Wednesday, October 23, 2013

how to read a Christian book (2) choosing what to read

Last week I talked about how to get going with Christian reading. But how should you choose what to read? Here are some tips. 

Choose books well, and know when to give up
Tony Reinke calculates that, for every book you read, you ignore 10,000 other books; so choose what you read with care. Feel free to stop reading if a book is doing you no good: a helpful rule is to stop after "100 pages minus your age", as you'll become more discerning with time.1 Get out of your comfort zone, and read a range of books: high and lowbrow; secular and Christian; biographies and letters; non-fiction and fiction; old and modern. If you're not sure what to read, ask a reader you respect for a list of recommendations.

Read several books at once, or stick to one - it's up to you
The world of keen readers is divided into those who read one book at a time and those who read lots at once. Some people find that sticking to one book aids concentration and speed; but I love having several books on the go, because different books work well for different times. There's the novel that puts me to sleep (in a good way). There's the theological book I read when I have a fresh brain and a spare half hour. There's the collection of reflections that demands a cup of tea and a quiet ten minutes. Which brings me to my next point ...

Know why you read - and let the "why" shape the "how"
There are four main reasons I pick up a Christian book, and each demands a different pace and style of reading. Think of these as four parts of a balanced Christian reading diet, with the Bible at the foundation.2 Often, I have a book from each category on the go. I read:
  • to sharpen my thinking. I read carefully, pencil in hand, with my critical hat on. I ask questions of the text, note down the main points, try to work out where the author is going, and compare what I'm reading with other books on the topic. 
  • to drink in the truths of the faith. Every year I try to read at least one book on the cross of Christ or the character of God. I read a chapter on my mornings off, meditatively and receptively, allowing what I read to shape how I think and feel.3
  • to help me live out my faith: for example, books on holiness, evangelism, suffering, work, or relationships. I try to read from a book like this at least once a week and prayerfully apply it to my life.4
  • to deepen reflection. Good devotional books; biographies and autobiographies; collections of letters; wise reflections; fiction and poetry: all have their place, and the best deserve to be savored slowly.5
To use a helpful category of Reinke's, the first and third categories are books that "push you out" into new ways of thinking and living; the second and fourth, books that "pull you in", that you drink in for their own sake.6 It's good to read both kinds.

You can read my other tips at The Briefing, or wait for next week - I'll continue to publish it as a series on this blog.

  1. Your reading should also include secular books, both fiction and non-fiction, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. 
  2. Because this style of reading is less critical, you’ll want to take more care with your choices. Favourite books I’ve read in this category include John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, JI Packer’s Knowing God, and Tim Keller’s Jesus the King. 
  3. This is a category you want to be careful about, as there are so many poor Christian living books out there. The best authors in this category are gospel centred writers like Jerry Bridges, Tim Chester, Ed Welch and Elyse Fitzpatrick. See my post The dangers and delights of books about personal change
  4. Some of my favourite authors in this category include Nancy Guthrie and Paul Tripp (devotional books); Naomi Reed (autobiography); CS Lewis (letters); and Marilynne Robinson (fiction). 
  5. Tony Reinke, Lit!, pages 111-112.

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