Leading, Reading, Marking

Last spring a friend and I read through parts of Albert Mohler’s The Conviction to Lead.  It’s a basic sort of introduction to leadership from a Christian perspective.  We thought the book was OK, but not outstanding.  The 25 principles were not explained with much detail, and what was explained were basic leadership virtues that we had heard of elsewhere.  I haven’t read any of Mohler’s other work, but it seemed like this was sort of a “greatest hits” summary of Mohler’s leadership thoughts/principles.

There were some helpful parts to the book, however.  One section that caught my attention was his short chapter on how leaders are readers.  How should a leader read?  He answers this question like this (I’ve edited it for length):

1) Your first concern is to read for understanding.  If you don’t, reading will add little to your life and leadership abilities.  Before you start to read a book, ask certain questions about it.  What kind of book is it?  What do you need to know about the author?  What is the book’s purpose and subject matter, and why are you reading it?  If you find that the book is not contributing to your life and leadership, set it aside.  The world is filled with books and other reading material.

2) Learn to read critically.  Reading is not merely an exchange of information and ideas.  It is a conversation between the author and the reader; it is a silent conversation.  Treat the book as a notepad with printed words.  Make the book your own by marking points of agreement and disagreement, highlighting particularly important sections of the text, and underlining and diagramming where helpful.  Unless your specific copy has some historical or emotional value, mark it up with abandon.

Speaking of writing in books, Mohler adds:

“The activity of marking your books adds tremendously to the value of your reading and to your retention of its contents and your thinking.  I can go back to a book I read a half century ago and reenter my experience of reading that book for the first time.  My notations and remarks make this possible. Often when I reread a book I read many years ago, I am struck by how I read it somewhat differently now, marking different passages and asking the author different questions. …Though most e-readers offer some form of highlighting and notation, the experience is simply not the same as reading with pen in hand.”

Albert Mohler, The Conviction to Lead (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2012), 101-102.

shane lems

The Limits of Book Endorsements

“Perhaps no country has abounded so much with religious books as our own: many of them are truly excellent, but a very great number of those which are usually more obvious to be met with (as they stand recommended by great names and the general taste of the public) are more likely to mislead an inquirer, than to direct him into the paths of true peace and wisdom” (John Newton, England c. 1800).

Over the past few years the Christian book industry and market have grown by leaps and bounds.  Christian books are promoted like crazy; most publishers have marketing teams or marketing programs to help sell books.  One major marketing strategy is the book endorsement – popular Christian preachers and leaders endorse a book to gain the attention of prospective buyers.  This happens in all Christian circles – from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, from Baptist to Reformed, etc.

I’ve come to the point where I’m skeptical about book endorsements.  More than a few times I purchased a book simply because a handful of famous preachers said the book was “an absolute must-have” (or something like that) – and the book just wasn’t that good.  I’m not questioning the integrity of the publishers or endorsers here, but I do want to note the limits of endorsements to help readers spend money wisely and make the most of their limited reading time.

1) Book endorsements can’t tell you if you really need the book.  For example, if you have three books on “gospel-centered” parenting and a new one comes out, no matter what the endorsements say, you probably don’t “need” a fourth book on the topic.  For another example, if you already have two Study Bibles, you probably don’t need a third (no matter who endorsed it!).  Endorsements can’t tell you if you already have a book like the one being endorsed.

2) Book endorsements don’t mention if the book has been written before.  A majority of Christian books written today don’t necessarily fill a gap in Christian literature.  You could probably find twenty books on the topic of “community” written in the last ten years alone.  Typically, endorsements don’t mention that there are quite a few books like the one they’re endorsing.  And as a side, though this certainly isn’t always the case, I’ve often found that older theological books are typically better than new ones.

3) Most book endorsements don’t mention the book’s weakness or weaknesses.  I believe it would be more helpful if book endorsements were constructively critical.  Sometimes you’ll find an endorser noting that he doesn’t agree with everything written – I appreciate endorsements like that.  We need to learn to be discerning when it comes to theology; uncritical endorsements don’t help us in the area of discernment.  (“Book endorsement” seems to have become a literary genre in itself, but that’s probably a different topic.)

4) An endorsement doesn’t necessarily mean the endorser read the entire book.  While publishers differ in their endorsement policies, I’m not sure all endorsers are required to read the entire book in order to endorse it.  I’ve had it before where a solid Calvinistic preacher heartily endorsed a book that leaned towards universalism.  This should make us at least pause before accepting endorsements without question.

Again, I’m not trying to throw Christian publishers or book endorsers under the proverbial bus.  I appreciate many Christian publishing companies and some of my good friends have endorsed books.  There is a place for endorsements and there is a place for book recommendations.  But they have limited value (including the recommendations of this blog!).

If you want to purchase Christian books in a level-headed, self-controlled, and mature way, don’t let the hype and/or endorsements “seal the deal” for you.  Before you read them, ask yourself these questions: 1) Do I really need this book?  2) Do I already have one or more like it? 3) Has this been written before in a better and more solid way? 4) What are the weaknesses of the book?  5) Am I buying this book simply because a celebrity pastor or two endorsed it?  These are some questions I ask myself before purchasing a new Christian book.

Agree?  Disagree?  Comments?

shane lems

Books That Will Last

A friend once asked me a very good question: which books have you recently read that you think will still be read many years from now?  Some Christian books published in the last ten years or so will pretty much be lost in the vast Christian library, while others will continue to be checked out and read ten, twenty, and fifty plus years from now.  So which books on my shelves, published in the last ten years or so, will still be used in the future?

This is a good topic for sure.  In fact, in the past year or so I’ve quit reading a lot of the trendy Christian books that are written for the Gen-X and Gen-Y culture.  I’ve tried to mostly read books I think will be helpful many years from now.  So what follows is a preliminary list (notes: the list is in no particular order, and I’ve limited it to books aimed at a larger audience.  I have quite a few very technical and specific books that will stand the test of time, but for this list I’m just focusing on those written for all kinds of people).

Also, I know this attempt is somewhat subjective (and difficult!), so I invite you to add other books you think will stand the test of time.   Look on your bookshelves and ask yourself the question: which of these books will Christians be reading fifty or more years from now?  How about a hundred or more?

 Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillenialism.  This book has already been through at least one printing and one recent update, and has helped many Christians understand amillenialism from a biblical and Reformed perspective.  I doubt it will go away soon – and I hope it will continue to benefit the church years from now.

  Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life and The Discipline of Grace. To be honest, I think a handful of Bridges’ books will stand the test of time; I had a hard time choosing one or two.  Bridges’ material is pastoral, biblical, and “translatable” to many cultures, age-groups, and languages.

 Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative.  Since creeds/confessions have been increasingly attacked, this book will still be needed in the future.  Americans most likely aren’t going to become more willing to adopt creeds/confessions, and based on trends for the past 50 years or so, confessional churches in the future will need resources like this book to stay confessional.

 The Genius of Luther’s Theology by Robert Kolb and Charles Arand.  This is one of the best summaries of Luther’s theology that I have read.  I have read much of Luther himself, and I must say this book is faithful to Luther’s thought.  Luther isn’t going away (thankfully!).

 Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy.  It’s not likely that the Bauer/Ehrman thesis will soon disappear; this book will be relevant in the years to come as the Christian church continues to wrestle with the formation of the NT canon.  Also worth mentioning is Kruger’s Canon Revisited.

 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith.  Though it isn’t my favorite systematic theology, it is an outstanding summary of Christian doctrine from a solid Reformed perspective.  I can easily see this on many Christians’ bookshelves in 50 years or more.  I’m sure that as long as I’m able to study, I’ll be using and recommending it often.

(I also believe that certain books by R.C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, Don Carson, and Os Guinness will stand the test of time.  I didn’t list them here b/c there were too many – and some were published years ago.)

I’ve looked at my shelves several times and I’ll have to stick with this list for now – I was being conservative on purpose.  Maybe someday I’ll do this again in a more specific way – for example, list the books by category (counseling, biblical studies, historical theology, etc.).  Either way, I’m looking forward to your comments!

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond wi

How to Read the Puritan Paperbacks

This is a slightly edited repost from June, 2010.

If you’ve followed this blog for the past few years, you know that we enjoy the little Banner of Truth series of books called “Puritan Paperbacks.”  To be honest, the first time I (Shane) read one of these Paperbacks (I forget which one), I didn’t really enjoy it or appreciate it.  I thought it was too tedious, detailed, and ancient.  That was twelve years ago; now I have about seventeen of them and have benefited from them in many ways.  Here are a few things that have helped me read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit.  This list also applies to other Puritan books, for sure, but to keep it shorter, I’m thinking primarily of the Paperbacks.

To read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit, 

1) Know your systematic theology.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in systematics to benefit from them, but if you know your basic systematics (i.e. the attributes of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the ordo salutis, etc.) it will be easier to read the Paperbacks.  For example, if you know the Westminster Standards well, or study Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, it will make reading the Paperbacks more enjoyable – you’ll be able to see that when the Puritans do “go deep,” they’re staying in the Reformed categories.  When I realized this, it made it easier and more edifying to read the Puritans on sanctification, because (just for one example) I knew that even when they were quite detailed, they were not blending it with justification.

2) Stick with it.  The archaic language and grammar is tough at first (you may need a dictionary!), and even daunting, but after a few Paperbacks you get used to it.  Be patient.  Remember that these authors wrote several hundred years ago, so the language and illustrations will be different (I still chuckle when I come across a word like “compunction”).  And as with all books, don’t be surprised when there are a few sections here and there that are less helpful than others.   Start with a short Paperback and perhaps read a chapter/section or two a week.  One good Paperback to read first is Thomas Watson’s ‘Repentance’ because it is short, clear, and very helpful – it won’t overwhelm you.  Similarly, Watson’s ‘All Things for Good,’ and Bunyan’s ‘All Love’s Excelling’ are short and clear.   Don’t read the longer and harder ones until later.  For example, wait quite awhile until you read The Sinfulness of Sin, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, and others that are detailed and over 200 pages.

3) Take notes.  When I read a Paperback, I have a pencil and highlighter in hand to mark the best sections.  I also make my own index in the back cover so that when I study a certain topic later I can just pull the Paperback off my shelf, turn to the back cover, find the topic and page number that I wrote, and turn there to find it highlighted/underlined.  You may want to do the same for certain Scripture references since the books don’t have scriptural indexes.  You’ll profit in the long run from reading these books by making your own topical or scriptural index so you can use them in your future studies and devotions.  I’ve also heard of some people keeping a reading journal of sorts.  Either way, taking notes on these books is helpful and edifying.

4) Approach reading the Paperbacks differently than you do other books.  The genre of these books is quite different than other things we read from day to day, so read them when you’re in the mood for deeper Christian writing.  Pray that the book will teach, convict, and comfort you in Christ.  If you approach the Paperbacks realizing that they are not newspaper articles, Christian Amish fiction novels, or other Christian fluff books, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to read.  I don’t recommend reading the Puritans on a tablet because if you’re not self-disciplined enough, you’ll be tempted to check email or browse the web when the reading becomes difficult.  I also find that I profit best from these books when I space them out a bit.  Reading them too often is something like too much of a good thing.  And, of course, it is good to vary our reading material; we should read the Puritans, but we should read other authors from other centuries as well.

In summary, I think with some time and effort, most Christians who are “readers” will be able to understand these books, profit from them, and learn to appreciate the Puritans at least to some extent.  Though I don’t elevate the Puritans above other writers/teachers, they have have taught me much about sin, salvation, and serving Christ.  Even if you don’t get “into” the Puritans, I challenge you to at least read a few shorter Puritan Paperbacks.  And I should warn you that once you’ve read a few of these Paperbacks, it just might make you realize how trendy, simple, and “thin” many modern Christian books are (you’ve been warned)!

By the way – one other great thing about these Paperbacks is that they are usually priced well under $10. 

rev shane lems

A Call for Excellence in Editing and Publishing

 As one who enjoys reading books, I’m sometimes frustrated by certain “bookish” things.  For example, I can’t stand it when a theological or biblical book does not have a Scripture reference in an appendix.  I’m annoyed by endnotes and I appreciate footnotes.  I’ve also quit reading the endorsements publishers use as they try to sell a book, since sometimes I seriously have doubted whether the endorsers actually read the book before they commented on it.  Those are a few minor book pet peeves I have.

Furthermore, it bothers me when publishers milk a best selling book for all its worth.  Do we really need 64 editions of a book – one for moms, one for teens, one for tweens, one for men, one for dads, one for Christmas, etc.?  Do we really need the same Study Bible available in calfskin, sheepskin, snakeskin, thinline, softcover, bling-cover, and wide margins?  (That begs the question: do we really need another study Bible at all?)

I’m also irritated by repackaged material.  I’ve noticed with some authors that once you read one or two of his/her books, every other one is just repackaged and even cut-and-pasted.  Recently, publishers have been selling older books by updating the cover, adding a new foreword, and advertising it as “newly updated and revised!”  To me, this is a foray much too far into the realm of marketing by making consumers unsatisfied with what they already have and making them think they need the latest update of this or that.

The book cover pictured above is an example of repackaged publishing.  Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible (Wheaton: Crossway 2012) is a collection of articles that gives an overview of the different parts of the Bible.  However, the articles in this book are the articles from the ESV Study Bible tweaked a bit and put into book form (without any proper introduction or presentation of contributing authors).  The problem is the only way the reader could figure this out is by noticing the fine print buried around the ISBN and publication information.  Many readers might miss this: it is repackaged material!   (I don’t have an ESV Study Bible, but if you do have one, you certainly don’t need to get the aforementioned book.)  I wish the publisher was more open about the contents of this book.

Finally, I’ve noticed that many books being published have already been written.  What I mean by that is there are many good books on marriage, parenting, preaching, and so forth, so any new ones are not really new.  Before I purchase any book, I look to see if this topic has already been covered – and usually it has.   I suppose it is good that newly written solid Christian books are getting out there, but I hope it doesn’t make people avoid what has already been written.  I realize this is a little subjective, but I usually find that older books on a certain topic are better than newer ones on the same topic.  It seems to me that, unlike modern authors, older authors weren’t tying to be hip, relevant, or cool by many various references to popular culture.  In my opinion, readers can understand a biblical teaching or principle without an illustration about IPods, the Hunger Games, or the NFL.

Though this blog post is only a whisper in a tornado, I would like to encourage Christian publishers and editors to pursue excellence in what you do.  Don’t give in to the marketing schemes so prevalent today!  Give Christian readers something better than that.  Don’t mislead us in advertising.  If a book is repackaged, just tell us clearly that’s what it is and exactly how you updated and/or revised it.  If it is a best seller, don’t treat us like idiots by trying to get us to buy the college (or whatever) version of it.  If it’s been written before, think long and hard before publishing it – is it really needed?  Please don’t stop publishing, just work hard to do it better – following biblical principles and thinking of what is best for us as readers while standing against the money-making marketing trends of our day.

Comments from other readers are, of course, always welcome. 

shane lems