Reading Like J. P. Moreland

In his book “Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul,” J. P. Moreland writes, “If possible, never read a serious book without something with which to write. Your goal in reading is to surface the structure of each chapter.”[1] I read this pointer more than five years ago and have not departed from this sagacious utterance. Moreland’s book was my first encounter with Christian Intellectualism. This now ubiquitous term, likely due to my circles of relation, had escaped me. In fact, my overal orientation toward Christianity was akin to a strict fideism–knowledge depends on faith. But this is neither an autobiography, nor a hagiography of the eminent Moreland. My intention in writing this post is to share some helpful tips on reading that I gleaned from Moreland in his book.

In the aforementioned chapter, Moreland offers a helpful yet uncomplicated system for annotating books. He first advises readers to do some preliminary perusing in order to familiarize themselves with the field/issue. “[Y]our goal is to obtain an initial set of categories that can help you be more informed in noticing things you may otherwise miss when you set out to analyze more carefully a detailed text in the area of investigation.” (p. 167) From there, Moreland offers readers a glimpse into his personal annotation system. His almost-monomaniacal aim is to identify the structure of the arguments.

  1. In the left-hand margin, about every two to three paragraphs, he composes a summary of the main arguments of the text in his own words. The goal is both noting structural flow while synthesizing the information. Here, Moreland offers a few example questions he asks himself in analyzing the flow: “Is the author continuing to develop the same point of discussion treated in the preceding paragraphs? Has the text shifted to making a new point parallel to the one just made or are we now reading criticisms and rebuttals of the main thesis?” (p. 167)
  2. Subsections serve as stop signs. Upon seeing a marked subsection, Moreland writes a two or three sentence summary of the main point in the subsection. He, then, goes through his snippet summaries and writes a brief summary of the entire chapter at the top of the first page of each chapter. He adds, “You want to mark up the book in such a way that if you return to it months later, you can look at your marginal notes and get a feel for the main flow of the chapter’s structure and its content.”(Ibid.)
  3. Moreland uses two notational devices to help him comprehend a chapter’s structure.
    1. Recognizing a thesis argument, he puts a “+1,” “+2,” and so forth in the margin where each specific argument begins. That way, even if the next arguments doesn’t appear for another five pages, he is still able to easily trek with the author. He also notes arguments against the author’s thesis with “–1,” “–2,” and so on. The obvious telos of this effort is to track the arguments and counterarguments that compose the structure of the debate in the text itself.
    2. For personal thoughts, Moreland puts his remarks in parentheses and begins it with “N.B.,” which is the abbreviation for the Latin term nota bene, which means “take note.” The reason for the parenthetical comments is to easily distinguish between summaries and reflection
  4. Inside the front cover of the book, Moreland constructs his own index. During the process of reading a book, he marks topics/terms with special interest to him, and writes these terms or phrases in the blank pages at the front of the book, followed by the corresponding page number(s) in the text.

He closes with this piece of advice:

Finally, when you undertake to read a book seriously, you cannot treat that book as a novel to be read for recreation. Compared to intellectual reading, recreational reading is fairly passive, can be done quickly, and does not require a great deal of work or engagement on the part of the reader. In intellectual reading, you simply must stay alert, use a pen, make notes regularly, and remember to look for three things: Structure! Structure! Structure! If you do not walk away from an occasion of reading with a better grasp of the flow of argument in what has been read, you have not practiced intellectual reading successfully . (pp. 168–9, emphasis added)

  1. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, Kindle Edition (NavPress, 1997), 166.  ↩