On Being Well Read

Mark Beuving —  September 16, 2015 — 2 Comments


I got serious about my faith when I entered college, and one fruit of this increased commitment was that I found myself turning into a reader. This newfound passion for reading would end up costing me way more money and time than I could have imagined (and at this point in my life, I’m sure I’m just seeing the tip of the iceberg).

Stack of BooksAt that early stage in my Christian development, I felt the urge to be the kind of person who is “well read.” “Well read” people were so impressive to me: They seemed to know everything about everything, they could make casual references to important books, and they never had to be insecure about books they hadn’t read—because they had read just about everything. Or so I thought.

I’m beginning to realize that “being well read” is far more complex than I thought. Here are some unorganized realizations that I’ve come to as a 33-year-old who reads a lot:

Being “well read” is elusive. Precisely how many books must one read before he or she is “well read”? The more books I read, the more I become aware of a hidden world full of books I never knew I needed to read. You’ll never reach the end of the list of “books you ought to read.” There’s always more to know. And if you’re a true reader, being considered “well read” will never be enough for you: you’ve caught the bug, you have to read because you realize how much you still need to learn.

Being “well read” is a horrible goal. I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming during my college years. A lot of my initial desire to be “well read” was wrapped up in wanting to appear intelligent in front of other people. I’m embarrassed to admit that. I know people who are always trying to demonstrate their intelligence, always making mention of important-sounding works they have read. I don’t want to be that guy. I still crave knowledge; I still love books. But as soon as “well read” becomes a status marker we’re striving to attain, then we’re perverting the wholesome pursuit of knowledge. Read as much as you can, but don’t give a moment’s thought to “being well read.”

Being a reader is a better goal than being “well read.” You should read. It’s important, helpful, edifying. You should read as much as your schedule, temperament, and curiosity will allow. But you shouldn’t be worried about whether or not you’re reading enough. That’s not the point. Let books teach you what they can, but don’t let books determine your value or dignity. Reading is not about gaining respect, it’s about growing. Fame is the pursuit of fools; social status is fleeting. Don’t read books for other people, read them for your own growth.

Reading happens one page at a time. During those times when I felt insecure about all of the important books I hadn’t read, I’d feel this burning motivation to quickly read every significant book ever written. But how do you go about doing that? I’ve come to realize that you’ll never finish a whole group of books if you wait until you have time to read a whole group of books. What you have to do is pick up one book and read one page. When you’ve finished that page, you read the next page. That’s the only way to do it.

Every book takes a certain amount of time to finish. You can dream all you want about how many books you’d like to read, but there’s no way to get to that point without picking up one book and reading it a page at a time. If you hate reading pages, you’re not a reader, so do yourself a favor and give up on “being well read.” If you love reading pages, you’ll spend the rest of your life doing it. And while becoming “well read” will always be elusive, you’ll be the kind of person who continually gleans much from many books. And that’s what you really want to gain from reading.

On a related note: if you want some tips from C. S. Lewis on reading well, click here.




Bob ArmstrongSeveral years ago, an 80 something year old man walked into one of our classrooms. We often have older “students” sit in on our classes, members of various churches who want to continue growing in their knowledge of the Bible and the world. But it quickly became clear that Bob was not a typical “auditor.”

Our professors could hardly get through five minutes of their lectures without an objection from Bob. And Bob’s objections came in the form of loud grunts followed by aggressively expressed opinions. I remember teaching a class on Paul and having to suddenly field this objection from Bob: “I don’t think Paul actually believed anything he wrote. I think he was in cahoots with the Roman government, and wrote what he did to throw people off.” Needless to say I hadn’t prepared to address that particular theory, so I responded with something along the lines of, “Wow, okay. I can’t think of a single thing in Paul’s writings that would support that theory, but I’d love to talk to you more about it after class.”

Sometimes Bob asked good questions, but for the most part, his objections were off-the-wall, groundless, and frequent.

It wasn’t long before our professors were asking each other, “Have you had Bob in class? What’s his deal?”

It turns out Bob was invited to class by one of our for-credit students: Dave. Dave had just left his teen years, and would talk to Bob at the YMCA where they both worked out. Bob had never considered himself a Christian, but as Dave continued to befriend him and talk to him about Jesus, Bob eventually became curious enough to accept Dave’s invitation to sit in on some Bible classes. I still tear up when I think of this sweet, faithful guy in his twenties patiently and graciously befriending this lonely, grumpy guy in his eighties. To an extent that we’ll never fully appreciate, the Kingdom of God expands through smiles and simple greetings.

I’ll admit that Bob was more of a nuisance than anything else at the beginning. Some professors had to talk to Bob about not disrupting the class with frequent objections, asking him to save his comments for after class.

But then a curious thing happened. Bob began showing up early to church services and greeting the congregation as they walked in. He didn’t do this in an official capacity—he just wanted to do it. He became more friendly and began speaking fondly of Jesus and of many of the things he was learning. Eventually, we were all sure that Bob loved Jesus, that his heart had been transformed.

As we got to know the new Bob, we learned that his first 80-some years of life were very lonely. He fought in three wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) and experienced situations that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was even used as a “model” to test radioactivity-proof clothing, which means that he and his squad crouched in a desert bunker as an atomic bomb was detonated. With his eyes closed and hands covering his face, he said it was the brightest thing he had ever seen. Surprising, Bob never grew any extra arms, but he is quick to affirm that the clothing didn’t work.

After a lifetime of being more or less alone, Bob became part of a family. He took every class he could at the college, took professors and students out for breakfast and lunch, and frequently expressed his appreciation for his new family in Christ.

Post-conversion Bob could still be a bit of a curmudgeon. As an 80 something year old theological novice, Bob stumbled into more than a few odd doctrinal views, but he never stopped discussing the Bible and the Jesus he had come to love so dearly. The new Bob was frequently in tears. Mention Jesus and Bob would be sobbing. He was so struck by the brotherhood of believers that he insisted I call him “Brother Bob” whenever I greeted him. He was so deeply appreciative of Jesus that he would often rebuke me for not using the term “the Lord Jesus.” Bob could be an absolute grump, and the exasperated objections continued throughout his late educational career. But the new Bob was a man who loved Jesus, and we knew he was a man who loved people as well (even if he still barked).

During the last few years of his life, Bob put a lot of effort into planning his memorial service and inviting everyone he could to attend. Jesus was calling him home, Bob said, and he wanted his memorial to be a celebration. It took a few years for his actual earthly end to arrive, but Bob never tired of talking about the day he would be with Jesus. Overplanning his own memorial was Bob’s way of making sure everyone he left behind would remember what really matters.

St. Augustine’s famous words express well Bob’s feelings toward the end of his life: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new. Late have I loved you.” For me, the curious case of Bob Armstrong will always be a reminder that God is never done with a person’s life; that it’s never too late to be a learner, never too late to start again; that a prickly exterior does not always reveal was is happening beneath the surface; that no one is ever beyond the reach of God, no matter how hard or how long they’ve been running.

[Anyone in the Simi Valley area this weekend is encouraged to join us in celebrating God’s artistry in the life of Bob Armstrong. See details below.]

Bob's Memorial

Take a brief look at Church History and you’ll realize that the Church is kind of an icky place. Or at least, it often has been. I love my church, and you probably love yours too. But historically speaking, the church has a tendency to be really really messed up.

The Church has a lot of blood on its hands. Protestants have killed Catholics and vice versa over the practice of Communion. Reformers literally drowned Anabaptists who believed that baptism was for believing adults and not for infants (“You like to be baptized? Let me hold you under a little longer…”). Think of the Crusades. Or of corruption within the church throughout the Middle Ages. Simony (selling church leadership positions to those looking for a good political career) was a recurring problem in the church. Our modern sex scandals are nothing new in terms of Church History, except that many times in the past the promiscuous church leaders have been unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed.

Think of the times that the Church has advocated slavery, has fought against human rights (unbelievably, Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “fight” against Christian churches), or has stood by and done nothing while holocausts were afoot.

Think of the hypocrites sitting in the pews around you. People actively involved in affairs even as they pretend to be devout Christians. Think even of yourself: Who among us truly practices what Jesus preached?

We get pretty worked up when people accuse the Church of being hypocritical, but let’s admit: they have a point. The Church can be (and often has been) a dirty bunch. That’s the case with all human enterprises.

Imagine God hiring a PR representative: “Well, God, you’ve got a decent reputation, at least in some circles, but that Church you continue to hold on to is not doing you any favors. You have a growing constituency of people who love you but hate the Church. For centuries upon centuries a large demographic has stayed completely away from you because of the Church. It’s time to distance yourself. Be God, do the good things you want to do in the world, change lives, bring healing to impossible situations—all of that. But do it without the Church. The Church is only bringing you down.”

Simony, a practice common throughout the Middle Ages, means buying a church leadership position.

I’d fire any PR rep that said something different. The Church is a huge liability for God.

And yet God refuses to abandon the Church. He refuses to distance himself. It’s true that we cannot confine God’s activity within our church walls. God works all around us in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet he remains inextricably tied to his Church.

And he has tied himself to the Church by choice. This was his idea. God’s mission in this world has always been about redemption, about reversing what went wrong with the fall, about defeating evil and healing what has been broken. His mission moved through Abraham and Israel, through David and Isaiah, and finally reached its climax in Jesus. But then God did the unthinkable: he passed the mission on to the Church. The Church! This wandering, embarrassing, inept group has inherited God’s mission to fix the whole world. And God did this on purpose!

As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

Why has God stubbornly refused to distance himself from the Church? Because his plan of redemption will be brought to completion through the Church. Because God does great things through those who are weak. Because God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Because God takes earthen pots and uses them to unleash his glory upon an unsuspecting world.

churchI am as broken as anyone in Church History, yet God uses me. My church is as full of sinners as any other church in history, yet God is bringing healing and purpose and life and hope to the world through this ragtag group of Christians I call my church body. We will continue to mess up. We will continue to be weak and cowardly. We will forget the mission and get worked up about things that don’t matter. We will continue to be a liability. But God will not abandon his Church.

And because God will not abandon His Church, we will continue to bring healing that far exceeds our abilities. We will continue to embody reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, though in ourselves we lack these resources. We will continue to show the world that Jesus is alive, that the Spirit of God has not for a single second neglected God’s mission, that the Spirit fulfills the mission through the apparent foolishness of God’s Plan A Church.

God has not dumped the Church, and he never will.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

In my last post, I argued that repetition isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. In fact, repetition is important. We are shaped by repetition—and that’s true whether we are aware of the formative power of repetition or not. James K. A. Smith argues that we are immersed in “secular liturgies” every day and that these shape us deeply without our conscious knowledge. Smith’s solution is capitalizing on repetition in a healthy way within the church. This is part of counterformation: intentionally shaping ourselves through saturating our lives and practices and worship with the story of what God has done in Christ.

While we’re usually allergic to repetition in worship, Smith argues that we need to engage in healthy repetition. What this does not mean, however, is that all repetition is equally helpful. In fact, some types of repetition are harmful.

For example, I remember a time in my life when the song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” was incredibly meaningful. I would get teary singing it. I had never felt closer to God or more passionate for his mission than when I was singing those words. So I sang the song. And I sang it. And sang it. Over. And over. And over again. Until the lyrics became meaningless. The song died for me. But I kept singing it in church and chapel and youth group. And it continued to mean nothing to me. But I continued to sing it.

The end result is that a song that had been a meaningful form of repetition for me, that was instrumental in shaping me for God’s kingdom, now became a harmful form of repetition and became instrumental in shaping me to be the kind of person who proclaims powerful truths without meaning them. In other words, “Lord, I Life Your Name on High” became a training ground for my hypocrisy.

This little example probably summarizes much of what people fear when they hear about repetition in worship. If we don’t keep things fresh and ever-changing, we’ll just be singing songs and repeating rituals that have lost their meaning.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

One ritual that every church repeats regularly is the Lord’s Supper. Within 30 years of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, Paul had to challenge the Corinthian Church to treat it as a meaningful practice—which indicates that it had become a dead ceremony to many in a short amount of time. Who among us has held the profound meaning of Communion in mind every single time we have participated? And yet none of our churches is ready to give up on repeating this practice. We recognize that repetition is essential in this area. And here’s why.

Communion 2Imagine how much it shapes us to regularly hold the bread and cup in our hands. We are reminded that Jesus shed his blood and broke his body in order to redeem us. We hold the symbolic evidence of that sacrifice in our hands regularly: weekly or monthly or whatever. We taste the bread on our tongues and our bodies participate in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice. We drink the cup and our taste buds get involved in the repeated memory. We take this meal together and remember that Jesus’ body has placed us within his body—these people who worship alongside us. And we do this again and again and again because this act is central to our life in Jesus. The repetition cements the action in our conscious and preconscious selves. It sinks more deeply and shapes us in ways we don’t understand.

Can people allow the repetition of Communion to shrink into a dead practice? Absolutely. Does this make the repetition of Communion bad? Absolutely not. It’s still important, and that’s why Paul calls the Corinthians back to a sincere and meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. By continually eating this meal, we repeatedly “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). He attacks the misshapen and misdirected practice of Communion, not the meaningful repetition of it.

I believe it is important for us to incorporate thoughtful, meaningful repetition into our church gatherings. This might mean singing certain songs repeatedly as anthems. We’ll want to help each other avoid the hypocrisy of singing truths we don’t mean, but the pull should be back into the significance of singing these songs jointly rather than abandoning the songs we’ve been singing for more than a month. It might mean repeating a benediction in the service, or praying regularly, or reciting the Lord’s prayer together, or engaging in corporate confession, or incorporating bits of ancient liturgy that have shaped the life of the Church for centuries.

Communion 1When we sense that the repetition has devolved into cold gesturing, it’s time to revisit the significance of the action. Maybe there’s a better way to enact the story of what God has done in Christ. Maybe we just need a reminder of what we’re doing when we do ___________.

I’m not trying to argue for a particular form of liturgy. But we are being shaped by the repeated, embodied practices in the world around us, whether it be going to the gym, going to the mall, scrolling through Facebook, clicking our remote controls, or whatever. Unless we see the value of repetition in our church gatherings, we will be neglecting a vital form of counterformation that will help us combat the consumerism and individualism and whatever else seeps into our bones through these secular liturgies. We don’t have to be liturgical in an old, confusing sense. But our worship should be liturgical in the sense that we find powerful ways of embodying the Story in actions, words, songs, and symbols that can shape our life together. And when we find these powerful practices, we should repeat them.


We all know what it’s like to be bored with worship. Anyone who has been around the church for a while knows what it is to sing a praise song so many times that it becomes almost painful. Our worship services can become boring, predictable, numbing. And that’s not good. Boring, predictable, numbing practices can rob us of our passion and make God seem like something he is certainly not: boring.

While I’m convinced of this point, I don’t believe the answer to boredom lies in constant novelty. Certain church paradigms believe this. Change it up, keep everything moving, shift gears incessantly or we’ll lose their tiny attention spans.

But passion in worship is not the inevitable byproduct of constant novelty. Nor is repetition the opposite of vitality. In his excellent and important book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a case for repetition as a central part of our worship:

“We, especially we Protestants, have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, though we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship” (Imagining the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, 181).

Does that strike you as odd? You’ll never become a musician if you don’t value repetition. You’d be stabbing yourself in the cheek with your fork without a lifetime of repetition. You wouldn’t speak English if it weren’t for repetition. We know that repetition is important for mastering a skill, for getting a practice to sink deeply into our being.

BasketballTo use a basketball analogy: being a good basketball player requires the ability to dribble, pass, shoot, screen, and block out without giving a second’s thought to these activities. You’ll only be a solid player when these practices are second nature, automatic, natural. You push the ball towards the court, your fingers receive the ball when it bounces back up. You push it back down again. The shot goes up, your body immediately gets into position for the rebound. It just happens. You’re not letting your eyes be distracted with these actions, you’re not wasting your brain power on them, this is simply how you’ve trained your body to behave on the court. You’ve spent countless hours repeating these skills, forcing your body to learn these practices without the conscious assistance of your brain.

So it is with worship. You won’t be good at worshiping God in the moment that you lose your biggest client or get cut off in traffic or lose your temper with your child unless you’ve trained yourself to be a worshiper. And this requires repetition. Our corporate worship services and church gatherings are, in a sense, our basketball practices. We listen to sermons to hear the story of what God has done in Christ. We speak and sing and exult in this story with our songs. We acknowledge our need for this story in our prayers. We enact this story in taking Communion. We incarnate this story in the words and actions we do in fellowship and service with and for one another. With repetition, the story sinks into our bones.

We enact the story of what God has done in Christ as if by second nature. It has become part of us, it has come to shape us. And thus it shows up unexpectedly in actions that we would not have thought have anything to do with worship.

In comparing our church gatherings to “practice” I don’t mean to imply that what we do in church is not serious. It is. And it’s these serious (yet joyful) times of intentionally saturating ourselves in God’s story that make the story a natural part of who we are.

The world around us knows the value of repetition for shaping the human soul: think of how deep-seated consumerism has become in our society, our churches, and our hearts. Smith recognizes how effective the advertisers are at shaping us and laments how weak the church is at countering this formation that we receive from the world:

“It is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition…Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies” (183, emphasis added).

In other words, if our worship experiences remain fixated on novelty while our society engages in effective repetition, our Christian formation will take a back seat to our secular formation.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what healthy repetition might look like in our church gatherings.

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