Monday, June 30, 2014

7 Tips For Reading More Books

If you're a book-lover like me, then you probably have a growing stack of books to read and not enough time to read them. I love my books, but they seem to mock me from my shelves and beg me from my Kindle. Come on! If I wanted a guilt trip, I would call some of my many neglected friends and family. What to do? Here are some ideas to help you whittle down that mountain to more manageable proportions.

1. Set goals.

Have a plan with a date. Noting pushes me like a good deadline and accountability. I use an on-line site called Goodreads to help me catalog my books and set goals for reading. They have a built in tracker that lets me know if I'm behind. This pressure keeps me motivated to stay on task. There are several on-line tools that you can use for this purpose. Or you may decide to go the old-fashioned way and make a paper book-list and year-end goal. Either way, the important thing is to take charge of your reading.

2. Read How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler

I heard about this book from Howard Hendricks some years ago and have had it recommended to me by several people since. I finally gave in and read it through a couple of years ago. I found it beneficial for navigating different types of reading material. Here's a hint: you don't read every book in the same way.

3. Hit the highlights

Several years ago I asked my Inductive Bible Study professor and mentor how he got through so many books. He has a personal library of over 3,000 books in his office and another, supposedly larger one, at home. For a man who picks through Scripture with a fine-toothed comb, I was surprised a what he told me. Here it is in a nutshell: don't worry about reading non-fiction books in order, try reading the first and last page of the book and then read the first sentence of every paragraph. For many books that will be enough to give you the information for which you are looking. But does this count as having read the book? According to several scholars I have interviewed or read, Yes! I still struggle with method of reading but if it advances my progress even a little, it is worth it.

4. Audio books

Many people I respect use audio books to get more reading done. There are services like Audible to which you can subscribe. I have used the public library's audio book selection quite a bit, and recently I have used to download to my Kindle Fire. I have a thirty minute commute to work, so I have an hour a day to listen to something. Thus far, I have only used it for fiction, since I usually mark up my non-fiction reads pretty heavily...but to each his or her own.

5. Cut out "time-sucks"

In this day and age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to unplug. I don't know how often I have found myself reading at the table with my laptop right in front of me with Goodreads or Twitter or Facebook pulled up. Needless to say, those where not very productive reading times. Other people like to read with the TV or radio going. All of these forms of media cause unwarranted distractions and suck time away from your intellectual development.

6. Pause or quit books that aren't engaging at the moment

Too many people feel like they have to finish a book before they can move on to something else. If their book stalls out, so does their productivity. Here's the deal: life is too short to waste time on dull books. Give yourself a pass to either pause the book till a later date or quite it altogether. Then move on to something more interesting to you.

7. Quit shopping and start reading

This is something I have to tell myself every so often. The fact is that I'm not sure which I like more--reading or getting new books. I'm a bit of a book collector--my wife thinks of it in terms of hoarding--so rather than spend my free time reading, I often find myself at Half Price Books or Goodwill or Declare a shopping fast and shop your own book collection. More importantly, use that time to actually read.

If you have any additional tips for getting more read, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you. I might even edit this post and include it!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Not So Crazy Over Crazy Love--A Book Review

This book has a huge fan base in the evangelical world. So many of my personal friends have gone gaga over this book that I feel a little guilty for busting it down to two stars. However, I have several reasons that I must do so. Is it because I'm quenching the Holy Spirit's voice in my life? Is it because I'm a calloused Christian that isn't willing to be "overwhelmed by a relentless God"? No. It's that I'm not overwhelmed by this book...let me count the ways.

1. I am really hard pressed to find any new material in this book. Recently there has been a wave of similar books calling for comfortable suburban Christians to get Radical about their faith and realize that there is a Hole In the Gospel ( least their Gospel), and that each of us is called to be a disciple and Not A Fan. That covers several of them anyway. I haven't read all of these books, so I will refrain from commenting on them and stick to Crazy Love. Here's the deal: Tozer and Bonhoffer said it better. I'll stick with them.

2. I usually like books that give me a kick in the pants, but this one did not engage me at all. I agreed with much of what Chan was saying. Christians play it entirely too safe and half-heartedly worship Christ all the time. So, when I was bored to tears reading this book, I sat down and analyzed why. This point alone will require subpoints (sorry folks, that's just the kind of mood I'm in at the moment).
A. Chan should have fired his editor and hired a new one who would tell him when he was going all over the place, or say, "Hey, Francis, could you flesh this out more. This was just starting to get interesting and you left it dangling only to repeat some of this in a further chapter." Or maybe someone should have said, "You are making broad generalized claims about Christians, the Church, America. They seem true but if you really want to sell me, it would help to have some supporting data or stories or whatever." The fact is that the book could have been greatly improved by shifting some of the content around--dispersing some of his illustrations throughout the book and developing arguments well the first time instead of rehashing the same old arguments half way several times over. Am I being hard on Francis? Maybe but that is because...

B. I like good writing, and this is not good writing. Reading this felt like reading a blog instead of a book. "Well, Nick, Chan never claims to be a great writer!" Fair enough, but when Crazy Love is receiving such high accolades I feel that it is my duty to critique it. I am probably spoiled by reading guys like C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and N.T. Wright. That might be true, but if you are going to all the work of publishing a book, learn how to write well. Give your sentences some zip--for crying out loud!

C. This may just go back to subpoint A...I'm still not sure, and so it gets its own subpoint. Chan's approach to his goal is confusing and muddled. I notice that several other reviewers have picked up on this as well. He begins his book by talking about how we SHOULD be in Love with God and be AWED by him. So he sends you to some websites (I hate when books do this by the way. I'm reading a book. If you wanted me to link to something, write a blog. Take the time to describe or quote the content for crying out loud!). What happens a couple years down the road when these sites are dead links? Your book is outdated that's what. But I digress. He spends several chapters upfront trying to guilt the reader into loving God more. Then it seems that he back pedals somewhat, saying that you cannot make yourself love God more. He spends a whole chapter on the "Profile of a Lukewarm Christian" in which some of the traits are distilled from Scripture and some have no referent other than the opinions of Chan. He makes some hard claims, but then softens them in the next chapter. He says that he is not trying to preach works and that the Holy Spirit must do the work. I believe that he is attempting to preach a gospel of grace, but his delivery stinks. He needs to build clearer, more nuanced arguments instead of making sweeping claims that he has to clarify later. In the end, I am kind of confused about how Chan wants his readers to go about being "overwhelmed by a relentless God." Perhaps this is because he never fully diagnoses the reason why many Christians are in the shape we are. He states the problem and says we need to change, but when it comes to reasons why this is the case he comes up short. Maybe he should have spent more time dwelling on the gospel. The vibrant gospel message is what fans the flames of love in our hearts.

3. And finally, it suffers from the same problems that many of these type of books do, namely it focuses on extreme examples of social justice or financial stewardship. If you aren't downsizing your house or biking to work, then you aren't an extreme enough Christian. These types of books give lip service to less dramatic ways of serving God, but they don't get page time when it comes to examples. Nor is there ever any insight into what "Crazy Love" might look like in rural Kentucky or Montana rather than Urban/suburban Chicago or San Diego. This last point reveals the limitations of the authors, but if you are going to make general statements for the American Church at least get a peek into the world of average small town America.

Well, I guess I was pretty hard on this book. It works for a lot of people. I actually liked some of what he had to say, but in the end I have to say that I think this book is greatly over rated. The huge success of this book, and others like it, reveals that there is a desperate need in our churches for real, life changing relationship with Jesus Christ. I commend Chan for speaking out against self-absorbed, cushy Christianity. I only wish he had done a better job. Literarily and intellectually speaking, I don't think this popular book has much staying power.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Kingdom New Testament--A Great Resource But Not Perfect

Starting in January, I decided to read through N.T. Wright's translation for my New Testament portion of Bible reading. As far as a contemporary translation goes, The Kingdom New Testament (TKNT) won't be for everyone (even if it is derived from the translation sections of Wright's commentary series "For Everyone").

I don't think this translation will ever become mainstream in the US. There are some turns of phrase that will just ring awkwardly in contemporary American ears, perhaps like Jesus telling the disciples "off you go." However, as somewhat of an Anglo-phile, British turns of speech do not bother me in the least. I find them quaint. Personally, I found this translation insightful and refreshing.

Wright has his loyal followers who tend to love his foci, and then there are his detractors who do not agree with his New Pauline Perspective. For this latter group, I would venture that they will not be making use of this translation, which would be a shame because it could help them engage Wright's reading of Scripture all the better. When I chose to read through it, though, I was also reading it with an eye to better understanding Wright's take on the NT. I have read 9 or 10 of his books at this point, and I've listened to hours of his lectures and sermons, but I was still unclear at several points what he made of certain passages in light of his theology. This translation was a window into that world, and I found it helpful to that purpose as well. In particular he highlights the message of the Kingdom and Jesus as King. Also, his translation of the Pauline material was quite helpful for piecing together his understanding of justification.

My particular copy is on Kindle and at numerous points, especially in the Gospels, the headings would get off by a section and continue off-track for several chapters. That was annoying and something a careful editor should have caught, but overall it didn't ruin my enjoyment of reading the text. I recommend this translation as a helpful tool to anyone.