Academic books filled with silver-dollar words can come across as literary bullies, taunting you, sitting there perched on your desk, nightstand, and bookshelves. These books wear a costume, posing in the same square form as your favorite reads—the novels, the uplifting devotionals, the Pulitzer biographies. They share the outward look and texture as a can't-put-it-down story, but they are not the same. If some books are a stroll in the park wrapped in a summery cool breeze, academic treatises can be a ponderous trudge through a bog, uphill, at night, in the rain, alone.
But the trudge is an illusion, a feeling, an attitude, and a state of mind. You created it, and you can exercise a surprising amount of control over it in the long run. The skills that built and stacked internal walls meant to protect your own ego against the barrage of heavy, theological terms are the same skills that can sack those walls and command those technical terms for your spiritual benefit.
Tackle the Tomes
It takes a fresh look at theology and an intentional shift in your reading style to tackle thick tomes. For the shift to be effective, you'll need to put your favorite novels on Mars and your academic, theological books on Venus. They're not the same thing, though their similar appearance tries to tell you otherwise.
Stories are meant to be read at page one and continued until you see "THE END," followed by tears, laughs, or a sigh. (Tears, laughs, and sighs can also accompany academic works, but for different reasons.) There are plot points, irony, foreshadowing, and other things you learned in high school English class. Academic works, on the other hand, are meant to be used and abused. Don't worry about hurting the author's feelings. He used and abused other books when he was researching, because he had a goal to achieve, namely, this book you are now attempting to crack.
Most of us are under no official orders to read. Reading is voluntary, chosen with either helpful motives or less-than-helpful motives. Picking up a book because you think you should won't fill up your motivation tank. Duty alone rarely spurs us on. At times dutiful reading is necessary, but for non-students the choice of which book to pick up is yours and yours alone. You can opt in any time and opt out just as quickly, and a big part of your mind knows this as you sit—judge, jury, and at times executioner for your current read.
The decision to read or not to read creates a sense of freedom, which is a good thing, but eventually you'll need to land on a particular book. Reading heavy theology calls for a purpose if it is to last, a map of sorts before making the intellectual climb. Maybe your pastor mentioned swirling debates over which books of the Bible should be included in the canon, and you want to follow the conversation. Pick up Canon Revisited by Michael Kruger. Maybe someone at work threw a leading scientist's resume' at you, championing his atheism. Check out Redeeming Science (for free here) by Vern Poythress. What if your college Bible study is studying Ephesians, and within the first five verses of the first chapter when "predestined" is mentioned, someone says, "I don't believe in predestination"? (This happened to me.) Travel back a few centuries and pick up John Owen's The Gospel Defended. Or a dozen other works I could mention for each of these scenarios. The immediate goal is a reasonable, working knowledge of a topic you want to know more about, and the ultimate goal is simply to know more about the God you worship and his world.
There is a persistent, parasitic myth buzzing around that academic theological books are wet blankets for your devotional life, or your relationship with Jesus, or something. The source of these myths is typically those who out of principle do not lift books that require cerebral weight training. You won't hear the same anti-theology myth coming from someone who has popped out on the other side of a dense library. If I'm looking for advice on whether a particular mountain is worth the climb, I'll ask someone who has already been there, not someone who has never packed for the hike, whose opinion rests on hearsay and speculation. The same principle applies to just about anything that requires effort, including dense theological works.
If you can clear the fog of fear and hesitation hovering over academic books, you might find an unexpected depth and richness between the pages. Heavy theological reading will never take the place of a heart-gripping novel or a devotional full of soaring words of worship. But a rich read can often add color, dimension, and vibrancy to your Christian walk and give those devotionals a few more volts.
Jared Oliphint is regional coordinator and a ThM student at Westminster Theological Seminary. He studied philosophy at Gordon College and earned his MAR at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2005. You can follow him on Twitter.