Intellectual Depth – Healthy Rhythms pt. 3

(This is part 3 in a series on healthy rhythms that I began before Jeff’s surgery. I’m continuing it now. Part one, where I introduce the series is here and part two, where I write about the value of good conversation is here.)

Thinking deeply is a bit of a lost art. It is not that people don’t think about big topics or devote large amounts of time to personal study anymore. It is just that it is so easy in our culture to take in lots of information without digesting it. There is so much of it out there. Something is always next and competing for our attention. And our schedules are so full! There is little time to fully grasp all that comes across our radar.

In the course of a normal week, a Christ-follower might hear a sermon (maybe 2 or 3 if they listen to podcasts), maybe a small group lesson or discussion, maybe an outside book and reading the Bible for themselves at least, hopefully, a few times a week. That alone would be a lot to process. (And I’m not saying most Christ-followers should intake this much by the way. But some do.)

But then throw in the normal diet of news, texts, YouTube, surfing the internet, Facebook, email and hours of tv and entertainment. Then there is the daily visual and audio onslaught of living in our world. There is always a screen in front of us. Traffic to navigate. An advertisement tempting us. Background noise filling the void. And I haven’t even mentioned the more important time-consuming practices of building and maintaining family and friend relationships that takes time every day. What about the normal chores like laundry, dishes, helping kids with homework, shopping or maintaining things that occupies hours of our lives every day?

All of it competes for our attention and intellectual bandwidth.

We are busy people, taking in a lot of information. It is so much in fact that a lot of it marches in the front door of our minds and walks right on out the back. We don’t have room for it all to stay a while. We remain acquaintances with people we just say hello to and we become friends with those we spend time. It is true of people and it is true of ideas.

Therefore, it can be a healthy thing to set aside time, to narrow the scope of our intake and to challenge ourselves intellectually with one topic, rather than many. To slow down and focus, to think deeply about one topic. To intentionally choose what gets our intellectual attention rather than letting the world, culture, our smartphones or twitter choose for us. To intentionally read a challenging book, not rushing past it, but digging deep into its contents until we feel like we own it. To explore something off the beaten path of the everyday and mundane. To do some research, reading and pondering, instead of wasting our thought time by not really thinking. 

I’m not sure the topic itself is what is important, but the discipline, the rhythm of kicking my brain into gear and choosing what I think about, is. And periodically, I need to exercise the practice of not moving forward to whatever is “next” intellectually, until I feel I’ve fully digested whatever is “now”. 

This can look different depending on the person, their learning style, the season of life, the interest and/or the reason for consciously deciding to take one’s intellect deeper rather than wider for a while. For some, it may look deciding to turn off the tv for a weekend and using that time to read. For others, it may look like figuring out a hole in your education or the practice of your faith and deciding that you want to shore that up with some study 0r seeking out a conversation with someone who knows more about it than you. Maybe it is a trip to a museum or historic site.  It could even be reading your facebook or twitter feed more slowly and actually clicking on a link or two that a friend recommended – and then dialoguing a bit with them on why the topic is important, challenging or thought-provoking. Or maybe it just involves paying attention to when you might need to park and get of the intellectual car instead of just driving on by.

For me, sometimes my study time feels like the equivalent of eating a bag of potato chips while watching tv. I ate it, but don’t always remember doing it, perhaps feel a bit queasy and I’m not entirely sure I would do it again if I were paying closer attention. I don’t like it when I do this, either with chips or reading…so I am learning to practice a rhythm of greater intellectual challenge.

Holding On To What I Read (Reading Well pt. 4)

For those who love books, it is an easy (and potentially destructive) temptation to skim and try to finish a text without really owning its contents. Here, the goal is to make a mental check and be able to say, “I read that,” without really, really reading it. Because I enjoy reading so much and because it is almost effortless for me to just let my eyes scroll through pages…I am guilty of this sort of mindlessness all the time. And then saying, (ok, boasting) “I read that.”

I used to enjoy reading for quantity… reading as much as possible, often as fast as possible. Honesty alert – I still do this sometimes. Especially when I come across something I feel like I’m “supposed to have read”.  And for the record, this isn’t always bad. We can all sometimes grasp the gist of a book quite well with little effort – and sometimes our time is more valuable than a wrestling with the content. As I age however, I realize the importance of reading for quality. When I take the time to pick up a book I feel has something to offer me, I need to give it the time and attention it deserves. Therefore, I find myself reading less … but in a weird twist, actually reading more, if you know what I mean.

The goal of reading shouldn’t be just to finish the work, but to engage with it – whatever that looks like for you. Sometimes it looks like … acquiring information. (Sometimes just because it has been assigned or would be something good to know.)  Other times it looks like a conversation between two friends as they warmly discuss something they mutually love. It may resemble a wrestling match at times when the author and reader disagree over something, each trying to best the other. Or it may be an experience where the reader is introduced to something totally new, their imaginations pushed to new and wider places – and it takes a while to figure out what the book is doing to their mind and heart. At least that’s how it looks for me sometimes.

With this as an introduction, I want to address potential ways one can hold on to what one reads. While reading a lot of text, a lot of material and a lot of pages, how do I ensure that I retain the important information in a way that changes me? Or at least so that I am open in such a way that there is the potential for it to change me? Or that I can access important points later if I need it? Books have been written on how to read books (sort of ironic…) but here are my thoughts on it and practices with it.

1. It’s not all important.  A while back, I heard Rick Warren talk about his reading habits. He said, “Not all chapters are created equal.” The point was that even though he is a voracious reader, he doesn’t feel obligated to read an entire book, because some of its content is more important or more applicable or more relevant than the rest. So he picks and chooses often. I took this to heart. When reading a book, sometimes I go cover to cover and dig in. Even if I have to make myself, because I think the material is important.  Sometimes I skim the parts that I think aren’t as important. And I’m totally ok with this.

2. Read with a highlighter. Yes, I’ve heard that reading with a highlighter isn’t always a good way to retain information.(Especially if it is a black sharpie:) But it sort of works for me. It allows me to slow down when I recognize an important concept or sentence. It allows me to combine being a visual learner (using the eyes) with being a kinesthetic learner (using the body and movement), hitting two different modes of learning. And it gives me a way to later find what I thought was important as I was reading it. Sometimes I will make notes in the margins, but because I often sit or lay down comfortably while reading, my physical position makes this difficult. I’ve gotten quite good at highlighting a book while flat on my back.

3. Blogging. No secret here…if I find an idea intriguing…I often write about it on the blog. I think of it as an ongoing discussion with the material…and a way to invite Jesus into the conversation as well. If I can articulate an idea in writing, I own it at a completely different level. If I didn’t blog regularly, I suspect writing key ideas, quotes or thought-provoking questions in a journal would do the same thing – create another opportunity and mode of learning with which to filter the information. But I know not everyone blogs, so I also make…

4. Journal lists. I don’t always have time to sit down and formulate a whole blog post on something I’m thinking about. I don’t always have time to sit down and journal an idea thoroughly when it hits either. So sometimes I start a list in my journal. It can be of ideas, concepts, questions, phrases…things I want to remember for later. It is a shortcut that doesn’t take much time and allows me to revisit something later if I want. For instance, a list for me might be, “What I’m Thinking About Right Now…” or “Things I Would Like To Talk Over With A Friend…” or “Scriptures to Re-read When I Get More Time…” or “This Author/Book Has Made Me Think About…” These lists often have their genesis in the books I’m reading.

5. Conversations. One of the easiest ways to more clearly remember something I’ve read is to talk it over with a friend. I often carry what I’m reading around, to coffee or lunch dates, to church, etc. If I get there first, I nonchalantly place it on the table to see what sort of response it gets. This allows me an easy conversation starter. Or…I ask someone else, “I’m reading something and thinking about it ________ could I get your opinion on it?”

6. Trust God to bring to mind what I will need when I need it. I know that pastor types often have intricate filing systems to store what they read for later sermon prep. I’m not a pastor. I’m just type A housewife who loves to learn. And even though I publicly speak occasionally, the idea of a filing system seems to duplicate material – because the material is sitting right there in the book on my shelf  (or in my Kindle). Instead, I read, keep the book handy, and trust that if God wants me to revisit the information at some point – either for myself or for teaching prep, then He will jog my memory. So far, He’s been very reliable:). And then, I am free to enjoy reading something rather than stressing too much over, “What if I forget this?”

The reality of course is that we forget much of what we read. Which is ok. Even if I remember just a bit of what I read, it is still more than if I’d never read anything. And, the practice of actively reading something is incredibly valuable. It keeps my mind sharp, creates opportunities for God to speak to me through it and inevitably changes me.

Not Just Reading to Stay Current But Reading To Grow Deep – (Reading Well pt. 3)

When choosing which books to read, which authors to allow to invest in my intellectual and spiritual development…

It is an easy temptation to limit myself to current bestselling authors, those that generate buzz on Amazon, that have displays at the Christian bookstore or that get pushed through the big conferences. I definitely read to stay current, engaging the ideas and idea-generators that are impacting our culture. There is nothing wrong with this.

But there is nothing new under the sun. The Jesus I know and love today is the same Jesus believers have known and loved for centuries. He doesn’t change. And while Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, the culture and circumstances through which we experience Him do.

So I regularly read from authors of other time periods and other nationalities:

Those who had to lean on Him through the middle ages where famine and disease and unbelievable uncertainty reigned were privileged to see facets of His character that are all but invisible to me in modern 21st century America. Those who had to work through the ethical dilemmas of the World War II era in Europe, where there were no easy options to escalating evil that snuck in the backdoor. They learned things about making decisions that could cost their lives that I may never be forced to learn. The desert fathers of the first millennium who left civilization, embracing chastity and devoting their intellect and vitality to the study the scriptures and contemplative prayer in the wilderness were privy to a quietness of soul I can hardly imagine. They were able to explore the depths of their hearts in ways that invited God to speak to them deeply, personally and tenderly.

These are all people I want to learn from. Yet they are not of my generation, century or culture.

These are not writing today’s bestsellers. Their books are not always easy to find. These are the authors and texts I must seek out if I am to read them – like buried treasure, tucked away on someone else’s bookshelves or hidden in the recesses of Amazon’s warehouses. Their works are timeless and filled with insights that are almost impossible to find in modern pages. And because they have already passed, I know how their lives ended. I am assured that they actually lived all they believed till their last day – and that they finished their race well. As such, I have more confidence that they really knew what they were writing about.

So I read authors from the past generations. From different centuries and nationalities. Here, my goal is to read to grow deep, not just to stay current.