Category Archives: Reading

Living the dream

I was struck by what Nicholas Carr reported1 about how reading narrative affects readers, based on the research of Keith Oatley and other psychologists. ‘Every reader of a book creates, in Oatley’s terms, his own dream of the work — and he inhabits that dream as if it were an actual place.’1

But what if the dream was real? If that world was real? I’m thinking in terms of the Bible. Why is so much of the Bible narrative? And why did the living God choose to reveal himself through the word and the Word? Could it be that we were created to respond to stories this way so that we might enter into the greatest story of all: the reality above and beyond the merely physical and temporal? Reading the Bible then would not be merely reading for doctrinal instruction, but could be almost like a virtual reality preparation for eternal reality. It could be a flight simulator to train us for the real flight where we would learn the responses required for eternity.

If it is true that ‘readers routinely speak of how books have changed them’1, and the research reported would seem to confirm that, then reading Bible narrative will actually assist the transformation that Christians call sanctification. That would underscore the divine wisdom in not providing us with a book of theology, or one entirely filled with doctrinal teaching like the New Testament letters. Narrative and doctrine are included in the Bible for good reason. God is not trying to brainwash us without our knowledge by giving us stories. He is not content for the changes that readers of biblical narrative experience to be unconscious. The overt teaching of the letters and other biblical books spell out the changes required, and explain the consequences of the undesirable lifestyle of rebellion against him. The Christian is required to engage his or her brain (Rom 12:1-2). And even in biblical narrative there are explicit evaluatory statements made about characters and actions that will guide our thinking. Generally evaluation is guided by the artful construction of the narrative, which requires the brain to be engaged.

And what of the social dimension of reading? Carr reports on the misunderstanding of the social experience of reading in the digital age as e-book publishers add interactivity features to their creations. He quotes David Comer Kidd: ‘Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience’ and comments ‘The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.’ If this is true of fiction, then what kind of social experience can reading the true narrative of the Bible produce? The impact must be much greater when we consider that Bible reading is not simply a solitary activity for the Christian, but frequently done in the context of God’s new society, the church. That is not to reduce a church Bible study group to the level of a literary reading group. But could it be that corporate Bible reading and study, attending to the preaching of the Word, and private Bible reading and study can make a much greater impact on us than we realise? Unlike fiction, believing readers of the Bible get the opportunity to live out their changed attitudes and lifestyle in a like-minded society in advance of the eternal reality.

All this relates to reading, but I wonder if a similar impact is made by storytelling. If so, that would have huge implications for how Bible narrative is preached. How great the impact of deviating from the biblical story. And it might suggest that not reading the whole story when one is preaching from a narrative passage will greatly lessen the impact of the sermon.

Well, back to living the dream . . .


1. Nicholas Carr, ‘The Dreams of Readers’, Rough Type blog, 9 Jan 2014 [online] available at

Read to Lead

John Coleman’s recent blog posting ‘For Those Who Want to Lead, Read’,1 was a great encouragement. Not that I need, or ever have needed, any encouragement to read–it’s been a lifelong activity. What encouraged me was that he argues that reading is an essential part of leadership.

Sometimes I get really focussed on reading specific church leadership topics, or on commentaries and sermons for preaching preparation, and feel that reading in other areas is wasting time. But Coleman brings forward evidence that wide-ranging reading ‘can improve intelligence and lead to innovation and insight’. He even says, ‘reading novels can improve empathy and understanding of social cues, allowing a leader to better work with and understand others . . .’. I’m sure that’s right, as I’ve noticed that I get ideas and illustrations from outside specifically theological literature, but it’s encouraging to hear that from others.

The trick is to achieve balance and retain focus. Reading may be a lifelong activity, but it’s one we can all  learn to do better. Now I have to follow up some of Coleman’s references, but I’m greatly encouraged as I do so.


1. John Coleman, ‘For Those Who Want to Lead, Read’, Harvard Business Review blog network, 15 Aug 2012, online at: 

Alexander (and) Whyte on reading?

Tim Challies posted extract from a chapter on Alexander Whyte by Warren Wiersbe that contains wise advice on reading (and buying) books: “Book Buyers and Book Readers“.\1/ I’m all for the pencil in hand, and felt convicted this morning that I haven’t been writing more of late, though I’ve been thinking plenty about what I’ve been reading.

Thanks to my friend (Mark) Alexander for pointing out the article to (Peter) Whyte. I think we can both endorse the sentiments of the extract from our (almost) namesake!!


1. Tim Challies, “Book Buyers and Book Readers”,, 3 Apr 2011, online at

To e- or not to e-, that is the question

Tim Challies recently posted a series of articles on a topic dear to my heart that are well worth reading. I share his enthusiasm for books that he shared in ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Books’\1/. I’m also with him on ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’\2/. Yes, e-books do have some advantages, but they are still outweighed by the books’ advantages. Like Tim, I just can’t imagine having to move house. It would be three times worse for me than for him. One mitigating factor is that I tend to buy reference materials as e-books in preference to books, especially when they are considerably cheaper. Then I feel guilty when I make little use of them. Are e-books making me more covetous?

But it’s not just sufficient to pit the arguments against each other and take your pick. There is a need to think through the consequences, which Tim points out well in ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’.\3/ I agree wholeheartedly that convenience is not sufficient reason to abandon the book in favour of the e-Book. The medium has a definite impact on the message. E-media appear less permanent (Tim’s point about permanence notwithstanding), and paradoxically I suspect we give more credence to online, e-sources without sufficient critical appraisal. It’s similar to the appeal to “it was on television” as the ultimate “proof” of a fact. We can certainly read books uncritically, but the e-medium somehow seems to reduce our ability or willingness to engage critically with the content. McLuhan and Postman are definitely worth considering in this whole area. And Nicholas Carr is also onto something important in The Shallows\4/, which I’m planning to read later in the year.

When we come to read our e-Bibles we are going to run into some problems. I just can’t study with an e-Bible because you can’t see enough of the text at once (not even on my 24 inch monitor), or mark it up the way you need to make the study worthwhile. I certainly value tools like Logos, especially to check my rusty Greek and Hebrew, but they are just that: tools, not replacements for the text.

I think we’ve already run into a similar problem in churches that rely on song projection instead of hymn books. Sung praise is becoming more like karaoke than sacred worship. The medium has made the shift possible, and the reason is most likely convenience. The congregation may sing more loudly because they no longer have their faces buried in a book, but I find I’ve forgotten the previous line or two very quickly after singing them, whereas with a hymn book I can understand better what I am singing, and comprehend the meaning much more easily. I can’t think I’m alone in that, advancing age and declining memory notwithstanding. What will be the impact of preaching to a congregation who only have an e-Bible? Shorter sermons that engage the text less critically?

It’s not just the ‘E’s in our food* we need to be concerned about, it’s the ‘e-‘s in our reading that will have a serious impact on our intellectual and spiritual understanding. Since Christians are people of The Book, this should be a serious concern to us. Convenience is not enough to switch to e-Bibles, just as pragmatism is never enough to make informed and safe moral judgments. I’m going to need more convincing before I make e-reading my staple biblical intake. Tim’s articles have confirmed that for me. Moderation and small doses will certainly be my practice for the forseeable future.



1. Tim Challies, ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Book’,, 17 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

2. ——, ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’,, 18 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

3. ——, ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’,, 20 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

4. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). Carr blogs at Rough Type,



* Approved European food additives all have an ‘E’ prefixed to the universal reference number.

A profitable week’s reading

I’ve spent a profitable week reading. Some weeks it doesn’t feel like that, but this past week was encouraging. Tim Carmody put Rolf Engelsing’s ‘Lesenrevolution’ at the top of his 10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books\1/. Engelsing saw a shift in C18 reading patterns from intensive reading a small number of text to extensive reading of large numbers of text, most of which would only be read once. But Carmody’s not convinced that this is the real revolution, since both types of reading be be identified before and since C18.

Engelsin’s distinction does have application to Christian reading, however. To illustrate the distinction, Carmody contrasts Bible and newspaper reading. Certainly for Christians the Bible ought to be read intensively. It has been the practice of believers since the Bible was written, but it definitely in serious decline today. That is so, despite the plethora of Bible reading programs available (a selection of which can be found on my church’s Web site).

This week I came across another program that will no doubt not suit the modern taste for sixty second quiet times. Grant Horner’s ten-chapter-a-day program (HT: Tim Challies\2/) could even qualify for intensive and extensive at the same time. Ten chapters is certainly intensive, but by reading from ten different books at a time it is much more intensive than other programs. Its consecutive reading of different chapters over a long period appeals to me as a way to see the connections between different parts of Scripture. I am convinced that cross-references alone are insufficient to see the connections, nor is Beale and Carson’s excellent and profitable guide to the NT’s use of the Old.\3/

I’ve noticed how in recent years I can more readily identify connections, allusions and the like in Scripture. I’ve also noticed the blank looks one other people’s faces when I mention them in conversation or study groups. I’m sure that it is only intensive reading over several decades that enable me to see them.

I’ve never followed any formal reading plan for long, but I have decided to give Horner’s a go with one alteration. I’m keeping all of Paul’s letters in list 3, and everything from Hebrews on in list 4. I don’t find the length of time required a problem, I doubt any serious reader would. It remains to be seen whether I can stick to it, since I regularly get “stuck” on verses that leap off the page at me. I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones was onto something when he recommended stopping at them before moving on (in Preaching and Preachers, I think).

Horner’s plan applies intensive and extensive reading to Scripture. I’m sure that each of us ought to have a small number of other books that we read intensively, besides the Bible. Pilgrim’s Progress, Calvin’s Institutes, and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity regularly appear on suggested lists. Everything else should be in the extensive category. And I don’t think this is a luxury for any Christian, much less so for preachers. John Brand recently quoted John Wesley’s rebuke to a preacher whose reading was far from adequate:

“What has exceedingly hurt you in times past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the appetite for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago.

It is lively but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian. O begin!”\4/

What a rebuke! But he’s right. It fits with what I recall of James Montgomery Boice’s advice to someone contemplating Christian ministry–study literature before theology.

Extensive reading is not a magic formula for terrific preaching, but it is evidently a means that God regularly blesses. It strikes me that part of the reason why it works is that intensive Bible reading enables us to engage critically with extra-biblical extensive reading. Our extensive reading ought to go beyond biblical and theological topics because such books enable effective critical engagement with the world’s ideas. That can only sharpen our gospel perspective. Without intensive reading of Scripture it may blunt it, or even damage or destroy our faith.

Extensive reading holds little or no danger, so long as we engage in intensive Scripture reading. That’s not closing our minds, but treasuring the most valuable book we possess, and using it to inform our judgment of other books. I’m happy to continue my pattern of combining intensive Scripture reading with extensive extra-biblical reading.

It’s definitely been a profitable week’s reading.



1. Tim Carmody, “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books”, The Atlantic, 25 August 2010,

2. Tim Challies, “Ten Chapters Per Day”,, 18 August 2010,

3. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

4. John Brand, “Preachers Should be Readers”, Encouraging Expository Excellence, 27 July 2010,

Slow down, you read too fast

Patrick Kingsley wrote an interesting article in The Guardian last Thursday on ‘The art of slow reading‘. In it he mentions Tracy Seeley’s students’ idea of disconnecting from the Internet for a day a week as a way to combat the effect it has on reading.  This is not as unrealistic as some people consider. It just requires discipline, something that even moderate Internet use undermines easily. I think it is certainly well worth the benefit, not that I’ve managed a day a week, but a day every week or so.

I’m convinced that the Internet is contributing in large measure to a shorter attention span. I find Nicholas Carr’s experience to mirror my own somewhat. However, I think that spending time reading serious books and articles offline does help stem the tide. Without it I think my reading skills and attention span would be much less than at present.

Offline reading also stimulates reflection and engagement. Writing comments and criticism is much easier in offline mode. Critical engagement with online reading tends to negligible at best, non-existent at worst. Online reading has a tendency to fragmentation , as hyperlinks are all to easily followed on impulse, and there is a greater temptation to skim the followed links. Footnotes seem to stimulate later follow up reading for me, rather than instantly looking them up and reading right away. Perhaps it is the potential for ephemerality on the Internet that makes me thing that if I don’t read something now it might have disappeared by the time I get round to reading it. It destroys the pleasure of delayed gratification.



Nicholas Carr, ‘Experiments in delinkification‘, Rough Type blog, 31 May 2010, with footnote on 4 June 2010.

Launcelot R. Fletcher, The Free Lance Academy (Home of Slow Reading).

Patrick Kingsley, ‘The art of slow reading‘ in The Guardian, 15 July 2010.

Tracy Seeley’s blog, (Where the books are always slow and the comment thread is always open).

More thoughts on reading

John Brand has posted a helpful reminder on the importance of reading, and some strategies for making it more effective. ‘Of making many books…‘ will challenge and encourage. I’m just about to get my reading bag packed for holidays (so this occasional post is not a sign of resurrection on the blog just yet). I reckon it’s my most important piece of packing, though I rarely make it through the pile. I’ll be bearing John’s comments in mind as I get to work on the contents.

His follow up postings, ‘Preachers must be readers‘ and ‘More Quotes on Reading‘, give some encouraging snippets on how important reading is for preachers and serious Bible students.

Who needs chapters and verses?

Chapters & Verses : Who Needs Them? -- at BibleStudyMagazine.comChristopher Smith has a thought-provoking article in Bible Study Magazine (Jug/Aug 2009, Vol. 1, No. 5).

There really are some bizarre chapter divisions, and the online version of the article has an animated review of Colossians that shows the problem well.

There’s also a reference to an IBS project called The Books of the Bible that presents each book without any chapters and verses. There are some free PDF downloads so you can sample the experience. There is also a helpful article by Gordon Fee entitled Why Christians Read Their Bibles Poorly that gives some pointers on how to read Scripture well.

I’m sticking with the perfect technology, too

Yesterday Tim Challies wrote an insightful piece that argues persuasively that books are the perfect technology. I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t succumbed to the temptation of the Kindle, though I’ve considered it, but I’m less and less persuaded by the benefits of electronic media for reading. Almost all of my serious reading is done from dead trees, and I think Challies is right when he says, “Despite being printed on dead trees, there is a living quality to books that is lost on e-readers.”

Apart from the way we interact with a real book versus an electronic one, I have some treasured volumes that could never be replaced by electronic copies. They belonged to real people from my past and my family’s past, many now in glory. They have memories that nothing electronic could ever match.

And I’m also sticking to pen(cil) and paper for my serious writing/thinking. I find that I produce much better writing that way than on the computer, though I usually transfer it later to the computer.

No batteries, no booting, just straight down to business: reading, writing, and thinking. Definitely the perfect technology.