This article is part of a larger series where I look at the theological implications of reading by going through Cornelius Plantinga's Reading for Preaching. Check out part 1, part 2 and part 3.
If you lead, you need wisdom. Not just wisdom on a few things either--you need wisdom on a multitude of topics. But how do you acquire wisdom?
As Christians, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). While fearing God has a bunch of aspects to it, one of the larger ramifications is that it means we invite God into every sphere of our life because He is God. This means that why we read, how we read and what we are to glean from reading should be shaped by God. For Christian leaders, therefore, we read to acquire wisdom for the glory of God.
Chapter four in Cornelius Plantinga's book Reading for Preaching addresses the connection between reading and wisdom. "General literature abound sin incidents, characters, images, and observations that illumine everything under the sun, including most of the topics which the preacher [and I would leader in general] has to become at least a middleweight sage" (pg. 74).
However, if you are like me, sometimes you just enjoy reading because it's...well...fun! The good news, according to Plantinga, is that "the preacher in quest of wisdom is realistic about what a program of general reading will yield. She doesn't need her reading to yield one desperately deep insight after another that, once ingested, make the preacher more profound than everybody in the philosophy department. Of course she would like to draw more from her reading than mere commonplaces, but she doesn't expect her soul to shatter and mend every time she sits to read" (pg. 74). We should be satisfied with small insights that we find.
The wisdom we acquire from reading is a sort of "middle-wisdom." What is that? It is a type of wisdom that is more profound that commonplaces and yet fall short of the proverbs that we hold so dear from century to century. According to Plantinga, this sort of wisdom saves the preacher (and leader) from banality, presumption, vagueness, and dogmatism. The more we read the more our horizons are expanded and the more we learn. We don't deal with abstract spiritual principles--we apply them to real life situations.
Of course, it may be tempting to read the above and think that the Bible plays a lesser role. This would be an unfortunate conclusion. "Christ, the wisdom of God, is the standard, The preacher measures her reading against the standard...the preacher's authority in the pulpit does not derive from the lordship of literature. Nothing in my ordination compels me to declare, 'Thus saith Philip Roth'" (pg. 79). Wisdom derived apart from the Scriptures is part of God's common grace to us--but it does not possess the authority of the Bible.
So does this mean we should only read literature that coheres with biblical truth? Not necessarily. By fearing God, we can actually read literature that is a sort of "anti-wisdom." We can read from atheists, nihilists and the like and learn from them. How? By keeping Christ as the source of our wisdom and anchor point. Sometimes we can learn the most by way of contrast!
Along similar lines, we may find knowledge that we wish we didn't know. However, this too plays a role in the life of a leader. I wish I didn't know some of the stories I do about abuse at the hands of religious people, but now that I know, I cannot turn back. It forces me to speak about it and address those areas of concern. Ignorance may be bliss but it is also highly irresponsible.
All of this points us to same reality: God's lordship rules over our reading.
This week I’ve been going through Cornelius Plantinga’s book Reading for Preaching, with the intent of seeing how reading applies, not just to pastors, but also leaders in general (See part 1 and part 2). In chapter three of the book, Plantinga discusses how reading should shape how we speak.
Leaders typically have to do a lot of communicating. While much of our speaking is impromptu, there are times when we are called to speak formally. It is here that I think Plantinga’s chapter helps us the most. So what should communicators to become more effective and how can they learn it from reading?
1. Practice Good Rhetorical Pitch
Plantinga means by this that we should learn how to use the right words for the right situation—not too formal nor too informal. Quoting Robert Jacks’s work Just Say the Word, communicators should write for the ear and not just the eye. We should practice speaking in a sort of, business casual, style which will captivate most people.
2. Practice Narrative Movement
Here, the author recommends that we read writers whose characters move (pg. 53). What does this mean? “Emotions, actions, character development, external circumstances—all of it moves in lively narrative” (pg. 53-54). So what should we do? We should learn how to become excellent storytellers—the kind that get our audience interested in what we say and keep them guessing.
3. Practice Speaking Less
The best writers are the ones who accomplish the most in the fewest amount of syllables. Plantinga encourages us to practice being economical with our words. I will admit that I struggle with this—not just as a writer but also a speaker. I tend to overexplain things. Not only does this fatigue my audience but it defeats the whole purpose of what I am trying to do: be heard! Read writers who write in economical fashion.
One of my favorite parts of this section are the four commandments Plantinga gives for speakers:
1)“Don’t drive your listeners nuts. If they cannot figure out what they are trying to say, they will get cranky.”
2)“Don’t waste your listeners’ time. Don’t make them wait while you unfold layers of padding.”
3)“Delight your listeners whenever you can. When they are delighted, they want to praise Jesus.”
4)“Follow from God’s command in Leviticus and Jesus’ repetition of it in the gospel, namely, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (pg. 59).
4. Practice Using Evocative Language
Good writers use language that “makes you ponder, makes you wonder, makes you yearn a little” (pg. 59). Reading good writing should improve you as a writer. They will help you learn how to turn a phrase. I can tell you that some of the best speakers I have ever heard were fantastic at making me think in different ways—they captivated me. I recently saw Andrew Peterson in concert and whenever he spoke, I heard from a man who had drank deeply from the well of Tolkien and Lewis. It reverberated not just in his music, but in normal speech. That is what reading evocative writing can do.
While all of this is well and good, Plantinga ends this chapter with an important reminder for all Christian communicators and leaders when he states, “All the powers of language the preacher picks up from listening and reading are means, not ends, and that the preacher is called not just to linguistic craft but to faithful proclamation of reconciling grace in Jesus Christ. The power and glory may happen, but not so much because the preacher wanted them to. They happen because of the mighty and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 63).
In other words, all of our reading, writing and speaking is in service to the Gospel. That is where the heart of leadership lies—not in us and our abilities, but in God.
So tell me, what books have you found that have absolutely captivated you with their prose? Comment below!
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I have been working through the magnificent book Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga (which you can buy by clicking the link). As I said before, though Plantinga's book is designed for pastors, I find it useful for anyone who writes, teaches, has a platform or leads in general.
In chapter two, he encourages pastors to thoughtfully consider how to use illustrations from what they read. However, what Plantinga is actually doing is giving us a crash course on how to think critically and apply wisely what we glean from the books we read. The author warns us to not just read to find illustrations but to read to be "deepened and expanded by my reading" (pg. 22). Everything we read gets us a "little bigger" (pg. 23) and so we should read for personal development. That said, preachers (and I would suggest all leaders) should develop sharp eyes and ears, looking for illustrations in their daily life. Plantinga points out, "If she also reads widely she will multiply the number of eyes and ears out there working for her, spotting remarkable things she can use in her sermons" (pg. 25). So books function as our eyes and ears.
But how should we use books?
1) Be attentive to everything you read.
Plantinga illustrates that reading an ad in the newspaper that reads "WEDDING DRESS--Mori Lee, size 18, runs small, still has tags, never worn, Asking $50" tells a story that can potentially be used as an illustration. We are called to be attentive readers and find illustrations in the least likely places.
2) Look for sources to illuminate a situation, person or idea.
Plantinga, writing for pastors, encourages preachers to look for sources to illuminate biblical situations, persons and ideas but I think the leader is called to try to illustrate ANY situation, person or idea they come across. We must constantly look to make the context where we work come alive to those around us in new ways. Look for sources in poetry, biography and of course, theology.
3) Find Illustrations that Move the Heart
A well-placed illustration speaks to the heart and not just the mind. It moves us in ways we never imagined. This doesn't mean we use illustrations to manipulate our audience. However, we want to use illustrations to encourage our audience to take action.
I should also mention here that Plantinga states that we must be wise in which illustrations we use. Is it appropriate for our audience? What exactly are we attempting to do with our illustration? There is power in words--and so we need to be careful in what we use.
This is just a taste of ways we can use what we read. Reading For Preaching is loaded with awesome advice for readers who are searching for new ways to apply what they are reading to day-to-day experiences. Make sure to check it out!
Tomorrow, I will talk about chapter 3 in Plantinga's book which covers how reading should transform our speaking.
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It should come as no surprise that I advocate the reading of theology and theologians for Christian leaders, whether you are leading a church or a business or running your home. I think we have often neglected looking at Christian theologians as mature thinkers about leadership. Part of the reason for this is because they themselves did not often write about "leadership." You will not find in their writings "8 Ways to Be a Better Leader" nor do they talk about "Creating a winning culture." Nevertheless, I think they offer reflections on these issues that are more mature, Gospel-centered and robust then many leadership books today.
This isn't to say that you cannot learn from modern works of leadership. I personally have benefitted greatly from many (and you can take a look at some of those works here). But I think we do ourselves a disservice when we only focus on those works to the neglect of time-tested works by leaders of yesterday. This is what Theologian of the Boss is all about--connecting you to voices you may have not heard before as a leader. Today I want to offer a few reasons you should consider reading more widely as a reader.
*Note: You should DEFINITELY check out the fantastic book Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Much of what I will be talking about the next few days is drawn from this wonderful book. While he specifically is talking to preachers, I think his advice is good for anyone in a position of leadership--teachers, homemakers, CEOs, bloggers, podcasters...you get the point.*
Buy the book here!
1. Reading Widely Helps You Bridge Contexts
Empathy is such an important tool to possess as a leader. No one wants to be completely disconnected from the experiences of their team. The reality is, however, that you cannot possibly experience everything that an individual on your team experiences. Cornelius Plantinga quotes Adrian Piper saying,
"if you say as a man that you cannot imagine what it would be like for a woman to be raped or that as a white person in a majority white culture you cannot imagine what it's like to be racially taunted, then maybe you are humble and realistic."
He goes on to say,
"On the other hand, maybe your ignorance is due only to a cool lack of interest. Maybe you do not care to read literature, view paintings, listen to requiems, or partake in any other 'literary and artistic products designed precisely to instruct us' about the exigencies of lives other than our own. Ignorance of the literary and fine arts is thus a serious sin of omission."
As a leader you have the responsibility to read so that you can bridge the contexts of those on your team.
2. Reading Widely Helps Draw People In
It is very easy for me to isolate people when I speak in abstract terms about anything. I can wax poetic all day long about virtue and ethics, but unless I provide some concrete examples of how to navigate the complexities of the modern world, my words will often fall on deaf ears. Part of this has to do with how we learn. Simply put, we tend to think in pictures and visual imagery sticks with us longer. Reading widely can help you with that. For instance, reading poetry can enlarge your vocabulary or give you different word pictures to draw upon. Reading biography allows you to use others as moral examples or illustrations that highlight a particular virtue (or vice). Some of the best theologians were experts in using illustrations to highlight their points. One of my favorite theologians who had the propensity of taking dense theology and making it come alive with great illustrations was the puritan Thomas Watson. He is a great example of someone who read widely and used his illustrations to draw people in.
3. Reading Widely Helps Stoke the Parts of Your Heart Gone Cold
The more you read in just one area, the more you adopt the thoughts and observations of that particular field. For instance, if you are used to reading leadership books written from the past two years, you will pick up the ways of talking, thinking and analyzing reality from the past two years. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think that developing as a writer, speaker or thinker requires us to try on the shoes of those we respect and practice sounding like them. In other words, imitating truly great writers helps us grow as leaders.
However, by reading in just one field we allow other parts of our heart grow colder. If we read analytical leadership books, we can lose sight of the poetic nature of leading itself. If we are constantly immersing ourselves in books on entrepreneurship, we may see our ability to imagine begin to wane. We can combat this by reading widely in poetry, literature and excellent essays. You may be surprised to see that you view and approach problems differently as a result.
And if you are interested in getting book recommendations don't forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter. As someone destined to be a bibliophile, I try to read as widely as possible and hope to pass on to you some of the great books I've discovered. You can sign up here.
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In the past I have preached to youth on 1 Timothy and the call to full-time ministry. As I have been doing some study, I stumbled across some background information on 1 Timothy I didn't know before. It would seem that Paul was encouraging Timothy to guard against those who had an over-realized eschatology (that is just a big phrase meaning that they saw that the end of time was already taking place at that moment).
For instance, Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:18, "They have left the path of truth, claiming that the resurrection of the dead has already occurred; in this way they have turned some people away from the faith." It would seem that this thinking impacted their actions in God's world. Scholar Greg A. Couser states, "A central effect of this shift resulted in illegitimately putting God's saving work over against his present purposes in creation (cf. 1 Tim. 2:13-15; 4:3-5; 5: 3,14)." (From the book Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul's Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, p.108).
Stop and think about that for a moment--these people were focusing on what was going to happen and were neglecting what was happening at that moment. Worse still, it had the appearance of godliness because it was focused on salvation. Yet it ignored completely what God was doing in the community and in the church. God did not say, "Ignore everyone because my coming is soon." Rather, he says "Take care of the orphans and the widows. Make sure you keep procreating. Make sure you keep living holy and Godly lives."
The church forgot God's immediate desire because they were looking too much at God's future desire.
We do that too, don't we?
I am so guilty of looking ahead to my future. Where will I go to school again? Am I going to earn a Ph.D? What is the next book I am going to read? What is the next event I am going to plan? What if we end up with tons of people end up coming? Where will I end up living? What do the next ten years hold? What does the future of my business hold?
These aren't bad things to imagine. In fact, vision requires that we think ahead.
The danger is when we allow the future to impact our present. I have caught myself turning down good things now, because I expected something better in the future.
When that happens, we have begun to over-dream.
...and we become guilty of something very similar to the church Timothy served at.
So what to do?
First, we must be humble. We must realize that everything about our future is contingent on God's ultimate plan. James 4:13-17 reminds us of this. Our plans are subservient to God's plan. We are to be humble.
Second, we are to be aware. God is constantly doing things around us. He is on the move. Our calling is partner with God wherever he is working
Third, we are to live expectantly. We must be careful not to fall into the other side of the trap which pushes all future plans and eschatological hopes as irrelevant. We are called to live expectantly, waiting for Christ's return. We are to labor hard. The same goes with our dreams. We are to live expectantly, trusting that our future is held securely by God. This gives us freedom to serve now with total devotion.
I think most people have good intentions to read. Most people will say that they want to be well read. So the question is, why don't people read more? How do I carve out time in my busy schedule to read? I'll give you a few ideas.
1. Prioritize your reading time
Listen, we all have responsibilities that suck up time. The problem is that if you take a passive approach to scheduling your day, SOMEONE OR SOMETHING will schedule your day for you. You have to prioritize reading. Every day I set in my mind a certain amount of pages I want to read a day. I typically try to aim for about 50-75 pages of reading a day. For me, one of the most important things I can do is study. It is where I find some of the most fulfillment. Set in your mind that reading is an important element of your personal growth and you will make time to read.
2. Say no to unattended vampires
No, I don't mean that you should avoid Twilight (though you should probably do that too). "Vampires" are things that suck your time. Facebook? Vampire. Instagram? Vampire. Television shows? Vampires. Twitter? Vampire. This doesn't mean you can never spend time on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. But "unattended vampires" are when you get on these social media sites without a clear-cut purpose. With no clear purpose, you can lose twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Before you know it, you can lose an hour or more a day. Consider that if you read at an average speed of 2 minutes per page, you are missing out on reading about 30 pages a day. The average book length is 240 pages. That means that if you spent an hour a day reading instead of hanging out with "unattended vampires" you can read 45 books a year. That is a lot of quality reading you are missing out on while watching those cute kitten videos (although, let's be honest...they have their place).
3. Steal Every Moment
Ever find time in your day where you are doing nothing for five or ten minutes? Bring a book and read during that time. If you have a commute, listen to audiobooks. People often laugh at me because I bring a book with me wherever I go. But I cannot tell you how many times I have been out with my wife and she has done a spur of the moment run to Hobby Lobby. You know what I call that? Reading time. I am able to steal a bunch of moments that way and that leads to more books read.
How about you? What tips do you have for finding time to read?
I am an avid reader. When I say avid, I mean that I typically polish off between 100-130 non-fiction titles per year. Now I mainly read in four areas: theology, psychology, business and some fiction. It is my personal conviction that you a leader will become his or her best when they read.
I would like to lay out a few of my own strategies for maximizing the benefits of reading.
1. Always Read with a Writing Utensil in Hand
There are a few reasons I recommend this. First, you should always underline or mark anything that stands out to you. This will help your recall and it will also keep you focused on main ideas that the author is communicating. If you are someone who doesn't like to mark in books, get over it and mark in your book. Seriously. Go do it. You'll feel better and you'll get over your freakout.
Second, it is helpful to read with a pen or pencil in hand because it will serve as your pointer when reading. Your pencil or pen should be hovering over your page and moving along as you cover each word. The perks of doing this are great. You'll read faster since your eyes are focused on one point, you'll retain more information since your eyes are locked on to the words in front of it and you'll read longer since this method prevents eye fatigue.
2. Read with a Index Card Near You
I'll go more in depth on how I use my notecards later. For now, I would just recommend that you writing down or paraphrase anything you learn from the book you read. Just marking your book will not be enough for you to retain information. If you really want to make deep connections between what you are reading and your life, you should write down what you learn (either the quote or a paraphrase of the quote is fine). Make sure that you put the name of the book on the top of the index so you know where you learned the idea from.
3. Study the Table of Contents and Read the Intro and the Conclusion First
I believe one of the reasons people lose interest in non-fiction works is that they cannot see where the argument is headed. That is a legitimate problem that is often intensified by bad writing. However, some of the problem lies in the fact that it requires mental energy to see where an argument is going. In order to help you envision the author's flow of thought, you should do three things before you start any book: 1) Study the table of contents (since this will give you the full scope of where the author is headed) and 2) Read the introduction and conclusion of the book. The author often will talk about his big ideas in the first few pages of his book and then reiterate how he came to those concepts in the conclusion. If you read both the intro and conclusion you will have a firm grasp as to where the author is going and where he wants you to end up conceptually.
If you do these things I think you will notice a change in how you approach non-fiction and what you will retain when you read it.
Also, don't forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter where I will send you out a list of what you should read next. This annotated list will cover a broad range of topics. So whether you are a leader or just a passionate reader, you won't want to miss it.
Daniel Pandolph is co-founder of Ministry Assistant Services and founder of Theologian of the Boss. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from North Greenville University and an MA in Religion from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.