I often speak to students about the moral nature of our intellectual lives—there are right and wrong ways to learn and there are limits to what God wants us to know. Listen to the psalmist who did not concern himself with things, “too great and wonderful” for him (Psalm 131:1). Now contrast that to Job who spoke in haste of things “too wonderful” for him (Job 42:3), only to lay his hand on his mouth. Knowing is a venture fraught with ethical and spiritual risks.
Many students have since approached me with questions about how to read well. After all, if there is a limit to what we can and should know, there must be corresponding limits to how and what any of us should read. That has led me to create this list of personal reading rules that I try to live by. Like the Ten Commandments in the Law of Moses, I’ve made my list with two “tables”—the “whats” and the “hows” of reading.
What to read:
- Read little. This was once hyperbole but in the day of the Internet it should probably be taken literally. We only have so much time and capacity for learning and understanding new ideas. So a crucial decision in all reading is to say ‘no’ to a lot of ‘interesting’ things in favor of ‘necessary’ things. If you develop good habits here, you’re way ahead of most people. Don’t fret for one minute the ambitious list of books you intended to read last year. Instead, ask yourself: Did I read one or two good things?
- Be humble and stay focused. Related to the rule above, I try not to worry if I’ve never heard of a book or author. Making this a habit has helped me avoid the pressure to rush out and buy a book, or click on a link to an article I probably won’t finish. Stick to your calling and close those open reading tabs.
- Read with specific goals. My reading includes specific things for depth, for breadth, and for leisure and refreshment. I spend most of my time on the first, then the second, then the third.
- Listen to wise counselors. I get a lot of recommendations, and so I have to use a refined filter to choose what to read. I try to focus my reading on established writers and only those books recommended to me by a very few trusted friends. I also read more old stuff than new stuff. I’ve nearly abandoned Christian bestsellers, hot new books, blogs, the popular news media, anything that took less than a month to write, and most of what comes through connections on social media (of which I read very little).
How to read:
- Read critically and carefully. When I’m reading for breadth and depth, I choose the time of day carefully and limit distractions as far as possible. No music, phones, or computers nearby. Then I pray and read with pencil and colored sticky flags nearby. When I restart these books I often go back over the flagged pages to remind myself of things I want to take away from the reading over the long haul. Most people can only focus like this for about 30 minutes at a time, and maybe 2-3 hours on a good day!
- Read in conversation with the author. This is a human thing after all. I try to read as if I’m in a conversation with the author: Is this true? Show me. What do you mean? Can you give me an example? Well said. And, Do I understand you correctly here? Give the author the benefit of the doubt. The best reading happens when you’re on a search for something with the sense of someone looking over your shoulder. This keeps your mind on the page and out of the many distractions in life. If I find myself drifting too much, I put down the text until the energy returns. You cannot read well when you are tired!
- Remember the right things. I use journals and a couple of software tools to record important thoughts in a retrievable place. The journal is for my own wrestling with an idea before it goes into writing or teaching, and it’s probably more important than saving the information electronically. Be very selective in what you choose to remember; we’re easily prone to have eyes bigger than our stomachs.
- “Re”read. I reread many books and articles. I saw recently that we remember less than 10% of what we read over a lifetime. I remembered that because I reread the study. To help my memory I use flags and notes to maximize what I take away, but I also go back to important pieces, sometimes often. I’m rereading one author now for at least the fourth time in twenty years and finding all new insights I’d simply missed in earlier readings. That’s true for anyone I reread. In the first reading of a difficult book, I look for a few things and questions to follow up on in the future.
- Pace yourself. Try not to read over your head or take it all in now. Learning goes in developmental stages and you have to build up patiently. This is an area of recent personal growth. I worry less about what I know today than where I want to be in 20-25 years. “Genius is long patience,” as the Dominican scholar Antonin Sertillanges once wrote. Or as Eugene Peterson often quotes Nietzsche, “The important thing is a long obedience in the same direction.” Read with patience and endurance rather than fear and urgency.
- Read in community. Scripture everywhere portrays us as socially connected. We depend on one another as a body and, so far as possible, we ought to learn together. Find like-minded people and draw on their wisdom. Read alone and slowly first, of course, but then always discuss.
The “two greatest commandments” that Jesus quotes in the gospels are not among the Ten Commandments written on stone (though they were among the commandments given to Moses). It seems fitting to add a summary commandment that covers these ten. I draw this command from the long tradition of Christian medieval scholars:
Read under the bond of love. That is, read and study with love for God, love of neighbor, and love of wisdom.
 My thanks to Zachary Lee for sparking the idea of “Ten Commandments for reading.”
What are proverbs? Simply put, they are creative sayings that pass along time-tested advice – “the wisdom of many in the wit of one,” it’s been said.
The “wisdom” part usually goes without saying, but most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about the equal significance of the “wit.” Consider that few of us know this saying from Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography: “The only hope of perfecting human relationship is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give.” But we all recognize the same idea in the terse words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for your, but what you can do for your country.” (Leaving aside, for the moment, where Kennedy got his poetic inspiration.)
Proverbs, as another scholar has observed, are the “workhorses” of language. Some have a long history like, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” “power corrupts,” “and “seeing is believing.”
But there was a time when “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” wouldn’t have made any sense, because glass houses didn’t exist, and this alerts us to the fact that proverbs emerge every day, often from older sayings. The British proverb from World War Two, “Keep calm and carry on,” has recently reappeared in everything from “keep calm and eat a cupcake,” to “keep calm and finish your dissertation.” In recent years one can also “Just do it,” and “Obey your thirst.” Time will only tell whether “Tweet it” or “Friend me” will work their way into proverbial sayings as well.
Here it’s worth pointing out that proverbs are always reflections of the worldview and values of the culture where they are born. And for this reason, proverbs aren’t always sources of wisdom! Consider, for example, what it says about our age that so many proverbs emerge from the capital marketplace, where marketing masters of wit, turn out a steady stream of catchy sayings designed reinforce the beliefs, values, and behaviors that will further their economic interests.
In the introduction to the biblical book of Proverbs, we read that wisdom is “for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise” (Prov 1:6). A major part of the wisdom curriculum, in other words, aims to help us be more attentive to the subtle powers of language. Obviously some proverbs can be so simple that they require little analysis, such as “Walk with the wise and become wise.” But others prompt deeper reflection: “The mouth of an adulterous woman is a deep pit;” “The leech has two daughters, ‘give’ and ‘give.’”
The worldview embraced by the authors of Proverbs valued this exercise of using language to reflect on the complexities of life in the world. Proverbs chapter 30, for example, calls on readers to ponder several perplexing lists of difficult sayings: “There are three things that are too wonderful for me, four that I do not understand…” and “Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up….” Proverbs 30, much like the sayings in Ecclesiastes, usher readers into the discipline of wise wonder – of knowing our intellectual limits and how to live in light of them.
Of course it is the artfulness of these sayings that makes them so captivating, and this was, no doubt, part of the reason why many ancient cultures considered proverbs learning a right of passage into adulthood. I remember my son once creating an email signature using a familiar proverb that, clever as it may have been, seemed to celebrate power and violence in an insensitive way. When I shared my reservations with my son, he quickly changed his signature to “Listen my son to your father’s instruction, do not forsake your mother’s discipline.” This made me laugh of course: not only did he learn the basic lesson about violence and power, but he also learned the equally important lesson about the power of wit.
It’s often been said that humans are talking animals. Indeed God’s gift of language allows us to become philosophers and scientists just as it does historians and poets. God inspired the poetry in the Bible, C.S. Lewis once wrote, to incarnate a reality that would otherwise have remained hidden. So as a student of Proverbs learns wisdom, she learns to listen, read, and speak with an appreciation for the power of words given to us by him, who, in the beginning, spoke all things into being.
I am now accustomed to the look of disappointed faces when tell people that I study the Old Testament for a living. New Testament always trumps Old.
But I’ve started to ask people why they think it is that Psalms and Proverbs – two Old Testament books of poetry – are so often included with New Testament versions of the Bible. Why not Genesis, Samuel, or Isaiah? (Why anything at all?)
We are no doubt drawn to proverbs because they provide good advice; but songs, stories, and letters do that as well. Proverbs’ appeal is also in the endless metaphors it strings to together in trite, catchy language. Might it be, G.K. Chesterton mused, that we are by nature more poets than philosophers? I plan to expand on the poetry of proverbs in a later blog.
For now I want to suggest that Proverbs is far more than just a long list of helpful sentences, that its sophisticated structure, its strategically repeated sayings, and what scholars call a system of “root metaphors,” comprised of women, ways, and houses, together allow Proverbs to communicate a worldview, or a set of values and a kind of philosophy for the common folk. Careful readers of Proverbs, in other words, learn to think systematically and conceptually about what it means to be human in a fallen world.
Here are a few examples to demonstrate the point.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction”
First, take this well-recognized “motto” of wisdom that begins and ends the book (1:7; 31:30). It also appears twelve more times in various forms in between. Such structuring and repetition reinforce that the doorway to wisdom begins with faith in God who made the universe. But it is also this same Lord gives wisdom and is known through wisdom (2:4-5). Wisdom and knowledge of God go hand in hand such that our wisdom will always be in proportion to the maturity of our faith in God.
“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart” (3:1).
Second, the location of wisdom in Proverbs is the heart and not the head. And the primary receptacle of wisdom is the ear not the eye. Be assured that the biblical writers did not believe they had neurons in their chest or that eyesight was automatically suspect. Rather, as in many pre-scientific cultures, Israelites believed that all human activity emanated out of an emotional and existential center and that wisdom was transmitted through the tradition of the elders. This stands in contrast to the modern image of humans as neutral, computer-like residuals of ideas or individual learners in ivory towers.
Elsewhere in Proverbs we are told to write wisdom’s teachings on various parts of our body and adorn them on our necks and hands like jewelry (1:9; 3:3; 6:21). We’re told to love wisdom like a sister, grasp her, and search for her as for gold. These types of images suggest that wisdom involves an ongoing discipline of orienting the whole of our being – desires, thoughts, behaviors, actions, and emotions – to the ornate architecture and order of the created world.
“Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse… Wisdom also will save you from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words” (Prov 2:12, 16).
Finally, proverbial wisdom is an antidote to evil and death and our key to human flourishing. Throughout Proverbs, the two temptations of deceitful, violent men and sexy, immoral women represent the two main forces that threaten to divert us from our goal. Even a brief study of human history reveals how violence, power, and pleasure lead to the downfall of people and cultures.
In order to counter these destructive paths Proverbs does not call us to the monasteries of sensual neglect or cultural retreat. Rather, it offers its own vision of wise ways, prosperous homes, and alluring women (9:1-12 and 31:10-31). Proverbs also portrays itself pointing the way to the Tree of Life (3:18) and to pleasurable life in a renewed Garden of Eden (8:22-31). Put another way, wisdom is a kind of learning that resists the desires of evil by nurturing a desire for the renewal of a fallen creation.
I see it as no coincidence that John’s Revelation applies these same images of cosmic battling women, diverging paths, the Tree of Life, and a renewed creation to inspiring his readers to faith and obedience amidst temptation. In Proverbs, as in Revelation, everything is at stake for the reader, which is more than sufficient reason to set our lives to “get wisdom and get understanding” and to call her “my sister…my closest friend” (4:5; 7:4).