Do You Have an Approach to Reading?

Do You Have an Approach to Reading? January 1, 2013

Some people read books from the NYTimes bestseller lists — fiction or nonfiction or both. Others read classics — Homer, Cicero, Dante. Others read what their friends recommend. Yet others read what their ideology says is important — libertarians read their own stuff, and liberals read their own stuff, and on and on it goes. Let’s call it insulary reading.

I read what I think will be of interest to you at this blog, and I read for what I’m writing about (right now I’m working on a book on the apostle Paul), and that means compulsory reading, and I read what strikes my fancy — called desultory reading. So I have two kinds of reading: compulsory and desultory. Some of our vacations are taken with the clear aim of not doing much but sitting around on some beach so we can walk, chat and read — and when we get one of those (I’d like three a year, sometimes get two, but often we settle for one — too much compulsory) — I read books I want to read, some of them quite big. Recently I read cover to cover Martin Hengel’s big Paul Between Jerusalem and Antioch. I don’t always agree with Hengel, but Professor Hengel knew his sources and he made up his mind no matter what everyone else was arguing.

Any rate, we are back to having an approach to reading, and Ross Douthat’s recent article details three strategies for a more educated citizenship, for breaking free from insulary reading. Douthat’s a bit stuck on political themes, but his three points apply to a wider approach to reading:

So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

Here are three steps that might make such roving particularly fruitful. First, consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share….

Second, expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective, and the fact that most American political writers live in just two metropolitan areas tends to cramp our ability to see the world entire….

Finally, make a special effort to read outside existing partisan categories entirely. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean reading reasonable-seeming types who split the left-right difference. It means seeking out more marginal and idiosyncratic voices, whose views are often worth pondering precisely because they have no real purchase on our political debates.

Some suggestions:

You New Perspective folks, read Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul, while you Gospel Coalition folks need to read E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. If you are in a denomination, read a really good book outside your denomination. Expository preachers need to read some Fred Craddock or Tom Long, and narrative preachers need to read Haddon Robinson’s book on preaching.

Question: How has reading outside the box expanded your life?

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  • Jennifer

    Reading outside the box has expanded my life by forcing me to examine not only what I believe but why and how I believe it. It’s a bit like flying an airplane – familiar “skies” let you fly along on autopilot but the stormy challenges of different viewpoints require focus, attention and the occasional realization that a course change may be required. I’ve recently started the habit of reading blogs by people with different perspectives. it is as much fun (and more interesting) than doing the morning crosswords with my tea. And as an added bonus you can ask the authors questions about what they have written. Bill Blankschaen, for instance, recently responded to a request for book recommendations on a particular subject not only by giving me a few names but by explaining what might be useful about each one. He even asked some of his friends! ( I might soon be needing a bigger box!

  • And consider C. S. Lewis’s proposition “On the Reading of Old Books,” (in God in the Dock). Here is the opening:

    There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

    It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

  • On the subject of reading … I wonder if you might comment on the discipline of reading books versus reading the bible. Have you noticed students finding it easy to engage in deep theological reading but not so much in “devotional” or committed or daily reading of the scripture? My experience has been that it’s easy to let the bible reading wane even as you read about the bible in theology books, unless bible reading involves digging into commentaries, which then makes it more like the other kind of reading. Myself, I’ve gone back and forth between following some kind of daily office to reading large chunks daily to listening to the bible in audio, but it’s funny to me how much of a struggle to just read the bible for itself – to just get into the story – rather than feel like I always need to read about the bible, if that makes sense. I’ll leave it there for now. What do you think? Thanks!

  • Jim

    I took a month last year and read the Book of Romans everyday for that month, sometimes twice a day. I read it silently and aloud. That was not because I’m particularly disciplined and certainly not some sort of holy maneuver. I wanted to see if I could do it.

    The result: I had never realized how much the consistent reading of scripture (and especially difficult scripture) worked to make such reading ‘frictionless’. I think the reading and re-reading of scripture conditions not only our hearts but our minds and our ears for the reading of scripture.

  • I read people with whom I disagree. Often. Including this blog.

    Of course, “disagree” is a bit of an overstatement. There are many points on which we agree, but which don’t fall within the scope of the disagreement.

    “Jesus is Lord.” That is the most important point of agreement there could ever be between any of us.

  • Jim’s comment about re-reading Romans is a very good one. Thanks.

  • Richard

    In last few years, I’ve read books by major Catholic writers, both ancient and contemporary. I’ve also read major books by those associated with the Reformed wing of the church, like Luther, Calvin, Sproul, D.A Carson, Sinclair Ferguson. Recently I’ve read books of the Emergent and Progressive movement by men like Brian McLaren and Derek Flood. Flood’s book Healing The Gospel, has been a major enjoyment as it has challenged many of my personal sacred cows. I have gained a great appreciation for all these writers as they have helped strengthen my weak areas as well as forcing me to be more open to what God may be doing in the church universal. I hope I remain open to new ideas that help to strengthen my faith as well as gaine the ability to apply these great truths to everyday life.

  • Jim – I’ve sort of done the same thing with Colossians the Luke. I’ve been listening to them over and over as I drive or wash dishes, etc. Reading the bible in large chunks, to me, is more fruitful than something like the daily office, at least right now. I need context and lots of it!

    The other piece of the puzzle for me is reading the newspaper (or just keeping up on the news of the culture, however you do it). I wonder if anyone would share their reading habits. Do you read certain things at certain times of the day (bible in the morning, theology at night, newspaper over breakfast)?

  • I read large portions of Stephen Westerholm’s “Perspectives Old and New on Paul” last year and plan to read the rest this year, I really enjoyed it. I also agree that reading E. P. Sanders is the right place to go in order to understand the New Perspective on Paul, although I walked away from “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” rather disappointed that it is not obvious to my friends that recommended him that he is not sound.

    I also agree with Mel Lawrenz and C. S. Lewis, Ad Fontes!

  • RJS

    I’ve decided to follow the new educational standards fad and restrict myself to primarily informational reading with a large dose of product manuals and governmental guidelines.

    Ok – not really serious.

    Paul Between Jerusalem and Antioch was compulsory?

  • Tim Atwater

    We’re studing John in our (two) church bible study groups — i’ve got a lot of John commentaries but trying to rely mostly on new to me DA Carson’s (recommended some time back by Scot on his runner ups to R Brown in fave John commentaries) along w the long-marked up Alan Culpepper Abingdon short. An interesting more conservative-more progressive duo. And Carson says a lot of mostly good things about Culpepper’s influential Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, and Culpepper says mostly good things about Carson’s critique of same.

    When we read First Corinthians earlier used Gordon Fee’s excellent though long commentary along w Richard Horsley’s intriguing if overly-speculative short commentary. (Again intriguing to see Horsley, famously in the progressive camp, thanking Fee for comments on his commentary, and Fee citing many Horsley articles…)

    One of the nicer things about reading the academics — usually all the best ones read each others’ stuff — and often exhibit above average civility in critiques… etc…

    in short we do need exposure to if not complete opposites at least quite different perspectives.

    thanks for the post.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, yes, for me, because I needed to read it to know Pauline studies.

  • Clay Knick

    I love your reviews, Scot, & the recommendations you make. I don’t always buy the books you suggest, but I buy a lot of them, sometimes the very day you post them. As far as I’m concerned the best book you recommended this year was “That Their Work Will Be a Joy” which is the best book available today about pastoral ministry. I wish I had had this book when I finished theological school! I read a lot of new books, go back and work through ones I read years ago, check Bloesch or Oden or another on themes I’m working through in a sermon, & read, read, read. It is a path of learning and continuing my education. I read books that stretch me now & then & very often they confirm what I believe or help me change (some!). At times I’ll read something & wonder why the author wrote the book or why I’m reading it (no McKnight books in this category!), but when I finish it I’m happy to have learned something. I love books!

  • E

    My theological bend tends toward a non-Calvinistic (but not fully Arminian) Charismatic-Evangelicalsim. The truly pentecostal-charismatic authors I read/consult are Gordon Fee, Craig Keener, Max Turner, Graham Twelftree, Michael Green, Peter Davids and Ben Witherington. Even in that group, though, you can see significant differences in some major topics (e.g. water baptism and hermeneutics). Other than those guys, I read several Anglican scholars like N.T. Wright, Richard France, John Stott and William Barclay, as well as Catholic scholars like Joseph Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown. Peter Enns and Gregory Beale are on my top scholar lists, as is Scot McKnight (obviously). Bruce Waltke has exceptional insight into the OT, as do Douglas Stuart, John Walton, Gordon Wenham and Bill Arnold. Additionally, I have great respect for Richard Hays, David Garland, C.K. Barrett, Howard Marshall, Darrell Bock, Craig Evans, Richard Bauckham, Clinton Arnold and Ralph Martin. Of course, my favorite scholar of all-time is F.F. Bruce.

    While, I do not read as many Jewish authors as I once did, I credit Abraham Joshua Heschel with opening my mind to the grandness and mystery of God. And I credit Abraham Cohen and Joseph Telushkin for really bringing my theology back into the ethical, “day-to-day living” realm. If our knowledge of God is not manifest in our relationships, it’s worthless.

    Finally, William Webb’s book Salves, Women and Homosexuals persuaded me away from my patriarchalist stances – as did articles and commentaries from Douglas Stuart, F.F. Bruce and Gordon Fee.

    Basically, in the last four years, most of my hard-line doctrinal views have been flipped over, shaken up and tossed in the air. While I walked completely away from some views, others I questioned and revised. Still others, I originally retreated from, only to find myself leaning back toward them. I can honestly say that most of my theology lies in the gray at this point. And for the first time in my life – I’m very okay with that.

    As an aside, I read some fiction from time to time, as well as some Christian-living, Military Biography and leadership books. Right now, I’m reading “Humilitas” by John Dickson, thanks to a blog by Profressor McKnight. I highly recommend it.

  • Thanks for the interesting topic and comments by readers. I especially like the lengthy quote of Lewis by Mel. Me? Guilty-as-charged (by Lewis)…. Rarely have I gone to the source directly. And for that “bad habit” I do partly blame an educational system, both public (K-12) and private (prominent Christian college, seminary), which almost never required, or even pushed us, to read classics of philosophy, theology, history, etc. (The only exception: fiction and a bit of poetry.) Later, PhD work at Claremont DID finally require more — thus a lot of Barth I’d not have otherwise read, some Luther, Edwards, Dewey, Erikson, Rorty, etc.)

    As to the “expanded your life” question by Scot, I’d say reading “outside the box” (of Evangelical theology and apologetics) provoked a major “break-out” to a place of true openness with its sense of liberation and release of burdens, and, correspondingly what I am convinced (by lots of study beyond personal experience) is a significant developmental advance — at least one full “level” per systems like Fowler’s and Wilber’s. It was more than just reading, however, as I’d read a bit of “liberal” or non-evangelical scholarship in my areas much earlier. It was the breadth of study, interdisciplinary nature of it, PLUS being around, interacting with people of more “universalist” or “progressive” theological orientation…. “Reading” their lives (as per Paul) did one important thing: forced me to adjust the caricatures of “liberalism” that I, with the help of my educational and cultural milieu, had built up. After that, it seems that openness on a conceptual level was a bit easier, partly because it made less “parochial” the circle of my friends and places to which I felt connection and loyalty. Powerful as broad reading can be, it really can’t do that part…. and we all tend to keep believing at least most of what those closest around us believe; and if that ceases to be the case, we tend to find additional or replacement friends.

  • RF

    I’ve been on both a Pauline-Jesus-NT Wright and OT-Robert Alter-Genesis thread for some months now. Very engrossing. But I realized a couple of days ago – as I do every year or two – that I need to shake it up a bit. I read four or five books at a time. So, a couple on theology of some sort, a piece of fiction, a piece of biography, and a piece of what I might refer to as “practical faith” reading.

    This December’s reading list looked like this:
    – Wright: “Justification”, alongside Piper’s “Justification: A Response to Wright”
    – Stott: “The Letters of John”
    – Karl Marlantes: “Matterhorn” (stunning)
    – Meacham: “Thomas Jefferson” (very, very good so far)
    – Volf: “A Public Faith”, alongside Mouw’s “Uncommon Decency”; to this Southern Baptist who is oftentimes very disappointed and confused with his denominational leadership, I found Volf and Mouw to be very refreshing.

    One last habit I’ve tried to develop – in the vein of Mel @2 above. I listen to a lot of John Stott sermons. In addition to being fantastic in and of themselves, he almost always mentions some scholar/pastor who wrote a well-known book or treatise. I’m trying to go find those and read them. Many are several decades old. So, in a few days, I’ll start Cullmann’s “The State in the New Testament” circa 1955. Desultory? Yes, and worthwhile I think.