Francis Bacon once said, “Reading makes a broad man but writing makes an exact man.”1 I am not as broad as I ought to be and am surely not as exact as I need to be. I find myself more in agreement with the preacher when he wrote, “and further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:12). Yet I know that reading is the life blood of learning. The great apostle, with no hope of escape from prison, still requested of young Timothy that he bring him his books! (See 2 Tim. 4:13); and Daniel, busy in his work as a head of state, wrote, “I Daniel understood by books the number of the years” (Dan. 9:2).
My father was a university professor and my mother was an English teacher. One would think some of it would rub of on their third child. For my mother’s sake, I wear a white carnation on Mother’s Day and I try to continue to read and write. Reading was comprehension to her, speed reading was not a real concern. William McGuffey wrote, “Read much but not many books. The motto in reading should be multum non multa”2 (not many things but much). I (and my siblings) went to his grade school in Oxford, Ohio, maybe some of that will rub off!
I’m certainly not a fast reader. I have a four-speed transmission when it comes to how I can read various books. Sometimes I can get up to third or fourth gear, but most times I plug along in first or second. Technical books (such as commentaries and theologies, which I love) just need to be given time. There is a saying, “it’s not the bee touching the flower, but abiding on it that produces the honey!”
I have become a more organized reader as I’ve grown older; maybe you have as well. I regret that I did not have (or no one taught me) a way to catalog information throughout my college and seminary days. Those old text books and other reading material are filled with pencil scratchings behind the front covers, but if I can’t remember under which cover to look, I’ve lost it. When my daughter Rebekah was my secretary, she wrote a small computer program to keep and catalog quotations from my reading. Later, my software engineer son Michael made an even more elaborate program which I now use. I guess if you can’t figure it all out yourself, raise some children who can. They’ll only think you’re stodgy, which isn’t bad. When Lee Strobel was writing his first book, he went to meet Bruce Metzger. He said, “I found eighty-four-year-old Bruce Metzger on a Saturday afternoon at his usual hangout, the library at Princeton Theological Seminary, where, he says with a smile, ‘I like to dust off the books.’”3 That’s what my generation will be doing in retirement, and that’s not bad either.
Some rules for reading
If I could start all over again I would follow a few rules. If I didn’t like to read to begin with, I would begin reading with what I liked. In my opinion a comic book is better than a cartoon because it takes more effort, imagination, and vocabulary. But if one will continue in that vein, he will soon graduate to better reading. Even to this day, when I get tired of reading the heavy things, I will go back to a good biography or even a fun story. Those have a way of pulling me back to my corner chair and asking me to linger there a while. Dr. Clearwaters used to quote William James saying, “We all have equal retentive powers, we only differ in degrees of interest and methods of learning.” I have found that the degree of interest will greatly enhance the method of learning.
I would also slow down and read as if I were talking to the author and he with me. But just as in real conversation, the pace will naturally pick up as you run deeper into the topic. Spurgeon said, “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading.”4 Daniel said he “understood by books,” not that he saw something in a book.
I would also try to expand my knowledge of various kinds of literature and authors. A “university” (unity in diversity) training is what we need. An “encyclopedic” (pediatrics in the whole cycle) knowledge is what we are after. Thomas à Kempis wrote, “Let not the authority of the writer offend thee, whether he be of great or small learning; but let the love of pure truth draw thee to read.”5 I see my younger son, Matthew, gaining this kind of reading ability much better than I ever did. When our children were young, we would stock the shelves with children-sized novels and classics, and he read them all! Now his (and all of our children’s) range of reading is much broader than it would have been. Our younger daughter, Rachel, now has an MA in reading!
And also, as I have noted, I would develop a retrieval method much earlier in my career. This is where the electronics boom has been such a blessing, though it can also be a curse. My father, a PhD from the University of Missouri, was an electronics wizard. He fixed anything and everything, built our houses, built and rebuilt our cars, and could tell you how every little gizmo worked and why. He retired, however, in 1984 just as the computer world was coming into its own and he did not come in with it. He had the brains, no doubt, and the aptitude, but the interest died out too quickly. I am certainly no computer guru and only operate on an average level, but I am well beyond my father. My children are the same distance ahead of me (maybe more) than I was of my father. I’m sure their children will pass them as well.
Now this doesn’t mean that we are more literate than our ancestors. Most people agree that our generation has more material at its fingertips than past generations combined but seems to have less wisdom and literacy than past generations. I know that I am far less literate than my mother (who died 1-1-01). She was an English and Literature teacher and taught for 25 years in the public school system and was an avid reader. She also taught a very popular Bible as Literature class in the high school where I attended—in the 1960s! She never used a computer, as far as I know, but I still wish that my reading could be as broad as hers. My sister, Debra, is just like her mother but more computer literate as well; so it can work both ways. She reads quickly and comprehensively to the shame of the rest of us. I would still call her “old school” when it comes to the kind of books she likes and her broad understanding of subjects, yet she is well beyond our mother in up-to-date technologies.
Only recently have I begun reading from a Kindle. On a trip this year to Ukraine my son, Matthew (who has an iPad with Kindle on it), gave me his old Kindle with a few books already on it. I bought a few more and took only that with me on the trip. I loved the ease of it and read four books on the two-week trip. That doesn’t bring me into the new age, however. I still love to read with a pencil and my personal bookmark (I am terrible at marking up a book so no one else will ever be able to use it). I have Amazon tagged with my favorite web sites and have done my share of making them rich. But I still identify with J. Sidlow Baxter when he said, “All of us are fond of reconnoitering among the shelves of evangelical bookstores.”6 I’ll add to that, among dusty shelves of used book stores!
The next generation
What will our children and grandchildren face in their life-times? There is already the problem of plagiarism in schools and informal writing. With Google searches, it is almost too easy to find information. It takes little or no effort in personal research. In fact, “research” today means searching the internet. But footnoting and giving credit where credit is due takes time and know-how. So why not just drop (cut and paste) the whole text right into my own document? In a world-wide information system, who’s to know? One can also word-search a subject in difficult-to-read books and lift a quotation out of it as if one has really read it. Remember in the old footnoting system (which I still use) how you had to be careful not to use an author’s own footnote when he footnoted another author? Either read the book yourself, or give the current author credit. That kind of thing is even easier now.
On a personal note, I tire of the over-footnoting which is today’s style (and required of good students). When you read a paper, or technical book, you are reading two things: the text itself which is the top half of the page, and the footnotes which take up the bottom half of the page. It’s almost like reading two books at once, like carrying on two conversations at the same time. I’m old-school enough to just want it in one conversation or be polite and wait until later. Footnoting itself (which I agree is necessary) is not found in older research books at all. I’m not sure that I would go as far as professor Goodrick when he wrote, “Many a polluting interpretation that deserves a death with dignity is kept alive by the heroic efforts of that life-support apparatus called a footnote.”7
I am afraid that history will be so re-written that my grand children will not even know the truth of history. The internet makes no distinction between false and true. This is like the Hollywood film version of history—since it is all many people will ever see, it is accepted as fact without any critical thinking. This is already bleeding over into Biblical history and the reliability of the Bible. Dan Brown’s DiVinci Code is proof enough!
How many of us will see our grandchildren ten times as proficient as we with the technologies, but woefully deficient in the social skills of life? I still find it ironic to talk about “social networking” among people who never see or talk to one another. It is a common remark to hear someone say that they have been in a public place where everyone was busy on their electronic device but never said a word to one another. Multi-tasking seldom includes conversation, evidently. Add to this the coming deficiency in spelling, grammar, personality, facial expression, eye contact, not to mention manners. And we cannot even talk about morality. C.S. Lewis wrote some time ago, “He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it.”8 I think it is the same with an over-use of the internet and social media.
We all fear the next generation’s attitude toward Christian fellowship and worship. We try not to quibble over electronic words rather than printed words, or virtual speakers on a screen rather than the actual speaker in front of you. We can’t even approach the subject anymore of which is better: real sound or electronically reproduced sound. We lost that battle over sound tracks, then over organs, and now we may only seldom hear the sound of a real acoustic piano. But where are we headed when it comes to real books? An appropriate illustration might be of the song book. If older song writers did not copyright their songs (which, of course, they did not), they are changed at will to suit the current publisher’s purpose. If Isaac Watts wrote “for such a worm as I,” then either sing it or leave it alone! But don’t soft-peddle it into something he didn’t write. But this is a mute point also since we are now beyond using actual song books anyway (except in my church). You don’t have to have anything in your hand, Bible or song book, except perhaps your own “smart” phone to do something else when you get bored.
I’ve used this old quote from J.S. Whale often, “Instead of putting off our shoes from our feet because the place we stand is holy ground, we are taking nice photographs of the burning bush from suitable angles.”9 Many worship services do feel more like a photo session than a worship service. We worship the worship more than the object of our worship. Our icons have become electronic.
So what are the challenges that we face as we go forward (and go forward we must)? First and foremost is to keep walking by faith and not by sight. The immortal, invisible God lives in a world we cannot experience with our physical senses. Therefore we must follow the path He has revealed to us, and that is precisely a written text. A verbal, plenary view of the inspiration of that revelation causes us to want to read it! Yes, we can do that electronically. I have a few different electronic versions of the Bible plus an extensive Bible software program. I must admit I still love the real Book in my hands and real commentaries, lexicons, etc. I also do find these deficiencies with my electronic versions: I don’t mark them (though I can, clumsily, with built-in tools), I read them too fast, I read them in busy places, and I don’t reverence them much. Again, the danger in all of this is losing a proper view of the invisible God. Maybe He can be downsized, or stored in a file, or cut and pasted, or be given a handy size to fit my busy life-style. Maybe I’m the one in control here.
Second, will this cycle of one generation dropping pace from the next, continue from now on? Will children always have the attitude that adults don’t know things and are incapable of handling the simplest tasks? What will a generation of kids look like in fifty years? Will there still be a walk by faith and not by sight? When the last generation does come, will there still be faith on the earth?
Third, what about myself and my generation? I want to finish the race strongly. Can I do that if I am not very technologically astute? Can the older saints, whom we are to honor, be given any real respect in our churches, or are they mere spectators while the children run the show? I watched my father retreat from a newer world and I’ve always told myself I won’t do that. Frankly, retreat from communications that corrupt good manners seems prudent. But I will continue to do the best I can within the framework of God’s Word.
And so . . .
The subject of this article is reading. I believe we must read. A generation that doesn’t read also doesn’t learn, spell, communicate, or write. Christians can’t allow that to happen to them or their children. We are in a strange world but so have been those before us. Pilgrims and strangers must travel through the land and do the best they can in the time they have. Our stewardship is with the tools God has given us, not what He has given someone else. Stewards must be faithful.
Christian (in Bunyan’s classic) was uncomfortable in the city called Vanity which had a Fair that lasted twelve months out of the year so that the partying never stopped. He was out of place, they told him, in his speech, his looks, and his stodgy ways. He couldn’t change Vanity’s Fair in the time he had there because he was a pilgrim and had a goal in sight and had to move on. But he was a light in a dark place for a while. We are children of the light so let us also walk in the light in the time that we have.
1. This quote is repeated by many. See, for example, Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 100.
2. Harvey Minnich, William Holmes McGuffey and his Readers (Cincinnati: American Book Co., 1936) 183.
3. Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 57.
4. Quoted by J. Oswald Sanders in Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971) but attributed to H. Thielecke in a book titled Encounter With Spurgeon.
5. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984) 33.
6. J. Sidlow Baxter, His Deeper Work In Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) 81.
7. Edward Goodrick, Is My Bible The Inspired Word of God? (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1988) 107.
8. C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy (New York: HBJ, 1955) 199.
9. J.S. Whale, Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: University Press, 1963) 152.