4 Steps to a Well-Educated Mind

One of the most influential books I read is Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to The Classical Education You Never Had.* It’s been about 10 years since I read the first edition, and now there’s a slightly updated and expanded version.** I decided to revisit this newer version and will post some lists from it in conjunction with the 2017 Reading Challenge.

As you might imagine, the path to a well-educated mind involves quite a bit of reading. But, it is reading in a certain mode. To explain, Bauer takes 4 introductory chapters just going over preparations one needs to make in order to succeed. It is here that she presents 4 steps to a well-educated mind. They are:

  1. Schedule regular reading and self-study time
  2. Practice the mechanics of reading
  3. Practice taking notes as you write and then summarizing
  4. Practice grammar-stage reading skills

It is worth noting that these are the same steps you need to take with reading for a Ph.D program. I’ve got the first two steps down, but habitually struggle with step 3. When it comes to step 4, I do about half of the six principles of grammar stage reading. I bet you were curious what that entailed, right? In order to read well at the grammar stage, you should (54-55):

  1. Plan on returning to each book more than once to reread sections and chapters.
  2. Underline or mark passages that you find interesting or confusing. Turn down the corners of difficult sections; jot your questions in the margin.
  3. Before you begin, read the title page, the copy on the back, and the table of contents.
  4. At the end of each chapter or section, write down a sentence or two that summarizes the content. Remember not to include details (this will come later)
  5. As you read, use your journal to jot down questions that come to your mind.
  6. Assemble your summary sentences into an informal outline, and then give the book a brief title and an extensive subtitle.

These steps could be applied to any books you seriously read. If you apply them to the books in the 2017 Reading Challenge, you’ll definitely read less books, but probably have a richer experience in your reading. It’s honestly what I would recommend, as well as keeping an eye out for my next post that will have her list of recommend novels that you can plug into the challenge.


*You owe it to yourself to check out her three volume (hopefully soon to be four!) history of the world:

**Because I hope you’re curious, the main expansion has to do with adding a list of science books. These come primarily from her other most recent book, The Story of Western Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory. Much of the rest of the material is more or less the same. I went page by page through it for comparison and since page numbers track very closely, there is little there is new other than the science section.

Muscle Monday: Workout Options for TheoFit Cut

When I posted about the TheoFit cut last week, I almost went on a tangent about workout routines. But, I realized it made sense as its own post. Hopefully, if you’re not doing the cut, some of what follows will still be of interest and/or help.

For a bit of history, I started working out regularly about 12 years ago. It was in response to going away to college for 2 years and coming back with a gut (it has made a comeback in recent years, btw). Once I moved to Dallas, I was able to start working out at a gym. This was thankfully because the powers at be at Dallas Seminary didn’t want to perpetuate the fat preacher stereotype so they gave us all a free membership to the Tom Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. It was a glorious 4 years.

During that time, I was fairly consistent at 3 days a week, mostly upper body (and abs) workouts. I tended to do 3 sets of 10 and maybe 7 or exercises (so 7x3x10). I also did these exercises in a circuit with as little rest as possible in lieu of cardio.

I continued this when we moved to Florida, but with some minor adjustments. I began to alternate pushing and pulling exercises in order to move through the routine faster. I still did roughly the same number of exercises and sets and reps. Then, I did a bulking phase and switched to heavier weights and did 4 sets of 5. After a few weeks, that would become 4 sets of 6, then 7, then 8. Then I would add weight and reduce back to 5 reps.

Then, in an unfortunate act of hubris, I ending up tearing my left pec and biceps tendon. That put all significant lifting to a halt for about 3 months, and then meant starting over with most basic exercises. I’ve just now regained that strength from 2 years ago.

During the rehab phase, I started doing an exercise routine that was similar to the one Paul suggests for the cut. It started as a 4 day split and then after 4 weeks moved up to 6 (two leg days). It also had 30 minutes of cardio tagged to the end (barf) and typically had you doing 4 sets of 8 for 7 exercises (7x4x8). You were also, by the time you got to weeks 5-8, supposed to be doing 80% of your max on those sets. If you’re trying to figure out your max, you can use this calculator. As an example, if you can curl 40 lbs for 10 reps, your max is 53, and 80% would be 42.

All that to say, you have some options in the lifting department. I think if you do the cut, and you’ve previously been lifting regularly, you should stick to the 5x5x5 setup (5 exercises in 5 sets of 5). Ideally, you do 5 days, but for time constraints might do 3.

If you want to do a variant, think in terms of total load. So for instance, I can do 5 sets of 5 Arnold Presses with 60 lbs dumbbells. That’s a load of 1,500 (insert appropriate unit of measurement here). If instead I did 3 sets of 10 with 50 lbs dumbbells, that’s technically the same load, but it works your muscles differently. Because of that, I’ll alternate every few weeks. The last few weeks I was doing 8x5x5 (or 7x5x5), but this past week I’ve been doing 5x3x10. Before I did that crazy day split workout, I was doing 10x4x10. You get the idea.

The goal, that I think is clear is that you have a plan and are consistent. I can do a 5x5x5 workout in about 30 mins, which means a 3 day a week plan is 90 mins in the gym. That’s not too bad. I’m gonna try to shoot for the 5 day deal as part of rebuilding my morning routine. Today is chest day, and I’m about to head over to Planet Fitness. I’m gonna try to hit it hard until the end of March because at that point, a trip to California will crash both the diet and the workout.

After that, not sure what I’ll shift to, but I’ll be sure and have some before and after pictures to post no matter what.

Can Young Academics Review Books Well?

Over Christmas break, I was mostly reading books, but I saw my fair share of Tweets. The one above caught my eye, and also got me thinking. I’m not sure I properly qualify as a young academic, but I have had book reviews published in a journal. I’ve also done my fair share of book reviews (that page is out of date, but you get the idea).

I’ll keep this short, because 1000 words about why a tweet is wrong seems either petty or excessive (or both). I’m going to assume that because this is a tweet, it is reflective of in the moment thinking. Looking through the mentions, it seems to be prompted by Leeman reading a poorly constructed review of one of his professor’s books. I would assume as well this isn’t the first time Leeman has come across a shoddy review by a young academic, otherwise he wouldn’t think to make a new rule.

It is not entirely clear how to divide the reasons that come after “Either.” It could be a binary, in which case it would be a false dichotomy. To avoid that, let’s say there’s 4 elements. Young academics doing book reviews:

  1. Try too hard to prove themselves
  2. Are extra critical (probably in excess, because more is probably better in most cases)
  3. Miss the forest for trees
  4. Say nothing of value (presumably scholarly)

Having easily done several hundred book reviews since my time at Dallas, I will be the first to confess I have done all of these. It is hard not to think about #1 if the review is being published somewhere that receives a wider reading than your personal blog. My review of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, might be close to violating #2, but I still stand by it. It was also one of the few reviews I’ve done that was published in a journal. And, in a point I’ll come back to, there was professorial oversight.

#3 is certainly a danger if you’re not able to do synthesis and big picture thinking. The result is a review that provides a good chapter by chapter summary, but offers no overarching conclusions. And when that is done, #4 is also in play. Anyone can read a book, and with time and effort, summarize what each chapter says. But, without some kind of critical interaction, or evaluative comments, no scholarly value is imparted. Judging by the output of my reviews, you can rest assured many are guilty of #4, and some are surely #3, but I’d have to go back and figure out which ones. #4 is probably the biggest issue in book reviews in general, but if one were to take time to compile data, I don’t think it would be limited to younger reviewers.

All that being said, I don’t think this is a young academic problem. It is much more likely to happen with younger, less established scholars. But, one only has to subscribe to JETS or Themelios to find reviews that come from older academics that hit one of these 4 elements. Maybe the one the least likely to happen is #1, but then we have the sad tale of G. E. Ladd, who published books in pursuit of #1 and was devastated by a review from another establish scholar that violated #2.

If we look at this list as a criteria for editors to keep in mind, I think we’re much close to a new guideline. The age or rank of the academic involved shouldn’t have bearing on publication if the review does the following:

  1. Does not seem out to reinvent the wheel via book review
  2. Is appropriately critical (summarizes and evaluates)
  3. Describes both forest and trees where appropriate
  4. Adds value to the scholarly discussion of the book in question

We need more reviewers, young and old, who are capable of doing the above. And perhaps more significantly, are capable of realizing when you can’t do this with a particularly book. Perhaps this is the element that Leeman’s Tweet hits on. Younger academic reviewers may be less able to sense when they can’t fulfill the criteria. That is one reason why I appreciated the opportunity to do an independent study right before graduating Dallas that focused on writing good book reviews. It was overseen by Dr. Glenn Kreider, who helped me shape reviews that met the above criteria. The resulting reviews were divided between two journals. In each case, I was the primary reviewer, but because I completed it under Dr. Kreider’s supervision, his name appears as well.

If we’d like to avoid more reviews like the one Jonathan Leeman read, maybe we ought to have more seasoned professors like mine who are willing to shape the reviewing tendencies of young academics. If they produce shoddy reviews, it’s probably not because they’re young, but rather untrained. Or worse, they’ve had shoddy reviewers modeled for them by older academics who should know better.

As I look ahead to the reviews I’ll do this year, I want to be more clear about my limitations and strive to hit the criteria Leeman gave us. I want to be more selective, while still writing on many books. That probably means less full critical reviews, but hopefully it will mean better quality reviews when they’re completed. And also, thanks to Leeman’s tweet, I think I want to resurrect the series on doing quality book reviews.

Or maybe I’ll just review tweets about book reviews…

The 2017 Reading Challenge (And How to Complete It This Year)

You may have seen my monthly posts throughout 2016 about Tim Challies Reading Challenge (see my year end post here). He made some changes to the overall plan to make it more flexible and is continuing it in 2017. You can download the plans here.

This time around, I’m planning to be a bit more strategic. I want to continue to read more broadly, but I also want to be more selective with the books I read in my usual genres. I am generally a completer when it comes to reading, so I’m trying to break that habit.

Along those lines, you may have wondered how I was able to read so many books last year (or in previous years). Part of the answer is found in Challies post on how to read 100 books in a year. I don’t typically set a goal for how much I want to read, but if you’re not in the habit, that’s a good idea. Also, his tips for constraining entertainment usage are helpful for time management.

Typically, I am able to read so much for a few reasons. First, I read 900 words per minute (on average). This comes in handy when reading so much within the biblical studies and theological studies genres. Often, you notice that many of these writers repeat themes and ideas. As an example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across an explanation of creation-fall-redemption-consummation in biblical theology. It is rare that an author says anything that adds to the discussion of those topics, so reading through that section of his book goes quickly.

Second, and this goes with the quicker pace, I don’t read every word (that’s part of how you do 900). I am reading primarily for comprehension, not necessarily absorbing each and every word. In non-fiction, the prose isn’t always that great anyway, and unless you’re reading a book by Kevin Vanhoozer, you’re not missing any clever turns of phrase or literary allusions. I’ll adjust my pace to compensate based on who I’m reading, but many things are easier to plow through if you’re primarily after the argument and comprehension. An extension of this is learning when to not finish a book, but that’s a topic for another day.

Third, I set aside specific times to read. For me, this is first thing in the morning after Bible reading, and then for a good chunk on Saturdays. I have two established reading spots (one morning and one afternoon) and will resurrect a third in the coming weeks (the beach). Having specific places and times to go read helps prime you for the task. Also, I bribe myself with beverages on both occasions.

Fourth, I read multiple books simultaneously. I guess “concurrently” is better. I only read one book at any one time, but I cycle back and forth between several. One reason for this is that I like to jump around on tasks. Another is that you can actually read more if you switch out books between chapters. I use bookmarks and chapters as naturally stopping points. In a typical morning session, I might read 2 chapters in one book, and then one in another. Mentally, this is actually easier than trying to focus on one book until you finish it. If you can learn to have several books going at once, and switch between them when you read, you’ll actually be able to read for longer stretches of time.

Lastly, reading is something I enjoy doing, so it comes easily. That being said, a downside to reading so much last year is that it means there are other things (like writing) that I didn’t do with the available time that I had. I was also reading a lot to escape, which is not a good thing in the long run. I am hoping to be more engaged in my relationships this year, and so that means less reading. I would rather have a balance ultimately, so this isn’t something I am reluctant to do. Ironically perhaps, my New Year’s resolution is to read less and relate more. As the months of 2017 pass, I’ll be sure and let you know how it goes!

Take The Gospel of John from Dallas Seminary for Free

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Following up from my Tuesday’s post, sometimes it’s a good idea to give seminary a try before fully committing to take classes. Thanks to Dallas Seminary, you can take a full-blown class for free. Specifically, you can take The Gospel of John with Dr. Mark Bailey (the seminary president and Bible exposition prof). The course is delivered by e-mail once a week for 8 weeks. Each week includes a video lecture, reflection questions, and resource suggestions for further and deeper study.

While this is a great option, it’s not the only option to try out seminary. Even while I was at Dallas, I profited from listening to lectures on iTunesU from Westminster and Reformed Theological Seminaries. The latter, RTS, has really developed their online modules since then (this was 6-7 years ago) and now you are basically getting everything you would get by taking a class. Well, that is except, homework, grades, and class interaction. I’m sure you’re fine without the first two, but I know many people thrive on the last one. For many, that might be a big part of why they go to class in the first place. If that’s you, online classes as a trial won’t give you the real feel for a class, or be a long term solution. But, if you listen online lectures and don’t wish you were there to be able to interact, that probably means you might not really enjoy class even if you could be there.

All of this to say, check out the class from Dallas. If you’re thinking about seminary, it’s a good way to try out a real class. Even if you’re not, but you’d like to know the Bible better, this is a great example of how you can go about doing that without relocating and/or spending money to further your education.

How to Get Started Reviewing Books: Setup and Practice

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A couple of weeks ago, we talked about why you’d want to review books. Once you have your “why” in place, it’s time to get started. If you already have a blog up and running, I’m assuming you’ll post there. If you don’t you could start by posting reviews of books you’ve bought from Amazon. If you don’t have a blog and you don’t buy books from Amazon, I’m not sure what to tell you. Why are you here?

I’m going to proceed assuming you’re a blogger, or at least aspiring blogger. If you want to make reviewing books something you do regularly, I’d want a website where they can be archived. While I could do a separate post on how to setup a blog, I’ll also assume you’re setup on something like WordPress and have been posting. You could be using a different platform, but since I’m not going to make it WordPress specific, it shouldn’t make a big difference.

I would recommend creating a draft within your blogging platform called “Book Review Template” that contains text that looks something like this:

Author, Title. Place: Publisher, Date.  pp. Paperback, Price

Buy it: Amazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to  for the review copy!

Overview

Evaluation

Conclusion

Save it in your drafts and when you start a review, open the draft, and copy and paste this into your new post.

You can tweak the above elements, but a good review will definitely have full bibliographic information, either at the top (like journals) or at the bottom (which seems better for blog posts). I used to do it at the bottom, then moved to the top, and have now moved it back to the bottom. As you can see, I like plans, changing plans, and regretting changed plans.

Beyond the bibliographic info, I’ve started providing a link to the publisher’s page for the book and also any excerpt that is available. If I’ve gotten a free review copy, I make sure to note it so the FTC doesn’t come looking for me. You could put the full blurb that is supposed to alert readers you’re complying with FTC guidelines, but I think overtly thanking the publisher makes it clear you didn’t pay for the book. If you do want to put the full blurb, it should look something like this:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

In addition to noting that, I also link to two consumer website: Amazon, and Westminster (if they have it). By doing this, I tend to earn on average a free book (under $20) a month on Amazon by people clicking my Amazon links and then making purchases. I get a small referral fee if they use my link even if they don’t buy the product I linked to. As an online book reviewer, you are contributing to the publicity and promotion process for a book and so in addition to getting a free book to review, it’s nice to get some side Amazon cash. Westminster’s program works a little differently. It takes longer to build up, but I’ve gotten several $50 gifts cards in the last few years of reviewing and linking. If you’re interested in getting that started, follow the links at the beginning of the paragraph.

The bottom three words, Overview, Evaluation, Conclusion, are formatted to be headings within the review, although I don’t necessarily always use them. At the very least, I use them as a mental outline. Generally speaking, your review should include some degree of overview that goes beyond the table of contents, but doesn’t comprise the bulk of the review (although it can). Likewise, it should offer your evaluation of the contents, both positively and negatively. Then, you should have some kind of concluding paragraph that ties everything together. This conclusion can be a good thing to post on Amazon and then note 1) you got the book from the publisher and 2) the full review is available on your blog.

As you’re just getting started, the best thing to do is pick a book that you’ve read recently and review it. I’d start with books that you’ve read that really grabbed your attention, either because you loved it or hated it. If you loved it, you’ll have not trouble summarizing and explaining why, but try to see if you can offer some criticism. Likewise, if you hated it, tell us why, but also commend what you can about it. The hardest books to review are ones that just seem kind of “blah.” By that I mean, books that are not interesting enough to get you excited and not horrible enough to make you mad. However, I tend to think that if you asked the publisher for a review copy, and they sent it, you ought to say something about it on the blog. We’ll talk about what to do here in a later post.

At this point, we’ve talked about why to review books and how to get setup to start doing it. In the next post, I’ll talk about good reading practices and how to apply those to your reviewing process.

Arriving Somewhere: A Series on Seminary Studies

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 years since I packed up my life and moved to Dallas to start seminary. Four years ago, I graduated and Ali and I moved to Florida. We initially lived with her parents and ironically, did so again last month for a short time in between rentals. Having finished four years of teaching a few months ago put me in a reflective mood. Then, several Twitter friends I have started their studies at TEDS this fall. This led me to re-think a blog series idea I had while I was finishing seminary. I had wanted to do a blog series on what seminary students ought to know. While the perspective of a freshly graduated student is helpful, I’m hoping the perspective of someone who’s been out for several years is more helpful.

In addition, I’m looking at the prospect of doing Ph.D studies myself, although not through a seminary. I’ll say more about that in time, but my approach to being a student will be different this time around. Part of this is differences in program (residential vs. distance) as well as aim within the program (general grasp of a field vs. specialized research in one area).The other part is that I’m hopefully older and wiser in my 30’s than I was in my 20’s (one can hope!)

This series will begin autobiographically and so somewhat parallel the book reviewing series. In short, before talking about how to be a successful seminary student, it’s worth thinking through why you’d even want to go to seminary in the first place. In some ways, Kevin DeYoung already covered this in his recent post. I’ll use that as a kind of framework in my next post and explain why I went and then why I think I might go again. DeYoung’s questions offer good ways to think through the big picture normative questions about the type of school you’d attend

From there, I’d like to talk through some of the situational factors that are relevant when deciding how to approach seminary. Cost is significant, as is the question of relocation. Time is certainly relevant, and so is job prospects after graduating. I won’t linger here too long, but some of these are things I didn’t adequately think through ahead of time, so don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Lastly, the bulk of what I’ll focus on relate to good practices as a student, which again, dovetails nicely into the book reviewing series. It will also be here that I start taking you along on my own nontraditional journey toward Ph.D studies. Here, I’ll focus on reading and writing well, as well as the overall conceptual architecture you bring to your studies. I’m not exactly an expert, but it’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the last decade. And, now that I’ve been teaching for a few years, I’ve added some teaching tips that I wish I would have been developing while I was still primarily a student.

All in all, I’m hoping to actually make this series stick. If there’s particular questions or aspects you think I should definitely touch on, let me know and I’ll do my best to include your ideas!

3 Reasons I Want to Review Books (And You Might Too)

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You may remember a blog series I claimed to be starting last fall. I’ve long thought it worth putting some organized thoughts down on how to go about being a book reviewer. For reasons I can’t remember, I was sidetracked last fall and so the series never really got off the ground. As I’m getting more organized now, I’d like to resurrect it.

While I talked about how to approach buying books, and a bad reason to want to review them, I didn’t have much else to say on the topic since deciding this series was in order. If you look back at the original outline, the latter post falls under the existential perspective. It is a negative point about why you’d want to review book in the first place. Here, I’d like to offer a positive point and then move on through some other existential considerations before going back to a situtational rundown of actually acquiring books.

Before you really start reviewing books, you should have a good “why” in mind. That might seem rather basic, but it can be easy to just get sucked in without giving the process too much thought. Initially for me, I posted book reviews on my blog that I had completed for classes. As this was near the end of my time in seminary, my initial “why” was staying sharp by engaging in academic exercises in theology.

Over time this unfortunately morphed into a way to get free books. But I was still committed to reading them and writing down my thoughts rather than just taking advantage of publisher’s generosity. Also, down the road I began doing more research for teaching as well as work for Docent, so book reviews weren’t entirely necessary to keep my academic muscles strong. It was around this time that my pace of reviewing took a noticeable drop as time was being devoted elsewhere and books were being bought instead of requested. After a while, I lost interest in doing reviews, but still felt compelled to complete ones for books I’d already requested and received. More recently, my interest has been renewed and revitalized and so you’ll probably start seeing more and more frequent reviews in the coming months.

Now, that gives you some background and ups and downs, but doesn’t really explain why I keep reviewing books now. I think ultimately it comes down to three reasons (of course).

  • I enjoy reading and writing
  • I want to contribute to scholarship
  • I want to serve others by helping them steward their time and money

Enjoy

I enjoy reading books and processing what I’ve read in writing. I don’t enjoy all books equally, but I enjoy a good book and I like to think out loud about what I’ve been reading. In that case, I would, and will, write about books that I read even if I don’t necessarily have to for a review. If you this doesn’t describe you, (1) I’m not sure why you’d want to review books, but more importantly (2) if you don’t enjoy doing book reviews, just don’t do them. Unless it’s an obligation (and if you’re blogging it probably isn’t), you’re free to spend your time doing other things. I’ve taken seasons here and there to do that myself, and I’d encourage you to do the same. If you enjoy reading and writing, you’ll probably enjoy reviewing book. If you don’t, you won’t. At the end of the day, you should enjoy the basic activities that go into book reviewing if you’re going to spend time doing them.

Contribute

Beyond simple enjoyment, you should want to contribute something through your reviews. That doesn’t mean that every review must be a seminal work that shatters everyone else’s preconceived notions about the book in question. It does mean that your review can’t simply be a summary of the book. Summaries can be helpful, but they’re not offering any kind of scholarly or academic contribution to the subject. A good review has some degree of summarizing, but it also includes analysis and that’s where your contribution usually lies. That being said, in reviewing books, you should want to contribute something to the conversation the book is a part of. Your analysis can be both positive and negative, but generally speaking, that’s what makes your review worth reading (or not). I like to shoot for having some kind of particular angle in the review that adds to what others have said, or brings my own background understanding to bear on the book in a way that I think others might not do.

Serve

Not every review you offer is going to contribute something academically substantial. I tend to decide while reading the book how much I want to engage it in writing once I’m done. Some reviews (like my new books of note), is really just sharing my basic ideas about the book and who might find it helpful. More rarely, I may have a harshly critical review in hopes of steering people away from a particular resource. In both cases, I’m sharing about what I’ve read so that others can make an informed decision about how to spend their time and money. I am also in these cases serving the publisher who gave me the book by letting others know what I think. If I have established a reputation as a thoughtful reader, then my opinion on a particular book’s value has some clout. If that’s the case, I ought to use it wisely and also keep in mind my potential influence (even if it’s small) when it comes to evaluating books.

Ultimately, I want to take something I enjoy and make it academically profitable and practically useful. If I can do that through my review (in the past and moving forward), then I think I’m on the right track with what I’m doing here.

Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life

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It’s a bit of a stretch to think of myself as a professor. I am a teacher, and while I do have graduate education in my field, I don’t have a terminal degree yet. I’m actually kind of in limbo while I’m getting experience teaching and thinking about dissertation ideas. Although I don’t have concrete plans for starting a Ph.D, I at least have an idea what kind of program I’ll do. In the meantime, I’m trying to devote time and energy to professional development and so I thought it would be useful to read Gary Burge’s Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life.

It’s a short book, very conversational and lightly anecdotal. Rather than chapters, Burge divides his discussion after the introduction into three cohorts. These cohorts represent the stages of professional development in a professor’s life, each of which is framed by a question:

  • Cohort 1: Will I find security?
  • Cohort 2: Will I find success?
  • Cohort 3: Will I find significance?

Each of these cohorts has a threshold to cross. The first is getting hired post-Ph.D and situated into a teaching career. The second is moving from simply being a teacher to contributing to your field. The last is establishing a legacy as you move toward retirement years. Burge draws from insights in psychology about how our identities are formed in order to inform his writing. Within each chapter he lays out the traits of someone who is navigating well and highlights the risks that need to be avoided. He also writes as someone who is either late in cohort 2 or early in cohort 3 in his own teaching career. Having successfully navigated most of his own academic career allows Burge to offer readers very sage advice for their own journey.

It was interesting reading through this as someone on the fringe of the academy. I’m still age-wise and career-wise in cohort 1 of Burge’s typology. However, my path to cohort 2 would be non traditional to say the least. While it might seem like the next step is a Ph.D, it seems more profitable at the moment to focus on developing a research focus and starting some preliminary writing. It would be hard to go from where I am in reading and writing to doing a dissertation. Obviously seminars in the North American model are aimed at helping you make that transition, but since I don’t want to do a Ph.D at a seminary or have seminars, I’m kind of doing that part of it on my own. It’s cheaper and easier to fit into my current teaching position, but it is better to read critically in community.

All of that to say, Burge’s book helped me think through some issues and actually provided good motivation for wanting to eventually do that Ph.D and to take seriously some kind of research program in the interim. If you are on the pathway to becoming a scholar, this book is worth checking out. It would be ideal for those currently doing their Ph.D, but with all the other reading that comes with that, it might be better for someone considering a Ph.D program (me), or someone in their first few years of teaching (also me) post Ph.D (not me). If you fit anywhere along that spectrum, give this book a quick read. Also, check out this video of Burge explaining it better than I probably just did:

Gary M. Burge, Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, July 2015. 144 pp. Paperback, $16.00.

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Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian Persuasion

9780830836994

I have a fairly long interest in apologetics. I’m not actually sure when it started, but the skeleton was taking shape by the time I left Bible school and was put to the test while I worked at Starbucks. The bones got meat put on them while I was in seminary, and I would eventually win the apologetics award for my Th.M thesis. All during this time I was reading books on the subject, either content or method. But, in all that reading I never really came across a book quite like this one.

I’ve read a few Os Guinness books in the past, one at the direct recommendation of Chuck Swindoll when I talked to him after chapel (he enthusiastically told me to read The Call). Neither was directly about apologetics though. This book, is not directly about it either, at least in the sense that most people would think of a book being about apologetics. There is a chapter explain why we shouldn’t be after the latest and greatest techniques (chapter 2), but that’s often a feature of works on apologetics. There is no extended presentation of the viable evidence for Christianity, yet that doesn’t mean arguments aren’t made for its validity. And while technique is eschewed, there are two chapters on general approaches to persuasively interacting with nonbelievers (chapters 6 and 7).

In a word, Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian Persuasion re-frames the motive and aims of the apologist slash evangelist. In an age where most everyone says “I post, therefore I am” (15) Guinness seeks to remedy “a central and serious shortcoming in Christian communication today” (16). Specifically, “we have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it” (17). “Persuasion” in this sense being “the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say” (18).

This leads to the heart of the problem, which Guinness explains as a problem of the heart (18): “The fact is that much contemporary advocacy ignores the deeper understandings of the spiritual and philosophical ways in which people think through their faiths, change their faiths, and the impact of their cultures and their ways of life on their thinking and beliefs” (18). We won’t understand unbelief and so have difficulty persuasively explaining our beliefs. We also mistakenly assume people are open to what we have to say when increasingly that is not the case.

In the first two chapters, Guinness makes a case for creativity in our persuasion while also avoiding a reliance on techniques. In regards to the former, Guinness argues that our discourse must be cross-centered and cross-shaped. For the latter, Guinness suggests that “Technique is the devil’s bait for the Christian persuader today” (30). Because there is no such thing as “McApologetics” (32) we mustn’t offer a one-size fits all approach to our persuasion. Ultimately, persuasion is an art, not a science and in its creative form “is the art of truth, the art that truth inspires” (34). We need more cross talk than clever talk (39). Because creative presentation is spiritual and moral, in addition to being intellectual (43), we must avoid simple reliance on technique which is never neutral and “essentially soulless” (44).

Chapters 3 and 4 make a case for defending our faith and being willing to be seen as foolish in doing so. In this regard, Guinness states,

Apologetics (from apologia in Greek) is a “word back,” a reasoned defense mounted on behalf of the one we love who is innocent but has been falsely and unfairly accused. Faith desires to let God be God. Sin has framed God, whether by the ultimate insults that he, the creator of all things, does not exist, or that he, the white-hot holy One, is responsible for the evil and suffering that humans have introduced into his good creation. So God’s name must be cleared and his existence and character brought to the fore beyond question (54-55, emphasis original).

Because of this, “so long as sin frames God, those who love God have a job to do in the world” (55). In the course of making our defense, we may appear foolish, but this is the way of the “third fool.” There are fools proper (see Proverbs) and fools for Christ (see 1 Corinthians). Then there are fool-makers, those willing to be seen as foolish in order to “bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor that he has no clothes” (72).

Chapter 5 presents an erudite explanation of unbelief. In biblical perspective, “the central core of the anatomy of unbelief stems from its willful abuse of truth” (85). It does this through suppression, exploitation, inversion, and ultimately self-deception (86-89). This all leads to a tension that will not quite go away. Because the truth is, well, the truth, a worldview that reacts the way unbelief does will always sit uneasily in a person’s conscience. Guinness explains this the “dilemma pole” and the “diversion pole”:

The dilemma pole expresses the logic of the fact that the more consistent people are to their own view of reality, the less close they are to God’s reality and the more likely they are to feel their dilemma. The diversion pole expresses the fact that the less consistent people are to their own view of reality, the closer they are to God’s reality so the more they must find a diversion. Neither pole is necessarily closer to God, because unbelief as unbelief will not bow to God either way, but the people at either pole are relating to God and to their own claims to truth in entirely different ways (96, emphasis original).

In our culture, people more often gravitate toward the diversion pole as a our technological society proliferates. However, the dilemma pole is more consistent and leads to biblical themes like becoming like what your worship and reaping what you sow (98).

Given this understanding of unbelief, Guinness offers two strategies for persuasion in chapters 6 and 7 respectively. The former discusses “turning the tables,” which is more suited to those near the dilemma pole while the latter discusses “triggering the signals,” which is more suited to the diversion pole. For those more consistent in rejecting God (dilemma), the tables being turned pushes their own argument back against them in a variety of ways. For those less consistent, but just as disinterested (diversion), the signals triggered point to something beyond their current belief system that can only make sense in God’s reality. It is a way of sometimes waking our conservation partner from their agnostic slumbers.

In the final chapters, touches on using questions well in conversation and other ways to spring load our persuasion (chapter 8). He also discusses how to not shy away but embrace the accusation of hypocrisy (chapter 10), while not claiming to always be right (chapter 9). He closes chapter about those in the church who have left and how they become formidable challengers to the Christian faith because of their inside perspective (chapter 11), and a general overview of the apologist’s journey (chapter 12).

While I could probably continue on for another 500-1000 words about how excellent this book is, I think you get the idea. Guinness helps readers go a long way toward recovering the art of persuasion which often fails to be on many would be apologist’s radar. He takes elements from many schools of thought and threads them together in a way that will help readers integrate the best insights those schools have to offer. What might have been helpful is to chart some of this more clearly in the endnotes (which are unfortunately not footnotes). Having read widely in apologetics, I’m aware when he is being presuppositional, but that’s not always clear. The target audience might be why this kind of conceptual architecture wasn’t laid bare. It seems geared toward a general audience (this isn’t IVP Academic), but it is a very sophisticated read, and so may shoot over many lay reader’s heads. Needless to say, this all points to the challenge involved in writing this sort of book. At the end of the day, I think Guinness did a fine job and you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of this book.


Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian PersuasionDowners Grove, IL: IVP Books, July 2015. 270 pp. Hardcover, $22.00.

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