Wondering what to read before seminary?

On the Twitter, Jennifer Guo pondered which books she should read before seminary. My normal response would be to remember that scene from Good Will Hunting about library fees and Harvard education. But on the other hand, seminary can be super useful and if you’ve counted the cost, so to speak, then I shouldn’t attempt discouraging anybody. Guo seems, if her blog is any indication, to be well read and informed. So she doesn’t need my recommendations. I won’t recommend language books because I’ll assume that people go to seminary precisely to learn the languages. But, if I had to recommend important books to read prior to attending:

  1. Pick a solid book on logic and critical thinking. Perhaps Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic. Also, for paper writing read Weston’s Rulebook for Arguments.
  2. Read the whole Bible and the Apocrypha, Seminary is not the right place to be surprised by the content of the Holy Writ.
  3. Read Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
  4. Read Overnight Student by Mike Jones. It is no longer available online, but I summarize his method here.
  5. Read any brief book on public speaking, perhaps Dale Carnegie’s brief book The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Public Speaking. Obviously there is more to it than he says, but he makes it simple. And if you use the study technique in The Over Night Student then you’ll get to practice often.
  6. After this, read Precious Remedies for Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks and put it into practice. Seminary can leave you associating your devotional life with the burden of studying, learn to resist this. Seriously, schedule devotional time and never miss it unless there is a serious emergency. Morning is best.
  7. Learn to use a planner and don’t start seminary until it become a nearly religious practice.
  8. Read a book about financial management and put it into practice.

There is a giant stack of books that transformed how I read and preach the Bible, these are books and practices that will help you in seminary and beyond.

Fatigue and Heavy Lifting

When I was younger I used to train really hard. I still tend to do so. But when I was younger, I don’t even remember why, but I decided that it would be important to test my ability to lift insanely heavy weights under psychological distress. To simulate that state, I did what I hate the most: I ran. I would run 1.1 miles in the windless, midnight heat of Texas (I got off work at 12am back then). I would time it so my roommate could try to beat my time next time he ran. Then I would rest for 3 minutes or 1.5 minutes depending on the day and do a 20-rep squat or warm up to a 3X3 squat. I would then do deadlift, bench, chins, and a single of clean and press for fun. I only weighed about 135 back then because I could only afford, on average, about 1300-1500 calories a day.

In the last year I’ve bumped by dead lift up to 375 for easy singles and my squat up to 365 for the same. I’m not that strong at the moment because summer break comes with a whole list of challenges that make routine gym adherence difficult. I did buy some on-sale equipment for the garage though. That brings me to my point. On days when it is inconvenient to make it to the gym, I do some dead lift, ab roll outs, and heavy bag in the garage. But I decided: why not do dead lift under psychological distress like in the old days. Anyhow, I was doing 255 for reps after hitting the heavy bag for three three minute rounds. Then today I did a three minute round and two five minute rounds on the bag. It was about 91 degree out, but the heat index was 102. I could only pull 205 off the floor five times before I felt like collapsing.

Moral of the story: in door strength training is definitely good for you and most certainly to be preferred to other fitness craziness. But, if you want to test your meddle (while taking safety precautions for heat and fatigue) doing heavy weights in a state of metabolic and psychological distress will certainly indicate what you’re made of. I’ll look up research on this topic and post it later.

George Herbert and the Life of Rigour

George Herbert has been one of my favorite poets since 2005 or so. One of his longer poems, the Church Porch, contains an interesting few stanzas concerning the vigorous or strenuous life that would fit right into a book by Teddy Roosevelt. If you aren’t a fan of poetry, just read the bold lines:

Flie idlenesse, which yet thou canst not flie
By dressing, mistressing, and complement.
If those take up thy day, the sunne will crie
Against thee: for his light was onely lent.
God gave thy soul brave wings; put not those feathers
Into a bed, to sleep out all ill weathers.

Art thou a Magistrate? then be severe:
If studious; copie fair, what time hath blurr’d;
Redeem truth from his jawes: if souldier,
Chase brave employments with a naked sword
Throughout the world. Fool not: for all may have,
If they dare try, a glorious life, or grave.

O England! full of sinne, but most of sloth;
Spit out thy flegme, and fill thy brest with glorie:
Thy Gentrie bleats, as if thy native cloth
Transfus’d a sheepishnesse into thy storie:
Not that they all are so; but that the most
Are gone to grasse, and in the pasture lost.

This losse springs chiefly from our education.
Some till their ground, but let weeds choke their sonne:
Some mark a partridge, never their childes fashion:
Some ship them over, and the thing is done.
Studie this art, make it thy great designe;
And if Gods image move thee not, let thine.

This is very motivating reading. If God’s image in you, stir you not unto your child’s education, then let your own image! Remove all sloth from your life and do useful, soul enlarging things (fill thy breast with glorie!). Whatever your employment do it with such excellence that your life or at least your death will be glorious! Flee idleness, run not from the troubles of life by sitting about pouting. Aha! Great stuff.

King James Bible

Why you should read it:

  1. It is one of the few “church Bibles” we protestants have. Even though it was produced by the state of England, at the time, that was indistinguishable from the Anglican Church.
  2. It is an important piece of literature in Western Civilization.
  3. It isn’t under copyright.
  4. It is the inspired writ, so reading it is just good for you.
  5. Pulling a quote from the KJV has a poetic effect that is rhetorically useful simply due to our built in reverence for the king’s English.
  6. Due to the effort required to follow each sentence, if you’re a lazy reader, you may find yourself reading it more carefully.

Why you should read other translations:

  1. The King James Bible can be hard to understand (this can be remedied with a dictionary).
  2. The King James Bible, though it has some excellent renderings, also has some places where the rendering is uncertain (look up the marginal notes and the 1611 preface). Certain modern findings related to ancient Semitic languages have helped us, especially in OT translations.
  3. The Greek Text underlying the King James Bible, though a marvelous achievement in its day, has been advanced upon in many ways. Note: if you wish to have a Greek Text on the cheap, you can get that version from the Trinitarian Bible Society website for 10 bucks. I don’t know that any other bound edition of the GNT is so inexpensive. (Note: that website seems to be a KJV Only website, but a ten dollar GNT is hard to pass up if you don’t already have one. I have that text type GNT already, otherwise I would buy it.)
  4. Because you should read the Bible in the dialect most similar to your own if you aren’t a Bible scholar.

Evangelical Myth: Let God Do It Through You

There is a method of Christian advice giving and sermonizing that is very popular today that essentially involves claims of this sort: Don’t try so hard to over come sin, you’ve got to stop trying and just let God do it through you!

It’s a persistent notion and I’ve over heard it given as advice in coffee shops, in hall way discussions in seminary, at chapel messages, etc. It often finds its iteration, for pastors and the like, in phrases like this, “I just had to get out of the way and then watch God work.”

In my experience this has been very common amongst my more charismatic brethren (perhaps influenced by the Keswick movement), amongst generic evangelicals who attend mega-type churches, and folks who have a particular approach to Calvinism that is somewhat allergic to notions of trying.

I wish I had sources for this error, but it seems to rarely make it into writing in the circles of books I read. It does appear in at least one song I know, “Heroes Will Be Heroes” by Cool Hand Luke. Anyhow, for anybody who wonders, “How do I stop trying and let God do my sanctification through me?” or “Why should I feel guilty about trying to obey Jesus rather that just doing it out of joy and gratitude?” Here’s why it is okay to actually do the things Scripture says:

  1. Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus say, “Don’t try this stuff, but let me do it through you.” He is actually very clear that his hearers are obligated to “hear these words of mine and put them into practice.”
  2. Paul, for all his talk about the Spirit’s activity in believers, never once tells believers to “let God” do anything through them. He does tell believers that “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).”
  3. One rationale I have heard for this advice is that “trying is still ‘in the flesh,’ you just need to get out of the way.” There are three reasons that this is mistaken.
    1. This metaphor doesn’t work. ‘Getting out of the way’ is still a form of trying.
    2. The works of the flesh in Scripture are represented as sinful behaviour in Galatians 5 and the grounds for boasting in the flesh is related specifically to certain practices of Judaism that some early Christians were attempting to require of new, non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Either way, the flesh, in these cases is not referring to trying so much as it is referring to human life opposed to or ignorant of God’s purposes in the gospel (so either sinful abandonment to the passions or misunderstanding the relation of the New Covenant to the Old Covenant).
    3. Jesus himself gives stark imperatives to people who are sinful: “Sin no more. (John 5:14)” If he meant for us to not actually try to overcome sin, I suspect he would have said, “wait upon God to deliver you of the arrangements you’ve made to allow for sin in your life.” Or he might have said, “The kingdom of God is at hand, DO NOT REPENT, rather let God repent through you.”
  4. The rest of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, the apologists, the Nicene era Fathers, the reformers, the Desert Fathers, the Methodists, and C.S. Lewis all report that the Christian life requires a great deal of effort, self-regulation, self-denial, spiritual discipline, and rigorous reflection upon the gospel message.

All told, when Jesus came he not only preached the gospel, he was the gospel. Paul described that coming thus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Tit 2:11-14 ESV)”
There’s a lot in there about God’s grace doing what we cannot do. But that does not discount the need for training and training means trying. So do it, go actually do the Christian life today. It’s what makes sense.

Calvin on Psalm 146:1

 Commenting upon the phrase, “Praise the Lord, oh my Soul,” Calvin observed:

Although his heart was truly and seriously in the work, he would not rest in this, until he had acquired still greater ardour. And if it was necessary for David to stir himself up to the praises of God, how powerful a stimulant must we require for a more difficult matter when we aim at the divine life with self-denial. As to the religious exercise here mentioned, let us feel that we will never be sufficiently active in it, unless we strenuously exact it from ourselves. As God supports and maintains his people in the world with this view, that they may employ their whole life in praising him, David very properly declares, that he will do this to the end of his course.
John Calvin and James Anderson, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 285.

Calvin is pretty clear that the Christian life is a strenuous life. It’s certainly no easier than Stoicism, but it is certainly more rewarding.

Studying Scripture and Following Jesus

I really do believe that the best opportunity any human being has is this:

28 Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι, κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς. 29 ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφʼ ὑμᾶς καὶ μάθετε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, ὅτι πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ, καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν· 30 ὁ γὰρ ζυγός μου χρηστὸς καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν.

Come to me all who are weary and weighed down and I will grant it that you should rest. Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me , because I am meek and humble hearted, then you will find rest in your souls. For my yoke is good and my burden is bearable. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Following Jesus, in the sense outlined here is much easier, in the long run, than ascribing to various isms, ologies, and ians. This is the same Jesus who says to do very hard things, but the rest offered in the kingdom is worth it.

But I’m not talking about the difficulties of following Jesus. I am talking about another set of difficulties. Following Jesus in a day to day, mystical, communal sense has intellectual difficulties but, by and large, is simple. Pray daily, stay away from evil, treat others with dignity, take the Supper with God’s people often, hear the Scripture read and explained often, turn your thoughts hourly toward Jesus, his Spirit, and his Father, don’t correct people lightly, forgive those who ask you to, don’t buy frivolous stuff, and most of all remember that God is gracious and good and that all of your salvation is a free gift. This seems to summarize the simplest aspects of the Christian life that are contained in the New Testament.

But, the brain work of determining which of our beliefs are from Jesus and his apostles, how metaphysics interacts with revelation, how ancient anthropology gives us a clearer insight into Scripture, etc are all, in my mind, very important. But, those habits of thought are also not necessarily helpful for the average Christian who does not work with people hostile to the gospel or who does not have to apply the gospel to the lives of several dozen people on a weekly basis like a pastor or Sunday school teacher.

I do think that studying the Scripture in an academic fashion is important for everybody who can. It certainly is not necessary in the way that knowing the basics of the gospel of Jesus is necessary. Similarly, studying theology is something important for everybody who can do it. I suppose the rule in all things is this:”…we know that everybody has knowledge. Knowledge arrogates, but love builds up. If any supposed that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know, but if anybody loves God, this one is known by him (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 Geoff Translation).” If your studying gives you A) knowledge that can improve your lot and that of your neighbor B) greater love for God C) greater love for others then stick with it. If it creates arrogance, frustration with people who don’t study the same stuff, or a mean spirit then you should probably stop studying at the academic level altogether for a while and simply memorize important passages of the New Testament and put them into practice.

Anyway the academic study of Scripture and theology bears great fruits for those who are called to the task by pious curiosity (to add a deeper dimension to discipleship), position (pastor/teacher), or need (evangelist, apologist). But going beyond certain basics when you cannot yet, by practice, determine the difference between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14) is dangerous.

But, as I say all of this, I still think about several evangelical myths that, though they may not be ultimately deadly to faith are nevertheless false and perhaps laughable to many who give the issue a modicum of thought.

Is it possible that we have a tendency to unnecessarily complicate certain things and an equally silly tendency to over simplify certain other things?


Mega-Church Sermon Idea

The Four D’s of the Christian Life:

  1. Get your finances in order in three easy steps.
  2. Have an extra sexy super duper sex life in three easy steps (with Bible verses).
  3. Go to small group Bible study every week.

If you do these four things (Just remember: the four Ds!) you’ll be a mega member of a mega church mega family.

Ouch! Nanos on Schreiner

Schreiner’s criticism involves a claim to speak authoritatively for Paul and God, and thus for historical truth. Following such a remarkable methodological claim, one might expect his dismissal to be closely based on what Paul wrote—but it is not. To put this bluntly: Paul may well have been inspired to speak for God (which is not historically verifiable), but unless Schreiner claims the same inspiration for himself, he should accept that he is, like everyone else, limited to engaging in the interpretation of Paul’s texts. Consider briefly each of the details of his summary description. – Four Views of Paul the Apostle, 58

Charlton and Exercise

Bruce Charlton is one of the brightest bloggers I’ve ever come across. He’s also brilliant off the internet. He posts interesting, though not always totally convincing essays on a variety of topics: evolution, Mormonism, Christian spirituality, etc. He recently posted about exercise and fitness. This is important for him, I wager, due to his interest in evolution and civilization.

He ends his posting, characterizing people who lift weights thus:

Nowadays, the local equivalent are the vastly bulky androgen-using power-weight-trainers, maybe working as ‘bouncers’ (door security) – who are fit for lifting weights, and strong at lifting weights (and presumably also at shoving and hitting people).

Or perhaps they are sportsmen – who are fit for their sport – strong at whatever the sport requires.

Or perhaps they are the narcissistic weight trainers/ body builders who use drugs (and dietary supplements etc) – but only as a means to the end of enhancing and sculpting their muscles, and making themselves feel more… well, if not exactly ‘masculine’, then at least macho.
They are fit to look at themselves in the mirror; to parade up-and-down in cut-away vests, shorts and flip-flops. They are strong at using exercise machines. 
Fit for what, strong at what?
And what is the point of it?

I do believe that his answers to the closing questions are meant to be inferred to be “Nothing.” and “There isn’t one.” But I would wager that there is ample evidence, scientific (which he notes might be poorly done in the comments) and anecdotal that strength training improves several domains in the life of the practitioner who also aims to practice certain Christian virtues like humility and modesty. Thoughts:

  1. The average western male has a job that precise atrophies the body rather than toughens it. Part of Charlton’s point is that in older times men had bodies that could be useful for battle if need be because their jobs demanded it. Weight training fills precisely this gap.
  2. Weight training, according to many who do it thoughtfully, can improve pain tolerance as well as patience for long term goal seeking.
  3. Being physically stronger, as a Christian, allows one to serve others in more fruitful ways. Moving things, catching people who fall, being less tired after physical exertion are all useful skills that are strongly lacking in our era.
  4. Physical strength can decrease the likelihood of several types of injuries because weight training strengthens bones, connective tissue, and muscle.
  5. Caring about physical beauty is not, in itself, vain. Weight training is a way to maintain physical appearance without resorting to methods that do not arrange for personal discipline or physical improvement (like various make-ups, piercings, and personal enhancements)
  6. Most people I know who lift weights also note an increase in mental acuity and focus when they are disciplined about the process and their diet.
  7. Very few weightlifters that I know actually dress the way he mentions except in the gym (where I lift, it is incredibly hot, I simply wear basketball shorts and a single pocket shirt I bought when I was 18).
  8. He is right that in some sense improvement is task specific, but there is such a thing as general strength. Learning to use exercise machines does not necessarily translate well into other tasks, but lifting heavy objects, doing chin-ups, running sprints, etc all translate well into other tasks.
  9. Weight training can lead to helpful results when only a brief time is used per week over the course of a year. Somebody who walks for an hour every day need only utilize an hour maximum one to three times a week to see excellent results over the course of a year.

I’m citing anecdotal evidence here precisely because all of these claims could be attested to by asking a large number of people who, precisely because they take their exercise seriously do not have the moral maladies Dr. Charlton associates with that particular use of leisure time. I’ve had very useful improvements in my health from strength training, some of which involved utilizing self-experiments very similar to those Dr. Charlton himself laments the loss of in modern science.