September 11, 2016
In my last article, “The Case for Reading: Why Christians Should Be Readers,” I tried to show the importance of reading. Since God has revealed himself in a book, the Bible, that means that Christians should value books (even if some or all of our “reading” comes through listening to audio books). In this article, I give some suggestions on how and what to read.
How to Read
If you can make sense of these words, you already know how to read. When I write “how to read,” I obviously don’t mean basic literacy. I mean how to read well. The following are some tips on how to read well.
First, set aside some time. Some people read first thing in the morning. Some people read throughout the day (if they have the ability to do so). Some people read on lunch breaks. Others read at night. Find a time when you can read on a consistent basis. You’ll need to find a time when you’re alert and when you’re not distracted.
Second, you’ll need to have enough time to read. You can’t get far in reading for only five minutes a day. I would try to read for thirty minutes, or at least fifteen. The reason for that is fairly simple: All of us can only read so many pages in so many minutes. If you’re going to read well (able to understand fully what you have read and able to remember the basic points the author is making), you can only read so fast. If you read for thirty minutes, you might only read ten or twelve pages well. I wouldn’t recommend reading less than ten pages of a book at a time. If you read too slowly, reading only a couple of pages of a book per day, it will be hard to remember the flow of the author’s argument. You’ll have to spend time going back to what you read in previous days to remember where you are in the book. Yes, you can read a 365-page book by reading one page a day, but unless it’s a page-a-day devotional, you won’t really understand the book as a whole. So, plan on reading longer chunks of a book in one sitting.
Third, you’ll need an environment that won’t distract you. Some of us will need total quiet: no radio, no television, no talking in the background. Some of us can deal better with background noise. Some of us may need to slip on headphones or earbuds and play music to block out background noise. For me, I can deal with a limited amount of background noise. I can read with instrumental music on. I can’t read with vocal music playing, because those words will distract me. I don’t think anyone can read with the television on, because then you’re distracted by words and images.
Fourth, be engaged. As you read, ask questions. Think about what the author is saying. Ask yourself if what the author is saying is true. There may be words used that you don’t understand. Look them up, or write them down on a piece of paper and look them up later. If I am reading critically, I participate in a dialogue with the author. If I am reading a book I own, I write in it. I underline key sentences. I write down summaries of what the author says in the margins. I write down my objections. That helps me try to figure out the flow of the author’s argument. It helps me stay involved as I read, so that my mind doesn’t drift.
Fifth, consider writing. If you own the book, feel free to write in it. If you’re borrowing a book, don’t write in it! But you can write some notes on a separate piece of paper. Writing helps you process what you read, which ensures that you understand what you’re reading. Writing also helps you remember what you have read for a longer period of time. It’s easy to read something and then forget very quickly what you have read.
Sixth, read with purpose. There may be some types of reading you do to kill time, such as reading a magazine or a newspaper. But you should also do more intentional reading. Read to learn something you don’t know much about. Every Christian should learn more about the Bible: what it says, what it means, and how to apply biblical principles to all of life. Every Christian could stand to learn more about history and what people of other religions (or no particular religion at all) believe. Think about a topic you need to learn more about in order to follow Christ (evangelism, defending the faith, being a good parent or spouse). Then get a good book on that subject and read carefully.
That brings me to the second topic of this article: what to read.
What to Read
There are thousands and thousands of books to read. You’ll have to choose wisely. Don’t waste your time on fluff or topics you know a lot about already. Read something that will help you grow and learn.
When it comes to Christian books, know that not everything that’s heavily marketed is worth reading. In fact, the books that are most advertised are ones I would often advise you not to read. Just because there are a lot of copies of a book at your local Christian bookstore doesn’t mean it’s worth reading. Just because a book is on the front page of a Christian catalogue doesn’t mean you should read it. The best way to figure out what to read is to follow a trusted recommendation.
In the space that is left in this article, I want to recommend some books from the church library. In order to check out a book, simply fill out the card that’s inside the book’s cover and place it in the card receptacle. Try to take good care of the book (don’t write in it; keep it away from food, water, and smoke; don’t crease the pages or the spine and cover) and bring it back in a reasonable time frame. (If three months have passed and you haven’t read the book, it’s probably time to bring it back.) I’ll give a very brief synopsis of each book along with the reason why you should read it.
The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller (apologetics). What it’s about: Keller, a pastor in New York City, answers objections against the Christian faith and then gives positive reasons why people should believe in Jesus. Why read it: I have read this book twice and it’s the book that I have most frequently given to people. Keller shows why the Christian faith makes sense. Make sure you read the endnotes (put a second bookmark back there), because there’s a lot of good information tucked away in the back.
Basic Christianity, by John Stott (theology). What it’s about: The gospel, primarily focused on Jesus. Why read it: It’s short and it’s a classic. Read it to know Jesus better (this is helpful for evangelism).
Christian Beliefs, by Wayne Grudem (theology). What it’s about: The book explains twenty beliefs. Books on systematic theology are typically around a thousand pages. This book is about 150 pages. Why read it: I find that most Christians have a hard time articulating what they believe. We struggle to define ideas like “atonement” or “Trinity.” This book will help.
Can I Really Trust the Bible? by Barry Cooper (Bible study). What it’s about: Why you can really trust the Bible. Why read it: It’s hard to stress how important the Bible is to the Christian faith. If you have ever tried to share what you believe with others, or if you’ve heard Christianity discussed in any public media, you know that the Bible is frequently attacked. It’s important to know why the Bible is true.
Read the Bible for Life, by George Guthrie (Bible study). What it’s about: How to read the Bible well. The subtitle says it all: “Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word.” Why read it: Guthrie is a professor and commentator writer, but this book isn’t overly academic. It’s written in a clear, journalistic style (similar to Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ). Guthrie interviews other scholars about how to make sense of the Bible and apply it to our lives.
Bringing the Gospel Home, by Randy Newman (evangelism). What it’s about: It’s about how to share the gospel with those closest to us, namely our relatives. Why read it: How many of us have family members and friends who are not Christians? How often have we prayed for their salvation? How many of us have actually read books about how to share the gospel with our relatives and friends? I’m guessing the answer to the first question is “all of us,” the answer to the second question is “most of us,” and the answer to the third question is “pretty much none of us.” It’s time to change that. Sharing the gospel doesn’t come automatically. We should pray, but we should also equip ourselves.
The Unbelievable Gospel, by Jonathan Dodson (evangelism). What it’s about: sharing the gospel through what some call “personal evangelism.” In other words, it’s about knowing how to share the gospel in an unscripted, personalized way to people we actually know. Why read it: Good methods of evangelism move beyond tracts or scripted presentations. This book is written by an urban pastor who practices what he preaches. He shows that the different metaphors of salvation (adoption, reconciliation, and so forth) can be applied to different individuals, based on who they are and where they are coming from. This book shows us how to talk about Jesus in a personalized, thoughtful, and loving way.
Eternity Changes Everything, by Stephen Witmer (Christian living). What it’s about: Understanding how what the Bible says about eternity should have a profound effect on our current lives. Why read it: Even Christians get fooled into thinking that this life is what matters most, or that we should have “Our best life now.” This book is a reminder that our future is certain and glorious, and that fact should change the way we live.
Turning Points, by Mark Noll (history). What it’s about: Noll writes about the major “turning points” in Christian history. He explains those significant moments in history and gives some context for them, so we understand why they happened and how they changed the course of history. Why read it: What we believe and how we “do church” have been shaped by history. Actually, Western civilization itself has been shaped by church history, too. To understand the world better, we need to know history.
Prayer, by Timothy Keller (Christian living). What it’s about: Here’s another book by Keller. It’s a theology of prayer, a guide to prayer, and an encouragement to pray. Why read it: This is the best book on prayer I have read. In fact, I should re-read it, because prayer can often be a struggle.
To Live Is Christ, To Die Is Gain, by Matt Chandler (Christian living). What it’s about: This is a book on how to follow Jesus. Chandler, a pastor and a clear and compelling communicator, draws from the book of Philippians. Why read it: Which one of us can’t learn how to follow Jesus better? Philippians teaches us to emulate Jesus and also Paul, whose desire was to follow Christ no matter the cost.
Sacred Marriage, by Gary Thomas (marriage). What it’s about: Marriage is not primarily about our happiness. It teaches us many lessons, including how to love, forgive, and persevere. Why read it: If you are married, you know how hard it can be. Things are often hard because we don’t understand the very nature of marriage. If you are thinking about getting married one day, it’s better to know this information up front. For another new book on marriage, see Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.
Other new books include Michael Witmer’s The Last Enemy, Bill Clem’s Disciple, Mike Wilkerson’s Redemption, and Donald Johnson’s How to Talk to a Skeptic. Lord willing, more books (particularly good, clear, and relatively short ones) will be added to our library in the near future.