Write more better: read!

There are certain authors whose books are about as much fun for me to read as chewing glass. Some are written so poorly that, in my cynical moments, I wonder whether their authors are functionally illiterate or simply hate words. Most of these are written by pastors and academics, sadly.

There are several reasons for this: some, while being very well-spoken, lack writing skills (they’re only being published because they have a big church). But others either don’t read or read too much of the wrong types of books.

And so comes today’s tip for becoming a better writer:

Tip 3: Read. A lot!

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This advice is well-known, particularly to those familiar with Stephen King’s On Writing, or Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy. Both are strong advocates of writers being readers:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” King writes. “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of.”

“Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it … Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading you will not be able to remember,” Wilson likewise encourages. “The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.”

Both advocate reading in terms of sheer volume, but another concern needs to be raised: variety.

Writers—especially Christian writers—desperately need to vary their reading. I’ve never really had a problem reading a lot, but I have frequently had issues varying the genres I read. It’s easy, especially when one writes a lot of contemporary theological issues or reviews books written with Christians in mind, to get stuck reading only books of that sort. This was me up until a couple of years ago when my friend and colleague, Amber, called me out on it and challenged me to start reading fiction again, which I’ve been doing increasingly ever since.

What’s been fun for me in reengaging fiction, beyond enjoying good storytelling, has been looking at how authors are using words–the emotions they’re trying to convey, the response they’re encouraging, what they’re doing to keep me following along and interested… This is really helpful from a practical standpoint (as well as being a lot of fun).

Some may read this and object, saying, “But I don’t like fiction.” Okay. My wife is right there with you. Try it anyway. But try the right stuff. Go to your public library, for goodness’ sake. Ask for recommendations on Facebook or Twitter. Heck, read the blog post I’ll write on this sometime next week! But even if you never want to write fiction, you should still read it. It’ll make your non-fiction work better.

To be fair, being a reader doesn’t make one a writer. Many people read a great deal yet still cannot string together a coherent sentence (without the help of a well-paid ghostwriter). Regardless, while not all readers are writers, exceptional writers are readers.

Write more better: be coachable

I’ve never met a good writer who has it all figured out. The best I know are eager for feedback. This isn’t because they love having their egos stroked, but because they want to get better at what they do. As much fun as praise is—I mean, who doesn’t love reading an encouraging comment (they’re not just an urban legend!) or a thoughtful review of a book you’ve written?—it doesn’t help you become a stronger writer.

For that, you need thoughtful critique. And you also need humility in order to learn from it. Which takes us to the second tip in our quest to become better writers:

Tip 2: be coachable.

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Being coachable is primarily an issue of character. It means being humble enough to evaluate oneself honestly and to receive instruction and correction where needed. As a writer, there are several groups you must be willing to hear from:

Editors. One of the most difficult moments of writing my second book was when my editor told me, “What you’ve said is right and good and true, but you’re losing focus. I need you to re-work it.” Hearing this, I was disheartened. After all, I’d put in a ton of work already, and the idea of more wasn’t terribly appealing (since I was trying to avoid a season of writing from after dinner until 1 am). But the criticism was bang-on. So, I got to work and we wound up with a better book as a result.

Why do I share this? Because good editors are your best friends. They’re there to help you sharpen your words and ideas, and help steer you back in the right direction when you’re going off on a rabbit trail. Listen to them!

Audience. Yes, our writing is “for” us, but it’s also for other people (or else, we would keep diaries instead of blogs). My favorite moments here have been receiving constructive criticism in a comment and taking that as an opportunity to revisit what I’ve written (this happened last week, in fact). An engaged audience is really helpful to learn where you’re lacking clarity, making a weak argument or a strong point. Listen to them!

Peers. This is a funny group, because they sometimes act as our editors (informally), other times they are a part of our audience, and a lot of the time they’re simply there to help us push through a block or work out an idea. They’re also really great at providing hard critique in a way that doesn’t crush your spirit. Listen to them!

But the ability to listen to any of these really comes down to your character. You can “hear” what’s said and not do anything with it, but your writing will suffer for it. But if you can be humble and learn from the critique (or outright criticism) you receive, and act on it, you’ll be much better off.

Write more better: write simply

Most of my training has come on the job. I didn’t go to school for journalism or anything like that. I wasn’t a writer until I was one, and I didn’t plan on being one at all. So, when I’m asked the question, “How do I get better at writing,” I feel a little embarrassed. This is not because I don’t know what to say, but because I often feel like I’m making it up as I go along (even when I’m not).

I’m kicking off a new blog series called Write more better: Unoriginal (but helpful!) tips for writing well. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be sharing a few tips I’ve found helpful on the journey to being a writer. If you’re in the same boat I was a few years ago, or are just looking for some advice on how to write well, I hope you’ll find this series helpful.

Alright, let’s get started.

Tip 1: Write simply.

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What do I mean by “write simply”?

Three things: Avoid technical language. Keep your sentences simple. Don’t be a show-off:

Avoid technical jargon

Now, there are times when technical jargon or other big words are unavoidable. When it is, we should bring clarity by explaining what they mean. But any time we can avoid jargon, we should. Often, we use jargon not because we must, but because it’s convenient. This does a disservice to our readers and paints us as being a bit lazy.

Keep your sentences simple

While there are appropriate levels of complexity, overly-complicated sentences tends to suggest we don’t know what we’re doing.

Take this sentence for example:

A chief programmatic outcome is to ensure beneficiaries have developed sufficient relational skills to thrive.

I’m sure you can figure out what I’m saying here, but there are easier ways to write it. If I were writing with simplicity in mind, it might look a little more like this::

We are going to teach people how to make friends because it’s important.

The first makes you die a little on the inside. The second actually tells you something.

Don’t be a show-off

The best way to summarize this point is as follows:don’t use “utilize” when “use” will do.

I hate people using the word “utilize.” Just hearing the word is like fingernails running down a chalkboard, something that amuses my coworkers greatly. While I don’t believe most people mean it this way, using unnecessary big words often comes across as showing off. You’re trying to impress us with your vocabulary, but you’re really only making yourself look silly.

Five books I’m (probably) not proposing

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One of the scariest part of the writer’s life is proposing books. When I first finally mustered up the courage to send out a proposal for Awaiting a Savior, I was more than a little overwhelmed by the whole experience. The book sat with multiple publishers, most of whom rejected it, before Cruciform Press kindle picked it up and made it the moderately profitable book it is today.

But there have been many (many!) other book ideas that have come up since then. At present I’m hoping to see at least one come to light, but only time (and the Lord’s sovereign hand) will tell. But there are others. Some have the potential to earn tens of dollars, some are purely entertaining for me, and others would probably be best left in a folder called “don’t ever, ever try to write these.”

Which is which? You tell me:

Idea #1: Contentment and the Art of Ministry-Mobile Maintenance

What my franken-car taught me about contentment and humility in the face of strange noises and all-too-frequent repair bills.

Idea #2: How to Win Friends and Pants People

Become an influencer in the wrong crowd with this surefire self-help bestseller.

Idea #3: Your Average Life… Now!

While every day might be a Friday for some people, the rest of us have a case of the Mondays. Own your okayness as you learn that you don’t have to have it all, that a “meh” day isn’t a sign of unfaithfulness and sometimes “success” just means getting your pants on right the first time.

Idea #4: Discipline (Is) For Dummies

Join my children and me on a journey of discovery as we seek to learn about “consequences”.

Idea #5: The Prophets’ Diet

More prophets than Daniel have something to say about your eating habits. With advice from the likes of Ezekiel, Elijah and John the Baptist, this is guaranteed to be the last Christian diet book you’ll ever (want to) read!


An earlier version of this post was first publishing in April 2011. Photo credit: geoftheref via photopin cc

Links I like

#HowOldWereYou: Origins of a Heartbreaking Hashtag

Karen Swallow Prior:

A central plot-line in the disturbing but stunning 1999 film American Beauty involves sexual fantasies about a teen girl by the main character, a middle-aged suburban husband and father desperately living out a quiet nightmare version of the American Dream. In a discussion of the film with my then-boss, an older man, a strong Christian leader and educator, he told me, “Any man who says he hasn’t had such fantasies is a liar.” His candor was as rare as it was refreshing. But what he said wasn’t shocking.

Ed Stetzer offers some additional commentary on the post that inspire #TakeDownThatPost and #HowOldWereYou hashtags of last week.

Right Questions Matter

JD Payne:

There are many questions to be asked about church health and mission. Many are being asked with the right heart. But right motives are no guarantee that the right questions are being asked.

We often ask questions with familiarity in mind. This is a good place to begin, but we can’t remain here. Unfortunately, we often stay put. We have not learned the stewardship of questioning.

The right questions matter.

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Crossway has a few books by Kent and Barbara Hughes on sale this week:

Risky Gospel by Owen Strachan is also on sale for 99¢.

Because we’re Christians, kids

Trevin Wax:

There’s a phrase I’ve heard in our home lately. It pops up whenever the kids ask why we do things differently than other people.

I noticed it first when our son asked why he and his sister aren’t allowed to say certain words his friends say.

“Why can’t we talk that way?” he asked.

“Because we’re Christians. Jesus saved us, and we want to honor Him with our lips.”

Perfectionism Will Ruin Your Writing

Marc Cortez shares a helpful quote from Anne Lamott.

Some Observations on Tone of Voice.

Lore Ferguson:

In our day to day life, we’re face to face, tone of voice is heard, body language is seen. On the web, though, and social media, we are left without those necessary cues. If a person uses coarse or aggressive language in a post/comment, and defends their words with, “I just want to have a conversation,” they should understand words that sound conversational to them may sound abusive to someone else. And likewise, someone like me who feels any slight pushback is a personal affront to my character, my spirituality, my soul, and my personhood needs to take a step back and assume a charitable posture.

Look at the Book

A preview of the ongoing video series from John Piper on studying the Bible:

3 reasons I’m reading more fiction

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When I was a boy, I loved reading (and obviously I still do). I remember going to the mall in St. Albert, Alberta, with my mom and sister one Saturday morning, and as soon as I was able, I beelined for the bookstore and spent all the money I had on a paperback novel. If I remember correctly, it was A Rock and a Hard Place, one of the early Star Trek: The Next Generation tie-in novels.

(Don’t judge me.)

When we got home from the mall, I went up to my room and I started reading. I didn’t finish until the entire book was done. Incidentally, this may have been the most peaceful day of my mother’s entire life as a parent.

All through high school and college, I read tons of fiction and dabbled in non-fiction as I got older (provided the topic was interesting enough). My reasonably eclectic (and sometimes pretentious) tastes always made for interesting late night reading on bus rides home from my college job at a bookstore here in London (Coles in White Oaks Mall, for those interested—it’s now a Bath and Body Works, I believe).

And then, for some reason, I just stopped reading fiction and began almost exclusively reading non-fiction. The genres were, again, pretty varied—business, social commentary, theology, biography—but for nearly a decade, I lived on a steady diet of non-fiction.

A couple of years ago, a co-worker of mine challenged me to change that. So, I did. I spent most of that summer reading fiction, including the Hunger Games series. And I’m really glad I did, because it reminded me how unbalanced my reading had become.

Since then I’ve tried to keep a pretty decent balance of fiction and non-fiction in my literary diet. Here are three reasons why I think it’s a good idea—especially for us yahoos who are really into theology and such—to be reading fiction regularly:

1. It exercises my imagination. One author I really enjoy is Greg Rucka. He’s a genius when it comes to placing you in a real world. Exceptionally well-researched work that gives you all you need to properly picture the scene—whether it’s a Disney-esque theme park, Middle Eastern streets so crammed with people you almost feel claustrophobic, or a small apartment filled with the scent of pancakes and orange juice. When I read his stuff, I get very excited as my mind starts to build the world he describes. It’s the same with series like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings—good authors know how to make their fictional worlds feel real by giving your imagination enough room to work.

2. Balance is really important. Imagine you only get your news from CNN or FoxNews. You won’t actually be getting the news, you’ll be getting a sensationalized interpretation of said news from one perspective or another. But when you watch or read multiple perspectives on the same story, you begin to get a better picture of the reality of the situation. Our reading habits are like that. When we only read one genre, or a very limited range of genres, we become unbalanced. We start thinking too small, and overlook different possibilities, and kind of bore people when we talk about what we’re reading (because, honestly, it’s a rare person who actually wants to talk with me about a biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones or a book on heretics).

3. It makes me a better writer. I’ve gotta be honest: too many non-fiction writers seem to lack any sort of artistic passion in what they write. They write technically well, but it’s not terribly exciting stuff to read. But good fiction—keep in mind, there’s a bunch of poorly written gobbledygook out there (I’m looking at you, Twilight)—is great art. And good writing—great art—makes me want to write better.

How varied is your reading? What’s one fiction book you want to read?


photo credit: gioiadeantoniis via photopin cc

Links I like

Is it My Fault? A new book by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb

Today, the new book by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, officially releases. The book “was written for those suffering domestic abuse—typically women—and serves as a resource on healing from the emotional pain resulting from domestic violence by giving a clear understanding of what the Bible says about violence against women.”

Today through May 15th, Moody Publishers is offering readers 40 percent off your purchase of the book using the coupon code 40%Fault. Go here to take advantage of this deal.

Christ and Pop Culture

A while back I started reading an excellent website, Christ and Pop Culture. They’re producing some terrific content, increasingly some of the stuff I look forward to most when I check my feed reader. They’ve got a ton of potential to grow and have a lot of dedicated volunteer writers and editors, but they’ve got a teeny problem: being able to grow means money. Give their appeal a read and consider signing up for a membership.

And What About Divorce?

Kevin DeYoung:

After last week’s post on gluttony, a host of similar comments bubbled up about divorce. Isn’t it hypocritical of Christians to protest so loudly about homosexuality when the real marital problem in our churches is divorce? Over many years debating these issues in my own denomination, I’ve often encountered the divorce retort: “It’s easy for you to pick on homosexuality because that’s the issue in your church. But you don’t follow the letter of your own law. If you did, you would be talking about divorce, since that’s the bigger problem in conservative churches.”

When it comes to debating homosexuality among Christians, the issue of divorce is both a smokescreen and a fire. It is a smokescreen because the two issues-divorce and homosexuality-are far from identical.

When We Are Not Robustly Trinitarian, Our Gospel Will Not Be Robustly Christian

Michael Reeves

HT: Justin Taylor

18 Principles from Pixar’s Culture

Trevin Wax:

The new book from Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, is a must-read. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration is fascinating in its portrayal of Pixar’s history of successes and failures, and insightful in its boiling down of Pixar experience into transferable principles.

From the book, here are 18 lessons we can learn from the culture of Pixar.

The Only ‘Always’ in Health Care

Robert Cutillo:

Injustice in health care is a question I ponder regularly in caring for those who are mostly poor. But it has forced me to ask another question: “What can we reasonably expect healthcare to do for us?” Even if I were able to obtain every available service for my patient, I could not guarantee her freedom from pain. I could not promise her satisfaction. In my experience, even with the best of hopes and intentions, and despite modern preconceptions to the contrary, I have found that our needs and expectations for care of the body always exceed what is possible. If this is true, is there is anything we can reliably hope for in health care? And what might it look like to live faithfully in the resistant gap between what we have and what we hope for?

Can you write about writing without sounding like a tool?

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An increasingly popular topic (and, arguably, increasingly popular faux pas) is writing about writing. Now, there are certain people who can and should write about writing. For example, when a Doug Wilson or Stephen King writes about writing, it’s going to be worth reading. Why? Because they have wisdom to impart that’s based upon decades of experience.

But most of us aren’t these men. We lack experience and are short on wisdom. So when we write about writing, it’s usually about stuff like calling and destiny and dreams and such things. But writing this way has an unfortunate side effect: more often than not, we come across a bit pretentious.

While sometimes we might feel as though “here I write, I can do no other,” when you actually say it, it just sounds kind of, well, dumb.

So is there a way to write about writing without sounding like a tool? Sure.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Don’t write about it often. Let’s just be honest: the best kind of writing about writing is the kind that doesn’t happen too often. (And as a friend pointed out recently when curmudgeoning about this very subject, it’s telling that few exceptional writers actually write about it at all. Instead they just write. That’s good advice for us all.)

2. Keep it practical. If you’ve been reading helpful books on writing, like Wordsmithy, On Writing, How to Write Short, or even Bird by Bird (though I’m not a huge fan of Anne Lamott’s style), write about that. If you actually learned something useful while working on a big project (like a book), share something like that every once in a while.

3. Keep it honest. An example will be helpful here: Every time I’ve been asked about why I started writing, I’ve said the same thing: I started writing out of pure desperation. It wasn’t a perceived calling. I didn’t have a fire in my bones or any such thing. I was thrown into a writing job and needed to figure out how to not suck at it. When I say “keep it honest,” that’s what I’m talking about.

And that’s pretty much it. If you write about writing and don’t want to sound like a tool keep it practical, keep it honest and don’t do it very often.

Unless I’m wrong, in which case you’re on your own.

The glamor of God-honoring grammar

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One of my favorite books you’ve never read is The Gospel and the Mind by Bradley Green (which I reviewed a looong time ago). This book didn’t exactly light any fires on the sales charts, but man, did it ever pack a wallop. Why? Because it makes a connection that once seen, you can’t unsee:

The farther we get from the gospel, the more impaired our thinking becomes.

Green demonstrates this by appealing to history, theology and philosophy, showing that the Christian faith encourages a rigorous intellectual life. But when the gospel is set aside and eventually abandoned, our ability to reason inevitably goes with it.

Our culture is certainly proof of this. We routinely see very intelligent people come to incredibly stupid conclusions. We see it at play in our peculiar understanding of tolerance, and in our frequent appeals to our feelings as the final arbiter of truth. And we even see it in-house among professing Christians, as many who call for grace and charity routinely (and intentionally) misrepresent their opponents’ views in order to stir up controversy.

This is hardly the fruit of right thinking. 

But impaired thinking goes beyond these big issues and flows into the little things of everyday life—including our ability to write coherently.

“In an era of skepticism about the possibility of meaning, we should therefore expect to see poor sentences,” Green writes. “We should expect, in a post-Christian culture, to see poor grammar, poor composition. And this is, of course, exactly what we see” (The Gospel and the Mind, 123).

In other words, when meaning is lost, coherent language follows. 

Again, look at the plethora of examples out there. Read a status update from a teenager on Facebook. Read a tweet (almost any will do). Read any number of Christian books… (Yeah, I went there. Sorry guys.)

Christians must—must—be people who communicate clearly and communicate well. This means we should be people who pursue excellence in our use of the written word. We shouldn’t be satisfied with a crass perfunctory approach to writing, treating it purely as a function and not as a skill or an art. We should revel in clever wordplay. We should delight in coherent sentences. We should rejoice in God-honoring grammar.

We should pursue and celebrate excellent writing, with restored hearts and renewed minds, for this pleases the Lord.

Have the courage to apologize

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

So yesterday news broke about yet more unethical behavior from a celebrity pastor, this time buying his way onto The New York Times bestseller list.

There is so much wrong with this kind of behavior that I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, I’m not sure I could say it any better than has been said here. But since reading about this latest in a series of life lessons on the dangers of unchecked hubris, there’s been one thing I’ve felt I’ve needed to say:

If you’ve done this, have the courage to apologize. 

Look, I know none of us are perfect. Anyone who says they’re without sin is a liar and a fool, and I am chief among them. But you know what I do expect? I expect that if we’re people who claim the name of Christ, we’re people who apologize and mean it.

What do I mean when I say we “mean it”? Simple: we’re genuinely repentant.

So a true apology is not immediately pleading Jesus, saying how thankful you are that He’s forgiven all your sins, past present and future. That’s spiritual and emotional manipulation, not asking for forgiveness. And it’s not a political non-apology, something akin to “mistakes were made.” That’s acknowledgement, not contrition.

What I mean when I say apologize is simple:

  • specifically name your action or attitude
  • own your personal error
  • explain how you are making restitution
  • ask for forgiveness

But all of this, of course, hinges on a critical truth: you have to actually think what you’ve done is wrong.

My fear for many who engage in shenanigans of this sort is they really don’t care. As much as they want to say they’re trying to boost the name of Jesus, they’re really out for themselves. They’ve traded integrity for influence. So the ends justify the means (even when the means are wrong). Their consciences may be so seared that that they’ve become blind to their own folly. They are like those leaders who sat in Moses’ seat, whom Jesus commanded the Jews to listen to but not imitate, for they do not practice what they preach.

They talk a good game, but it’s all talk.

“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26)

Your integrity is worth more than your celebrity.

Your ministry is more important than your influence.

Your reward with Christ is better than the riches of this world.

If you are truly in Christ, you know this to be true. Now act like it. Have the courage to apologize.

The danger of overextending your reach

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A friend of mine recently lamented the blessing and curse of podcasts. The blessing is obvious, and the danger is equally so: podcasts can “ruin” us for ordinary pastors. There’s a dangerous temptation to treat podcasts as our pastors, and to forsake biblical community for a hyper-individualized spirituality.

But there’s another danger we don’t talk about quite as much: the danger to the pastors who are extending their reach beyond their local church.

You might be reading this and thinking, what on earth could be dangerous? After all, many pastors write books every year, podcast their sermons, and write blogs. Some even find themselves speaking at conferences, of whom the majority of attendees are undoubtedly not members of their congregations.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, certainly. So why do I have a concern? Because there’s a question we always should be asking: is trying to extend our reach taking away from our primary ministry? 

Now, I absolutely believe pastors should write books (at least, those who can write). I’d go as far to say as pastors are obligated to share the wisdom and insights they’ve gained with the larger body of Christ, and more specifically, with younger pastors and leaders.

But many pastors who are asked to write books aren’t asked because they’ve demonstrated they can write, or they have the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime of ministry. They just have a lot of people showing up on Sunday.

Whether or not a pastor has the chops to write a book, start a blog or start a podcast, the temptation to pursue these things is enormous. But in the pursuit of these things, it’s easy to start cutting corners, even unintentionally. Research gets reduced or outsourced. Sermon prep is virtually non-existent. Counselling and community are sidelined. The result? Once-excellent communicators become unconsciously incompetent (which inevitably leads to becoming dangerously stupid). Congregation members begin to feel neglected. Frustration builds, and eventually something’s going to give.

In the attempt to extend their reach, I fear many church and ministry leaders are in danger of destroying their ministries, and may not even realize it.

When I was working on my books, one of the challenges I faced was securing endorsements. I tried to get Kevin DeYoung to endorse Awaiting a Savior. I didn’t succeed, obviously (although I suspect it would have sold more if I had). But you know what? I am so thankful I didn’t. Why? Because his church has set up accountability structures to prevent outside activities from negatively affecting his ministry to his congregation. 

This is the kind of self-aware church leader we need more of—the kind who understands the danger of overextending his reach. Leaders who know they can’t really trust themselves to know how much is too much, and who surround themselves with men who will tell them what they don’t always want to hear.

6 quotes Christians need to let lie fallow

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

We Christians do love our quotes—and there are so many brilliant ones to choose from! But by golly, we sure do seem to be a repetitive bunch. Far too often, we’re using the same quotes, over and over.

And over.

So yesterday, inspired by a friend’s lament of the increased use of the Samwise “everything sad is coming untrue” quote from Lord of the Rings, I took to the Interwebs to get your feedback, asking what you believe are the most over-used quotes from Christian authors.

Here are the top answers:

1. “We are far too easily pleased…” From C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

2. John Piper’s mission statement. From Desiring God (and pretty much everything else he’s ever written and/or preached since):

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

3. “He is no fool…” From The Journals of Jim Elliot:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

4. “More wicked… but more loved.” Tim Keller’s gospel summary, from multiple books and sermons:

“We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”

5. C.S. Lewis’ trilemma. From Mere Christianity:

‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

6. The one which Martin Luther never actually said. But the ideas can definitely be gleaned from his work:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

You can see why they’re quoted so often. They’re conceptually brilliant and (in most cases) captivating in their simplicity. But there are two dangers with quoting these so frequently:

We risk cheapening their meaning. And when that happens, powerful truths become pithy sentiments. 

That’s the first danger. The second is it reveals we may not be diversifying our reading in a healthy fashion. When we all read the same books, by the same people, quoting the same things, we risk creating a homogeneous intellectualism. And when this happens, we risk losing our ability to think critically, as well as the joy of discovering ideas that come from outside our normal spheres of influence.

What to remember when you change your mind about a book

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Maybe you’ve had this experience before—the thought that comes the exact moment after you hit publish:

What if I change my mind?

I’ve written a lot of book reviews over the last five years. Some books I’ve really enjoyed; others I wonder why I ever read in the first place (probably because I got them for free from one of the blog review programs). But for the most part, I’ve never felt a deep burden to go back and change a review once it’s written. Even so, every so often, the temptation strikes:

  • when a book makes its way back into the reading pile and I notice something different about it;
  • when other thoughtful reviewers raise concerns I didn’t even notice during my read through (either because I didn’t pick up on them or I was blinded by a nasty case of “fanboy-itis”); or
  • when the review simply wasn’t very well written.

So what do in these situations? Well, there are a few things you need to remember:

1. Your review is representative of your opinion at the time it was written. This is just the result of time, and (hopefully) wisdom and maturity. Opinions change, writing abilities improve, convictions either firm or soften… it just happens. And when it does, you can change what you’ve written, but it doesn’t mean you have to.

For example, some time ago, I wrote a review of N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. The first time out, it had a few catchy lines, but it was in dire need of a polish. In all honesty, even though I loved the book (still do, too), the review itself was kind of a mess. So I decided to rewrite it and republish it.

But poorly written reviews aside, there are a number of books I’ve reviewed over the years that, honestly, I don’t think I was hard enough on. I wasn’t asking the right questions of them, or I was filling in the gaps for myself. (Here’s one example that comes to mind.) But do I feel a burning need to revisit it? Not really. I’ve got enough on my plate to deal with than that.

2. The shelf-life is short, so you probably don’t need to worry about it. Book reviews tend to be very (VERY) time sensitive, and because so many books are published each week, the book you might have been sure was going to be life-changing may be collecting dust in a remainder bin right now. So if you wrote a review and you feel like you gaffed on it, you probably don’t need to sweat it. it’s likely no one’s reading it these days, anyway.

3. It’s never too late to publish a retraction or clarification. This really comes down to a matter of conscience. If you wrote a glowing review for one of Joel Osteen’s books and have recognized the error of your ways, it’s okay to fix it. If you wrote a particularly harsh review of a book that, after some more time and maybe an additional read, you realize wasn’t so bad, it’s alright to say so.

In other words, it’s never too late to say, “In 2011, I wrote that I believe Real Marriage was more good than bad. Upon careful consideration since reviewing the book, I no longer believe this to be true.”1

Changing our minds is simply part of life. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen to you. So enjoy it when it happens. Leave what should be left alone, alone. Change what needs to be changed. Just make sure you don’t lose any sleep over it.

Links I like

30 really mean notes written by children

Prepared to be shocked at the brutal honesty of children.

Seven Standards for Good Writing

Barnabas Piper:

What is good writing? This book isn’t very good. That one is. But what is this “good”? Some might say good writing is only a matter of preference, but that gives too much power to one with limited taste. If you only like theology books then Pat Conroy’s heartbreaking novels won’t seem so good to you. But you’d be wrong.

How can I call an opinion about a subjective form wrong? Well, because there are standards by which I can argue. Yes, each standard is open for debate, but combine them all and a sieve of sorts is formed to sift the poor works and let through the quality ones.

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Preventing sexual abuse in the church

Trillia Newbell, Justin Holcomb and Scotty Smith discuss:

What about those who never heard…?

Todd Pruitt, sharing wisdom from Francis Schaeffer:

It is a vexing question for many: “What about those who have never heard?” How can God hold accountable for believing the gospel those who have never heard the gospel? Certainly God cannot send a man to Hell for not believing when he never even had the opportunity to reject the gospel in the first place. The very idea flies in the face of all our notions of justice.

But the question itself is fatally flawed. Are we condemned for rejecting the gospel? Or are we condemned because we are sinners?

The following is a helpful thought experiment from Francis Schaeffer…

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