Thursday, February 10, 2011

How to Read a Theological Book

As theological educators, we want to help students to develop critical theological thinking. Let me offer some hints on how to read a theological book:

· When you read a theology book, instead of nodding, shake your head. Don’t give consent to the author too easily.

· Don’t assume the author has you in mind. Then you will see Anselm, Calvin, or Tillich were writing for a different audience and context.

· Try to see the forest and not just the trees. Let me teach you some Chinese and you'll get it. Forest looks like 森, and a tree is 木.

· A picture is worth 1,000 words. Some people will benefit from something like a concept map.

· After reading, put down the book, summarize the main arguments in your own words. If you can’t do this, that means you haven’t grasped it yet. Re-read.

· Ask who is missing from the conversation? While you can’t expect the author to speak for the poor, the blind, your next-door neighbor, the girl with a tattoo, and everyone else, you want to ask what are the voices missing.

· Set up a debate with a friend or in your own head, e.g. I asked the students to debate whether Christ is Black when reading James Cone.

· If you don’t understand, take a break. Your mind might be constipated. Poke somebody on Facebook, tweet, and have coffee.

· Laugh Out Loud. This is a strategy taught by Mary Daly. Ask many early feminists. This was how they survived seminary.

· Create your own index. The indexer of the book might not have your interest in mind. Note down the concepts important to you and page numbers.

· Buy the book. This is not to fatten the publishing houses. Having the book means you can underline, draw droodles, and stick colored tapes on it.

· Stretch the ideas to the limit. This one is from Gayatri Spivak. This is how she can be a feminist, Marxist, and poststructuralist at the same time.

· Plot a different itinerary. Also from Spivak. Trace the itinerary of the author’s thought and plot a different one.

· Invite yourself to the table. What would you say to the author if you meet her? What are the questions you want to ask?


  1. Good advice.

    I had an English professor who insisted that you add to the index of any book you borrowed from her. She believed that she could learn more from the book - and about me - by seeing what I had added.


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  2. Thanks, I will ask my students who borrow books from me to do this. This is my most popular blog, 290 pageviews already within such a short time.

  3. I find that I have to have a conversation with the author while reading and I write my responses in the margins. This keeps me critically engaged, helps me see where my passions are engaged or offended and lets me figure out what I might want to include in preaching or writing.

  4. Dear Dr. Kwok,

    I enjoy reading your blog. I wondered, however, if you can perhaps create a twitter account so that you can tweet all of your posts. You can also have it set that once you tweet your posts it will also feed into facebook. Just thought that many others will enjoy reading your blog and this would be a great way to reach a wider audience.

    thanks, sela

  5. Thank you for these tips. I find that, as a relatively new seminarian and an older student, I'm having to re-learn how to learn. I think I'm a product of my generation -- growing up in the 1950s and '60s -- where I was supposed to accept what the experts were saying, not ask too many contrary questions, and parrot the facts back on the exams. Looking back, I recognize that was an immature way of learning. The new way is much more exciting and satisfying!

  6. I'm with Lavonne as far as needing to "re-learn how to learn" in addition to needing to re-learn how to read. These are all incredibly helpful tips, ones that I rarely considered prior to reading this post. Thanks!

  7. Tied up with work, studying and being a new mother, I am struggling to make time for reading. So I enjoyed these tips and will try to put them to work as I read. My resolution this year was to buy more books - I agree with you that my memory of ideas is to an extent photographic - so I have to remember my doodles, highlights and all of that to be able to have an idea firmly in my mind. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. From the very beginning of Christianity, most theologians, especially those living in the West, had grown accustomed to what was essentially a Platonic philosophy. Plato’s philosophy seemed to fit well with the Bible. The flesh is evil while the spirit is good. The earth is not as it should be, heaven is as it should be.

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  9. You said: "Invite yourself to the table. What would you say to the author if you meet her? What are the questions you want to ask?"

    I'm reading YOUR theology, "Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World," in Lift Every Voice. 1990. And I was asking the question, "I wonder what she would say today about the need for global liberation amid the capitalist WalMart supplier takeover of Chinese manufacturing and the subsequent outsourcing of American jobs?" I'm working on a paper at Chicago Theological Seminary, but more than that, I'm aiming toward an STM thesis involving liberation theology. I became familiar with your writing when I was a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis (under Damiante Niles). And I wondered if you were "still around." You are! And you're blogging! May I dialogue with you via email? Virginia Gilbert

  10. Hello Kwok Pui Lan. I am an Education for Ministry (EfM) online student in my third year. In our reading and reflection guide it is advised that we read your blog. Third year students such as myself are reading Diarmaid MacCulloch. Your blog of the forest through the trees reminded me of a question I was stumped on page 33 of MacCulloch's book where he capitalizes Form mid sentence and speaks of Plato's 'treeness' concept whereas Plato sought for reality in the ideals beyond the particular. So for instance Form of 'treeness' was more real than any individual tree. Any thoughts?

  11. Thank you for these tips. I find that, as a relatively new seminarian and an older student,
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