always hates sin; he is invariably and implacably opposed to it. And it is true that God loves sinners: God ‘demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8; cf. John 3:16). Nevertheless the thesis, with its simplistic antithesis between the personal sinner and sin in the abstract, is mistaken. The same apostle who declares that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against ‘all the godlessness and wickedness of men’ (Rom. 1:18) also speaks of God’s wrath against individuals (2:5); indeed we are all ‘by nature children of wrath’ (NRSV). The first fifty Psalms repeatedly describe the kinds of people on whom God’s wrath rests, not just the kinds of sin. Indeed, the language can move from God’s wrath to God’s hate and abhorrence: ‘The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors’ (Ps. 5:5-6, NIV).

None of this means that God’s wrath is arbitrary or whimsical. In Scripture, God’s wrath, however affective, is the willed and righteous response of his holiness to sin. God’s holiness, like God’s love, is intrinsic to the very being of God; his wrath is not. To put the point another way:God has always been holy, as he has always been love; he has not always been wrathful. but where his holiness confronts the rebellion of his creatures, he must be wrathful (and the entire sweep of the Bible’s storyline insists he is), or his holiness is anaemic. Yet for all that he is no less the God of love.

Dr. Carson addresses the “hate the sin, love the sinner” thesis in connection with God’s love and wrath, but I have heard the thesis more often in connection with human response toward sin and sinners. While it is too simplistic to say, as Carson points out, that God hates the sin but loves the sinner, I think this is a good and helpful statement to guide our our response to sinners and their sin. Unlike God, we do not have the ultimate responsibility to mete out justice, since vengeance is his exclusive domain (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). Even Christian rebuke and discipline falls under the rubric of love, not wrath (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). And Jude beautifully captures the attitude we must have toward people and their sin: “To others show mercy with fear [Love the sinner!], hating even the garment stained by the flesh [Hate the sin!]” (Jude 23).[1]

To say that God hates the sin but loves the sinner is too simplistic, since Scripture does speak of God showing wrath and abhorrence toward sinners. But as a guide for our human attitudes and actions, this statement is helpful, and resonates with Scripture.

[1]Even the psalmist’s statement: “I hate them with a perfect hatred” (Psalm 139:22) is an expression of his solidarity with God’s cause, not permission to exercise hateful wrath (God’s domain) against God’s enemies.

How to Write a Lot: Advice from Paul J. Silvia

For an introductory seminar on academic research, my professor assigned us to read How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia. In this hard-hitting little book, Silvia sounds like a fierce training coach: if you want results, you’re just going to have to put the time and effort in. Make a writing schedule, says Silvia, and stick with it. If you wait until the muses breathe on you, or until you’ve exhausted the research on your topic, you’ll never write anything.

Paul Silvia challenged and inspired me. I don’t want to forget what I learned from him. Here are some key principles I’ve culled from his book.

1. Quit the excuses.

Many writers have a list of excuses, or “specious barriers” which Silvia demolishes. These excuses include, “I don’t have time to write,” “I need to do more research,” “I need better equipment,” or “I’m not in the right mood.” These excuses come mostly from “binge writers” (a group that Silvia consistently lambasts)–people who prefer intense bouts of frantic writing over scheduled, methodical productivity.

2. Schedule a time to write, and stick with the schedule.

Writing is hard work. It takes self-disciplined and commitment. Academic writing in particular shouldn’t depend on the coming of a certain mood. Instead of waiting for the right moment, you must make the right moment by putting writing time into your daily schedule. Use that time for writing, not research, and stick with it.

3. Set concrete goals.

During you scheduled writing time, set specific goals for how many words you will write. Monitor your progress so you can see how you are developing as a disciplined writer. And don’t buy into the myth of the “writer’s block” (code for laziness).

4. Join or start a writing group.

Silvia suggests that writers start an “agraphia group”–a community of people who want to be accountable to others to write more. Members in these groups should share their goals with each other, and report on how they have met these goals each time they meet.

5. Learn to write well, not just a lot.

Productive writers should also be interested in writing well (chapter five). Unfortunately, many academics think that opaque writing makes them sound intelligent. Perhaps they have never learned to write clearly. To avoid dull and confusing writing, writers should use concrete words, simple sentences, and strong verbs.

6. Make sure writing stays in the right box in your life.

Silvia admits that writing is not everything, nor should be. We are real people who need physical exercise, family time, and recreation. Being disciplined with writing helps keep it in its proper place rather than exploding our lives when a deadline comes up.