Better than Ben Franklin’s list of virtues, which I featured in this post, are the questions that George Whitefield would use to examine his spiritual life at the end of every day. Whitefield (1714-1770) was an English Anglican preacher whose eloquent, passionate sermons were an icon of the British and American Great Awakening, making him, according to some historians, the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century. He and Ben Franklin actually got along quite well – both intelligent and gregarious – and Franklin, a skeptic, famously confirmed that, even in those days before loudspeakers or microphones, Whitefield’s preaching could be heard by as many as 30,000 people at one time.
But, the excerpt below is not so much about Whitefield the preacher, but rather about Whitefield the Christian. His deep spirituality and intentionality of purpose evident in these questions are an example for us all. This is quoted in Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (1991):
1. Been fervent in prayer?
2. Used stated hours of prayer?
3. Used ejaculatory prayer each hour?
4. After or before every deliberate conversation or action, considered how it might tend to God’s glory?
5. After any pleasure, immediately given thanks?
6. Planned business for the day?
7. Been simple and recollected in everything?
8. Been zealous in undertaking and active in doing what good I could?
9. Been meek, cheerful, affable in everything I said or did?
10. Been proud, vain, unchaste, or enviable of others?
11. Recollected in eating and drinking? Thankful? Temperate in sleep?
12. Taken time for giving thanks according to (William) Law’s rules?
13. Been diligent in studies?
14. Thought or spoken unkindly of anyone?
15. Confessed all sins?
Prayer is essential for the Christian. It’s the mark of a meaningful relationship with God, and a daily, even constant, necessity: it’s as vital for the soul as food and water are for the body. It’s also a wonderful privilege, for it means that you can talk to the Creator of the universe at any time and with complete honesty; you don’t have to pretend with God – you can come to him just as you are!
Concerning the time of prayer, Scripture and the testimony of countless saints in the history of the Church commend the early morning as an appropriate time for extended prayer. The Gospels show Christ rising early, “while it was still dark,” to pray to God the Father, giving us not only a clear example but impressing on us our great need for prayer, since even Jesus, the perfect man, felt the need to pray. This prayer was also key to the power and peace which followed Christ through all his activity, showing how one may be very busy while remaining peaceful and focused at heart. I believe this is what the great German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at in his book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Augsburg, 1970):
“The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer…the morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversations with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.
“Order and distribution of our time become more firm where they originate in prayer. Temptations which accompany the working day will be conquered on the basis of the morning breakthrough to God. Decisions, demanded by work, become easier and simpler where they are made not in the fear of men but only in the sight of God” (64-65).
Plan to read a lot this year? Yes? That’s awesome! As we enter 2014, here are 14 tips* for better reading so you can get the most out of your books.
Happy new year and happy reading!
* NOTE: Almost every tip here is borrowed or taken directly from Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011) by Tony Reinke, an exemplary bibliophile who also writes a great blog about books. I thank him for writing such an excellent and helpful book, and for inspiring me both as a reader and a blogger. I also am indebted to Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (Simon & Schuster, 1940), an invaluable classic beloved by generations of readers.
1. Read good books.
Not all books are created equal. Today we’re blessed with many good books, and unprecedented access to them, but there’s no substitute for spending time with those books that have stood the test of time and shaped our world. The effort they require is more than surpassed by the reward, like digging for gold – difficult but profitable. If you’re not sure where to begin, a good place to begin is Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books,” which covers the foundational texts of Western world.
To get the most out of your reading, establish priorities to guide your reading diet. A good way to set priorities is to base them on your roles in life, such as husband/wife, father/mother, student, professional, friend, and so on. For me, these include: Christian, husband, son, brother, and friend.
For example, here are Tony Reinke’s priorities, in order of importance:
- Reading Scripture
- Reading to know and delight in Christ
- Reading to kindle spiritual reflection
- Reading to initiate personal change
- Reading to pursue vocational excellence
- Reading to enjoy a good story
3. Read every day.
To read more, you must read consistently. 15 minutes every day is perfectly doable if you’re serious about reading.
4. Read everywhere.
To read more, find time everywhere and anywhere to read. These small chunks add up faster than you’d think. For example, Tony Reinke says he reads over his morning scrambled eggs, lunchtime tuna salad, at the DMV, and to his kids before bed.
5. “Install a transmission.”
This analogy by Tony Reinke perfectly captures the right approach to reading speed, correcting the mistaken approach of trying to speed read everything. Basically, your reading speed should be determined by the terrain: some books, and even some parts of books, require you to slow down, whereas with others you can go faster and even “cruise.”
6. Use a pen, highlight, circle, and make notes on the margins.
Tony Reinke calls this the art of “marginalia,” which is to deface a book’s margins with your thoughts, questions, and protestations. These show that you’re engaging with the material and the author, not simply passively absorbing words on a page. Also, know that you can do this with an electronic reader, so for all the Kindle lovers out there, this goes for you too!
6. Keep a dictionary handy.
Want to grow in your vocabulary and improve your ability to understand more difficult reading? Keep a dictionary handy to look up words you don’t know. I myself have often tried this but not kept up, but it’s a worthwhile habit that pays off in the long run, and not just because you can drop big words at cocktail parties like Snoop Dogg drops it like it’s hot. Again, electronic readers have a dictionary as a built-in function, so use it!
7. Summarize, make outlines, or paraphrase chapters.
This is another useful tool of active reading. I confess that I don’t yet do this, but it’s a valuable and worthwhile effort by the reader, if he wants to better understand and retain what he reads, to briefly summarize or recap what he’s read, both at the end of chapters and at the end of a book.
8. Dog-ear pages containing “Wow” passages.
One of my most useful habits is to dog-ear pages that contain a striking passage to which I may want to return later, making it easier to find these. This, moreover, helps set apart the “Wow!” passages from everything else you underlined, circled and highlighted. Some people view dog-earing pages as a barbaric act unbecoming of those who respect books, but I think this is baloney; I value books not for their neat packaging and pristine look, but for the content of their pages. Don’t be afraid to really own your books.
9. Read 3 books at a time.
Tony Reinke explains that he reads three books at a time because different times of the day are suited for different types of books. For example, most of us won’t dive into a breezy, light novel at the beginning of our day, just like we won’t try to read a more demanding book about, say, theology or philosophy, just before bed.
10. Read together.
Tony Reinke devotes a chapter to this, arguing that reading and discussing books with others not only helps to retain what is read, but it’s a great way to build community. Read with a friend, with your significant other, or with your family, and join or start a book club. Spread the book love!
11. Stop and think, don’t just react.
We’re quick to react and share what we read on Facebook and Twitter (I’m the chief of culprits). This is great, but too often we don’t first stop, and think, about the meaningful, striking or perplexing passage we just read. As Tony Reinke writes, “I am quick to Tweet and slow to think. I am quick to Google and slow to ponder.”
12. Read critically.
First seek to understand the author’s message, and once you understand it, evaluate the strength of the author’s main argument(s) and the ways she supports it. And always, always, always ask the most important question you can ask of anything you read: is it true? Does it accord with what is real, true and good?
13. Teach what you read.
Teaching, or sharing, what you read is a fun and great way to better your own understanding. Knowledge is to be shared, for the good of others and yourself.
14. Read the Bible (and throw in some Shakespeare).
For life, wisdom, joy, and faith, read this book above all. Even if you’re not religious, the Bible is not only beautifully written, but it will enrich your reading in general because Western literature is filled with biblical allusions and references. As some have said, the Bible and Shakespeare (who knew his Bible well) are two foundational sources of Western literature.