Desiring God

A Little Poetry Improves a Life: How Verse Awakens Wonder

From the early days of my teaching, I have enacted a ritual to introduce poetry into a course. I ask the class, “How do you know that God intends for you to understand and enjoy poetry?” Inevitably, the class stares at me as though I had just arrived from Mars. Then I ask in a slightly more menacing tone, “How do you know that God intends for you to understand and enjoy poetry?”

It is gratifying to see how quickly someone comes up with the correct answer. That answer is that approximately one-third of the Bible comes to us in poetic form.

My purpose is to convince you that your life will be enriched if you set aside just a little time for poetry. For some, this will be an encouragement to keep a current practice going; for others, it will be a resolve to give poetry a try.

World of Poetry

Poetry already has a place in our lives, though we may be unaware of this fact. In addition to the poetry of the Bible, let me introduce hymns into the discussion. Hymns and songs are a form of poetry, possessing all the qualities of the poems I teach in my literature courses. Whereas much of the poetry in the Bible is relatively complex and difficult, the poetry of hymns and songs is poetry for the average person.

“There are occasions when poetic speech conveys truth more effectively than literal prose.”

Additionally, we all speak an incipient poetry during the course of a typical day. We speak of the sun rising and of game-changers, of killing time and juggling our schedules. Each of these is a metaphor. Why do we resort to poetic language like this? Because we intuitively realize that poetic speech often conveys truth more effectively than literal prose.

Two Misconceptions

People who do not find a place for poetry in their lives incorrectly believe that poetry is beyond the reach of the common person. Some claim that although people living before the modern era knew how to handle poetry, people living today are different. I regret to say that I even hear stories of Sunday school teachers and preachers being pressured by congregants to leave the poetry of the Bible untouched because of its alleged inaccessibility.

There is no chronological factor in regard to the accessibility of poetry. People are not less educated today than they were in previous centuries, but the reverse. Furthermore, poetry is compressed and makes use of images (words naming concrete objects and actions) as its basic language. What is more characteristic of our day than its preference for brief units of communication and its reliance on visual images?

Another misconception is that poetry is unrelated to everyday life. This is false in two ways. First, the actual language of poetry stays close to the everyday experiences of life. For example, biblical poets keep us rooted in a world of water and sheep and light and pathways. Second, the subject of poetry is universal human experience. Stories are a window to the world of human life, and so is poetry. One title of a book about poetry captures the essence of both poetic language and poetic content: Poetry and the Common Life.

Helps for Reading Poetry

In the remainder of this article, I have organized my pep talk for giving poetry a try (or continuing to keep a good thing going) under the rubric of what you need to know about poetry in order to succeed with it.

First, while poetry is accessible to anyone who gives it a genuine try, this does not mean that poetry is anything less than a unique form of discourse. Poetry is different from the informal language that we use in everyday life. Whether we see this as an advantage or disadvantage depends on the attitude that we bring, and my goal is to encourage the Christian public to embrace poetry not in spite of its difference from everyday uses of language but because of that difference.

We will not make room for poetry if we blame it for not being like everyday discourse. Instead, we can welcome poetry as a break from the routine. The Bible speaks of poetry as a new song (Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1). The novelty of poetry can become a welcome adventure if we embrace it as such.

Poets speak a language all their own, and we need to know what that language is. The basic unit of poetry (but not its only ingredient) is the image, broadly defined to mean any word that names a concrete object or action. The words house and mountain are images, and so are walking and hiding.

Sometimes these images are straightforward and literal. A nature poet, for example, typically aims to paint a physical picture in our imagination: “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted” (Psalm 104:16). These are “straight images”: the trees are literal trees, and the water is literal water.

But more often, poetic images are part of a comparison or analogy, as when the psalmist declares God to be “a sun and shield” (Psalm 84:11). God is not literally a sun and shield; these metaphors assert that God is like a sun and shield.

Verbal Energy Drink

What is the advantage of this poetic language of images and figures of speech? Poetic language overcomes the flatness and cliché effect of the ordinary and overly familiar. By contrast, the unfamiliar leads us to take note and makes us participants in the conversation.

“Poetic language overcomes the flatness and cliché effect of the ordinary and overly familiar.”

A comparison in the form of metaphor or simile activates us to determine how one thing is like something else to which it is compared. Poetry is akin to a riddle. When the poet asserts that the person who trusts in God “will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (Psalm 91:5), we need to figure out what the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day are — and further, how they exist in our own lives.

Of course, this kind of interpretation requires what I call a “slow read” as opposed to a speed read. This is one of the most important tips I can offer for reading poetry with pleasure: we need to take the time to unpack the meanings of poetic images and comparisons. This can be a pleasurable activity if we simply give ourselves to it.

The kind of poetry I am discussing in this article is lyric poetry, meaning short poems. Lyric poems tend to be either meditative or reflective on the one hand, or affective or emotional on the other. In a reflective poem, the poet shares a thought process on an announced subject. In an affective poem, we learn about the poet’s feelings on the topic that is the focus of the poem. Psalm 1 is a meditation on the blessings that come to a godly person, as contrasted to the misery of the wicked. A praise psalm is an effusion of godly feelings.

The short length of lyric poems makes the contemplative and analytic way of reading that I have been describing entirely possible and feasible. Poetry gives more “bang for the buck” — more meaning per line — than expository prose does. Perhaps we can think of poetry as a verbal energy drink. Even if we take ten or fifteen minutes to give a poem a complete analysis, that is less time than it often takes to read an essay or chapter in a book.

Awakening the Heart

Thus far, I have talked about the form or technique of poetry. What do we need to know about the content of a poem? The purpose of poetry is not to convey new information. Its purpose is to express the shared experience of the human race and the believing community. A lyric poem holds before us thoughts, feelings, and experiences, with the intention that we will stare at them. Poetry gives us knowledge in the form of right seeing.

Additionally, the purpose of poetry, said John Milton, is “to set the affections in right tune.” Affections is an old word that overlaps with our word emotions. Poetry tends to be an affective form of writing that awakens proper feelings. The kind of poetry I am commending enables us not only to see an aspect of experience clearly but also to feel the right way about that experience. Reading good poetry can help us to feel rightly about reality.

Of all the activities that have made up my half-century of teaching literature, the one that gives me most pleasure is explicating short poems. Explication is simply the literary term for close reading, or staring at a text. And I commend staring at poetry, allowing it to awaken your affections, give you new eyes to see the world, and hopefully, offer new glimpses into the beauty of our triune God.

The God Who Dwarfs Big Tech

Audio Transcript

Well, this week is exciting for me. It’s the scheduled launch week for my new book: God, Technology, and the Christian Life. I have been wanting to write and publish this book for several years now. It’s a dream of mine. Back when I wrote my book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, it proved to be harder to write than I expected. It was hard because I couldn’t find a baseline theology of technology that would orient my thinking toward the smartphone specifically. I came to see that there’s a theological gap, a lacking foundation, in how Christians think about modern-day technology — digital technology, big-tech, Silicon Valley — which surprised me.

Without that foundation, I had to build as much of it as I could myself. So, I wrote a ten-page introduction in my smartphone book. I called it “A Little Theology of Technology,” and it was published there on pages 29–39. Very little, indeed. But I knew this little theology of technology would need to become a larger theology of technology. And I knew if I could pull this off, it would serve a real need in the church.

In other words, we need to ask, What is God’s relationship to big tech? What does he think of space travel, nuclear power, and the big agricultural innovations we depend on for food every day? That’s what I’m trying to figure out, because only once we can answer this question can we figure out our relationship to tech. So, I’m thrilled to announce that my theology of technology is written, done, printed, and out. Pastor John kindly took the time to read it, and he liked it, and wanted to use this Wednesday slot in the podcast to share his thoughts with you about my book, which is a little awkward for me as the host of this podcast, but it’s super kind of him. Here’s what he had to say.

If you can see me and hear me, you are among the most technologically advanced human beings in the history of the world. Yes, you are. And probably, like me, you take that for granted, and we’ll be taking for granted very soon, probably, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence, and robots, and human genetic engineering — all of them as if they were just as normal as an iPhone.

Penetrating Book on Big Tech

There are only a few people in the world who are asking the question, How does a big God relate to big technology? — especially Bible-saturated people. Thoughtful people. Especially also given the fact that the word big in “big tech” and “big God” are infinitely disproportionate.

“I don’t think there is a more sweeping treatment of technology so tethered to the infallible Scriptures.”

You may know the name Tony Reinke from being the host of Ask Pastor John, or you may know him as the author of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Tony has written a book called God, Technology, and the Christian Life. It is a panoramic and penetrating book. I don’t think there is a more sweeping treatment of technology so tethered to the infallible Scriptures, and therefore, so realistic and so hopeful. Tony’s not anti-technology. He calls himself a “tech optimist,” in fact. He’s glad he lives in the computer age. In fact, let me read to you a quote that was amazing to me:

Our safe jets, reliable cars, intelligent phones, medical options, household appliances, streaming video, digital music, have upgraded each of us to a tech wealth beyond Rockefeller’s wildest imagination. . . . “Nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America’s richest man a mere 100 years ago.” (150)

God Bigger Than Big Tech

But Tony’s tech optimism doesn’t flow from confidence in Elon Musk, or artificial intelligence, or human genetic engineering. It flows from the fact that in the Bible, Tony finds the reality of a sovereign, massive, glorious God of providence, infinite wisdom, and infinite knowledge that simply dwarfs all the powers of big tech. That’s what he finds. That’s where his confidence comes from.

“Is your God big enough to make the greatest technological marvel look like a first-grade arithmetic book?”

What happens when you read this book is that your theology is exposed. You discover whether or not your feelings and thinkings about the greatest technological marvels cause you to see God as vastly greater. Is your God big enough to make the greatest technological marvel look like a first-grade arithmetic book — or not? For me personally, reading this book was a worship experience, because the bigger technology became — and Tony makes it big — the more beautiful Christ became.

Tony says this: “The angels in heaven are not bowing down to the wonders of Silicon Valley. The angels in heaven are bowing down to the glories and the agonies of Jesus Christ” (278). It was a worship experience, so my prayer is that that’s what it will be for you when you read God, Technology, and the Christian Life by Tony Reinke.

What to Do with News: Learning Wisdom at Walden Pond

Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a conversation where someone expresses surprise — and a hint of judgment — that you were not aware of a recent item of news.

In our information-rich world, we can feel that we have a duty to be informed, to know what’s happening, and, inevitably, to have an opinion. Yet if we stop to examine these assumptions, this duty appears absurd. It is impossible for anyone to know everything that is happening today, much less to have a thoughtful opinion about these events. What would we do with all this information anyway?

The prickly, unorthodox nineteenth-century writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) might serve as a surprisingly helpful guide in developing a richer account of what we ought to attend to.

Living Beyond Ephemera

Thoreau didn’t have to deal with social media and television, but he did live through the news revolution sparked by the telegraph and the steam-powered rotary printing press. Such technologies were as prone to spreading trivial distractions and misinformation as are the digital technologies we rely on today.

Thoreau jokes, for instance, that when the transatlantic telegraph cable is in place, “perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Hence he urges his readers to step out of this stream of ephemera and attend to more lasting truths:

If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events that make the news transpire — thinner than the paper on which it is printed — then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.

In many respects, his advice parallels what the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If we are rooted in these deeper verities, we will be better able to discern which contemporary events are important for us to know about and what a proper response to them might entail.

Tragedies Close to Home

Thoreau’s advice entails a withdrawal from the full flood of information that would otherwise overwhelm us. Yes, this might mean that we will often “miss out” on the things other people are talking about, but we shouldn’t necessarily view such ignorance as a vice.

The novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver, in an essay detailing why she and her family don’t watch TV, describes a time when she missed out on an event that dominated the national consciousness. John Kennedy Jr. had been killed in an airplane crash, and her friend was shocked that she hadn’t heard about this tragedy. Kingsolver wasn’t apologetic for her ignorance and instead told her friend that this event made “no real difference in my life”:

It’s not that I’m callous about the calamities suffered by famous people; they are heartaches, to be sure, but heartaches genuinely experienced only by their own friends and families. It seems somewhat voyeuristic, and also absurd, to expect that JFK Jr.’s death should change my life any more than a recent death in my family affected the Kennedys. . . . On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles and whatever else I can offer. I also believe it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.

“When we are overwhelmed by far-off tragedies, we are less able to attend properly to those events close at hand.”

Kingsolver’s concluding warning parallels Thoreau’s advice. When we are overwhelmed by far-off tragedies and controversies, we are less able to attend properly to those events close at hand, events to which we are more able — and perhaps even obligated — to respond.

Distracted from Our Chief End

One of the essential challenges to cultivating proper attention comes from the fact that we are bombarded with so much information that clamors for our eyes and hearts. As Joseph Pieper (1904–1997) puts it, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!”

The necessary response to this abundance is to withdraw, at least partially: silence the phones, shut the computer, switch off the TV. This is, in part, why Thoreau made his famous two-year foray to Walden Pond. He needed to step away from the bustle of Concord life to recalibrate his sight. Even Jesus practiced this mode of withdrawal. As Luke records, throughout his public ministry Jesus regularly “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). By withdrawing from what seems most pressing in the moment, we gain the space needed to attend to what matters for eternity.

“By withdrawing from what seems most pressing in the moment, we gain the space needed to attend to what matters for eternity.”

This perceptual recalibration was Thoreau’s explicit purpose in going to Walden Pond. As he states his intentions in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” A few sentences later, he specifies that he hoped this deliberate mode of living would enable him to determine whether “the chief end of man” really is “‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’”

Thoreau’s neighbors — and many Christians today — would “somewhat hastily” assent to this doctrine, but it is difficult to follow through on this purpose when we are distracted and overwhelmed by all the information sent our way.

A Thousand Painted Butterflies

For Thoreau, the fruit of his withdrawal was a renewed appreciation for the glory of God in creation. He took detailed notes of when different plants blossomed or fruited and when the ice on Walden first formed in the fall and melted in the spring; this was the news he wanted to follow closely.

In a journal entry written near the end of his life, he describes the experience of sitting “in the woods admiring the beauty of the blue butterfly.” While most books about insects that he has found are written for farmers and detail the insects’ instrumental goods or evils for agricultural crops, Thoreau insists that insects are valuable for other reasons:

The catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, which of course is applicable mainly to God as seen in his works. . . . Come out here and behold a thousand painted butterflies and other beautiful insects which people the air.

Thoreau’s claim that the catechism’s answer to the question of man’s chief end “is applicable mainly to God as seen in his works” stretches the bounds of orthodoxy, but delighting in the beauties of God’s creation is certainly part of how we ought to glorify him.

How Walden Changed the World

Watching butterflies might seem less serious than attending to the weighty matters that fill the newspaper each morning. Yet while Thoreau missed out on plenty of the news that occupied the minds of his fellow citizens — including, perhaps, whether the princess caught the whooping cough — he perceptively and redemptively responded to many of the fundamental issues of his day.

Thoreau’s incisive critiques of imperial wars, racial slavery, and unjust economic structures had a profound influence in the years leading up to the Civil War, and they went on to inspire people from Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. Crucially, the speeches and essays in which he developed these ideas were only possible because of the kind of attention that he honed at Walden Pond, an attention that withdrew from the noise of the moment to exult in the glorious beauty of butterflies.

Thoreau’s example suggests that if we want to improve the quality of our engagement with the news, we will very likely need to reduce the quantity of information we consume. When we step back from the information fire hose, we renew our ability to see God at work in the world and become better able to recognize how he might be calling us to join in his work.

Is Technology Holy or Worldly?

Audio Transcript

Hello, everyone. Tony Reinke here with a solo episode — just me today. An exciting day for me today because my new book is out: God, Technology, and the Christian Life. That’s the title, and I get to share with you a few thoughts today on why I wrote it.

I’ve dreamt of writing this book for several years. Back when I wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, it proved hard to write, harder than I expected, because I couldn’t find a baseline theology of technology that would root my thinking with smartphone habits specifically. I came to discover a theological gap in how Christians think about modern-day technology, which surprised me.

Without that foundation, I had to build one of my own. So, I wrote a little ten-page introduction in the smartphone book, and I called it “A Little Theology of Technology” (pages 29–39). Some big categories had to be in place before we addressed Steve Jobs, his iPhone, and our social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

I also knew this smaller theology of technology would need to eventually become a larger theology of technology. And I knew, if I could pull this off, it would serve a need in the church in the tech age. But I would have to answer one massive question: What is God’s relationship to Big Tech? What does he think of smartphones, and space travel, and nuclear power, and agricultural innovations, and on and on? I had to answer that huge cluster of questions. Are the innovations we use today from God? Or is it all a product of godless worldliness? Because what we do with our technology will never be clear if we cannot answer this more fundamental question.

Bigger Theology of Technology

So, I am thrilled to announce that my fuller theology of technology is written, published, and now out from our friends at Crossway Books. Soon I will be, Lord willing, inside Silicon Valley, busy with four events spread over two days across the Bay Area, to celebrate the book launch and to give away hundreds of free copies. It’s never about book sales. It’s about books distributed. So, we are giving away hundreds of copies of my new book to key leaders inside Silicon Valley, something possible because we have generous ministry partners making those giveaways possible. So, thank you for your support! You make it possible for us to do this.

Your prayers would be greatly appreciated for those events, if you think of me, on January 25th and 26th. One event, on that first day, January 25th, is scheduled to be livestreamed online. Watch Desiring God’s social channels for details if you want in on that. I’ll be talking about the origins of electricity and jumping into a huge theological debate that Ben Franklin accidentally stirred up in New England. It’s a great story. I’ll be sharing it on January 25th. And we are launching my book through our friends at Westminster Bookstore, our official retailer. There you can get the book for 50 percent off. Check it out at wtsbooks.com if you’re interested.

Hard Reset on Tech

So seven years ago, when I began writing my smartphone book, I came to see that the church lacked a basic framework for evaluating technology. This is tragic because, on the one hand, it breeds a Christian dystopianism, where it seems like one key to holiness is to shun innovation, or at least never say anything nice about it — furrow your brow, squint your eyes, turn up your nose, be suspect of all new tech like you would treat a new R-rated movie. That’s godliness.

But it’s not godliness. It’s a mindset that often leads to a type of wannabe agrarian who lives with this air of anti-technology about him, but who also has an iPhone and drives an SUV and sees no irony in it.

On the other hand, without a clear framework for approaching tech, it also breeds a Christian who eagerly adopts every new gadget from Apple without working through any of the consequences of how the new, shiny device will serve him or undermine his life. Both of them — the wannabe agrarian and the eager adopter — tend to live from a flat, overly simplistic view of the world.

So, I came to discover that the church could use a hard reset. In understanding God’s relationship to science, innovation, and Silicon Valley, we need to take this whole topic and unplug and re-plug it back in. That’s how I typically fix electronics problems. And that’s what I’m trying to do in this new tech book. It’s a restart. Power down. Power up. Let’s clear the cache and start from scratch.

Calvin’s Scaffolding

But it also means returning to an age when theologians began building the scaffolding for the vision that we need today. I’m particularly thinking about the French Reformer John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Calvin was a Reformer — he sought to bring reform to the church. And he did reform the church in many important ways, three of them significant for how Christians relate to science and industry.

First, Calvin destigmatized wealth. He distinguished the sin of loving and hoarding wealth from the virtue of capital employed for the good of society at large. That was big, especially when a dominant vision of peak spirituality was the monk in a desert monastery. Calvin said, “No, you can be a shining example of godliness as a wealthy Christian who stewards that fortune selflessly to employ others, to grow industries, and to serve needs.” And of course, that’s where new innovations originate — from industrial wealth. So, Calvin unleashed diligent Christians to pioneer new businesses.

“Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered.”

Second, Calvin unhitched the church from what Rome attempted to do, which was to adjudicate major scientific discoveries. He said, instead, “No, the Protestant church will preach Christ and him crucified. Scientists will do their thing without the church meddling in their business as the final arbiter.” When you remove the threat of heresy for observable phenomena, it changes the church’s whole relationship to science, it encourages new discoveries, and it encourages Christians to make those discoveries.

Third, and maybe most importantly, Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered, a vision we simply call “common grace.” He said there were two plans enacted by God. God was unfolding his plan for the church — “uncommon grace” or “special grace” in Christ, in his gospel, and in his people. But God had a second plan — a “common grace” for the growth of society, economics, and industry. And Calvin went so far as to say that the same Holy Spirit that regenerates us is the same Holy Spirit that causes profitable human culture and scientific discovery and innovative creativity among Christians and non-Christians alike. Amazing.

Fifty Years That Changed Everything

Calvin’s remarkable vision of the world would later find its highest expression inside the world’s greatest watershed of human innovation. When we speak of tech today, we often make the mistake of limiting our discussions to Apple gadgets, computers, smartphones, smartwatches, electric cars, robots, AI, and things like that. But the story of tech stretches way back to past centuries. One of the most important came in the late 1800s.

Three hundred years after Calvin died came a fifty-year span of human innovation in which everything changed: 1863 to 1913. During this generation, cities were electrified. Light bulbs replaced candles in homes. Electrical motors came to power industry. Music was first recorded. Photography was first employed. Video recordings were invented, made, and movies projected. Airplanes first lifted off the ground. Huge iron, ocean-worthy vessels connected continents. Gas-powered engines began to pop. Cars replaced carriages and family horses. Tractors replaced farm horses. Typewriters replaced pens. The QWERTY keyboard layout we still use today was invented. Telegraph wires began sending electronic messages at unthinkable speeds over unbelievable distances. Wireless radio waves united mass audiences by live broadcast. Medical advances in germs and vaccines ended many awful killing diseases and viruses.

Literally everything in life changed between 1863 to 1913 — advances in science and medicine and travel and shipping and communications and industry, permanent changes that continue to shape our daily lives today.

With all this new innovation speeding along at full tilt, Christian thinkers leaned in and asked the key questions: What does it mean to be a people of faith living inside such a massive, life-altering technological revolution? How are we to think of these endless scientific discoveries and new innovative promises? Where does it come from? Is this innovation of God? Is it of the world? Is technology godly? Is it godless?

Inside this tech era, a writer by the name of Abraham Kuyper took up these questions and returned to Calvin’s old vision. Kuyper was a journalist, theologian, and one-time Dutch prime minister. He knew the world, he knew politics, economics, industry, and he experienced this great, watershed technological revolution firsthand. And he knew his Bible well. And he came to see — like Calvin three centuries earlier — that God was still governing the story of human innovation by his Holy Spirit in his gifts of common grace.

Dystopian Visions

So, it seemed like the church was progressing well in understanding innovation in the nineteenth century. But this technological revolution, these fifty years, with all its incredible promise and progress, was abruptly followed by World War I, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. And it became really clear, really fast, that for all our new innovative powers to heal, humanity had also mastered the art of massacring at a scale never before witnessed.

The conversation over God’s common grace changes when your tech can now incinerate 100,000 people in the hyperblink of a nuclear explosion. Theologians would have to account for new powers of mass destruction. Following two world wars, then the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the church’s theologians changed their tune. The tenor of the Protestant conversation about human technology veered dystopian. Our theologians more likely demonized technology in Babel-like categories — innovations as agents of power, dominance, inequality, and mass destruction — rather than as expressions of God’s Spirit and gifts of his common grace.

Reclaiming Common Grace

And so, without diminishing very legitimate concerns, I’m bridging back, over two world wars, to a vision of God’s common grace in which there were both tech warnings alongside a healthy dose of Godward thanks for the technologies that adorned daily life. Those must exist together: warnings and appreciations. And they do — they hold together nicely when we turn our attention to the Bible.

So, we need to look afresh at the origins of industry and the birth of human innovativeness (as we find them in Genesis 4). And we need to see where technologies — the actual material technologies themselves — emerge from the created order (as we discover in Isaiah 28). And we need to look at God’s relationship to the most powerful and dangerous technologists in the world (as we see in Isaiah 54). And we need to look at how man so easily idolizes his technological powers as idols and false saviors (as we see in Psalm 20). There are idols at play, but the incredible generosity of the Creator is also at play in giving us a universe loaded with oil and gas and electricity and uranium and metals and plastics and silicon and computer chips and the sixty natural elements that comprise our smartphones. All our innovations are owing to the incredible generosity of our Creator.

“For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God.”

In other words, the challenge is to reclaim a vision of human innovation in which we see God’s common grace once again. For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God. And so, I’m asking, Which is bigger? Is Big Tech bigger than your God? Or does your God dwarf the powers of Big Tech?

We know the right answer in our heads. But do we believe it — truly believe it in our hearts? Because I fear when it comes down to practice, for many Christians, Big Tech seems stronger than God. So, we get insecure and threatened by tech, because we hold a vision of a god bullied by the power players inside Silicon Valley. That must be reversed. And it’s not reversed by demonizing tech, but by seeing the gift of God in the tens of thousands of innovations we use daily and take for granted, not to mention for the layers of innovations at play for you to hear me right now. All of these are gracious gifts of common grace.

This Book Is For You

I wrote this book for non-Christians, for Christians, for techies, for non-techies. And I’m launching it inside the belly of the beast, inside Silicon Valley. But you don’t have to live in a tech center to see its relevance. We all live in the tech age.

Ultimately, I want all the innovations you take for granted every day to turn your eyes to see the generosity of our eternal, unchanging God. So, you can imagine my thrill when Pastor John took time to read my book slowly, and then said, for him, it was “a worship experience.” That’s my aim. I hope you’ll join me in worship. God, Technology, and the Christian Life — my new book — is now out.

Sing! Sing! Sing! — To Each Other and the Lord: Ephesians 5:15–21, Part 5

http://rss.desiringgod.org/link/10732/15032237/sing-sing-sing-to-each-other-and-the-lord

Did Bathsheba Sin with David?

Audio Transcript

“Did Bathsheba sin with David? Was she complicit in the sin? Or was she simply taken advantage of? It’s an important Bible question, one that I see pop up on social media every now and again. Of course, it’s also a sensitive question too, so a heads up to those of listening with the kids around.

“The particular question arrived recently in the inbox from a listener named Micah, who lives in Toronto. Micah asks this: “Pastor John, hello! I have a delicate Bible question I have been thinking about for a long time about the misuse of a woman. Back in APJ 234, you came right out and said that Bathsheba was ‘raped’ by King David — a violation that went against her will. Most Bible scholars I read today leave this situation more vague and simply say David ‘committed adultery’ with her, leaving her volition ambiguous, maybe even suggesting that she was a willing participant in the sin. Is there any evidence in the Bible of whether Bathsheba was willing or unwilling? And, from what I hear from feminists on this text, his power as a male king over her, a subject, would immediately classify this as a rape, even if she put up no resistance. Are there any pointers for us in the text itself?”

Yes, I think there are pointers that David exerted a kind of pressure on her to warrant the accusation of rape, and I don’t say that because I think the act couldn’t be consensual given the power dynamics at play. It is possible for a woman to be sinfully complicit in committing adultery with a very powerful man. I don’t see any evidence for that in this text.

‘He Took Her’

On the contrary, I see two indications that David threw his weight around — threw his power, his influence, his position — in such a way as to force her, apart from and against her commitment to her husband, to have sex with him. So, here’s the first pointer that I see in the way the story itself is narrated.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (2 Samuel 11:2–4)

“David didn’t invite Bathsheba. He didn’t woo her. He didn’t lure her. He didn’t trick her. He took her.”

He didn’t invite her. He didn’t woo her. He didn’t lure her. He didn’t trick her. He took her. That’s what the text says: he took her. In other words, the description is of a completely one-sided, powerful exertion of his desire, with no reckoning with hers.

Parable of David’s Sin

Now, here’s the other point, and I think it’s even more significant. When the prophet Nathan is sent to rebuke David on behalf of God and confront him with his sin, he did it by telling a parable to suck David in to giving his own self-condemnation, which he did. The picture he creates is telling. Here’s what he said:

And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him.

“Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” (2 Samuel 12:1–5)

“We are not exaggerating to use the word ‘rape’ for David’s abuse of his power in the way he took Bathsheba.”

Oh, I love that. I love Nathan. Nathan did not have to create a parable in which there was a single, harmless pet lamb who wasn’t just taken, which it was, but was taken and killed and eaten. In other words, he really re-created the adultery in the categories of theft and killing. Not Uriah’s killing — that’s an added evil — but as it were, Bathsheba’s killing represented by the little, little, helpless pet lamb being killed and served up as a meal.

So, I would say, for these two reasons, we are not exaggerating to use the word rape for David’s abuse of his power in the indulgence of his sinful lust in the way he took Bathsheba.

Holy Authority

But the Bible doesn’t just leave us with pointers — and I think this just needs to be said before we stop. It doesn’t just leave us with pointers to the reality, and the danger, and the sinfulness of the misuse of official authority or power in order to exploit, or threaten, or manipulate, or mistreat, or demean, or destroy other people. The New Testament is replete with warnings against a worldly use of authority. It is replete with beautiful descriptions of what Christians who hold positions of influence and governance should be like.

It starts with Jesus, it goes to Paul the apostle, it goes to the elders of the churches, and it goes to husbands — and indeed, it goes to all Christians, because all Christians are influential one way or the other, and they can be influential in harmful ways or influential in helpful ways. So, let’s just take a brief look at each of those stages.

Jesus

Not only did Jesus say that he came into the world “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom” (Mark 10:45), but he also taught about this issue of power and servanthood. For example, he said,

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25–27)

Apostles

Jesus commissioned the apostles to have foundational authority, tremendous authority, in the church to teach. If something that other people taught didn’t conform to what the apostles taught, they were not acknowledged (1 Corinthians 14:38). And yet, we get glimpse after glimpse into the way the apostle Paul and Peter and others used their authority by trying to set an example to the churches.

For example,

For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:5–7)

He acted exactly that same way with his authority toward Philemon when he wrote to him in Philemon 8–9, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” That’s the apostles picking up on Jesus’s example and teaching.

Elders

Then comes elders. Peter says concerning the elders, the pastors who have rightful governing leadership roles in the church, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1–3).

Husbands

Paul applies the same principle to husbands in Ephesians 5. After teaching that wives are to submit to husbands as their head in marriage, he tells the husbands how to use that headship, that authority, that leadership, and he says this: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:24–25).

All Christians

So it starts with Jesus, it goes to the apostles, it goes to the pastors, it goes to the husbands, and now it lands finally on all Christians, because all of us can throw our weight around with somebody in order to exalt our egos and manipulate or abuse them. So, Paul says to every Christian,

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3–5)

And there it is — it all circles back to Christ: “Which is yours in Christ Jesus.” It all circles back to Christ. The only hope that David would ever have that he could be forgiven and be happily in heaven with Uriah and Bathsheba and a holy God is that Jesus Christ lived and served and died in a way radically different from David. All of us depend totally on the upside-down way that Jesus used his infinite power on the cross.

Why Do They Get What I Want? Envy and the Eyes That Matter

When I was about five, my dad invited me and my older sister into his home studio for fun. Like most of the musicians and producers in Nashville, he had a basement room outfitted with everything you need to make a decent demo: a dark soundproofed booth with a mic and stool, another room with a soundboard, and a thick glass window in between — for giving the “thumbs up” sign between takes.

He let me try first. I stood in the tiny room and sang along to the track playing through an enormous pair of headphones. In about three minutes, I was losing interest. I began to complain that the headphones were squeezing my ears, and my dad let me go back to playing.

Then it was my sister Sophie’s turn. And apparently, this was the day my dad discovered Sophie’s voice.

What did they work on? I didn’t hear it until a few weeks later when my parents had friends over for supper. My dad mentioned the session they’d done, and our guests wanted to hear it. Everybody sat down in the living room, but for some reason, I didn’t go in.

I stood in the hallway outside as the track began and Sophie’s voice burst into the air.

Even at seven years old, her voice was clear, powerful, and controlled. My little stomach flipped. I cringed outside the door as the guests reacted. My dad modestly turned the volume down after the first minute. Why had I left the studio? Why did I quit so quickly? Why didn’t I see that it would lead to Sophie being shown off while I was left standing out in the hallway?

Wishing Against Others

The smell of foam insulation in a recording booth would become very familiar to me in years to come. My dad did a great job of including all his kids in the music of his life. He invited his daughters onstage with him regularly during church concerts.

Later, he used connections to get us all jobs working as session singers for children’s projects — allowing us to save for future cars or colleges. He produced and paid for me to record a CD of jazz cover tunes when I was fifteen, and was always uniquely supportive of my voice — even if I knew it was more idiosyncratic and less powerful than Sophie’s. She was compared to Mariah Carey, I was compared to Billie Holiday, my younger sisters were later compared to The Wailin’ Jennys — and my dad managed to be a fan of all of it.

But when I look back, I’m shocked to recognize this moment as the earliest flowering of envy in my life. Peering back through the decades, I can see my five-year-old self standing in the hallway. The impulse of her heart is unmistakable.

I wished my dad would not play the CD. I wished the CD had been scratched or mislaid. I wished her voice didn’t sound like that. I wished the guests weren’t around to hear it.

In fact, I wished the glory of her voice was banished out of existence.

Inequality and the Eyes That Matter

The glory of a voice like Sophie’s is a deliberate gift from the God of glory. He stamps all of his creation with this glory — though mankind has a double portion.

Man, who is made in the image of God, has been “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). His glory is borrowed, reflective, derivative. But it’s real. And because it’s real, his fellow human beings — all of whom have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (Romans 1:23) — are moved to respond to it. Even in small amounts. Even in the temporary forms we find in our fellow creatures.

The glory of charisma, of competence, of intelligence, of beauty, of artistic talent, of wealth, of relational security — these all give us a sensation of brushing our fingers against the locked door of heaven itself. And we must respond, whether in admiration, in enjoyment, in worship, or (like the five-year-old Tilly) in horror and hatred.

There’s a name for that horror and hatred: envy.

Humblest of Pleasures

The strength of our horror over the glory of others corresponds to the strength of our appetite. We not only want to enjoy glory — we want to be enveloped in glory, to assume some part of it into ourselves.

This desire can be good and creaturely. In a discussion of heaven’s glories, C.S. Lewis shared that he’d always been uncomfortable with the idea of “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17) waiting for us in heaven. What kind of glory could this be? he wondered. Fame, like the vain kind you seek among your peers? He felt it was impossible to desire glory and also be properly humble, until something clicked for him:

Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures — nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. (The Weight of Glory, 37)

Mankind was made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (in the words of the Westminster Catechism). But this process could never leave man unchanged. He was also made to be glorified himself — crowned with the glory of his Father’s eternal pleasure in him.

Small Heart of Envy

One of our most basic needs is to be looked upon by the Eyes That Matter, and told, in the Voice That Matters, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). It’s not enough to look on his glory; we want to be let inside. We want to be transformed, to be resplendent, to be strong enough to revel in his glory without shame. We were designed to see pleasure in the eyes of our heavenly Father.

Here’s the connection to my five-year-old self. Like a second Cain, I reacted in sinful displeasure when my sister got a “Well done” from my earthly father. I couldn’t handle hearing another praised by our father, because envy operates in a zero-sum world. Envy believes the lie that God’s universe is one of essential scarcity.

“Envy believes the lie that God’s universe is one of essential scarcity.”

The envious heart is too small. It can’t fathom a God who is limitless in his expressions of pleasure and overflowing love. Our fallen minds truly believe there’s not enough of his plenty to go around. This means that if someone else was given a portion of borrowed glory (a glorious talent, beauty, skill, job, or intimate relationship), then there must be less left for me.

What Can Quench Envy?

It’s not just little girls in headphones who hunger for glory. All of us seek beauty and light and fame in our free moments — watching our shows, listening to our songs, shopping for wedding photographers, hiking the lake trail, entwining our souls-in-bodies with other souls-in-bodies, posting our updates, kissing our children, and tucking ourselves into a booth at the local craft beer place for deep conversation. We are glory-seekers, sniffing the wind and watching the horizon. Let a thing whisper, however falsely, however faintly, of our God and Father, and we will run after it.

After all this seeking, how can we believe the good news when it comes? It’s too good to be true; it’s too much to bear:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9–13)

“The envious heart can’t fathom a God who is limitless in his expressions of pleasure and overflowing love.”

We’re in the hallway outside, fuming that another child of God was given glories we weren’t. We’re wondering if the love of the Father will run out before we walk into the room, if he’ll look at us like Isaac looked at Esau and say, “He has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27:35). We can’t imagine what kind of glory would make it okay.

What glory could take away the sting of being poor while another is rich, of being single while another is married with children, of giving our best to make mediocre paintings while someone else’s effortless eye creates a masterpiece?

Envy Will Drown in Glory

There is, however, a glory that will swallow up the sting of inequality (though it has not promised to take away inequality itself): this light has given us the right to become children of God. And this is the glory that can work such wonders:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The pleasure of the Father will overtake us and swallow up all else — pleasure because of what Christ did on our behalf, pleasure because we’ve been reworked into his glorious image from the inside out. We now look like Christ — his glory will one day envelop us and transform us. It has begun even now:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Envy doesn’t stand a chance. In the final day, it will be swallowed up in glory. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

23 Tips from 23 Years of Book Reading

I’m honored to be here at Colorado Christian University this morning. The purpose of my talk is to share 23 lessons about reading I have learned from 23 years of reading nonfiction books. Some of these lessons will be new to you. Most of them won’t be. And they’re all in the book I mentioned, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books.

Well, the distinguished biographer David McCullough once recounted the following story from the early life of Theodore Roosevelt:

Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester [rifle], at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. They headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the railhead at Dickinson [North Dakota], and Roosevelt walked the whole way, the entire forty miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in Roosevelt’s eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina [Leo Tolstoy’s 900-page novel]. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read.1

We haven’t time to read 900-page novels, much less 200-page nonfiction. Partly we can trace this back to a moment when Roosevelt was fourteen years old, when Samuel Morse, of Morse Code fame, sent the first telegraph message from D.C. to Baltimore in the spring of 1844. His message was a biblical exclamation: “What hath God wrought!” (Numbers 23:23).

Well, we know what the telegraph wrought: a new opportunity to shrink data down into fragments, sentences, and phrases. The telegraph became the private text message, which became the public tweet.

Attention-Candy Addicts

Born into the world in the spring of 1844 was the microspectacle — a tiny fragment of information, sentences, and phrases — eventually leading to images and videos — all spread at lightning speed across the globe. And the faster our media delivery systems became, the more efficiently those spectacles were delivered to the handheld devices in our pockets.

Viral phenomena shrinks into smaller and smaller micro-spectacles until we find ourselves hopelessly addicted to our smartphones. Now we scan videos, scrub ahead, jump ten seconds forward in search of the snap ending. Sports become four-second clips. Movies become five-second GIFs. The tornado chaser’s footage becomes a dramatic twenty-second video.

And we love it. Focusing our attention for too long is hard. Our brains love little snack breaks, and the digital media companies know it. We are targets of attention-candy that fits nicely into our appetite for something new, weird, glorious, hilarious, curious, or cute.

“The iPhone is a chemical-driven casino that preys on our base desire for vanity and our obsession with train wrecks.”

We also love anything that pertains to us or our likes — it feels like people are giving us attention. The iPhone is a chemical-driven casino that preys on our base desires for vanity, ego, and our obsession with watching train wrecks. We love the ego buzz of social media. And we never stop hungering for Turkish delight-sized bites of digital scandal.

“Mobile is a great market. It is the greatest market the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, has ever seen,” said technology analyst Ben Thompson. Why? “It is only when we’re doing something specific that we aren’t using our phones, and the empty spaces of our lives are far greater than anyone imagined. Into this void — this massive market, both in terms of numbers and available time — came the perfect product.”

Smartphones make it possible for the attention economy to target our little attention gaps as we transition between tasks and duties. Our attention may be slightly elastic enough to fill up every empty gap of silence in our days, but in the end it’s still a zero-sum game. We have limited amounts of time to focus in a given day, and now every second of our attention is getting targeted and commoditized.

Attack on Concentration

The potency of the digital spectacles today is a new phenomenon, but distracted attention is nothing new. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper felt something similar with an emerging new media, back in 1911. Long before AI algorithms learned to rearrange our social media feeds to addict us, magazines hooked readers with entertaining feature articles. The problem, Kuyper said, was that you barely had time to read one issue before another issue of randomly collected feature articles arrived in the mail.

Magazines were not troublesome because they were bad. They were troublesome because they were so addictive. And in luring readers to endless stream of feature articles, it raised a spiritual problem. Kuyper wrote, “Each of us must, on the one hand, exert ourselves to participate in the life of our time, while on the other hand we must continue to protect the freedom of our mind and force it to concentrate on what matters.”

If readers cannot concentrate on what matters, they become “constantly occupied with all kinds of things, not because this is what they seek or want, but because all of this [content] attacks them, overpowers them, and occupies every corner of their heart and thoughts unasked.” The coming of the magazine marked a tsunami of fascinating content that simply overwhelmed the human powers of input.

By contrast, Kuyper said, the life of faith demands focused recollection: “It should not be forgotten that all religion is a penetration with the innermost part of the soul into the unity of all things, in order to comprehend the unity of the One from whom everything comes. For that reason, to take delight in godliness you must ascend from the many, the varied, the endlessly distinct, to the coherence” of all things.2 Without focus, without the power to see coherence, faith dies.

God Wrote, We Read

That’s very interesting, but is Kuyper right? Does so much ride on coherence? Is it biblical? That’s the bigger question. To answer that, let’s take a moment and think about this with Bibles open to Ephesians.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this [Paul’s epistle], you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles [along with Jews] are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:1–13)

“The mystery of the gospel was written down. Can a higher tribute be paid to the discipline of reading?”

So how are we to understand ancient prophecies, Israel’s role in redemption, the mystery of Christ, his global gospel, the church’s start, the purpose of the church’s existence, the fact that the world exists in order to house a church, our new boldness before God, the nature of spiritual warfare, and the ultimate purpose of the Creator for his creation? How do we understand all this? By reading Paul, as he puts the story of the Bible together for us. The mystery of the gospel was “written” down (Ephesians 3:3). Can a higher tribute be paid to the discipline of reading?

The life of faith is the life of comprehending unity. And what’s written in Scripture is given to us so that, when we read, the people of God can comprehend “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9) — namely, the ancient prophecies, Israel’s role in redemption, the arrival of Christ, his cross-cultural gospel, the beginning of the church, our new boldness before God, the dynamics of spiritual warfare, and the existence and purpose of creation itself. The Christian’s brain needs to comprehend this macro unity.

Not only the church, but also our culture — and the entire educational system — is facing a crisis of the mind. The immediate is crowding out the ultimate. So Christians are ones who are always learning how to learn, and yet the pressures against serious reading are all around us. Secularism is one of them, so too the individualism of social media.

23 Tips for Better Reading

But for the remainder of our time together I want to get very practical. I’ve been a serious book reader for 23 years, and I want to give you 23 practical tips to consider, particularly when it comes to reading nonfiction.

These are lessons I have learned myself. They help me. Maybe they will help you. Maybe they will help you parent. Again, this is in my book Lit!, so I’ll run through them rather fast. Be inspired for the lifelong cultivation of reading skills. That’s what I hope to impart.

1. Read Daily, in the Gaps

Social media does one thing well: it fills up every gap of life with things interesting and eye-catching and scandalous and awe-inspiring and interesting. We can reclaim those gaps for reading.

And those gaps really add up. Most people can find sixty minutes each day to read. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t: fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and another thirty minutes in the evening. At this pace, you can devote seven hours to reading each week (or 420 minutes).

The average reader moves through a book at a pace of about 250 words per minute, so 420 minutes of reading per week translates into 105,000 words per week. Most books today are about 60,000 words long. Assuming you can read for one hour each day, and that you read at around 250 words per minute, you can complete more than one book per week, or about 60 or 70 books per year. It’s very doable, and that’s just in redeeming the gaps of life.

2. Redeem Each Environment

When I started thinking about the situations where I seek to capture reading fragments, I began to see that certain settings favored certain types of books. Here are a few of those places:

Desk reading: I haul myself out of bed, pour some coffee, and head to my desk. Here is where I meet with God through Scripture and often where I dive into commentaries on the Bible and theology. Most of my serious devotional reading is done at that desk in the early morning hours.
Coffee shop reading: The longest and most difficult books, the books that require the most caffeinated attention, I bring to the coffee shop on my days off. There I invest two or three hours of reading with singular focus. Once the earbuds are in place, the music begins, and the cover is opened, the world around me fades away.
Barbershop reading: My barber has twenty magazine subscriptions, because people waiting for him have free time to read. I never go to the barbershop without a book. I find that I can read just about any type of book in this setting.
Lunch-break reading: At work, I can often read a brief devotional in small fragments of time. I keep an array of books within arm’s reach at work, including a copy of The Valley of Vision at my desk. I often take fifteen minutes during my lunch break for a brief devotional. It’s a great time to recalibrate my heart in the middle of the day.
Evening reading, when my brain is fried: At night when the sun is down, and my brain is shot from the day, I can read historical novels and biographies. For me, this is the best time to read about the lives of others.
Bedside reading: In defiance of feng shui experts, I keep a stack of books next to my bed. These are books that I read in the thirty minutes before I fall asleep, and each of the books can be read in short chunks. These are not books I intend to read from cover to cover, but only to read a few parts of. I replace the stack of books every couple of months.
Travel reading: I travel a bit, but it took me a while to figure out how to make the most of my travel reading. For a while I traveled with light fiction, thinking that a novel would be perfect. But my reading never got any lift. While trying to read novels in the vibrating hum of a jet fuselage, I found myself nodding off and losing interest. Later I discovered that at thirty thousand feet, my life seemed to come into focus. Once I made this discovery, I began to limit my carry-on to business books, Christian living books, and books that gave me just enough instruction to stimulate reflection and planning about my family, my job, and my life priorities. I step off the jet with pages of thoughtful personal reflection, a renewed energy for life, and a clear focus on my primary goals.

3. Ruthlessly Curate Your Reading List

Several years ago, my wife and I both came to understand that if we were going to preserve our ability to read long books, we needed to not only read in the gaps of life, but also needed to get away to read books. We had small kids. I worked online, submerged in social media. All of life was conspiring against this habit of reading books well. So we decided to set aside time each year and go on a “reading retreat” with a stack of books. Now, I certainly recommend the practice.

But what was especially fun, leading up to that trip, was that my wife and I could bring only printed books. No e-books. You had to physically travel with your book selections. And especially when we began doing these trips with carry-on bags on commercial jets, we narrowed those titles down to two or three books. One trip, I brought only one title.

Now, these restraints have led us to become ruthless book curators. A few weeks out, my wife and I would buy — or get from the library — a stack of ten new titles, pick through them, sort them, rank them. We would whittle them down, down, down, until we had our chosen few. For all seasons of life, that’s a great discipline. Curate your reading list carefully.

4. Learn to Speed Read

Many mature readers will grow comfortable with a broad range of reading speeds: from a quick skim of the text, to a close study of the text, to a deep meditation over the text. On one side this means training our brains to read more quickly. Learning how is not complex, and you certainly don’t need a speed-reading course to do it.

One simple way to read faster is by running your finger under the text as you read, increasing the speed of your finger across the page until you are pushing your eyes to read faster than normal. In other words, use your finger like a stuffed rabbit zipping along in front of a sprinting greyhound. Keep running your finger faster until you begin reading more comfortably at that speed. At first this may feel awkward, but over time, this reading speed may become easier.

Due to differing comprehension speeds, not every reader will be able to read faster. And that’s okay, because a lot of books should not be read quickly anyways. But if you can learn to read faster, go for it.

5. Slow Read

On the other side of the spectrum, mature readers must also be comfortable reading slowly. Book reading is not all about burning through prose. Sometimes the best way to read a book is to gear down and read slowly and meditatively.

“Reading can be painful. Learning to read isn’t like learning to walk; it’s like learning to play a piano.”

In this situation, beware that impatience can rear its ugly head, make you feel guilty for not reading faster, and eliminate the joy from your book reading. Often our frustration with slow reading stems from a wrong attitude — of viewing books as a task to be accomplished, not as a difficult pleasure to be enjoyed. Reading, especially when we are just getting started, can be painful. Learning to read isn’t like learning to walk; it’s like learning to play a piano. It’s not natural.

So don’t give up too easily on a book that requires slow reading. Sometimes the best books require patience. Get comfortable with the slow pace, even if it’s a pace that is a lot slower than others.

6. Install a Transmission

Mature readers know when to read quickly and when to read slowly. Reading is like driving a moving truck through mountain highways. There are times to chug uphill in a low gear, and there are times to coast downhill in a high gear. Each book has its own terrain.

Our reading speeds will change as we read, because different sections in books will be like muscling uphill or cruising downhill. Over time, you will begin to sense the terrain of a book, and you will learn how to use different gears. Just be aware that the terrain can change. Some parts of a book can be read more quickly than others.

7. Anticipate

Before you begin reading a book, determine its purpose in your life. Why are you reading this book? What makes it better than the tens of thousands of books you had to ignore to read this one? Is it (1) part of your spiritual diet, (2) for personal change, or (3) just for fun? Determining clear reading priorities is critical.

Once the reading priorities are clear, then it’s time to ask specific questions. I encourage readers to write five to ten specific questions they would like the author to answer. By posing questions to a book before you begin, you establish an objective basis for why you are reading this book in the first place. As you read, those questions will make it easier to determine if the book is achieving this purpose.

8. Determine the Author’s Orbit

Which direction do you want the author to pull you? Do you want the author to pull you into the book (centripetal), or do you want the author to push you out of the book (centrifugal)? For example, if you read a book to simply delight in literary beauty, you want the author to pull you in, to hook your mind and heart with rich imagery.

On the other hand, if the book is for immediate personal change, you want the author to push you out, so you can unhitch from the book for personal reflection and application. The force of a book is shown by how well the author moves the reader along the intended route.

Determining which direction we are seeking to move is important. The business books I read are always centrifugal, pushing me away from the book into personal reflection. The leisure books I read are often centripetal, pulling me into the book for literary delight. Knowing this difference will shape the way you read (and respond to) books.

9. Run a Background Check

Before I read a book, I run a quick search online to browse book reviews, find concise summaries, read endorsements, and check for any high-profile blurbs that have been published about the book.

This step acquaints me with the authors I read. Who are they? Where do they work? What worldview do they represent? This critical step helps to prepare me for what I am about to read and can alert me to the author’s motivations. This background check requires only a few minutes of my time, and it is time well invested.

10. Grab a Pen

I buy copies of my print books, because I’m a strong believer that you should write in books, and write in them with a pen. Gasp! A book-mutilator! I keep a pen close. It’s good preparation, and it puts me in a posture of expectancy.

Without a pen in hand, I forget the thoughts that pass through my mind. Out of habit, I grab a pen before I grab a book. I have a whole chapter in my book, Lit!, devoted to marginalia and explaining how I do it. Write in books. Do it.

11. Slowly X-Ray the Book

Before I begin reading the first page of a book, I invest thirty minutes to ask broad structural questions. Adler, in his famous book on reading, writes, “Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers.” I am trying to x-ray for that skeletal structure.

First, I study the table of contents, noticing how chapters build on one another. Second, I scan the book and its section headings. Third, I read the chapter summaries and even the concluding chapter. Anything that looks like a concise summary gets read first. (Confession: I typically read the final page before the first page.) Only then am I ready to begin reading the introduction.

Readers are tempted to dive right into the first pages, but it takes patience to x-ray a book. The time spent slowly inspecting a book is a rewarding investment. This step has protected me from wasting time reading mediocre books. Take time to x-ray for the skeleton, and take as much time as you need to do it well.

12. Determine a Reading Strategy

After I x-ray the book for its structure, I have a good sense of the book’s main points. Now I must determine how I want to read it. Different books must be read in different ways. Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” That is very true. So what should I do with a particular book?

After a slow inspection of a book, I have four options:

Chew and digest it like a steak. This approach says, “Yes, this appears to be an excellent book that will answer the questions I have asked. I want to read the book carefully and intentionally, cover to cover.”
Swallow it like a milkshake: “Yes, this appears to be a helpful book that will answer my questions. I want to read the entire book, but quickly. I don’t want to invest too much time on this single book.”
Sample it like a cheese platter: “Yes and no. Portions of the book seem to be unrelated to my questions. Other sections are pertinent.” There is nothing wrong with reading only portions of a book or specific chapters. By doing this you keep your book reading focused, and this focus can protect you from losing interest. Most importantly, this choice will protect you from the common myth that books must always be read from cover to cover. Not so. Some great books in my library are there because of one or two chapters.
Spit it out like expired milk: “No, this does not appear to be a book that will answer my questions, or at least not as well as another book might. I will move along and look for a replacement.”

Mature readers learn to engage different books in different ways.

13. Jog Past the Questions

Let’s say you choose option two, to swallow the book at a quick pace. This is how I usually read nonfiction books. Now that I have a general idea about the structure of the book, it’s time to read. I begin reading chapter 1 and keep moving along at a quick reading pace. If something is confusing or does not make sense to me, I make a small mark and continue reading.

In the margin of a book I mark anything that I initially disagree with or question. At the end of the chapter, I return to the marked sections. Often, by the time I have read through to the end of the chapter, many of those initial questions have been answered by the author. I can save time by not stopping every time I have a question.

14. Note the Progression of a Chapter

As you read, pay close attention to the section headings and structural indicators like “first,” “second,” and “finally.” This internal structure is important and worth noting. If these are not marked with clear headings, you may want to make them obvious by underlining or circling them as you read along. Especially in old books and books that lack section headings, I note the structural indicators in the margin. These indicators are like street signs that guide me through the author’s development of a point in a chapter. I make those markers clear.

15. Discover the Thesis

Every nonfiction book has a skeleton because it has been developed from a core thesis, a sentence to summarize the author’s main point. Every chapter should also have a thesis statement. Sometimes the thesis is easy to see.

For example, in a new biography I was reading, the author asks in the introduction, “Why another biography on this person?” His thesis is embedded in that single paragraph. Sometimes it’s not this easy to find. If you can find the thesis for the book, underline it or put an asterisk in the margin. If you discover the thesis of a chapter, circle it and make a note of where you found it. Keep the thesis statement in the forefront of your mind, and watch how the author supports and defends it.

16. Know When to Quit

Even if you decide to read a book from cover to cover, this decision is not a vow. The evaluation of a book cannot wait until the book has been completed, and there comes a point when the reader must stop. Often a book’s value (or lack of value) is clear in the first few chapters. So how far into a book should a reader go before quitting?

This is where the one hundred-pages-minus-your-age rule comes in handy. This rule states that readers should start with one hundred pages and subtract their age. If you are twenty years old, you should give a book eighty pages before quitting. If you’re fifty years old, give it fifty pages. The more years, the more reading experience, the less time you need before you can close and shelve a book. And it means that, when you are one hundred, you are free to judge a book by its cover.

Often readers don’t stop reading because they don’t have “permission” to stop. You have permission. The only book you should read entirely is the Bible. All other books must prove their value along the way. Don’t allow unfinished books to pile up in a mountain of guilt. Show patience with a book, but cut the ties when necessary and move on.

17. Mark the Gold

I read nonfiction books in order to make discoveries, either about myself or about a particular topic. The time I invest in reading is paid back in bits of information — sometimes only paragraphs, sentences, or phrases — that change the way I live and perceive the world. It’s a sweet wage for the labor. John Piper once explained it this way:

What I have learned from about twenty years of serious reading is this: it is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember ninety-nine percent of what I read, but if the one percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the ninety-nine percent.

When one percent of what you read is life-transforming gold, the labor of sifting through the other ninety-nine percent is not troublesome. Whenever I read these nuggets of gold, I mark them and add them into a database I keep on my computer.

18. Collect and Store the Gold

Some people collect coins and baseball cards. I collect other people’s thoughts. When I read an important sentence or paragraph (the one percent), I mark it and then later return and copy it into a topical database on my computer. If you have a poor memory (like me), you will need a place to collect the sentences and paragraphs that you hope to retain for the future.

How exactly you go about collecting these insights may look different. Some readers use a photocopier and folders. Others use a handwritten journal. I use Evernote and a simple Microsoft Excel database. I collect quotes, which I type out verbatim, and organize them by topical categories and refined subcategories. I can tell you from personal experience, a captured thought that later finds expression in a real-life situation will boost a desire within you to continue reading. Whatever process works for you, find a way to store the gold.

19. Paraphrase

Before we can embrace the author’s arguments or reject the author’s conclusions, we must first understand what the author said. This is the role of paraphrasing. At the end of a chapter, paraphrase the chapter’s content. In one sentence, what was the main point of the chapter? At the end of the book, restate the main point in two to three sentences. The goal here is not a critique but a simple restatement, as objectively as possible, of what the author attempted to communicate.

20. Answer “Why?”

An author has taken time to address the topic, a publisher agreed to print it, and you bought (or borrowed) the book. So why did the author write it? Why did the publisher print it? Why did a bookstore stock it? Each of these questions must have an answer. As you read, those answers may emerge in the author’s language. Your job as a reader is to find the answers. Often an evaluation of a book is informed by answering these important “why” questions. Why does this book exist?

21. Find the Holes

It takes discernment to evaluate what the author has written, but it requires highly advanced discernment to determine what the author has left unwritten. Often a book’s fatal flaw is not that the author said something poorly, but that the author failed to say something essential. So what was left unsaid? What pieces were missing from the book? The questions that you write out before you begin reading become very useful at this point. By returning to your initial questions, you can determine if the author missed anything on the topic.

22. Let the Dust Settle

After you have completed a book, stop and give yourself time before making a final evaluation. Like driving a pickup down a gravel road, reading a book kicks up a lot of dust (details) in the brain, and it’s helpful to let the dust settle before we evaluate the book. Often the book’s value will become clearer after a few days, after your mind has processed the details. The thoughts that linger in your mind about a book are the thoughts that you want to capture. Go back and write those thoughts in the inside cover of the book or in a notebook.

23. Compare and Contrast Books

If we select books with specific priorities in mind, we will inevitably read books with overlapping content. Mature readers compare their books. After reading, answer a few more questions in the front cover, such as: Is this book better or worse than the other books I have read on the topic? Is it more helpful or less helpful? Where did this book contradict another book? What content was covered that other books neglected? The best books, the books that cover a topic most thoroughly, are the books we respect, cherish, reread, and recommend to our friends.

So those are my 23 tips for reading nonfiction, pulled from 23 years of reading nonfiction. All these skills, I believe, will make us more discerning readers, better thinkers, better Bible readers, and better able to do what Paul calls us to do: to hold together God’s immense plan for his creation and his bride, the church.

‘Your Will Be Done’: The Glory of Christ’s Human Choices

All of Jesus’s human life led him to this garden. As he knelt and prayed in Gethsemane, waiting in agony — with beads of sweat “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44) — here he made the Choice.

Countless decisions, big and small, brought him here, but only in the garden did he finalize the decision to go to the cross. Gethsemane marked his last and most distressing moments of deliberation. He chose to enter the garden, and he could have chosen to flee.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,” he prayed. “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). There, on his knees, Jesus chose — with his human will, like ours, which naturally recoiled at the threat of pain and death — to embrace the one divine will of his Father, which was also his, as eternal Son.

When he rose from prayer (Luke 22:45), the decision was done, his fully human will in perfect synch and submission to the divine. Now, as Judas and the soldiers arrived, he would be acted upon: arrested, accused, tried, struck, flogged, and crucified.

Two Wills in Christ

For centuries, dyothelitism is the term the church has used to refer to the two wills of Christ — the one divine will he (eternally) shares as God, with his Father (and the Spirit), and a natural human will that is his by virtue of the incarnation and his taking on our full humanity. We speak of two wills in the one unique person of the God-man.

“Jesus has a human will, like us, with which he sympathizes, strengthens, and saves.”

In multiple places in John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to his human will in distinction from that of his Father, “the one who sent me.” “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

Yet the place where Jesus’s distinctly human will stands out most is Gethsemane, in those final moments of Choice before he is taken and, humanly speaking, there is no turning back. Not only did Jesus teach his men to pray to his Father “your will be done” (Matthew 6:10), but in the garden, Christ himself prayed, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39), and then again, “your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). And in doing so, he embraced the divine will with his human volition.

Human All the Way?

The early church endured attacks against both Jesus’s deity (from Arians) and his full humanity (from Docetists and Apollinarians), questioning his fully human body, emotions, and mind. The battle for his human will came last and was the most sophisticated. The conflict, prompted by political intrigue, raged in the seventh century and led to a sixth ecumenical council in 680–681, the third at Constantinople. Obscure as the refined nature of the controversy may seem to us today, the debate between dyothelitism and the opposing view (monothelitism) still carries the theological significance it did more than twelve centuries ago, and warrants our attention, perhaps all the more in circles where it has been neglected or forgotten.

In contrast to monothelitism, which claims the divine will of the Son animates the human body and soul of Jesus, dyothelitism presses for the full, uncompromised humanity of Christ. We find two wills in the agony of Gethsemane in the one person of Christ. There is a human nature in him that desires the removal of the cup — that there be some other way, if possible, than the divine will. The question, then, is when Christ prays, “not my will, but yours, be done,” whose will is “my will,” and whose is “yours”?

When the question was freshly pressed on the church in the seventh century, the explanation that emerged as most compelling, and enduring, was that of Maximus the Confessor (born 580) — even though he did not live to see the triumph. At the time, dyothelitism was not politically expedient to the emperor Constans’s ambitions to reunite Christian regions against the threat of Islam. Maximus was arrested and exiled, and he died in exile eight years later at age 81. Seven years later, Constans was assassinated. Soon the imperial attitude changed, and twenty years after Maximus’s death, his theology carried the day at the ecumenical council.

It was Maximus, claims Demetrios Bathrellos, who “was really the first to point out in an unambiguous way that it is the Logos (the eternal Son) as a man who addressed the Father in Gethsemane. . . . [Maximus] emphasized the fact that in Gethsemane Christ decided as man to obey the divine will, and thus overcame the blameless human instinctive urge to avoid death” (The Byzantine Christ, 146–147).

In this way, we confess two wills in the unique divine-human God-man. As God, Jesus “wills by his divine will and as man obeys the divine will by his human will” (174). In Maximus’s own words, “The subject who says ‘let this cup pass from me’ and the subject who says ‘not as I will’ are one and the same.” So, writes Bathrellos, “[B]oth the desire to avoid death and the submission to the divine will of the Father have to do with the humanity of Christ and his human will” (147).

Why His Wills Matter

Obscure as the ancient debate may seem at first, one reason for its enduring relevance is our own humanity. We are human as they were human. And in particular, our wills are human, constrained by finitude. Humans like us have an interest (not just intellectually but very practically) in the question, Was Christ indeed “made like [us] in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17)? And is he able “to sympathize with our weaknesses [as] one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)?

“If Christ is not fully human, there is no great salvation for humans.”

Even more than sympathy, Is Christ truly able to save us? If he is not fully human, there is no great salvation for humans. As the famous maxim of Gregory of Nazianzus claims, that which Christ has not assumed, he has not healed. And not just healed eternally, but even in this life. What hope do we have of his reclaiming, sanctifying, and redeeming our own fallen, sinful human wills if the eternal Son has not descended to the full extent of our humanity, yet without sin? As Edward Oakes writes, “Since will is the very seat of sin, its fons et origo, we are still left in our plight if Christ did not have a human will” (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy, 162). Would Christ come in human flesh and blood, emotions and mind, and leave the human will, “the very seat of sin,” untaken, untouched, and unredeemed?

Also, a “trinitarian logic” informs and reinforces the two wills of Christ. According to Donald Fairbairn and Ryan Reeves, “Maximus argued that since in the Trinity there are three persons and one nature, and also one will, the will must be a function of the nature, not the person” (150). That is an important distinction: that the will, whether divine or human, is a function of the theological category “nature,” not “person.” Two wills in Christ (one human, one divine) correspond with one will in God. One will in Christ (divine only) would mean that the two wills in tension in Gethsemane would be between divine “persons” (Father and Son) rather than between “natures” (divine and human), challenging oneness in the Godhead, and thus revising not only orthodox Christology but also trinitarianism.

Yet, “even more significant,” notes Fairbairn and Reeves, is the “soteriological conviction that the unassumed is unhealed” (150). Human salvation in Christ is at stake in the human will of Christ, not only in his receiving in himself the penalty of our fallen wills (as we’ve seen), but also in his own obedience, as the God-man, to his Father. As man, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), and as man, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). “The many will be made righteous,” says Romans 5:19, “by the one man’s obedience” — a human obedience, by virtue of the incarnation, he could not have rendered apart from a human will.

Cult of Will

Not only does dyothelitism correlate best with God’s triune nature, our human nature, and the nature of the atonement, but in locating the will as a function of the “nature,” rather than the “person,” dyothelitism guards us against the modern “cult of will.” Oakes warns, “When personhood is identified without further ado with the will, then the cult of will in Friedrich Nietzsche and his postmodern successors inevitably follows” (164). Oakes points to Bathrellos’s “extremely thought-provoking observation that so many of the ethical outrages of today can be traced to the . . . error of identifying nature with person.” Says Bathrellos,

The tendency to identify personhood with nature or natural qualities and especially with the mind . . . seems to occur quite often in the history of human thought. It is remarkable that in our own day some philosophers of ethics give a definition of “person” based on mental and volitional capacities, and in doing so make it possible to justify, for example, abortion and even infanticide. (14)

However far-reaching the implications of Christ’s two wills, and full humanity, we as Christians are worshipers first and foremost. We declare, as the cardinal confession of our faith, “Jesus is Lord” — and when we do so, we submit to a Sovereign not only infinitely high above us as God but one who has drawn near as our own brother and friend, and went so low to serve and sacrifice himself for us. In addition to his divine will as God, Jesus has a human will, like us, with which he sympathizes, strengthens, and saves.

The Root Problem with Drunkenness: Ephesians 5:15–21, Part 4

http://rss.desiringgod.org/link/10732/15025539/the-root-problem-with-drunkenness

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