Author Archives: Peter Whyte

Buying, Reading and Calculating the Cost of Books

Ann Zerkle has written an interesting article “In Defense of Buying Books” (Get Rich Slowly, 30 Dec 2008; HT lifehacker, 3 Jan 2009) that made me feel good about my book buying habits. I do borrow from the University library, but for the really important books, a purchase is definitely a must.

I’ve never really calculated the cost per hour, but I think many of my purchases are definitely less expensive than Zerkle’s. I have a considerable number of technical books on databases, programming languages and Web development. Most of them weigh in about £25-30, and I reckon they would take 25-30 hours of reading, so I think they’re about £1/hour. Set them against a 2 or 4 day course, and they definitely pay for themselves many times over.

Novels at, say, £10, that take, say 15-20 hours enjoyable reading, are even better value at 50-70 pence/hour. But then classic novels will be reread several times, so the cost comes down considerably. The same goes for classic theology books. I’m rereading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity again (prompted by Tim Challies’s Reading Classics, but way behind schedule at the moment). I reckon this is my third time round, and likely to take about 20 hours. My copy cost the princely sum of 25 pence (back in the mid 70s), so that’s costing me less than a ha’penny per hour!

Of course, the main thing about reading books is not the cost, but the sheer enjoyment of turning the page. A good television dramatisation doesn’t even come close to reading a well written novel up close and personal. I’ve just started 2009 with P. D. James’s latest offering, The Private Patient, to lighten up the week after a daily dose of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ll be reading, but only occasionally blogging it for Calvin’s 500th anniversary.

Now that I’ve salved my conscience on the buying front, it’s time to knuckle down to some serious reading.

Clean and wholesome

According to a BBC news report on Christmas Eve,

Vietnam has tightened restrictions on internet blogs, banning bloggers from raising subjects the government deems inappropriate.

Blogs should follow Vietnamese law, and be written in “clean and wholesome” language, according to a government document seen by local media.

Apart from the obvious curtailment of legitimate freedoms, what struck me more forcibly was the stipulation that clean and wholesome language was expected. Ironic that this was reported by an organization whose track record on clean and wholesome was somewhat tarnished, especially with the recent Ross and Brand affair.

If the Vietnamese government want some additional support for their mandate, they should look no further than the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph 5:4)

Would that all blogs, everywhere, took these words to heart.

Exact writing

I just obtained a copy of Mark Tredinnick’s book Writing Well (published down under as The Little Red Writing Book). I was struck with a quotation in his preface:

Writing is the most exact form of thinking.
(Carol Gelderman, All the Presidents’ Words)

I’ve found it increasingly helpful to clarify my own thinking by writing in response to what I read. Somehow Gelderman seems to have encapsulated the process exactly.

The pursuit of God

In this month’s Banner of Truth Magazine, Sinclair Ferguson explains the balance we need in our lives between the pursuit of godliness and the pursuit of God. He says:

When we are concerned about spiritual experience, there is always a danger that the pursuit of it will become a thing on its own, set loose from its anchor and moorings in the glory of God himself. When that happens we may indeed become more interested in our personal godliness than in God. While the Puritans were deeply concerned about personal experience, they were convinced that it flows from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, from the love of God the Father, and from fellowship or communion with the Holy Spirit. They were God-centred in this sense, not experience-centred. Their vision was always upwards to the glory of God. (“The Puritans: Can they Teach us Anything Today?”, Banner of Truth Magazine 543 (Dec 2008): 10. Online: part 1, part 2)

It reminded me of a recent conversation I had in similar vein about the balance between attendance to public worship and personal experience or that worship. I was of the opinion that balance was not to be achieved by being right in the middle, but that we needed to be on the side that embraced regular attendance at the public worship of one’s own local congregation, however it was styled, rather than the side of seeking an ‘exalted experience’ of God. My friend considered experience more important, since he considered the greater danger was in dry and perfunctory worship.

I know that it is equally possible to go to excess in either experiential worship, or in a legalistic doctrinal emphasis that is devoid of the Spirit. But it does make all the difference where one stands, on which foundation one is depending.

The foundation of experience is insufficient to bear the weight of the tension that is involved in becoming godly without losing sight of the Triune God. There is a serious danger that God will become little more than a buddy or best mate should we anchor on the side of experience. However intimate our relationship with God, he must never be reduced that that level. Is it not less likely that ‘depth’ of experience will result in greater intimacy with God?

The Word of God gives a sure and solid foundation, and that is where we ought to moor ourselves. Worship that starts from the Word of God, as it is read, sung, prayed and preached, is the best foundation. That Word is God’s sure revelation of himself. Attending to preaching that glorifies God and magnifies Christ is the vital thing, however ‘poor’ it may otherwise be.

‘Poor’ worship, I have found, usually to be a euphemism for singing in a style other than contemporary, popular music that mirrors the world. It usually takes no account of prayer, Scripture reading, and preaching. What thought is given to preaching invariably concentrates on style and delivery, rather than subject. It may be termed dry, irrelevant, or even boring. I wonder if such characterisations are not more of a commentary on ourselves when we say such things. Do we fail to appreciate the majestic God who is the subject of the sermon? (I speak of honest, biblical, God-centred, Christ-exalting preaching.)

Is it not that we have been anchored too long in experience? We do not come prepared, expecting to worship God corporately through the whole of the service, but come unprepared, merely expecting a personal experience that will pick up us, and hopefully set us up for another week. We come as takers, not givers. We do not receive what we want because we expect entirely the wrong thing. We expect to enjoy the worship, that is, we expect to enjoy ourselves. And if we feel we enjoy ourselves then we will perhaps give God the credit, when we ought to come to give God the glory, and enjoy him.

I, for one, want to anchor on the side of God’s glory, and avail of the ordinary means that he has appointed for my godliness. Those means may be unspectacular, but I trust in his hands they will be glorious and glorifying.

Good reasons to sing Psalms, and good Psalms to sing

Tonight I came across Joe Tyrpak’s article “Why Should We Sing the Psalms?” at Church Works Media. He’s subtitled it his Psalm-Writing Testimony, and relates how he came to write modern English Psalm paraphrases. So far he’s posted one composition, Psalm 1, which I rather liked. Joe’s approach is to write with a well-known tune in mind, which makes his paraphrases “plug and play”. He’s also concerned to include the whole psalm, rather than a bit, which is how many modern worship songs approach psalms. I’m certainly looking forward to more like the first one.

How to read a book

I’ve been reading Mortimer Adler’s book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (Simon and Schuster, 1972) that he updated with Charles Van Doren. I’ve found it helpful to challenge how I read, and to become more effective in my reading. It’s definitely a worthwhile investment for any reader. I see that Brian Fulthorp has been publishing a series of summaries of the chapters over the past few months. I’m going to be reading them to see if I missed anything useful so far.

Developing the muscle of faith

Tonight I came across an article entitled Why We Go To Church: The Intuition of Law And The Counter-Intuition of Gospel. It is certainly worth reading. Steve Zrimec has some memorable turns of phrase, like “fish on bicycles” and “the muscle of faith”, i.e. ears. Although my baptistic convictions don’t permit me to go along with the covenantal aspects of the article, I did find it most helpful, since I have recently been discussing this very topic. I found that reflection on it has also brought a few other concerns I have into focus. Here’s a little of what I’ve been thinking.

The vision of “legions of furious note-takers” is particularly striking. I’m not sure that is entirely accurate. I find taking notes an aid to concentration, even if I don’t make a great deal of use of the notes afterwards. I know that many of the most thrilling sermons I have heard have proved impossible to listen to while taking notes. I’m sure that was because they were intensely Gospel-charged. But, then again, I have found blessing from the providential discovery of notes later, sometimes years later. They help me recall the message, or stimulate me to further meditation. I don’t think it is a simple choice between the furious legions and the “simple yet intent hearers”, though I do take the point that we can often be writing our one legalistic to do list. We must certainly develop our ability to listen intently to the ministry of the Word, however much our mental faculties have been crippled by exposure to television. If we can endure the banalities of television for hour upon hour, can we not endure half an hour of Christ-exalting preaching?

I must confess that I had not really considered the alien qualities of the Gospel that we must constantly learn in quite the way Steve presents them. It has often struck me that one of the great benefits of the Lord’s Supper is that it reorients us to the other-wordly when for most of the week we are bombarded by this-worldly concerns. It saddens me that many absent themselves from this weekly remembrance. I cannot understand deliberately staying away from the Supper, unless it is because the concerns of this world have taken such a grip of us that we do not see how far our view of reality has been shaped by The Lie. But then, if we have not grasped the Gospel and been gripped by it, we will not see it as an opportunity to express our Gratitude. Or perhaps, it is that we are gripped more by Guilt than the Gospel, that we are unable to express Gratitude. Although I was brought up in a Christian tradition where ministry of the Word followed the Supper, I am persuaded that the ministry of the Word ought to precede the Supper, since the sermon ought to give fuel to meditation and Gratitude. I’m sure that if I can’t make the connection between the sermon and the Supper, I haven’t been listening intently.

Fiction pick

I’ve just started reading C. J. Sansom’s Dissolution (London: Pan, 2003). It’s the first novel in his Shardlake Series, following the sleuthing of hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII. Last year I read Sovereign, the third book in the series and enjoyed it immensely. (Yes, I know it seems strange not to start on the first one, but I got it ridiculously cheap for a hardback, and thought I had nothing to lose if I didn’t like it. Amazon had this one discounted, so I took the plunge, along with the latest volume in the series, Revelation.)

I suppose my commendation won’t add much weight to those from Colin Dexter and P.D. James. But James is right, “the sights, the voices, the very smell of this turbulent age seems to rise from the page.” I’m finding it as compelling reading and the previous one I read. Sansom has researched the period well, and although he has written a good fictional story, it feels authentic. I find my appetite for the history of the period whetted, yet again. Now I’m going to have to but a book on Henry VIII in the New Year.

This is not CSI. It’s more Morse set in Reformation times, or Sayers; not so much blood and guts as a good story with lots of intrigue and characterization. I’m trying to resist the temptation to read through it too quickly. I think a novel like this is best savoured slowly, so I’m doing my best, but it is hard as it is a real page turner. It makes a refreshing change from theology, and is helping keep me sane during database development.

Practical tips for interactive reading

Like the Ten Commandments, Tim Challies’s Ten Tips to Read More and Read Better can be summarized by two: Read Widely and Read Wisely. Tim take it for granted we must read, and his correct. I don’t know where I heard it first, but I’ve always seen buying books as an essential purchase, not a luxury. There is much to be said for including an amount in the household budget for book acquisitions.

Of Tim’s ten tips, I found the most beneficial one to be Read Interactively (a Read Wisely one). Since I began to do this a number of years ago I have found I have retained and understood more of what I read. I tend to consolidate my notes in a word processed document.

I try to summarize the chapters as I read using pen and paper, as I find this aids my understanding. Typing them up afterwards helps retention and keeps the summaries short, since I know I will be typing afterwards. I include useful quotes with page references so I can find them again, or I can cite them accurately in blog posts and essays. I also also include my own questions and reflections. I find it helpful to have a template with suitable styles to make it easy to distinguish my comments from the basic book summary and quotations.

From a practical point of view I usually begin by typing out the table of contents of the book. That can be a little tiresome if you don’t type too fast and/or the table of contents is quite detailed. Now that many publishers make extracts available on their Web sites, it can often be possible to get the table of contents in PDF format from which to copy and paste to get started. I’ve also recently discovered  that some contents are available from the Library of Congress site in plain text if the publisher doesn’t make them available.