How to Read More in 2021
One of my observations of Christian ministry over the past 12 years is that most Christians know the "What's" of the Christian life. What they are missing, it seems to me, are the "Why's" and the "How's".
For instance, most Christians know, "I should read my Bible and pray." But do they know the "Why?" Do they understand their union with Christ, or have a grasp of the authority/power of God's word? Also, do they know the "How?" When they pick up their Bibles, has anyone taught them what to do next?
In my experience, we church leaders are great at leaving Christians in the "hazy what" of the Christian life, but often fail to "equip the saints for the work of the ministry" by giving them the "Why's" and "How's."
The Interwebz is not a great place for "Why's". Writing here is skimmed and prone to be misunderstood. However, it is a wonderful place for the "How's." I'm often surprised by how quickly my students will respond when they are simply told how to do something. I've wasted a lot of time getting frustrated with students who simply needed me to be a more effective teacher.
That said, I've decided to publish, this year, 52 weekly bits on the "How's" of the Christian life. They are little snippets I've collected over the years from books, articles, podcasts, and conversations with students. I'm a bit wired to break things down into steps/categories, and I've found these little break-downs have borne a lot of fruit in ministry over the past decade.
Also, I'm very open to any "How do I..." questions you may have. I am not quick to answer these questions, but I do have a knack for research. In fact, my first installment is based on a question a friend asked me last week: "How do I read more in 2021?" Here is my answer:
On reading, here I think is the most helpful article on it I've read, by Eugene Peterson: How I recovered my passion for God. Here are some practical things that stand out to me:
1. Know your why.
"My crisis had come when I realized that I was living in a place where God and passion were only marginal, and I sensed subtle but insistent pressures to displace them in myself. But if God and passion became marginal, I would not be myself; I would not be a pastor, a vocational identity that had been formed by God and passion."
So, he says, he searched for spiritual mentorship:
"I was in crisis and went looking for a priest, a pastor, a guide—someone who could help me work out my calling in a most uncongenial setting. I felt beleaguered. I needed help. I made several attempts at finding a mentor among the living, without success. Then I found Fyodor Dostoevsky."
So, I think the first question to ask, if you want sustained motivation, is: "Why do I read?" Answer that, and most other things take care of themselves. Write it down, if you need to, maybe on a bookmark. For me, it's something like what C.S. Lewis describes when he talks of letting the "clean sea breezes of history" waft over him. There is something very attractive to me about writers and preachers who are filled with the clean sea-breezes of time. They inspire me, and I think it tells me something about my own calling as I write and preach.
2. Create a Canon.
By "canon", I mean create a core list of things that you must read this year/month/week and let all other reading fall around it. You can use my e-book for guidance as a starting point, or whatever. The other side benefit of knowing your "why" is that it helps you in selection. I doubt your "why" is "To accumulate all the knowledge possible,", which would leave your reading indiscriminatory. Maybe it's something like what I described, and if so, who might that lead you to read? And what? I think a good question is like the question Eugene asks: "Who do I want to be my spiritual mentor?" That can be the centerpiece of your reading. Then you can extend out from there.
I find creating a reading list is important because I can all too easily overestimate how much reading I'm able to do. "Oh, I'll read online articles for an hour, then get to Herman Melville" hardly ever works. Last year, my canon included only minorities and dead people. All other reading had to work its way around them.
One of the greatest enemies of good reading is bad reading.
3. Know your limits.
"I took my appointments calendar and wrote in two-hour meetings with "FD" three afternoons a week. Over the next seven months, from three to five o'clock on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I met with FD in my study and had leisurely conversations through Crime and Punishment, Letters from the Underworld, The Idiot, A Raw Youth, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov. All winter long, through the spring, and a month or two into the summer, I spent those afternoons with a man for whom God and passion were integral-and integrated."
Probably for most of us, our eyes boggle at the idea of reading in two-hour slots. For a guy like Eugene, that was probably a cap, rather than a minimum. I'm wired a bit like him, so I can read in 2-hour slots, but I have to cut it off, there, or I won't get anything else done. Most people might only be able to do 30 minutes to an hour. I wouldn't recommend less than 30 minutes, you need at least that to get into a reading "flow". It's why I can't relate to the people who always have a book on hand for their 15-minutes before the Doctor. That would only leave me dissatisfied with my reading and also my Doctor.
So, how much are you able to read in a single session? If you struggle to read, you probably need a minimum time AND a cap. If you're like me, and reading is a form of procrastination from doing my expenses, I need to set a maximum. Setting a maximum is also beneficial if you're intimidated by reading, because you know when your session will be over. Don't go past it, or you won't be motivated the next day.
4. Make a Schedule.
Finally, you need to put it in your schedule. That stands out to me, in Peterson's article. I believe he says elsewhere that, if someone requested a time during these slots, he would say, "I already have an appointment scheduled at that time. Could we do another time?" We will have to say no to some urgent things to do some important things. If important reading is not on the schedule, sloppy and surface level skimming will replace it.
Part of what you'll learn about yourself, here, is that there are optimal times for your own reading. For me, I can't read in the morning or I'll never get anything done. I can't read at night, because I read at about 50% capacity. So I do it just after a short, 20-minute catnap in the afternoon. I can go for two solid hours at full speed. I can't do 2-hours every day, but I can do a few days a week.
5. Be Creative.
Eugene doesn't mention this, but there are so many ways to read these days. I think audiobooks are one of the greatest blessings of modern technology. It's restored the practice of being-read-to out loud. I've discovered that I really prefer listening to fiction over reading it, so I listen to all my fiction books on audio when I'm at the gym. This has the side benefit of motivating me to get to the gym! All told, it amounts to about 5 hours of listening each week, so about 1/3 of my reading, which is where I'd like it. You can use "Overdrive" or "Libby" for loads of free content from your library. You can get really riveting stuff from Audible, too, and they've recently put up a lot of free classics to take advantage of. I also listen to fiction while I drive.
I don't really read on the weekends, it feels too much like work. But I might listen to a couple hours of podcasts while I'm doing housework. It's another creative way to get great content, for free.
So, to break it down, answer:
1. Why do I read? Make a bookmark.
2. What will I read? Make a "canon".
3. How long will I read? Set a minimum AND a limit.
4. When will I read? Put it on the schedule.
5. What are my listening slots? Driving? Working out? Falling Asleep? Housework?
That's the best I know how to answer the question.