But there are many ways to read, and countless books to peruse. Just walk through the “Christian” or “Spirituality” section of the bookstore and you’ll find a wall of wisdom (or a pile of rubbish… we’ll try to sort this out momentarily). So allow me to introduce what I consider to be the best way to read. Then, please permit an explanation of why this type of reading is necessary.
Levels of Reading
In the classic work, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren identify and explain different levels of reading. Let’s walk through three of these levels together.
Recognition: The first stage of reading is reading for recognition. The main concern at this phase is simply recognising what was previously unrecognised. A child, for example, may for the first time be able to recognise that the collection of black scribbles on the page actually says something—“The cat sat on the hat.” Of course, the child is not the least bit concerned with whether cats really do sit on hats, and, if so, what this tells us about the posterior preferences of the feline world. No, the child is only concerned with recognising the language. So, the basic question asked at this first stage of reading is, “What does this sentence say?”
Surface Inspection: The aim of the second level of reading, surface inspection, is to get the most out of a book in a short period of time. The main concern here is getting the lay of the land. When reading at this level, one examines the surface of the book and learns everything that the surface alone can teach. This is rapid reading, but it is also purposeful reading; the reader comes away with the big picture of the book. The basic question asked at this level of reading is, “What is this book about?”
Comprehension and Critique: Reading for comprehension and critique is the best reading a person can do. If level two, surface reading, is the tasting of a book, then level three is chewing on and digesting a book. The content of the work is rightly understood and the book is fairly evaluated. The order here is important; one can never truly say, “I agree,” or, “I disagree,” until one can first say, “I understand.” Once the reader comprehends the author’s argument, then the reader engages the author critically. The author may be right on target. In this case, there is much for the reader to learn. Then again, the author may be uninformed, misinformed, incomplete, or inaccurate. If so, it is the reader’s responsibility to distinguish truth from error—the reader must discern. The basic question asked at this most important stage of reading is two-fold: “What does the author mean and is he or she right?”
Wolves and Writing
At this point, it is necessary for me to say a word about the need for discernment in reading, especially when it comes to “Christian” literature. Jesus warned his followers about wolves in sheep’s clothing. If there’s one thing Kiwis know about, it’s sheep! The fluffy, four-legged creatures outnumber people some ten-to-one in New Zealand. Anyone who has spent time around sheep knows that these are not exactly ferocious animals. They’re cute and cuddly; what could they possible do to harm you? And there’s the rub. When you’re around sheep, you don’t feel the need to keep your guard up. And when your guard is down your mind is easily deceived.
As we walk through the pasture of “Christian” bookstores, we need to be mindful of Jesus’ warning about wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we need to remember that wolves can write. I’m not suggesting that Christians should be sceptics, nor am I calling for believers to scowl upon entering the “Spirituality” section of the bookstore. But we do need to make every author earn our trust. We must read carefully and critically, comparing every writer’s words to the teaching of Holy Scripture. Only then will we know if we have a wolf in our midst.
So, be a discerning reader. Don’t affirm every book that falls in your lap. Test the texts before you. And when you find the good books, the ones that point us to our great God, study these works well. Allow them to mould your mind and chisel your character for years to come.
Dillon T. Thornton is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School (M.Div.) and a student at the University of Otago (Ph.D. candidate). He is an ordained pastor/teacher within the Southern Baptist tradition, with over ten years of diverse ministry experience. He has published a number of articles in pastoral periodicals, including Preaching magazine. Dillon is currently serving and studying in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Dillon Thornton's previous articles may be found at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dillon-thornton.html