Cover image for How to read a Christian book
How to read a Christian book
McKenna, David L. (David Loren), 1929-
Publication Information:
Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, [2001]

Physical Description:
143 pages ; 22 cm
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Z1039.C47 M45 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A guide to selecting and reading Christian books as a Christian discipline.

Author Notes

David L. McKenna is the former president of Asbury Theological Seminary. He has written numerous Christian books over his career. He is now retired and lives in Las Vegas.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Christians, says retired college president McKenna, come to reading naturally; they call themselves "the people of the book," and they ground their lives in the Bible. But they also read other books, lots of them, and McKenna is here to help them maximize their reading experience. Good reading starts with good books, and McKenna points to book reviews, as well as the shelves of one's friends, to help readers find them. For those ready to commit to building a whole library, McKenna offers guidelines: One should have several versions and translations of the Bible and many biblical reference books, as well as books on Christian living and some specialized "Christian thought" books, such as Greg Boyd's Letter from a Skeptic. Readers should spend time with classics like C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and Dante's The Divine Comedy. McKenna suggests that Christians should also read secular classics, such as Shakespeare's Macbeth and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, "selective[ly]" and cautiously. Helpful appendices (including Christianity Today's and the Modern Library's "Books of the Century" lists) round out this useful volume. At times, McKenna is a little simplistic (most readers, for example, don't need to be told to pay attention to respected friends' reading suggestions), so seasoned bibliophiles won't find much that is new here. But curious Christians who want to get serious about reading should make this their first pick. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One     Why Christians Are Readers In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1 Reading books comes naturally for Christians. Of course, the primer for all our reading is the Word of God. Together, we confess, "We are people of one Book." Yet, our reading is not limited to the Bible. We read book after book, which helps us understand and apply the Word of God. In the last half of the twentieth century, particularly, the publishing of Christian books became a major industry, offering readers thousands of titles at reasonable cost. Although we are reading more, we may not be reading what is best. More than likely, all believers would welcome assistance in selecting, reading, and collecting Christian books. First, however, we need to recall the roots of our reading. The progressive history of God's revelation not only reveals why Christians are natural readers, it also motivates us to read with the mind of the Spirit so that we may understand our faith and grow spiritually. People of the Word     For Christians, the Word precedes the Book. In the first chapter of Genesis, we are introduced to the Word when God "spoke" the universe into existence, plants and animals into life, and human beings into his image. Behind the physical creation, however, is its spiritual essence. John, in his Gospel, takes us to the heart of the matter when he gives us the spiritual meaning of the creation story: "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1). Through the eyes of the Spirit, he sees that the Word is more than an uttered, impersonal phrase. The Word is God himself with all the attributes of his mind, spirit, and personality.     No human language is adequate to interpret the full meaning of "the Word" as revealed in John's Gospel. Synonymous with God himself, the Word is eternal and unfathomable. Even when we consider the Greek word logos , "the Word" defies easy definition. Because John was writing to people who understood Greek philosophy, he was inspired to use logos to define the deity of Jesus Christ and also explain the incarnation. Plato, foremost among Greek philosophers, divided all existence into spiritual ideals and physical realities. He taught that an "ideal" exists in the eternal mind of the spiritual world and is imprinted in the physical world of material objects and human flesh. The ideal of "tree-ness," for instance, has been imprinted by some creative act into every species of trees. Consequently, even though there is infinite variety in trees, we still recognize them as trees because the ideal of "tree-ness" defines their nature and exists in our mortal minds.     To communicate with the Greek mind, John may have used the same analogy for the logos . To introduce Jesus Christ as very God of very God, he identified him as the ideal "Word" or logos . By opening his Gospel with the phrase "in the beginning was the Word," he drew a direct parallel with the opening of Genesis, "In the beginning, God." By connecting Plato's ideal in the eternal mind with Jesus Christ as the logos , John introduced his readers to the real and personal God of Christian faith. Taking the analogy one step further, he declared, "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14 KJV). This was a master stroke by which John confronted the Greeks with the claim of the incarnation. To Plato, when the ideal in the eternal mind was imprinted in "flesh," the ideal was contaminated. John says just the opposite. When the Word became flesh, the divine nature was unblemished in the glory of the one and only God and in the fullness of grace and truth as the Son of God. Greeks who understood Plato's ideal of "tree-ness" and its imprint in every species of tree, were challenged to see its application in the incarnation. In the life of Jesus Christ and in every word he spoke, they were asked to recognize the Word or logos as evidence of his divine and human nature. For us, as well, the challenge is apparent. We are people of the Word because we believe that all truth is God's truth and that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of that truth.     The Spoken Word     As the earliest expression of the Word, God spoke the world into being. The Genesis story of creation centers on God as a thinker (brooding over the chaos), a speaker (giving the order, "Let there be ..."), a doer (choosing a task for each day of creation), and an appraiser (pronouncing his completed work "very good").     After his spoken act of creation, God continued to use direct and personal words to communicate with human beings. Whether with Adam in the Garden, Noah on the ark, Abraham on the plain, or Moses in the desert, God addressed his chosen leaders through intimate conversation, enjoying their fellowship and giving them detailed instructions for action. In these relationships, God asked that his people be listeners who pay close attention to his words, remember them carefully, and communicate them accurately to others. Sometimes we forget that God depended on his spoken Word for many generations. As fragile as that communication may seem, we know that the oral tradition of biblical revelation was God's truth as surely as any of his words that have been preserved in writing.     The Written Word     Communication between God and his human creation underwent a dramatic change when God himself became an author, writing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone with his finger (Exod. 31:18). Moses had already started to write down all the detailed laws that God had dictated to him (Exod. 24:4), but the recording of the Ten Commandments opened a new era in which God spoke and humans wrote. At the point of transition between the oral and the written eras of the revelation of the Word, God instructed his people: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9     The truth and beauty of these words echoed down through biblical history. We notice that God summed up the complexity of the law in the simple truth, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." Early on, God made it clear that the spirit of the law superceded the letter of the law. Jesus confirmed that truth when he quoted the same words in answer to the critic's test question, "What is the greatest commandment?" Although human memory might fail to recall all the details of the law, even the smallest child can learn and remember the greatest commandment of all.     As the era advanced, the Word became more and more permanent in the writing of scribes and prophets throughout the Old Testament. Even though the written Word was now an indirect means of divine revelation, the truth of the message was not compromised. God chose the written Word as the means to preserve the truth for all generations and make it available to all people. With that decision, he also expected his people to be able, discerning, and obedient readers.     The Symbolic Word     God also gave Israel multimedia instructions for remembering his Word. Hebrew families were to teach the commandments to their children, talk about them in the activities of the day, represent them with symbols that could be worn on the body, and write them on the doorposts and gates of their homes. Israelites who followed God's instructions created a home school curriculum for teaching their children, made talk of God a natural part of their conversations, fashioned frontlets to hang over their foreheads as symbols reminding them of God's commandments, and etched God's Word on the doorposts of their homes. Behind these acts was God's singular purpose: He wants his people to remember his Word. In fact, the theme for the Book of Deuteronomy is "remember."     Throughout history, symbols have continued to remind Christians of truths found in the written Word. The cross, a lamb, a shepherd, bread, blood, and a dove are just a few examples. Because human beings are natural symbol-makers, our understanding of the faith is enhanced by these visual images. Without a doubt, God has used symbols to bring the Word to life.     The Living Word     With the coming of Jesus Christ, the most radical transformation of the Word took place. In his incarnation, he was "the Word" of whom John wrote in the introduction to his Gospel. All human history comes to its watershed in John's inspired perception: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).     No longer do we have to await the spoken Word of God in direct communication, wait until he writes on tablets of stone, interpret the symbolic Word on a doorpost, or depend on prophets for the written Word. In answer to our prayer, Jesus Christ became God with a face. As John wrote in his epistle, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1).     Nothing more needs to be said or read about the truth of God's Word. John's identification of Jesus Christ in the flesh as "the Word of life" affirmed Jesus' deity as the Son of God and his role as our Savior. Moreover, John attested to the finality of Jesus as the living Word. In Jesus and his words, all truth is revealed and all salvation is complete. As Jesus himself said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matt. 24:35). All other Christian words are commentary.     But we cannot stop here. By definition, the living Word is dynamic, not static. Just as John described Jesus as a living, breathing, changing, and growing human organism whom people could touch and feel, the Word of life continues to be fully alive among us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. If we believe anything less, we make Jesus Christ an artifact of history and his Word a static truth of limited contemporary value. Neither is true. For those who believe, the living presence of Jesus Christ and the relevance of his Word is as real today as when he walked and talked on earth. Eternal, final, alive, and relevant--these adjectives describe the living Word.     The Inspired Word     Just as Moses wrote down the laws spoken by God as a record for remembrance, other writers were instructed and inspired by his Spirit to write the full story of the living Word in books that now comprise the Old and New Testaments. Over the course of many years, these books were collected by church fathers and put to the test of whether or not their message was true to the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Like a thread running through every book from Genesis to Revelation, the story of the living Word unfolds. In Genesis, the coming of the Savior is prophesied when the Lord God speaks to the serpent and says, "He will crush your head and you will strike his heel" (Gen. 3:15). In Revelation, the return of the Savior is foreseen when John the Revelator concludes his vision with the benediction, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20). In between, the Old Testament drama unfolds in anticipation of the Christ, comes to fulfillment in the Gospels, and unfolds again in the mission of the church to take the message of Christ to all nations.     Every book of the Old and New Testaments meets the test of contributing to the revelation of the living Word. To meet that test, their authors had to be inspired by the Spirit to write the text with the authority, accuracy, and consistency of God's truth. Although Christians may differ in their definitions of inspiration, they agree that the inspired Word of God in biblical writing is final truth and all-sufficient for our salvation. Paul, in his familiar words to Timothy, gives us a working definition of the Scriptures in which all believers find common ground: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).     The Dynamic Word     Christians need no other reason to be avid readers of the Word of God. Realizing that Scripture is "God-breathed" is motivation enough. Immediately, we see a connection between the living Word and the written Word. Just as Jesus Christ the living Word is an ever present and dynamic reality, the written Word is equally alive and active through the mind of the Holy Spirit. Every time we open the Scriptures, we should expect a personal encounter with the God-breathed Spirit of the living Word. This is reading at its very best. When the mind and spirit of a biblical author interact in vibrant dialogue with the mind and spirit of a reader, the highest purpose of the inspired Word is fulfilled. We should soar every time we read the Word of God.     The Teaching Word     In his letter to Timothy, Paul also addressed the learning process associated with the God-breathed Scriptures. The Scriptures were not written in esoteric language for philosophers or in religious language for theologians. Rather, Paul wrote that they are "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." In the language of the teacher, the Scriptures offer a full curriculum for spiritual development. "Teaching" transmits God's truth, "rebuking" disciplines ungodly behavior, "correction" keeps us true to the Word, and "instruction in righteousness" rewards the Christlike life. Again, we should enthusiastically welcome the teaching-learning experience of the God-breathed Word, even when that experience includes rebuke and correction as well as teaching and training in righteousness. As with any sound educational experience, when we reflect on what we have learned in the Word of God, we are grateful for the disciplines of rebuke and correction as much as for the affirmations of teaching and training.     The Equipping Word     True to the principles of sound learning, Paul goes beyond the teaching-learning process to the goal of reading the God-breathed Word. We read, "... so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." A lofty goal, indeed, yet one that can be achieved in the life of every believer who is a diligent, lifelong student of the written Word. Through our encounters with the God-breathed Word and the Spirit-guided process of learning, we are equipped in every sphere of activity to do every good work. The claim is as lofty as the goal, yet each of us knows that when we are students of the living Word, we obtain the resources for daily living and Christian witness that qualify us as men and women of God. It is when we fail to immerse ourselves in the written witness of the living Word that we come up short on spiritual resources and fail in good works. Reading the written Word can never be a casual or optional exercise. If we are to be God's people "thoroughly equipped for every good work," we need to be eager students searching for truth, obeying his commands, and following his Spirit.     Taken together, then, Paul's words to Timothy give us the pattern for all our reading. First, we must connect with the dynamic spirit as well as the mind of the author. Second, we must submit ourselves to the teaching, rebuke, correction, and training of the text. Third, we must become persons better equipped for effective action in whatever realm we serve. As students of the Word of God, then, each of these aspects of our reading takes on supernatural and spiritual dimensions that are unique in regard to the Scriptures. Reading the Bible is not the same as reading other books. When we pick up other books to read, we ask the question, "Is it true?" If the answer is yes, we pay particular attention to that book. When we pick up the Bible, however, we do not ask that question. Because it is the God-breathed Word, we read it as the truth. Admittedly, millions of people read the Bible only as a piece of great literature, believing it possesses no more claim to truth than any other classic work. Still others approach the Bible with the eye of a critic, daring the text to stand the test of truth. Someplace in between are searching readers who would put the same sign over the Bible that a British person once proposed for the entrance to churches: "Important, if true."     Believers appreciate the literary quality of the Bible and have confidence that its message will stand the critic's test. But because we believe the Bible is true, we cannot just pass it off as "important." If it is true, we must obey it, and if it is true, it will change our lives.     Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, in their celebrated book How to Read a Book , from which we draw time and again, include a section entitled "How to Read `Canonical' Books." Using the Bible as an example, Adler and Van Doren say that this "sacred" writing or "holy" book must be read reverentially by believers who accept it as the truth and are thereby obliged to make sense out of it. We would go a step farther. Not only must we accept the Bible as truth and make sense out of it, but we must enter into its spirit, obey its commands, and let it change our lives. For this reason, we understand why Adler and Van Doren also write, "There have been more books written about how to read Scripture than about all other aspects of the art of reading together. The Word of God is obviously the most difficult writing men can read, but it is also, if you believe it is the Word of God, the most important to read." We agree. If we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, it is the most important reading we can do. More than that, it is reading that is essential to our salvation. Christians are people of one Book in which we find the truth that sets us free.     A word of caution is necessary here: Even though Christians are people of one Book, we are not guilty of what some critics call "Bibliolatry." We read the written Word, but we do not worship it. We do not believe that "the Word became ink and lives among us." We remember that long before the Scriptures were written, God communicated through the spoken Word. And long before the Scriptures were mass produced for all people to read, the text of the inspired manuscripts was preserved intact and communicated faithfully by our church fathers. Behind each of these means of communication is the living Word--coexistent with the Father and personalized in Jesus Christ. The inspired Word, therefore, is only a glimpse of the whole truth, which is the realm of God. While the Bible is totally true and all-sufficient for our salvation, we neither worship the written Word nor assume that after reading the text of the Bible we have nothing more to learn about the living Word. God has a whole new world of truth for us to discover.     Another word of caution is also necessary: Christians are people of one Book who do not need another revelation to know the truth. When our church fathers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, closed the canon of the Old and New Testaments, the revelation was final. Any other book that makes that claim is false; any sect that makes any other revelation, written or spoken, equal to the Bible is a cult. Furthermore, any religious movement that combines the Bible with any other claim to truth must be rejected by Christians. Because of the subtlety of many movements, Christians must be constantly alert to their influence. In such cases, two questions will usually expose falsehood: "Is Jesus Christ the living Word our one and only hope for salvation?" and "Is the written Word our final and infallible authority for truth?"     While the ability to discern truth and falsehood is essential to the thoroughly equipped man or woman of God, spiritual development through the God-breathed Word involves much more. With the goal of being equipped for "every good work," we need both character and competence. Character is the integrity of life in Christ that makes the work of Christians "good." Competence is the exercise of natural and spiritual gifts in the work that we do. Together with the teaching of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Word of God brings us to our full potential as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.     The Fulfilling Word     While the written Word is final, it is not static. Multiple references in Scripture remind us that God has more to say to us. John, in the last word of his Gospel, writes, "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (John 21:24-25).     Did John know how prophetic his words would be? Without a Christian bias, Adler and Van Doren conclude that more books have been written about Jesus Christ and his revelation than any other text in human history. The whole world hardly has room for the works that qualify as expositions on the fulfilling Word. We should not be surprised. When Jesus promised his disciples the coming of the Holy Spirit, he said, "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear" (John 16:12). As a model for all teachers, Jesus knew the learning limits of his disciples. Intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, Jesus' announcement that he would leave them pushed the limits of their understanding. After his death, resurrection, and ascension, they would need time to absorb this truth before he could teach them its implications for the salvation of the world and their part in the redemptive plan.     A good teacher also knows how to balance uncomfortable truth with words of encouragement. Jesus gave his disciples encouraging words when he immediately followed his shocking news with the affirmative announcement, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Here is the first call to lifelong learning. With the Holy Spirit as their teacher and "all truth" as the sphere of learning, the disciples were assured that their teaching-learning experience would be continued with the same personal attention and powerful impact that they had known at the feet of Jesus.     Following the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament continues the story of the fulfilling Word. Fulfillment begins with Peter's sermon at Pentecost, when he interpreted Christ's death and resurrection with uncanny perception, and continues through to John's prophetic revelation on the island of Patmos. Truth in both word and deed is fulfilled in the New Testament story as the Holy Spirit applies the living Word to the work of the Great Commission. When Jesus said to his disciples, "Greater works than these shall you do," he gave them the promise of the fulfilling Word.     The teaching of the Holy Spirit did not end with the final sentence of the Book of Revelation. Christian history is replete with evidence of the fulfilling Word. Even today, as we read the Word of God, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. No other book is as universal and timeless as the Bible. Its truth is as fresh today as it was when it was written. In one way or another, every circumstance of life is addressed. We can affirm with confidence the truth that the fulfilling Word is the all-sufficient guide for our conduct as well as the only way to our salvation. The Word and Truth     Our Source of Truth     Implicit in the promise that the Spirit will guide us into all truth are two premises underlying all human words and writing. First, all truth is God's truth. However deep or far the human mind may move in the search for truth, nothing is outside the realm of God. Every book that has ever been written is within the scope of God's truth. Second, all truth is centered in Jesus Christ. As a circle must have a center, the whole realm of truth must have a point of reference. When Paul described the supremacy of Jesus Christ, he wrote, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). Whether or not authors throughout the centuries acknowledged the living Word on which all other words depend, the fact remains that all human knowledge turns on the centrality of Jesus Christ. Secular or sacred, all books will be judged by the question, "Is it true to the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ?"     Jesus' promise to his disciples is also our legacy. We too are called to be lifelong learners of unfolding truth taught to us by the Holy Spirit. The promise applies, first, to the Word of God. Only as the Holy Spirit teaches us can we grasp the meaning of the truth for our personal needs and social responsibilities. Second, it applies to the sermons we hear, the teaching we experience, and the books we read. Beware of believers who say they need no help interpreting the Word of God and understanding the mind of Christ as it applies to us today. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit as our teacher, we are vulnerable to dangerous and sometimes demonic applications of the Word of God. Extremist pro-lifers, for instance, who bomb abortion clinics and murder abortion doctors distort the Word to justify evil. Only with the mind of the Holy Spirit can we become learning Christians who discern the truth and show the love of Jesus Christ.     The Body of Christ--Our Friends in Truth     We need others to join with the Holy Spirit as our teachers. In a familiar story in the Book of Acts, an Egyptian eunuch was returning home from Jerusalem and reading the prophecy of Isaiah as he rode along in his chariot. Philip, following the instructions of the Holy Spirit, ran up to the chariot and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The eunuch answered, "How can I unless someone explains it to me?" Philip then joined him on the ride and explained how the prophet Isaiah was forecasting the good news about Jesus Christ. Needing no more evidence, the eunuch believed and was baptized (Acts 8:26-40).     Christian Books--Our Tools for Truth     For us as well, God provides many sources to help us understand the Word of God with the Holy Spirit as our teacher. Christian books are one of those sources. Although they should never be substituted for the Word of God itself, they can be invaluable teaching aids that the Holy Spirit can use to illuminate the truth and apply it to our lives. Just as Philip climbed up in the eunuch's chariot to explain the Scriptures to him, Christian books can meet us where we are in our daily lives and reveal the meaning of the Scriptures. This assumes, of course, that we are, first of all, readers of the Word of God and students of the Holy Spirit. If so, Christian books, like guideposts along the way of our spiritual journey, can help keep us on course and point the way to our destination. The Case for Reading Christian Books     Returning to our opening question, "Why are Christians natural readers of books?" a summary of the above discussion provides the answer: · God is the Word, the source of all truth. · God has progressively revealed himself to us through the spoken Word and the written Word. · Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is the source and center of all truth--eternal and unchanging. · The Bible is inspired by God as the written Word of truth--final and infallible. · The meaning and application of the living Word continues to be revealed to us through the teaching of the Holy Spirit. · All other words, spoken or written, are commentary on the living Word that help us understand our faith and grow spiritually. · Christian books, read with a discerning mind open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, are key sources for helping us understand our faith and grow spiritually.     An adventure awaits us in reading Christian books. Once we see the connection between the Word of God and the books we read, we will embark on a search and discovery mission in the expanding field of human knowledge, where all truth is God's truth and Jesus Christ is the center that holds all things together. A nonreading Christian is a contradiction in terms. With the Bible as our primary source, we read other books that serve as teaching tools for the Holy Spirit in order that we may become men and women of God, "thoroughly equipped for every good work." Copyright © 2001 David L. McKenna. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 8
Acknowledgmentsp. 10
1 Why Christians Are Readersp. 11
2 Choosing a Christian Bookp. 28
3 Judging a Christian Bookp. 43
4 Reading Christian Books as a Spiritual Disciplinep. 55
5 Planning a Personal Christian Libraryp. 71
6 Introducing a Three-Year Christian Reading Planp. 91
7 Anticipating the Christian Classicsp. 107
Notesp. 123
Appendix A Reference Library for Christian Readersp. 124
Appendix B Great Books of Christian Devotionp. 129
Appendix C Accepting an Invitation to the Classicsp. 131
Appendix D Christianity Today Books of the Centuryp. 134
Appendix E Books of the Century for the Modern Libraryp. 138