Celebration of Discipline: Study & Foreword

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

“Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free. ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). Good feelings will not free us. Ecstatic experiences will not free us. Getting ‘high on Jesus’ will not free us. Without a knowledge of the truth, we will not be free.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 63

This week we come to the discipline of study. Foster’s definition of study is a little wordy and hand-wavy for me. I think what he’s getting at is this: study is thinking deeply about something until we understand it and its significance. When done well, it changes the way we think in the future.

Here are some suggestions:

  • While you are young, read a few “how to think” books. If you are fortunate, these will be assigned in some of your classes. If they are not, they are worth seeking out on your own. Don’t assume that just because you got into Stanford and are getting decent grades that you’re all set in this area. How To Read A Book by Adler is solid gold, as is anything by Richard Mitchell (aka The Underground Grammarian). Start with Less Than Words Can Say (legally available online). I think my favorite thing of his is “The Land of We All” from The Gift of Fire. I remember finding Stanovich’s How To Think Straight About Psychology helpful when I was in college, as I did Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.
  • Resolve to read books by dead people. C. S. Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation explains why well: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” His introduction is available many places online and I highly recommend it- https://www.bhmc.org.uk/uploads/9/1/7/7/91773502/lewis-incarnation-intro.pdf
  • Really do make it your goal to pass an ideological Turing test on every major issue: be able to articulate any position you reject so clearly that a well-informed observer would think you really believe it. You cannot meaningfully say “I agree” or “I disagree” until you can say “I understand.”
  • If you follow current events, an excellent practice is to write down what you think the outcomes of a certain policy or decision are likely to be. Then go back a few months later and compare your predictions with reality. You’ll learn a lot about your blind spots and assumptions. Also write down what you would do if you were in charge and what you think would likely happen. This is more uncertain, but you will start to notice ways that reality surprises you and would have affected your plans. The key in either case is writing it down — don’t trust your memory. Written words have an outrageous stubbornness that does not permit you to believe you thought something different than you actually did.

Some tips for studying the Bible in particular:

  • Foster recommends picking a book of the Bible and reading it every day for a month. This isn’t as daunting as it may seem. The average person reads about 250 words per minute and the book of Ephesians has a little under 2,500 words. Depending on your reading speed, you can go from beginning to end in 10 minutes.
  • No time to sit down and read? Consider an audio Bible. The first audiences of the Bible heard it orally, and so you’re just following in their footsteps.
  • Get a simple one-volume Bible commentary to help you with the challenging parts. You can find an excellent set of suggestions at Best Bible Commentaries.
  • If you wind up going into ministry, invest in a more substantive set of commentaries. Commentaries can be quite expensive, so first get a one-volume overview and then build on it over time.
    • Here’s what I do: whenever I start a new sermon series, I get two or three new commentaries to help me prepare. I go to bestcommentaries.com and choose from among the highest-rated ones labeled P or D. So if I needed a commentary on 1 Corinthians, I would go to https://www.bestcommentaries.com/1‑corinthians/ and buy either Fee or Garland or both. It’s easier to do this when you’re preaching through books of the Bible (a series on James, for example). If you’re doing topical stuff then think about what one of your main passages will be and buy a commentary for that book of the Bible. Over time you’ll build a very solid library that way.
    • Avoid buying entire commentary sets; even the best series are uneven. It’s wiser to buy the best few commentaries for each book of the Bible.
  • Supplement your purchased commentaries with the amazing (and free) set of notes compiled by Dallas Seminary professor Thomas Constable. Download the PDF versions to your hard drive and you’ll even have access to them when you’re on a retreat or a mission trip somewhere.

I suspect Stanford students have a harder time with the discipline of study than with almost any of the others, because studying for grades becomes so consuming. I frequently talk with students who lament their inability to read the books they want to read. It’s important to remember that Foster believes all study can be spiritually beneficial — even studying for grades. If nothing else, you’re developing skills in this season that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Also, bear in mind that you can often choose to focus your studies in a class in a way that will be spiritually beneficial. Taking a class on democracy? Use it as an opportunity to engage with Woodberry’s work on the religious roots of democratic governance. Taking a class on African-American history in the 1900’s? Read about the black church. Studying the philosophy of science? Read what Christians have said about it. Skim our resource The Gospel and Green Library to find suggested books on a wide range of topics.

And if you know you’re going to struggle during the school year, take advantage of the summer to do some serious spiritual reading beyond the summer reading project!

A few notes on the foreword:

Skipping back many pages to the foreword… I really like what Foster says here. I had us save it until now because his thoughts seem linked to the idea of study to me — the foreword is an extended reflection on the nature of the spiritual disciplines. I will close with a few comments on this excerpt:

It is critical for us to understand that the Spiritual Disciplines possess no moral rectitude or righteousness in and of themselves. They are, most definitely, not “works righteousness,” as is sometimes said. They place us–body, mind, and spirit–before God. That is all. The results of this process are all of God, all of grace. Now, the opposite of grace is “works.” Works has to do with earning, and there simply is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s approval. Or God’s love.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pages xiv-xv

As Dallas Willard once said, grace is opposed to earning not effort. 2 Peter 1:3–8 charts out the relationship between grace and effort nicely: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life… for this very reason make every effort to add to your faith goodness…”

His grace provides all that we need, therefore we should strive with all of our might. He gives us the platform upon which to stand, therefore we must stand to our full height.

Next week we move from the inner to the outer disciplines as we discuss living with simplicity. Get ready!

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