Writing to Learn/Think

From Justin Taylor today:

Calvin, citing Augustine: “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”

John Piper: “Writing became the lever of my thinking and the outlet of my feelings. If I didn’t pull the lever, the wheel of thinking did not turn. It jerked and squeaked and halted. But once a pen was in hand, or a keyboard, the fog began to clear and the wheel of thought began to spin with clarity and insight.

Arthur Krystal: “Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I’m writing. I don’t claim this merely because there is usually no one around to observe the false starts and groan-inducing sentences that make a mockery of my presumed intelligence, but because when the work is going well, I’m expressing opinions that I’ve never uttered in conversation and that otherwise might never occur to me. Nor am I the first to have this thought, which, naturally, occurred to me while composing. According to Edgar Allan Poe, writing in Graham’s Magazine, ‘Some Frenchman—possibly Montaigne—says: ‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.’ I can’t find these words in my copy of Montaigne, but I agree with the thought, whoever might have formed it. And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis.”

on Evaluating Books

I recently completed The Road by Cormac McCarthy. What do I think of the book? Well, the dust has yet to settle.

I’ve learned to take a day or a month to step back from a book, go about normal business, and let “the dust settle.” This patient wait for clarity is a lesson I learned in college from the writings of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).

I’m no fan of Virginia Woolf, but her understanding of how the mind evaluates books—especially novels and poetry—has taught me patience when I find myself surrounded by the blizzard of details to wait until all has settled on the floor of my mind. Resisting the impulse of immediate critique allows a critical brain-simmer between the period a book is competed and when the book’s value becomes clear. This wait allows for a constructive subconscious process where fragmented thoughts are reshaped into a unified whole.

And Woolf encourages us to critique slowly because this process provides the necessary continuity to evaluate new books to the very best old books. Such is logical. Why would we ever read new books without reference to the superior books of the past?

Enough of me. Here’s how Woolf articulates these ideas:

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building.

But this act of comparison means that our attitude has changed; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on them— Robinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with these—even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best.

And so with poetry—when the intoxication of rhythm has died down and the splendour of words has faded, a visionary shape will return to us and this must be compared with Lear, with Phèdre, with The Prelude; or if not with these, with whatever is the best or seems to us to be the best in its own kind. And we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.

-Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?”

Critical but gracious

tsslogo.jpgAdrian Warnock has an excellent post modeling how Mark Driscoll publicly pointed out theological error and the gracious and humble manner in which he did it. Very helpful.


Related: Grace and the Adventure of Leadership message by C.J. Mahaney. Correction must be done in deep humility and thankfulness. The book of 1 Corinthians — where Paul is about to correct the great errors of the Corinthians — begins with these (almost unbelievable) words: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). “Paul was more aware of evidences of grace than areas in need of growth.” One of Mahaney’s most important messages and a must-listen for pastors.

On writing book reviews

tssbooks.jpgOne of the fan-favorite features of TSS is our book reviews. Sometimes I get questions from readers who want tips about how I write book reviews.

Well, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on writing them so I can only offer general thoughts on the process that come to mind.

Also, since I only review non-fiction works some of these thoughts may be more or less useful to reviewing fictional literature. I’ll try to go back to my old Liberal Arts education tools to recall what I learned about works of fiction and see if I can look at reviews both the perspective of a non-fictional work and a fictional one.

Here are some thoughts …

1. Setting standards.
Book reviews are an act of literary criticism whereby a specific book is assessed and evaluated from a standard set by the reviewer and the reviewer’s audience. So, for example, the theological works I typically review are first compared to their biblical accuracy, then compared to other works by the same author, and finally compared to other works covering the same themes.

In the past month I’ve read 5 books on evangelism — one was very poor, two were okay, one was very good, and one was excellent. I came to this conclusion by comparing all five to Scripture, and each to one another. Reviewing any literature (and especially fiction) will require standards of evaluation just the same. A work of fictional literature may be compared to other works covering the same themes, compared to the works of other authors in the same era, or compared to a specific work of the author’s other works.

At some level you will need to answer the fundamental question, What am I comparing this book to?

2. Cultivating critical thinking.
I love writing book reviews because it forces me to cultivate the rigorous discipline of critical thinking. By critical thinking, I don’t mean that I want to be a critical person. Rather, it means I am forced to ask and answer several discerning questions like the following:

(1) What is the overall purpose of the author?

(2) What question, ethical standard, social custom or problem is being confronted, questioned or solved by the author?

(3) What assumptions do the authors bring into the discussion? Are they writing from a Christian or non-Christian worldview? What is assumed without argument? What worldview do they champion? What school of thought do they represent?

(4) What is the author’s point of view? Is the book written from the perspective of an adult or child? Rich or poor? Preacher, evangelist, or scholar? Where did the author live and what did they experience in life? For me, determining where the author serves as a professor or pastor helps me to understand the individual and the perspective.

(5) What events, information, and evidence does the author use to make her case? Is it strong and clear information, or weak and assumed? Every conclusion must be backed by a series of events and dialogues (fiction) or facts and evidences (non-fictional).

(6) What are the implications and consequences of the author’s arguments? Assuming the author is right, what must change?

These questions help me unlock even the most subtle messages embedded in literature and art. And one great way to put these six questions into action is by looking at an advertisement in a magazine. Every ad has a target audience, a worldview, and a means to persuade. Who is the target audience, what worldview does it embrace, and what is the basis of the persuasion?

It’s only because we are made in God’s image that we have the self-conscious awareness to bring literature under critical thinking and discernment. A true gift from God Himself.

3. Getting at the main point. Let me revisit this point a bit further. I believe every author, painter, advertiser, sculptor, commentary writer, songwriter, and poet is trying to convince you of something. That’s the nature of communication — someone taking a message he is passionate about and seeking to convince others of that message. The big question is, what is that individual trying to communicate?

In literature this may be on the surface. For example, C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes fairly obvious points — sinful greed corrupts our hearts, this sin negatively impacts our family and those closest to us, and Christ is our sufficient substitute — the One who breaks the power of sin and Satan. However in Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces, the meaning is much harder to discern (I’m still scratching my head over this one). J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is another really tough (but rewarding) adventure to attempt to ‘crack.’

Or consider, say, an adventurous novel written about a boy’s hitchhiking travels across the country one summer. It may be a fun adventure filled with surprises, threats, and interesting characters, but it may also have a much deeper intention. Perhaps it was written by a man who was born and raised in New York City and written as a criticism of the way large cities impair childhood development?

You get the idea.

The goal is to understand the author behind the work. Did they live through a world war? (To think of it, perhaps Aslan’s victory in the battle for Narnia is Lewis’ way to comfort children in a time of world war?) So get to know the author, and get to know the world of the author.

But don’t assume that fictional works are disconnected from reality. The truth is that authors with strong convictions have frequently chosen fictional literature to get their messages out. Some consider fiction the best means to communicate reality.

4. Getting at a biblical worldview. Christians are perched on a distinct view of reality because our worldview is informed by God’s eternal revelation in Scripture. We are therefore at a great advantage to evaluate every work of literature as it correlates or contradicts this eternal reality. Finding where themes, worldviews, attitudes, and ethics correlate or contradict Scripture is one of the most interesting disciplines (and downright addictive!).

Centering everything around Scripture also helps me interpret popular literature I disagree with. For example, I obviously don’t agree with existentialism, but I am surprised how fully their writers can communicate the hopelessness and despair of the human condition.

Holding a biblical worldview makes literature reviews quite interesting!

5. Read more than you review. Typically, of all the books I receive in the mail only about half are interesting enough to read. And of those books I read, only half get reviewed. Reviewing half (or even less) of the total number of books I read gives me tremendous freedom to review and invest time thinking through the very best books. There is value to reviewing books you don’t like, but I’ve tried to isolate the books I love and spend my time reviewing those titles. So read much more than you expect to review.

6. Now write.
Every review will look differently. Don’t try and force your review into a grid or pattern, just write about what most strikes you about the particular book. After asking all of the questions above, you should have a lot to talk about.

Finally, I cannot help but be reminded of my Liberal Arts prof that impacted my life to a great degree on these things. And since Dr. Joseph Wydeven recently retired, this is a great opportunity to thank him for his work at Bellevue University in Nebraska. He was a tremendous blessing in my intellectual development and growth in critical thinking. Thank you, Dr. Wydeven!

Blessings, TSS readers! Tony


Related: More on critical thinking here.

Related: Here are my top five favorite books on writing:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  2. On Writing Well by Zinsser
  3. Keys to Great Writing by Wilbers
  4. Hypnotic Writing by Vitale
  5. How to Write a Paragraph by Paul and Elder

New Perspectives and the Cross


Book announcement
The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ
by Cornelis P. Venema

A number of excellent responses to the challenges of the NP(s)P debate have been published in the past two years and more are expected this Fall. The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ by Cornelis P. Venema (Banner of Truth: 2006) is one example of a thorough response written for a broad readership. Venema (PhD. Princeton) currently serves as President and professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.

The first quarter of the book lays out the Reformed perspective on Paul (pp. 27-92), the second quarter lays out the new perspectives on Paul and the century-old roots behind the current NP theology (pp. 93-142). The second half is a critical assessment (pp. 143-307). In part, Venema concludes:

One of the most vexing features of the new perspective is its failure to explain the connection between the justification of believers and Christ’s atoning work. In the Reformation perspective on Paul, there is a close and intimate connection between Christ’s obedience, cross, and resurrection, and the benefit of free justification which believers derive from their union with him. Christ’s objective work on behalf of sinners (his death for their sins and his resurrection for their justification) constitutes the basis of the verdict which justification declares. Since the sinless Christ bore the sins of his people upon the cross and was declared righteous before God in his resurrection, believers now enjoy through union with him a new status of acceptance and life in fellowship with God. The righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel and received through faith, is demonstrated in God’s judgment upon sinners in the death of Christ and in God’s vindication of sinners in Christ’s resurrection.

In the Reformation perspective on justification, the revelation of God’s righteousness in the work of Christ provides a sure basis for the acceptance of sinners joined to him by faith. Justification is the subjective benefit granted to believers on account of the objective work of Christ on their behalf. The righteousness of God requires that sinners be set right before God. In order for this to occur, their sins must be atoned for and their righteousness established.

However, in the new perspective, no comparable account is provided of the intimate conjunction between Christ’s saving work and the believer’s justification. Justification merely identifies those who belong to the covenant family of God, but no adequate explanation is provided as to why this identification required nothing less than the cross and resurrection of Christ on their behalf. The new perspective offers no satisfactory account of Paul’s emphasis that believers are justified by the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9) or through the redemption and propitiation he provided (Rom. 3:23). Nor does the new perspective’s explanation of the righteousness of God explain why Paul insists that, were righteousness to come through the law, Christ would have died in vain (Gal. 2:21).

The point of these observations is not to suggest that advocates of the new perspective have no doctrine of atonement or explanation of Christ’s representative death and resurrection. The point is that, unlike the Reformation perspective on Paul, the new perspective offers no coherent theological explanation of the interrelation between Christ’s work on behalf of his people on the one hand, and their enjoyment of the benefit of that work on the other.”

– Cornelis P. Venema in The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul (Banner of Truth: 2006) pp. 303-304 (emphasis is mine).


Free Book: Come Unto Me by Tony Reinke

Free book
Come Unto Me: God’s Invitation to the World
by Tony Reinke

This time last year I was staying up late and getting out of bed very early to put the final touches on my undergraduate thesis. I convinced my secular academic adviser that it would be good to clarify the contours of the biblical gospel. I’m sure he wasn’t too thrilled.

03spurgeoncumcover.jpgFor me, the opportunity to concentrate my attention on the character of our priceless gospel was incredible. The product was the book titled Come Unto Me: God’s Invitation to the World. My primarily goal was to take advantage of an opportunity to articulate the biblical gospel — both the work of Christ and the act of faith — with my academic adviser and fellow classmates.

Secondly, my non-Christian audience pushed me to think hard at how to best articulate the biblical worldview, something I had not consciously worked through in the past.

Finally, the book helps me retain an important balance in my personal ministry. There are several contours of the gospel and each are easy to forget or minimize.

The invitation to God, from God, is a biblical message filled with rich diversity. For those who accept it, this message requires sorrow and promises inexpressible joy. The invitation comes without price and costs everything. The invitation includes an offer of a relationship to God that is both forensic (or legal) and yet conjugal (or marital). The invitation to God is a call to leave past burdens and take up new burdens.

Frequently I need to be reminded of these important contours.

And so now I offer this book for your reading. It’s free for you to download and read. Thanks to the help of gracious friends, it now comes in three mouth-watering flavors:

1. Come Unto Me in HTML format. This is the basic text format but ideal if you are interested in browsing or reading the content online. Click here for HTML.

2. Come Unto Me in PDF format. Ideal if you are interested in downloading and printing the book. This file preserves the original pagination and formatting. Click here to download the PDF file.

3. Come Unto Me in LOGOS format. Ideal if you want to incorporate my research of the biblical gospel into your own research. Thanks to my friends at StillTruth, you can download and install my book into your Logos software. Click here to access the StillTruth Webpage and download.