The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘reading

Wesley shoots

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Plain counsel from John Wesley to a fellow-preacher:

What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is, want of reading. I scarce ever knew a Preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep Preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian. O begin ! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: What is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial Preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you; and, in particular, [me].

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 27 August 2020 at 19:46

“All Things For Good”

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Thomas Watson wrote a book called A Divine Cordial, a heavenly medicine, grounded in the words of Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” It is usually known by its more modern title, All Things For Good. I recently completed a step by step study through the book in twenty-three videos of ten minutes (excepting the invitation, which is briefer). All are available at the YouTube channel of the church which I serve. The idea was to be able to read through the whole in about three weeks. Each video simply walks through a particular section, giving an outline with some particular comments. If you are interested, please follow the link. I hope it is of some profit.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 18 April 2020 at 11:20

Shallow and narrow

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pile of books 7One of the joys, if we choose to call it that, of the turn of the year is the “books wot I red” lists that emanate from bloggers left, right and centre. Some of them are simply crass arrogance – the “I read bigger, better, harder, higher, or simply more books than you” approach, a bit like those posts that slide out before the holidays suggesting the thirty tomes that the great and the good will be knocking back in their five days by the seaside. Some of the lists are genuine attempts to encourage and direct others in their reading or the well-meaning surveys of those who read more rapidly, more widely or in a more disciplined way than the rest of us. Some are combined with, or set alongside, the ten or twenty or fifty books that every Christian should read. So, for example, “The twenty books published this year that I read that every other Christian should read.”

But when you flick through a few of these, a pattern begins to emerge. Whether or not it’s your year-end or all-time lists, most of the books are often fairly predictable. What’s particularly disappointing is when the all-time lists include a significant majority of predictable authors from the same circles writing over the last ten years or so. I have seen a couple recently in which, having read the first five, I could have finished off the list for the chap in question, it being so clear the trajectory he was on.

I suspect that we are all prone to this (notice, I did not yet say guilty) to some degree. Most of us, either of necessity or habit or developed preference, have a measure of limit or focus to our reading at any particular time. If I am preparing a series of sermons, researching a particular person or period, or just enjoying something more than usual, my patterns of reading will reflect an element of concentration. Beyond that, we doubtless gravitate toward what we enjoy and profit from – reliable authors, favoured schools of thought, sweet places and stirring periods. That is fair enough, and understandable over time.

However, despite the Pavlovian salivation that occurs whenever anyone mentions the sainted Lewis, well-known for his critique of chronological snobbery in our reading, few seem to be taking him too seriously (whether or not they are confessed Lewis-slobberers). Indeed, the problem spreads beyond the temporal into the topical and the authorial and the geographical.

Too many of those lists show a narrowness and a shallowness that goes beyond the myopic and borders on the deliberately blind. Few contain anything more than a passing nod to anything too far outside the comfort zone. How will we ever test and assess and grow if we refuse to read anything that does not merely buttress or endorse our own preferred authors, preconceived notions, precious systems and protected memes? Some of these lists read like little more than exercises in how to pronounce ‘shibboleth’ properly.

I am not saying that we should indulge an appetite for pap or an itch for poison. Less mature readers usually need safer boundaries than more mature readers. But even the less mature could and should read beyond the hackneyed round of a few religious gurus. All should read those books which – without ever going outside the bounds of substantial orthodoxy – push us to think in ways we never otherwise would. Those starting out need to get into a groove, not drop into a pit. For most of us, it does us good to be stretched, challenged, engaged, taken out of our depth. If we are well-grounded in the faith, such a process can helpfully stir us, exercise us and ultimately strengthen us.

Take a few minor examples: you are a dyed-in-the-wool right wing reactionary of the sort who believes that the injunction to be subject to the governing authorities is somehow suspended in some way when speaking of and dealing with the Blairs and the Obamas of this world. Read a little Christopher Wright, and the first time you come up against his (let the reader understand) sentimental promotion of a left wing agenda of social (read socialist!) justice in the name of the Lord and Anglicanism you shy like a startled mustang. Fine, but once you calm down, you need to ask yourself where his notions and convictions come from, and go back to your Bible, and sieve his conclusions through the grid of Scripture, and assess and learn and argue. At worst, you have tested your own convictions against the convictions of another, and decided that – though you may have a little extra nuance – you see no particular need to shift your most fundamental anchor points. You might even wonder if you have been reading the Bible with one eye closed, and become determined to be more honest with Scripture and with yourself, even if you still can’t see what Mr Wright sees. Or, you are a high Presbyterian who believes that Baptists cannot be considered covenantal theologians, let alone in any way Reformed, and so you insist on referring to them as Anabaptists and dreaming of the day when a properly established Christian state is once again free to persecute such. It might not hurt you to read through some of the material recovering, interacting with and rehearsing some of the seventeenth century material and its underlying convictions, so that in the future your invective is marginally less marred by ignorance. Or, you are a persuaded cessationist, steadfast in your proper conviction that the apostolic gifts ceased with the office of the apostles while still delighting in and relying upon the continued operations of the Holy Spirit. Fair enough, but what about reading your differing brothers at their most intelligent and reasonable, so that you can at least understand why they believe what they say, can see the differences between what is claimed to be the case and what usually happens when someone lays claim to such gifts, and can more thoughtfully and graciously expose the exegetical flaws and practical dangers of their position?

Whatever our particular anchor points, it often does no harm to consider why someone would drop their anchor some little distance from our own. If nothing else, it might get your blood flowing. Who knows, you might even learn something? Better still, we should be deliberately searching out those who have gone before us with reputations for genuine godliness and sacrificial service who shake us out of our crassly comfortable little ruts and make us wonder whether or not we have ever grasped the greatness and the glory of the Lord.

So, let us get outside our own century and our own circle. Let us have lists with a little of a patristic flavour, with a few of the best medievals, a dose of the Reformers, a shot of the Puritans and their successors, a fillip of the eighteenth century men, a snack on the best that the nineteenth has to offer, and a smattering of the twentieth, as well as the low-lying fruit of the twenty-first. Let the breeze of the centuries waft over your souls. Roam the world where the truth has taken root – let the theologians of Europe and Africa and Asia and Australia, and perhaps even America, expand your sense as they wrestle with and apply theology in a context utterly unlike your own. Are you more of a historian? Read some biblical theology! Systematics your thing? How about some missiology? Linguistics float your boat? Dive into a few more biographies. Love your new Calvinists? Read some old ones – get into the Puritans! More of a Genevan? Have a dig around in the Calvinistic Methodists. Stuck in the sentiment of the Victorians? Take a bracing dose of a scholarly Scot. Mired in the multiplied divisions of the Puritans? Shake yourself loose with a canter through the church fathers. Plodding through the Princetonians? Dive into the Particular Baptists. Drowning in the Particular Baptists? Get stuck into the English or Continental Reformers.

As you think about your reading for the coming year, might I suggest that you take up something, early on, that is very much not what you would incline toward. Sprinkle a little seasoning into your reading, slide something spicy into your bland book pile, and add a little zest to your nightstand. Range righteously but rigorously through time and space and opinion. And perhaps, next year, you will produce some truly refreshing ‘best of’ lists that – in addition to blessing your own soul – will introduce the rest of us to a wider and more spiritually stimulating world.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 30 December 2014 at 21:36

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For book nerds

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 25 August 2012 at 19:24

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Haykin recommends . . .

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Michael Haykin answers the question (and there are a couple of other stimulating ones) “What are 5 of the best theology books you’ve read and can recommend to others?.” The answers are interesting, but a word of explanation would have profited.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 30 December 2011 at 21:55

Haykin on reading Fuller

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 17 May 2011 at 08:15

Books better than ebooks

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Tim Challies:

I am often asked about my reading habits and, in particular, whether I now prefer to read e-books or plain, old-fashioned “real” books (of the printed variety). For a time I went back-and-forth on this question, sometimes preferirng to read on a device and sometimes preferring to read a book. But at this point my mind is largely made up. Today I want to share 5 ways in which books are better than e-books, 5 ways in which I’ll transition from paper to pixels only with a lot of kicking and screaming.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 17 August 2010 at 20:23

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Spurgeon on reading

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Charles Spurgeon, as so often, makes a good point well.  Here, in a sermon on 2 Timothy 4:13 about Paul’s cloak and books, he speaks of the value of being a reader.  Trevin Wax got here first with a slightly updated version of this quote.

We will look at [Paul’s] books. We do not know what the books were about, and we can only form some guess as to what the parchments were. Paul had a few books which were left, perhaps wrapped up in the cloak, and Timothy was to be careful to bring them. Even an apostle must read. Some of our very ultra Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men’s brains – oh! that is the preacher. How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a men to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “Give thyself unto reading.” The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, “Bring the books” – join in the cry.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 2 June 2010 at 11:57

Google books unbound

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 3 September 2009 at 09:05

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C. S. Lewis on reading and tea

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Seen outside the British Library, in demonstration of the fact that Lewis, though far from reliable at several important points, was commendably orthodox in certain matters of taste:

Lewis reading & tea

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 31 August 2009 at 09:21

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Thomas Watson on reading the Scriptures

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Thomas WatsonIn my edition of Thomas Watson’s Heaven Taken By Storm: Showing The Holy Violence A Christian is to Put Forth in the Pursuit After Glory (how’s that for a title?  So much for today’s recovery of all this Fight Clubby, Wrestlemaniacal, “More hair on my chest than you!” Christian manliness – Watson is there way before us) . . . where was I? . . . oh, yes – in my edition there is an appendix (actually, the second appendix) containing a sermon on Deuteronomy 17.19: “And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.”  The title of the sermon is “How we may read the Scriptures with most spiritual profit”.

What follows is a digest of his main points.  Please do not be discouraged by the number of suggestions – no-one can put them all into practice at once.  Concentrate on developing over a period of time the habits and attitudes that will help you to profit from Bible-reading.

  1. Remove those things that will prevent you profiting: (1) remove the love of every sin; (2) take heed of the thorns that will choke the Word read.  These ‘thorns’ are those covetous cares that keep our minds on material matters when they should be concentrating on spiritual things; (3) take heed of joking with or making light of Scripture.
  2. Prepare your hearts before the reading of the Word (1Sam 7.3).  (1) Summon your thoughts to attend to this serious work; (2) cleanse yourself of the unclean affections that take away the desire to read.
  3. Read the Scriptures with reverence; think about every line you read; God is speaking to you.
  4. Read the Bible with a method, perhaps in order.  Order and method are a help to memory.
  5. Get a right understanding of Scripture (Ps 119.73).  Compare texts with each other, talk to others, use other books and helps.
  6. Read the Word with seriousness.  It is the savour of life to those who read it with seriousness, for it deals with everything that is most dear to us.  Consider its subject matter – eternal life and death, heaven and hell, the labour of faith.  Who can read these things and not be serious?  Read, therefore, with a solemn and composed spirit.
  7. Labour to remember what you read.  Satan will try to steal the Word from our minds; we should guard it jealously.  If we cannot remember what we read, it will not be of use to us.
  8. Meditate upon what you read (Ps 119.15).  This means to fix your thoughts upon what you are reading.  Meditation without reading is foolish; reading without meditation is empty.
  9. Come to read with humble hearts, acknowledging your unworthiness to have God reveal Himself to you in His Word.  An arrogant man who feels he has nothing to learn is unlikely to gain any profit.
  10. bible-and-gogs-2Believe that what you read is the very Word of God, that it is all divinely inspired (2Tim 3.16).  All the countless excellencies of Scripture testify that it is of God.  Note the effect that the Bible has upon the hearts of men, now and throughout history.  You will not obey something that you do not believe.
  11. Highly prize the Scriptures (Ps 119.72).  Treasure it above all other books.  It contains the things we must believe and do.  It is the breeder and feeder of grace.  A believer is born and fed by the Word of truth.
  12. Get a fervent love for the Word.  Prizing (point 11) refers to the judgement of a man, but love means also the affections.  We should delight to be in the pages of God’s Word; we must learn to delight in its comforts and in its reproofs and corrections.
  13. Come to read the Word with honest hearts: (1) read with hearts willing to know the whole counsel of God, and not willing to have any truth concealed.  You cannot pick and choose Scriptures; (2) read in order that you might be made better.  The Word is the means of our sanctification.  Go to God’s Word to find the truths that will make you more like Christ.
  14. Learn to apply Scripture; take every word as if spoken to yourselves.  When the Word talks of the punishment of sin, it means my sin; when it tells me of duty, it means my duty.
  15. Observe the commands of the Word, as well as its promises.  Use the commands to direct you, and the promises to comfort you.  Do not look more to comfort than to duty, or you might find your comforts false.
  16. Let your thoughts dwell most upon the most useful parts of Scripture.  Although all parts are excellent, some are more emphatic or vital than others.  Spend more time reading of faith and the new man in Christ, than in the genealogies of dead kings!
  17. Compare yourselves with the Word; see how Scripture and your hearts agree.  Is your heart a mirror of the Word?  Is the Word written upon your heart?  By comparing ourselves with the Word, we get to know the true state of our souls, and see what evidences we have for heaven.
  18. Take special notice of those Scriptures that speak to your particular case.  Pay careful attention to those paragraphs of Scripture that are most appropriate to your particular situation.  Watson identifies three particular situations – affliction, desertion, and sin – and gives a number of appropriate texts to consider.  In reading, read all the Bible, but mark those verses that apply most to your own person.
  19. Take special notice of the examples in Scripture, and make the examples living sermons to yourself.  (1) Observe the examples of God’s judgement upon sinners: they are warnings, lamps to keep us from the rocks; (2) observe the examples of God’s mercy to saints: they are props to our faith and spurs to holiness.
  20. Do not stop reading the Bible until you find your heart warmed.  Read the Word not only as a history, but strive to be affected by it.
  21. Determine to practise whatever you read (Ps 119.66).  Christians should be walking Bibles, living the truths written.  The Word is not only a guide to knowledge, but a guide to obedience.  A blessed reading of God’s Word results in our fleeing from sins and practising the duties commanded.
  22. Make right use of Christ in His prophetic office.  It is one thing to read a promise, another really to know it to be true.  If we would read with profit, we must have Christ as our teacher: when Christ taught, He opened not only men’s eyes, but their understandings (Lk 24.45).
  23. Be at all the appointed services of the church, and spend much time in hearing the Word preached.  Be diligent in attending upon a Biblical, faithful ministry.  Ministers are God’s interpreters; it is their work to open up and expound dark places of Scripture.
  24. Pray that God would make you profit (Is 48.17).  It is when God’s Spirit joins Himself to the Word that it takes effect in our hearts and minds.

In conclusion:

  • Do not be content with simply reading the Scriptures, but labour to find some spiritual benefit and profit.  Get the Word inscribed upon your heart.
  • If you do profit from your reading, be sure to adore the grace of God.  Bless God that He has not only given you His Word, but some ability to understand it.

If you struggle to profit from your reading, then take note of the following encouragements:

  • You can profit from reading the Scriptures even if you do not attain to the level of others.  Do not judge yourself according to the standard of others.  The Lord called it all good ground, whether it brought forth thirty, sixty or a hundred-fold (Mt 13.8); so you may not get as much profit as others, but the profit you do get is still most worthwhile.
  • You can still profit from reading the Word if you are not the most intelligent of people.  Some give up or become discouraged because they are slow to understand.  You may even have weaker judgements but stronger affections.  A weak understanding can keep you from sin, as weak sight can keep a man from falling into deep water.  If you have some vision you cannot be all blind.
  • You can profit from reading the Scriptures although you may not have an excellent memory.  You can have a good heart without having a good memory.  Also, even if you don’t remember all that you read, you can remember the most important part.  The lamp burns even when it is not full of oil; our hearts can burn with love when our memories are not full of Scripture.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 19 August 2009 at 15:33

Your child’s vocabulary

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A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group.  It comes from reading books above one.  (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, cited in Roverandom, xvi).

I could not agree more.  The only thing is, that the one who reads above himself, especially if he reads silently, still finds a guide useful in order to ensure that his understanding of sense and capacity of pronunciation are more rather than less accurate.

(HT: Z)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 6 July 2009 at 15:48

Book buying charter

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The JollyBlogger turns to Umberto Eco to encourage all those who “can’t bring yourself to walk by a bookstore or browse an on-line catalog without buying at least something, and who also know good and well that you aren’t going to read everything you buy, at least right now.”  It should be noted that anything which encourages such individuals has a tendency to produce grief and pain in the hearts of their nearest and dearest.  We are informed in the introduction of part one of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

I knew it was OK . . .

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 13 June 2009 at 13:56

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The once and future book?

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Justin Taylor makes paper-bibliophiles everywhere mourn with his suggestion that the age of the e-book may truly be dawning.  He points us to a long essay by John Siracusa:

If you remain unconvinced, here’s one final exercise, in the grand tradition of a particular family of Internet analogies. Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word “horse” for “book” and the word “car” for “e-book.” Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.

“Books will never go away.” True! Horses have not gone away either.

“Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome.” True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don’t go everywhere, nor should they.

“Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can’t match.” True! Cars just can’t match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn’t. I’m sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a “horseless carriage”-and they never did! And then they died.

Update: there’s more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 11 February 2009 at 15:23

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Critical reading

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pile-of-books-2To make the most of our reading, we need to be critical readers in the best and fullest sense of the word, engaging with the text rather than having it simply flow around or over us.  I remember borrowing a book from a friend a few years ago, and being struck by the manner in which he was wrestling with the text, investigating, questioning, arguing and commending the book as he went.  My own system for reading developed further after that experience, as I sought to be an active rather than a passive reader.

Justin Taylor has recently posted two helpful pieces drawing on Morton Adler’s How To Read A Book.

In one, he identifies a passage concerning critical evaluation that had a significant impact on him:

Every author has had the experience of suffering book reviews by critic who did not feel obligated to do the work of the first two stages [see below] first. The critic too often thinks he does not have to be a reader as well as a judge. Every lecturer has also had the experience of having critical questions asked that were not based on any understanding of what he had said. You yourself may remember an occasion where someone said to a speaker, in one breath or at most two, “I don’t know what you mean, but I think you’re wrong.”

There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding. When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent. (pp. 144-145)

Taylor ties in this principle with the golden rule: suggesting that this “is really the answer to the question: How, when reading, do I do unto others as I would have done unto me, and how do I love my neighbor as I love myself?”

In another post, Taylor provides Adler’s framework of three stages for analytical reading, answering the questions (1) What is this book about as a whole? (2) What is being said in detail, and how? and (3) Is it true? What of it?

Stage 1: What Is the Book About as a Whole?

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. / Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. (p. 60)

Rule 2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph). State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. (pp. 75-76)

Rule 3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole. / Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. (p. 76)

Rule 4. Find out what the author’s problems were. / Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. (p. 92)

Stage 2: What Is Being Said in Detail, and How?

Rule 5. Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author. / Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. (p. 98)

Rule 6. Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain. / Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences. (p. 120)

Rule 7. Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connections of sentences. / Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. (p. 120)

Rule 8. Find out what the author’s solutions are. / Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. (p. 135)

Stage 3: Is It True? What of It?

General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette

Rule 9. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can say any one of the following things: “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.” / Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (pp. 142-143)

Rule 10. When you disagree, do so reasonably, and not disputatiously or contentiously. (p. 145)

Rule 11. Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion, by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make. (p. 150)

Special Criteria for Points of Criticism

Rule 12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.

Rule 13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.

Rule 14. Show wherein the author is illogical.

Rule 15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.

For more fulsome notes on the book, we are directed to Brian Fulthorp’s series.

I was interested to note the overlap with John Updike’s rules for reviewing.  He wrote:

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Interesting here is the notion of avoiding being some objective arbiter, defending no tradition, enforcing no standard, fighting no battle, correcting no error.  Does this really provide for interesting reviews?  Furthermore, I am not sure that any Christian reviewer can afford that perspective: by very definition, we are engaged on matters of truth and error, poison and tonic.  Surely reviews – in keeping with other writing, and not overlooking or ignoring the golden rule – are necessary opportunities for the very thing that Mr Updike would deny?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 31 January 2009 at 17:02

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Questions for reading

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Martin Downes gleans some questions from Richard Baxter to ask oneself while reading:

1. Could I spend this time no better?

2. Are there better books/blogs that would edify me more?

3. Are the lovers of such a book/blog as this the greatest lovers of the Book of God and of a holy life?

4. Does this book/blog increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?

[From the Banner of Truth Magazine, July 1958]

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 18 July 2008 at 10:18

An introduction to John Bunyan and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” #3 Reading the book

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Parts 1 and 2.

There are several particular qualities of the book that should encourage us to read it, and which demonstrate how valuable it can be to Christians on our own pilgrimage.

Firstly, in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress we should note its earnest Biblicism. Bunyan’s knowledge and comprehension of Scripture become immediately apparent when reading the book, in at least three ways. There is, first of all, the direct quotation of Scripture. Time after time, one or another of the pilgrims utters, receives, offers, or dwells upon Scripture as the expression of their own desires or convictions, or as a source of instruction and comfort. The first action recorded of the burdened pilgrim is his reading of the Bible; the first plain expression of his heart’s conviction of sin and need of salvation is in the cry of the Philippian jailer from Acts 16.30: “What must I do to be saved?” Thereafter we find a multitude of direct quotes from the Word of God, appropriate to the particular needs and circumstances of the pilgrims.

In addition to the direct quotations, the reader familiar with his Bible will quickly identify and relish the Scriptural flavour of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Charles Spurgeon said that Bunyan’s book was the Bible in another shape. He suggested that Bunyan had read his Bible “till his whole being was saturated with Scripture” so that when we read Pilgrim’s Progress “we feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” [1] Even when Bunyan is not directly quoting Scripture, and giving chapter and verse, he seems unable to write without its words and phrases flowing from his pen.

Neither should we forget Bunyan’s doctrinal insights. Throughout the two parts, the various characters engage in conversations both with friends (usually recollections of Christian truth and experience, or warnings of dangers) and with enemies (there are several debates, accusations answered, or rebuttals of error given). What is immediately evident is Bunyan’s practical grasp of the living truth: the Bible is no dead book, but the believer’s guide in faith and life. Bunyan was a warm-hearted, committed, thoroughly and truly evangelical Calvinist.[2] As Spurgeon says so often, Calvinism is simply a nickname for the truth of the Bible, and thus we see in Pilgrim’s Progress a sovereign and merciful God saving sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Justification by faith in Christ the Redeemer lies at the heart of Bunyan’s narrative.

The defining metaphor of Bunyan’s book is Biblical; the broad sweep and careful details are all Biblical; the language is Scriptural; the teachings – explicit and implicit – are grounded in the Word of God. The whole is delivered with the passionate earnestness of a man whose own soul depends upon the truths which he so sincerely and potently expresses to others.

Secondly, Bunyan provides a realistic depiction of decided and vigorous Christianity. Bunyan lived in an age and under circumstances in which genuine Christianity could never be a game or a hobby, but was often a matter of life or death, especially for Nonconformists. However, these issues are more than cultural ones, merely temporal and circumstantial; they are spiritual and eternal. At the crux of all is the question that once thrust itself upon Bunyan’s own soul: “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to hell?”[3] Christian comes to a similar point, where (as he tells Evangelist) he is not willing to die, nor able to face judgement.[4] However, having been guided to the path to the Celestial City by Evangelist, he then holds to it through many trials and dangers, kept on the way through the grace of God until he reaches the end.

While not everyone experiences (or needs to experience) the depths of woe or precise conflicts depicted in Pilgrim’s Progress, these realities of spiritual conflict underpin the narrative. Here is an honest treatment of what it means to be a Christian, and to enter into a life of obedience to Jesus Christ, a life which necessarily involves arduous labour, much striving, and fierce fighting against errors and dangers. The Pilgrim’s Progress is Christian life as it is (a life of earnest faith, sacrificial love, and determined obedience to Christ to the very end), not as we would often like it to be (an easy ride to heaven), and therefore Bunyan’s book is profoundly instructive and enlightening: we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14.22).

It is also deeply encouraging, because it reminds us of Christian advance and development: this is the pilgrim’s progress. Through the pages of both parts we see the development of godly character, as the characters advance in their understanding, strength, and capacity to face the rigours of the pilgrimage. There are painful lessons to learn, surely, but there is also an evident progress in godliness, whereby new challenges are met with greater resolve and capacity than before. We see this, for example, in the development of Christian and Christiana’s sons in the second part, but also in the increasing maturity of Christian as an individual. Neither must we forget that Christian and all his true fellow pilgrims do reach the Celestial City, crossing the river into the glorious presence of the King.

Thirdly, Bunyan instructively portrays Christian individuality, companionship, and community. The first part of the book focuses on the journey of one man, Christian. We keep company with him on his way, and learn from his pilgrimage as an individual. But we are not the only ones keeping him company: his notable fellow-travellers are Faithful (martyred in Vanity Fair) and Hopeful. This element is further developed in the second part, in which – under the leadership of Great-heart – an ever-growing band of pilgrims make their way to the Celestial City. Again, Bunyan’s brilliance and grasp of Biblical truth enable him to weave together the individual, social and corporate elements of Christian living. Each one individually must make their way to the Celestial City, but they do not do so in isolation. Christian depends heavily at key moments on his friends, and they depend on him in their moments of concern and weakness. Sometimes the friends trip each other up (it is Christian who leads Hopeful to Doubting Castle); more often, they instruct and encourage one another. The value of Christian companionship and the beauty of true friendship are everywhere evident. The second part introduces Great-heart, one of the most potent and instructive portraits of a true pastor in Christian literature, the pilgrims in whose care prosper under his loving guidance and guardianship. The familial as well as communal elements of Christian living are also woven into this narrative. Christianity is not a religion of isolation, but of fellowship with the Triune God and with those who also belong to God. The Christian alone before God, and in Scriptural companionship with other believers (friends, family members, and true churches under the loving guidance of faithful pastors), are both carefully depicted in the pages of Bunyan’s book.

Finally, if this brief introduction and overview have encouraged you to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, how can we best make use of it on our own journey from this world to the next?

We should read it humbly. The Lord God brought his servant John Bunyan through deep waters to teach him these truths, and he lived and died resting in and upon them. In an age of spiritual giants and fierce battles for the truth, Bunyan was highly esteemed and respected. He knew his Bible thoroughly, and was loved as a faithful pastor and sure counsellor and guide. Such a man with such a reputation ought to be read with care and with the expectation of learning much.

We should read it attentively. Bunyan wrote it not merely to give enjoyment, or as a book for children. He wrote to communicate the truth in an engaging, attractive and memorable fashion. It was given to teach, and so we should read it carefully to learn about the Christian life which we are called to live. It is not a story-book; it is a life book. It deals with eternal realities about which we desperately need to learn if we are to live our lives to the glory of the living God.

We should read it prayerfully. There are deep truths to be learned, and the book is worthy of careful and prayerful thought; while it teaches the truth simply, some portions are less easy to understand, and some of its lessons can be distressing at first encounter. We should never read it in place of our Bibles, but with our Bibles to hand, to see the truth which Bunyan wrote, and to understand his wise application of God’s truth to our lives. It has much to teach the man who is not too proud to learn.

We should read it repeatedly. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon is reputed to have read this book over one hundred times. That might be beyond most of us, but it is no bad model. The Pilgrim’s Progress remains fresh because is it so intensely Scriptural. It will be continually instructing us. As Christian learned godliness as he travelled, so will we. As our own pilgrimage advances, Bunyan goes on pastoring us. He constantly teaches us things newly applicable to the trials which we presently face, providing encouragements, instructions, exhortations, and counsels as we make our way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City by the same well-worn path of faith in Christ and obedience to God travelled by innumerable pilgrims before us.

[1] C H Spurgeon, Autobiography (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 4:268.

[2] Although we must surely not forget the profound influence of Luther upon Bunyan and his understanding: Luther’s commentary on Galatians had a deep impact on Bunyan during his conversion, and he evidently felt real affinity with Luther, saying, “I do prefer this book of Mr Luther upon the Galatians, (excepting the Holy Bible) before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience” (Grace Abounding, p.35, paragraphs 129-130).

[3] Grace Abounding, p.11 (paragraph 22).

[4] Pilgrim’s Progress, p.52.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 16 May 2008 at 08:34

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