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Book Review – Reading Theologically (Eric D. Barreto, ed.)

Eric D. Barreto, ed. Reading Theologically (Foundations for Learning). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014. 145 pp. $14.00.

reading theologicallyIf you follow my blog, chances are you like to read. Or you’d like to like to read. I read a decent amount, and in the back of my mind there are always thoughts about the practice of reading. Most of these can be classified into two categories: thoughts related to how I can read more, read faster, retain more, synthesize better, etc; and thoughts about holistic integration – whether my reading is causing me to love God and people more or just causing me to become prideful and ingrown, how I can facilitate the overflow of my reading into my life in ministry and service, etc.

I was delighted to find that Reading Theologically actually tackles both these spheres, even though I was only expecting the former (practicals of reading better). Though specifically written for seminarians and those intending to pursue seminary, this book is helpful for all Christians in regards to reading theologically. A compilation of eight chapters by eight seminary instructors from diverse backgrounds, this is a short and readable book that addresses both skills and habits vital to reading theologically as well as impact on and integration with spiritual formation and ministry.

The holistic emphasis can be seen right off the bat in chapter 1, “Reading Basically,” which addresses reading as embodied practice, communal practice, spiritual practice, and transformative practice. These challenge the tendency for seminarians (as well as lay bookworms/intellectuals) to neglect their bodies, communities, devotional lives, and transformation. Chapter 2, “Reading Meaningfully,” offers tools and strategies for reading meaningfully across the various kinds of books required in seminary. This chapter provides an introductory guide to the process of interpretation and reading for theological meaning.

Chapter 3, “Reading Biblically,” is perhaps the most important chapter in this book. Reading biblical and theological books is great; but as Christians, the Bible is our most important book and we must not neglect it. The temptation for seminarians and “bible/theology nerds” is to read about the Bible while neglecting the Bible itself; to depend on the fruits of others’ labors in the Word and cheat on doing the lifting ourselves. This chapter addresses reading the Bible academically (with tips on reading historically, linguistically, and contextually), communally, spiritually, and practically. Again, this chapter is holistic as it addresses not just the academic side of reading the Bible well, but also the importance of reading in community, asking what God is trying to say through a certain text, and how the exegetical process can be applied to a real life situation in service of the church.

The remaining chapters address reading generously (giving other perspectives a thoughtful look as a practice of love), reading critically (how ideological criticism can serve the theological reader), reading differently (why thinking contextually is important to thinking theologically and how to do so), reading digitally (celebrating the blessings as well as challenging the vices of of digital communication), and reading spiritually (how to enhance learning about yourself and deepening your connection with God as you read). The “Reading More” section before the bibliography must not be skipped by anyone serious about becoming a better reader. Several of the texts commended here are seminal for growing in general reading, Bible reading, and theological reading.

Due to the brevity of this volume as well as its nature as a compilation of chapters by different people, you will inevitably read things you wish were fleshed out in more detail as well as find a bit of both repetition and discontinuity. However, its brevity can also be extremely appealing. Someone seeking a book to help them become a better reader is much more likely to read a 150 page book (this one) than a 400 page book (Mortimer Adler’s classic tome on reading well, How to Read a Book). This book should be read by every student in Bible college or seminary and everyone considering these forms of schooling. Though it is specifically written for the formal theological student, this book would in the same way benefit every informal theological student – every Christian who desires to grow in reading theologically.

This book offers excellent practical suggestions for better reading. But what I appreciated most is the holistic emphasis throughout – that reading well is not just about having your nose perpetually in a book, but ultimately it’s about your own spiritual life, serving the church, and reaching out to a lost and broken world. These are vital reminders for seminarians as well as laymen with an academic bent – it is a dangerous thing to be so enraptured and consumed by concepts and ideas that you neglect your soul, your church, and the lost. Reading Theologically both helps the reader gain skills to better handle texts as well as provides impetus and suggestions to better love and serve God and His world.

Purchase: Amazon

See the Foundations for Learning series page here. You can receive 35% off each volume if you sign up for the entire six-volume series.

Many thanks to Shaun and Fortress Press for sending me a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review!


on reading

What I have learned from about twenty-years of serious reading is this: It is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember 99% of what I read, but if the 1% of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the 99%

John Piper, from the sermon “Quantitative Hopelessness and the Immeasurable Moment”

Piper addresses a different kind of quantitative hopelessness in the sermon, but my own pertains to the slow pace of my reading as compared to my exponentially growing reading list. Couple my snail’s pace with how little I remember in the long run, and it becomes apparent why I am often frustrated and disheartened about my reading habits and the discipleship of my mind.

I think I am more frustrated by lack of long-term retention than lack of speed. There is just no way I will ever be able to read all the books I want to read; and that’s okay. My quantitative hopelessness was dashed by the realization that as good as rich theology books are, I am still beholding in a mirror dimly what others have themselves beheld in a mirror dimly. But one day I will see face to face.

And pertaining to lack of retention, I am learning to not begrudge the 99%.