How and What to Read

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.

The Case for Reading: Why Christians Should Be Readers

I believe, along with Jesus, that Christians should use all their minds to love God (Matt. 22:37). One of the best ways of loving God with all our minds is to read. I believe that all Christians should be, on some level, readers. The following is my argument for why we should be readers. Of course, there’s a danger in trying to convince people who don’t normally read to read, because in order to do so, those people have to read this article. If you don’t read much, please take a few minutes to read this article. I’ll try to be clear and brief.

God Gave Us a Book

The first reason why we should read is that God gave us a book, or an anthology of 66 books. Of course, I’m talking about God’s written Word, the Bible. Think about this: God could have ordered and arranged history so that, instead of the Bible, we had a collection of pictures to look at, or a set of DVDs to watch. But God didn’t do that. He gave us a book. God chose to reveal himself in specific ways through the written word. Yes, the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). Yes, creation points to a powerful, eternal, divine Creator (Rom. 1:20). Yes, even our consciences testify to the existence of God (Rom. 2:14-15). But those things don’t give us many details about who God is, who we are, what our problem is, and how that problem can be solved. If we want to know anything specific about God and how to relate to him, we need to read the Bible.

The fact that God has chosen to reveal himself to us through his written Word, the Bible, gives us a hint that there’s something about the written word that is important. God could have revealed himself to us in a series of pictures, or in a number of videos, or even through his audible voice (he could speak an individualized message to us each day). So what is it that sets the written word apart from pictures, audio, and video?

Why the Written Word Is Special

The written word is more specific than pictures. Sure, God could communicate to us in a series of pictures that, when put together, present a story. But a series of pictures would leave too much to our interpretation. We would have to guess at the meaning. We need God’s message to be clearer, more specific, and more precise.

Then why didn’t God give us audio or video? Wouldn’t it be great to see video of Jesus performing miracles? Wouldn’t it be great to at least hear his voice on a CD or on an MP3 recording? Well, yes, these things would be great. But I think the written word is even better for the following reasons.

One, when we watch videos, we are passively engaged. It’s very easy to watch TV, movies, or clips on YouTube without thinking too much. Video doesn’t require us to think critically. We sit back and the images wash over us. The same can happen when we listen to recordings. But when we read, we are actively engaged. Unless we force our eyes to continue moving and our brains to continue thinking, we won’t continue to read. Also, reading forces us to use our critical thinking abilities as well as our imagination. In order to follow an author’s argument, we have to think. Concentrated thinking is what we need in this age of distraction.

Two, when we read, we must pay attention to everything the author writes. Have you ever tried listening to an audio book while driving a car? How often do you “space out” and not pay attention? Have you ever spaced out (or nodded off) during a sermon? If you’re like me, your attention may drift. I’ve listened to audio books while driving, walking the dog, or doing yard work. Sometimes, I focus well. At other times, my attention wanders. When I catch myself drifting, I could try to rewind and go back to the place when I last paid attention. But that is difficult to do. (If we’re listening to or watching something live, it’s impossible to do that.) Also, when listening to an audio book, or sermon, or lecture, I will hear something that forces me to stop and think. Perhaps the author/speaker says something that I haven’t heard before, or something that requires me to chew on for a bit in order to process the information. When I’m listening to a recording, it’s not always easy to pause. But when I read, if I am to continue, I must pay attention. Every once in a while, I may find myself thinking about something else while my eyes glaze over the words on a page in front of me. But I catch myself and I can easily go back and re-read what I had been reading inattentively. If I read something that I need to think deeply about, I can re-read that sentence or paragraph. Or I can stop and think for a while and then continue when I’m ready.

Three, when something is written down, it’s easier to refer back to it. The written world is also public information. (That’s why the written word is better than some private, audible voice from God. If only we heard that, how could we prove to others that God spoke to us?) We can easily quote the Bible by providing the book, chapter, and verse. We can quote other books by referring to page numbers. And when we see something written, we can read it again and again. Think about Paul’s letters to Timothy. In his second letter to his younger colleague, he writes, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). How could Timothy think over what Paul said if he didn’t have Paul’s words written down? Sure, we can think when we hear or see something. But the written word demands thought. Paul’s desire to continue learning and thinking is demonstrated in his command to Timothy in that same letter: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Whether Paul had Scripture or other writings in mind, we don’t know. But it seems clear that he wanted to read while he was in prison.

Four, reading helps us to have a deeper understanding of an issue. News stories on TV and radio only go so deep. Sound bites and memes only go so far. If we want to learn more, we’ll have to read. Reading is simply the best way to gather information.

We Read to Sharpen the Mind

Now that I’ve given us some reasons to see why the written word is different from, and superior to, video and audio, let’s think about why we should read.

Let’s go back to the idea of loving God with all our minds (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In order to love God and live for him, we need to learn how to think well. We need to discern what is true and what is false. We need to learn the content of the Bible, how to interpret that content, and how to apply it to every area of our lives. That requires learning and thinking. It is through the renewal of our minds that we are transformed (Rom. 12:2). That transformation won’t occur unless we learn how to think Christianly. And learning how to think as Christians probably won’t happen apart from reading.

We Read to Know God’s Word

The most important book we will read is the Bible. The Bible is a long book, and it takes a while to read. The Bible has 1189 chapters. According to one count, there are 757,058 words in the English Standard Version.[1] There are about 550 words on this page. That means that if the Bible were printed with the type-setting you see on this page, it would be 1,376 pages. If you want to read the Bible in one year, you have to read 3.26 chapters per day, or 3.77 pages per day. That’s certainly possible. But you won’t read the whole Bible if you don’t read on a regular basis. And if you don’t know the Bible, you are essentially gagging God. He has spoken in his Word. Are you listening? If you want to know God, read the whole Bible, and when you finish, read it again.

We Read to Know How to Read God’s Word

I’ve benefitted enormously from reading other books besides the Bible. Yes, these books are not inerrant and infallible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from others. After all, Jesus has given the church, among other people, “teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:11-14). I have read a number of books that have taught me how to read the Bible. Besides being long, the Bible is complicated and was written in different times and cultures than ours. That means we have a bit of homework to do to read the Bible well. If you want to read the Bible well, you probably need to read some other books, too.

We Read to Know How to Apply God’s Word

In addition to knowing God’s Word and how to read it, we need to know how to apply biblical principles to all of life. We can benefit from the writings of those who have thought long and hard about how the Bible applies to marriage, raising children, politics, finances, work, and a number of other issues. The core message of Christianity is so simple that a child can grasp it. Yet its implications are so extensive that it takes a lifetime to understand how it relates to all of life.[2]

We Read to Know More about God’s World

As I indicated above, God has revealed something of himself in his world. So, the more we know about God’s world, the more we can be amazed at how great God is. When we learn about science, such as the complexity of the laws of physics or the design of our bodies, we can be in awe of God’s creative powers. When we read about history, we can wonder at God’s providence. When we read biographies of creative and heroic people, we see the image of God reflected in their lives.

We Read to Develop Our Imaginations

Reading fiction is important, because it helps us understand human nature better. The best authors of fiction force us to reflect more deeply on real life. And fiction also helps us to imagine what the world could be. However, we must read good quality fiction. Quality Christian fiction should cause us to reflect on God’s world in powerful ways. We can also learn from non-Christian fiction, too. The doctrine of common grace shows us that even non-Christians have a grasp of truth. (That’s why Paul can quote two Greek poets in Acts 17:28.)

What if I’m Not a Good Reader?

I don’t expect us all to read an equal amount. Some of us are faster readers than others. Some of us are more interested in reading than others. But I still think everyone should read. Think about this: We should all take care of our bodies. God gave us our bodies. They are good gifts to be used for his glory. Paul indicates that exercise is of some value (1 Tim. 4:8). We all know we should eat a healthy diet and exercise. That doesn’t mean all of us will be nutritionists and athletes. But we should still try to eat healthy food and get some exercise, even if it’s just walking. If we take care of our bodies, we can use our bodies to work for God’s kingdom. In the same way, all of us can read a bit, even if we’re not academics or pastors or Bible teachers. We can all use our minds for the work of God’s kingdom.

Some of us are better listeners than readers. Some of us are too busy to read a lot. In that case, I would recommend listening to audio books. You can borrow audio books from your local library or buy them through various retailers. Christianaudio.com sells audio books and they offer a free book in a digital format each month. You can download the files to a computer and put them on CDs, your smart phone, or your MP3 player. Christianaudio.com also offers an app so your audio books can be downloaded directly to your phone or tablet.

My last word of encouragement: If you don’t actively read something that is good for your mind, you will be shaped and affected by something. And most of the messages and information that comes our way is not Christian and not true. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated.”[3] But not all the world is Christian. Therefore, we have to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Pet. 1:13) and learn how to discern truth from lies. The unread mind is an unarmed mind.

What Should I Read?

Not all books are worth reading, so choose wisely. Feel free to ask me for book recommendations. We have a list of recommended books on our website: https://wbcommunity.org/reading. WORLD, a Christian magazine, honors what they believe to be the best books of the year.[4] The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association has annual award winners, too.[5] You can also look at the titles in our library in the foyer. I plan to write more about the library in the very near future.

Notes

  1. “Bible Statistics,” True Paradigm, August 26, 2012, http://bethyada.blogspot.com/2012/08/bible-statistics.html. ↑
  2. One of my favorite theologians, D. A. Carson, puts it this way: “This massive worldview touches everything, embraces everything. It can be simply put, for it has a center; it can be endlessly expounded and lived out, for in its scope it has no restrictive perimeter.” D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 387. ↑
  3. “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 58. ↑
  4. https://world.wng.org/2016/06/2016_books_of_the_year. ↑
  5. http://christianbookexpo.com/christianbookawards/winners2016.php. ↑

Tips on Reading the Bible

1. Start with a good tool. God’s Word is worth more than your house, your car, and your jewelry. It’s worth spending some money on a good Bible. At the least, get a Bible that will last, preferably one with a genuine leather cover. Get a Bible that has cross references, a concordance, and maps. I think it’s also very good to get a study Bible. The notes below the text are not inerrant or infallible, but they help us understand the meaning of the text. I highly recommend the ESV Study Bible. It’s the English Standard Version with notes and articles by many evangelical theologians. The NIV Study Bible is also very helpful. I have heard that the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible is a good one, too. There are very few other study Bibles that I would recommend.

2. Read larger chunks of the Bible at once. At a minimum, read one chapter at once. Do not read one verse in isolation. When you read larger chunks of the Bible at once, you understand what is happening in a narrative better, or you understand the flow of an epistle better.

3. Context matters. Don’t take one verse out of context. “A text without context is a pretext for a prooftext.” In other words, if you take one verse out of context, you are probably giving it a wrong meaning. Words gain their meaning in context. So do phrases and sentences. So, don’t read just one verse. Read the verses around it. Understand where one verse fits within the larger plot of the book of the Bible, and understand where that book fits within the whole of the big story of the Bible.

4. Read according to genre. The Bible consists of different genres, or styles, of writing. There are narratives (stories), laws, proverbs, poems (the Psalms and much of the prophets), letters, and apocalyptic writing (the second half of Daniel, some bits of the prophets, and the book of Revelation). You don’t read a recipe the way you read a love letter. You read a history book differently than you read a novel. You don’t think about this, but if you’re a good reader, you read these styles of writing differently. I think the easiest books of the Bible to read, understand, and apply to our lives are the letters of the New Testament. Perhaps the hardest styles of writing to understand are poems and apocalyptic literature.

5. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Well-intentioned Christians, understanding that the Bible is God’s Word, try to peer into every word for meaning. That’s fine, but first look for the big points of the Bible. As you read a chapter of the Bible, or even a whole book, ask yourself some questions: Why is this here in the Bible? What is God’s purpose for this passage? What does the author intend to communicate to the reader? How does this passage fit into the big story of the Bible?

6. The whole Bible is about Jesus. See Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 5:39, 46. When reading the Old Testament, ask how this passage is about Jesus. Is there a prophecy about Jesus? Does it show the need for Jesus? Is something a type of Jesus? A type (or shadow) is a person, event, or institution that foreshadows the coming of Jesus. The tabernacle, the Passover, sacrifices, miraculous births of children, David slaying Goliath—all of these things anticipate Jesus.

7. Where does this passage fit in the big story of the Bible? Is it before sin entered the world or after? Is it a passage about the Israelites “under the law”? Is it in the New Testament? This affects how you understand and apply the passage.

8. What does this passage teach about God? Some people jump to application, how they can live in light of this passage. But the problem with that approach is that the Bible is not primarily about us. God is the central character of the Bible. First, try to understand what the Bible teaches about God. Then, try to understand what it says about humans. After that, ask how the passage affects your life.

9. Remember that the Bible wasn’t written directly to us. The Bible was written anywhere from almost two thousand years ago to almost thirty-five hundred years ago. This means the Bible will contain some things that the original audiences understand that we don’t understand. These things can involve cultural practices, idioms, and symbols that we don’t understand. The same thing is true of our own language today. We understand what it means for someone to say, “He really hit a home run today.” But Moses wouldn’t have understood that; neither would David or Paul. A good study Bible will help you understand many of these issues. But study Bibles don’t cover everything.

10. You won’t understand everything when you read the Bible. I don’t intend for that to discourage you. Much of what you read in the Bible will be easy to understand. But not everything. And that’s okay. You will understand more and more as you keep reading. The more times you read through the Bible, the more you will understand it. It’s a process. If you understand this up front, you won’t be as discouraged.

11. Write down any questions you have. If you have a question, and you can’t find the answer in any resources you have, write the question down. Don’t spend all day worrying about it. You can always come back to the question later. Or, you can ask your pastor if he knows the answer. He may not know the answer, but he can look it up for you, or give you a resource so you can look it up yourself.

12. Be cautious about using the Internet. If you type a question into a search engine online, you will find a lot of answers. Some may be helpful. Some may even be right answers. But the Internet also has a lot of worthless stuff, particularly when it comes to the Bible.

13. Read a good book on how to understand the Good Book. The following titles are recommended. (The same list appears on WBCC’s website.)

Mark Dever, What Does God Want of Us Anyway? An Overview of the Whole Bible
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
George Guthrie, Read the Bible for Life
Tremper Longman, Reading the Bible with Heart & Mind
Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible
Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture
Robert Stein, Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible
Michael Williams, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

14. Meditate on the passage. Don’t just read the passage, check it off your to-do list, and move on. Think about it. Think about how it should affect your life. Think about it during the day. Dwell on it.

15. Finally, pray over the passage. Pray before you read. Ask God to help you understand what you’re reading. After reading, pray that God would help you live your life in light of the passage. Let God’s Word mold and shape your head, heart, and hands.