Advice from a Mentor
I always recommend that folks should receive Doug Kutilek’s monthly email list called, “As I See It.” His compilations are always stimulating and interesting. He provides some of the best reviews on a variety of books both theological and non-theological. To get his electronic “magazine” shoot him an email at DKUTILEK@juno.com.
This month Doug provides challenging advice for young men and their personal study habits. A few of these recommendations I have already cultivated, but I certainly could improve my note taking from the books I read (see #2).
[The following section is taken from Doug’s most recent As I See It, June 2010, Volume 13, Number 6.]
A Mentor’s Recommendations
Note: I was recently asked to serve as “mentor” for a student taking courses in a Bible college. I compiled a selection of practical suggestions for this student. Perhaps my suggestions to him may be of some use to others.
1. Begin keeping a journal, to record your thoughts, life events, ideas, quotes found in reading, observations, plans, etc. This will serve you well for review, reflection, and more. I have kept a regular (though not daily) journal since 1977. I have tried bound (blank-book) and spiral notebooks, and prefer the latter (I have about 60 volumes of journals). And you should go back from time to time and re-read what you wrote (I recently re-read my journal for most of 2009). It will remind you of things that ever-so-quickly slip from memory.
2. Keep a list of all books you read, noting author, title, date, total pages, and an evaluation (“review”) of the book, noting good and bad points. I commonly make my own index--written inside the back cover--of every book I read of thoughts, quotes, information, etc. that were of interest to me, or that I may wish to access in the future. Often times, a mere glance at a list of books I read 5, 10, even 20 years ago will stir up memories of their contents, memories buried deep in my mind and not consciously remembered in years. This list can be kept either as a computer file or as a hard copy. Keeping this list of books read as a database allows sorting by author, title, date, etc., which facilitates answering the questions--how many books have I read by this author? When did I read such and such a book? How many times have I read this volume? Obviously, what we read affects what we know, and how we perceive things. Tell me what books a man has read, and which ones he values most, and I will tell you what he is.
3. Compile a continuing list of books you need / ought / want to read, and then actually set about to read them. [Amazon “wish lists” are helpful in this regard – fb] I almost always write up on January 1 a list of 15-20 books I want to read “this year” though I rarely get more than a handful of them read--other books snatch away my attention. A couple of years ago, I without design had read 7 of the top 10 books on the New York Times non-fiction best-sellers list (I’m sure that has never happened before, and will almost certainly never happen again). There are some authors of whom, over a period of years or even decades, you will want to read the whole of their literary output.
Set an annual goal of reading that you are capable of, and then set it a bit higher, to challenge yourself. I personally try to read 50 books / year, or 1,000 pages per month. I usually come close to one or the other, and occasionally exceed them both (though this past year was my poorest in quantity of reading in a decade or more). Of course, it is better to read fewer good books well, than to merely gorge your mind with reading. As Sir Richard Baxter is quoted as having said, "It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good, but the well-reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best."
In an average lifetime at 50 books / year, a man could read 3,000 books, more or less. Since you are mortal and your time limited, and the number of “worthwhile” books (to say nothing of the mediocre ones) greatly exceeds your reading capacity, read the best whenever you can find it, and don’t waste time--or money--on inferior and second-rate works. Seek out and get and read the best, even if they are more expensive or more challenging.
Of course, determining what books are worth reading, are “essential reading,” or “not worth reading” is the problem. The best guide is to ask people who read a lot. You will soon discover whose opinion is worthwhile and whose isn’t. Seek to read the best two or three books on a subject; read them closely, and you will be well-informed on the subject they cover
Constantly be on the lookout for areas of deficiency in your personal knowledge, and set about to fill these deficiencies. It may seem a bit odd to ask yourself--“What is it that I ought to know, but do not?” but do so anyway, and then seek to repair the defect. Of course, there is nothing which so exposes a man’s ignorance as extensive reading--you discover whole vast territories of information that you didn’t even know that you didn’t know. In reading, knowledge increases arithmetically, while discovered ignorance grows geometrically.
Deliberately seek out old “classics” and read them along with newer books. C. S. Lewis suggested alternating in read--first a “modern” book, then an old. While a “classic” has been cynically defined as “a book everyone has heard about but nobody reads,” many such books have attained lasting fame for reasons of real merit.
Keep a list of books you “want”; birthdays and Christmas happen to every one, and someone just might ask--“what do you want for your birthday?” A list ready to hand makes the answer easy.
4. Begin to build a good personal library of reference books. A library need not be large to be adequate, assuming it has been well-chosen and well-used. More than half the books I own are such that I could dispose of them without loss were I on campus at a Bible college or seminary with access to their library for occasional reference, but since I am isolated and am forced to fall back on my own resources, I have acquired and kept a large number of “just in case the subject comes up” books. And sure enough, from time to time, a subject comes up, and I have at hand the necessary resources to address the matter. This happened about 15 years ago. I was scheduled to teach in Romania a course on “cults,” including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had in my library three good books on that cult, all purchased in the 1970s, and all unused until the teaching of that course fell to me. And in the mid-1990s, all three were out of print and unavailable. Had I not purchased them 20 years earlier, I would not have had them when I needed them.
I have compiled a list of about 100 or so essential books for reference purposes and if a man had nothing more, he could exhaust himself for decades thoroughly mastering these. I will send the list by e-mail [and on request to any readers--editor]. Many of these as well as other books are often available on CD or in some other electronic format. I personally very much prefer “paper and ink” books over anything displayed on a computer screen (unless it is otherwise not accessible).
5. Begin a chronological list of every Bible message you teach or preach, noting text (or topic), date, place, occasion and attendance (estimate this latter figure). Again, this can be kept manually or on computer (but be sure and regularly back up and keep a copy remotely if you do). This list is valuable for a number of reasons--it will keep you from giving the same message to the same audience (I’ve done that before!); negatively, it will show you what subjects you have neglected to teach or preach. Etc. I did not start to keep such a list until the early 1990s when I began going to Romania (there it proved essential, since I speak so often in so many places--in some places just once, in others hundreds of times). Your list can also be consulted when you are looking for a message topic or text--in the nature of the case, I taught the same lesson to jail inmates about once every 7-8 months when I was active in that ministry, since there was constant turn over in the jail, and many Biblical passages are ideally suited for such an audience. When I was preparing for a Bible study at the jail and was stuck for a text or topic, consulting my list brought ideas immediately to mind.
And keep on file a copy of every outline you prepare, though I will admit to having trouble deciding how to file them--in Biblical order by text? In chronological order by date? In logical order by topic? A copy under each of these orders? Being mostly unable to decide, many of my hardcopy outlines are conserved in a jumbled stack several inches thick.
6. Read well-selected periodicals. I receive about 8-10 periodicals (some monthly, some bimonthly, some quarterly), some I read all through, others just what interests me. Among those I read are The Biblical Evangelist edited by Robert Sumner; Acts & Facts from the Institute of Creation Research; Answers from Answers in Genesis; Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Biblical Archaeology Review; and a small handful of others. Let me also recommend to you “As I See It” which I edited and publish myself. It is impossible to read anything more than a small fraction of the flood of periodic literature, but reading from it selectively will help you keep “current” with trends and news, etc. By the way, I don’t read the daily newspaper, partly because its news is mostly stale, and besides I don’t like the leftist political slant of the local paper (I get most of my news electronically--television, radio, internet). And the newspaper can be quite time-consuming (G. Campbell Morgan never read the newspaper in the morning--he reserved that time for his ministry studies).
7. Prepare a plan of what you currently think you want to do ministry-wise for the next 5, 10, 20 and 50 years (such schemes are always subject to revision and mid-course changes). And then write out the means necessary to reach these goals. Having specific aims, goals, or direction always motivates me to try just a bit harder and achieve a bit more.
8. Make it a fixed purpose in your heart that you will study and learn as opportunity presents itself (or you make your own opportunity) Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin, plus one or two modern foreign languages (Spanish and German are both good, as would be French or Italian or Romanian--the list is endless!). Knowledge of languages, besides facilitating Bible study, will greatly improve your knowledge and mastery of English, and enhance your writing and speaking style. The older I get, the more I value my knowledge of foreign languages, and the more I see the need to expand it yet more.
9. Begin writing regularly--topical studies, technical research papers, devotional articles, etc. Then go back and revise, correct, improve, etc. (and keep a list of all your writings that get published). At first, you might find it beneficial to imitate the style of one or more good writers, as you develop your own style. The spoken word is ephemeral at best; the written word is more permanent. “The writing that men do lives after them.”
10. Keep a daily and an annual list of your Bible reading--I do this on a pocket calendar. In my case, I record any chapters completed, and the language read in (last year I read more of the Bible in Spanish, and Romanian than in English, and almost as much in German). At the end of the year, I compile the numbers and examine them. This will help you evaluate your Bible reading. Again, reading intensively (closely and carefully) is better than merely reading extensively (much, but not with attention). Not uncommonly, I may read the same Bible chapter four times in a single day, in as many different languages. This compels close attention, and yields a fuller understanding than a single reading, or even multiple readings, in English alone. It would also be worth your while over a period of years to read in their entirety four or five of the best English versions--NIV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, etc.--regardless of what version you regularly read from.
11. Begin a topical filing system for the collection of clippings, articles, etc. on topics that are likely to come up in your ministry or that interest you, and make a separate folder for each topic (my filing system, in some disarray, probably has 500-800 separate folders, maybe more, in half a dozen filing cabinets. I’ve been needing to up-date it, purge it of some extraneous stuff, and reorganize it, but how much fun would that be?).
12. Become “expert” in one or more areas that interest you--I myself have an above average knowledge of Spurgeon, Baptist history, Bible versions, textual criticism, the American Civil War, Scientific creationism and apologetics, trees and grasses, agriculture and gardening, linguistics, Samuel Johnson, etc. I have read and continue to read extensively in all these areas (on the other hand, I know next to nothing about counseling, church growth techniques, church administration, Oriental history and culture, oceanography, etc.).
In all of these suggestions, there is the common thread of progress in usefulness, growth in knowledge, efficiency in ministry, and avoiding that deadly sin of stagnation. This isn’t all the advice I have to give, but it is a start.