I don’t know about you, but I often feel bombarded by perspectives and teaching on ‘spiritual disciplines’, ‘spirituality’, and so on. I’m a big fan of the power of prayer, quiet times with God, fellowship and sacrament with a gathered church, and a few other things. I don’t really buy into different ‘schemes’ or programs, but there is one thing about which I’m passionate about, possible above most other things that shape disciples of Jesus:
I think it is a key part of spiritual growth.
This blog post came about after someone on a Facebook Group I watch/participate in asked for suggestions about how to improve their reading as a discipline. Because reading doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and time is at a premium, I think a lot of people let it slide, or don’t focus on it. And I think that is a problem! Reading is vital, for Christians: it can show us more about God and his Word and World, inspire and encourage us, provoke us to consider atlernative opinions and methods, cause us to reflect on how and why we do and believe our faith. But it isn’t easy. As a bit of an oddball, I’m fortunate to love and enjoy reading, and one of my favourite things is seeing people engage with the joyful discipline of reading, and seeing the fruit and growth that reading can spark in people’s discipleship.
I usually have a few ways of doing it. A key one (though it fluctuates as to whether its a discipling book or some trash!) is what I call ‘the bedtime book’. I keep a big thick book, that is intimidating but I feel I should read, by my bed, and read it before I go to bed. Having a notebook with that can help. You might not remember everything – but reading before bed is much more healthy than using a screen and is a good rhythm (check out this article for why, scientifically, it can help). Reading something historical, or systematic, or technical, can be a surprising way to inform and inspire your prayer life, as well as give a good theological foundation for dreams and snoozing! A good example of a chunky, meaty, deep book to read would be William Gurnall’s ‘The Christian in Complete Armour’, a wonderful tome of theologically rooted and wonderfully biblical spirituality focusing on the Armour of God in Ephesians 6.
One of my favourite ‘Bedtime books’ – dense, awesome and deep. Great stuff to sleep on!
Another one is knowing one’s own limitations as a reader. For example, I simply can’t keep on top of everything I’d like to. So I read a lot of book reviews, by people I trust, and have friends who are specialists (whether its New Testament, Medicine, Psychology, etc). I also write them, partly to help me remember what is in a book, and also partly to save others the trouble of reading some things/help them choose what to read! As someone who works in publishing, I’m lucky to have access to lots of books, and writing book reviews is a great ‘digital brain’ or notebook to organise thoughts.
Don’t try to read everything – I think it is pretty impossible – but do try to read a range of things, including some stuff that is recommended as good and helpful by people you trust. It is also important to read things you will expect to disagree with…
Knowing where to start is often bewildering, and even more so for busy people! In terms of theological topics, a good place to start are the various ‘Five Views’ (or other numbers) from Zondervan and others. They give a concise overview of things – and suggest reading deeper in a helpful way. I’m a huge fan, for example, of the one on the vital Doctrine of Justification, which led me down some awesome rabbit holes!
Talking about books is helpful too – find someone to read something together and keep each other accountable. One pastor friend of mine ran/runs something called ‘Theology Pub’ which sounds awesome: coming together to discuss parts of a book the group has been reading. But it can work with other things too – a bunch of my university friends came together and read through part of Augustine’s ‘City of God’, which we’d all separately tried and failed to read before. We talked about it once every few weeks, and that kept us fresh and interested.
I’m aware that not everyone is literature, or struggles with reading. I found in a youth group that audiobooks or similar can be really helpful for those of us without great reading skills, as can reading a book in accountability with someone else. Sometimes that accountability can be with a person who isn’t actually there – by reading a book! I honestly believe the Church would be healthier if more people drank deeply of church history and serious theology. One great example would be John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’. Originally written as an introduction to the Christian faith, it is honestly one of the most profound and worshipful books ever written. There was a great post over at The Gospel Coalition website on how to read Calvin’s Institutes, recommending the brilliant ‘Readers Guide‘ by my friend and former colleague at LST, Professor Tony Lane.
This is a book I was delighted to get for Christmas, and hope to read and review soon.
Finally, and I’m personally not a fan of ‘summaries’, of books written to save you time (that isn’t what a book is about in my opinion!), but there are shorter ways of getting information! The aforementioned multi-perspective books are great (borrow one and read your own rough position at least, but it is ALWAYS good to read things you know you are likely to disagree with) but I’d also encourage preachers and teachers, and in generally disciples who want to submit their entire life to Jesus, including their brains; to ‘dabble’ theologically. For Vineyard pastors and leaders (and readers, i.e. anyone), get an SVS membership and read the papers whose titles you understand (I personally find that if a title or intro is beyond me, I need to put it aside till I’ve learned more words!). Similarly but differently, and from an explicitly Vineyard perspective, check out the ‘Kingdom Praxis Solos’ from Harmon Press, which are all short reads birthed theologically from folk in the Vineyard movement. As ever, I’d cheekily plug my own effort on the Lord’s Supper, or if you are in the UK, a short ebook looking at why different Christians vote and act differently in politics.