DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Reading Books to Read Culture

Written by: on October 5, 2017

If I had to describe Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book in one word, I would say it is ‘thorough’. As helpful as Adler attempts to be in sharing the methods and insights on reading productively and for various purposes, much of the content is so thorough with illustrations and redundancy, I found myself either forced to analyze or primarily inspect the content as a whole. The verbosity with which his points are made caused me to appreciate his work on a level I did not expect. Through the well-outlined and prolific content, Adler taught me to be a better inspectional reader. I was unwilling to read the book word for word and found myself uncomfortable the more I tried. I then flipped to the back of the text to look through the conclusion, index and appendices to see what useful tools were available to apply the content (and I particularly appreciated the quizzes in Appendix B).

I did find the book useful for its primary content. Learning the four reading levels, how they build upon one another and acknowledging when to switch from one level to another depending on the content and use is extremely helpful as a doctoral student. My tendency to read a book for elementary or analytical purposes is being restricted because of the Leadership and Global Perspectives program, which again is a good thing. As Adler states, “We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few.”[1] There is a freedom in recognizing I can read a portion of something and although I am not an expert I can comprehend enough to be competent. In addition, Adler’s text gives language for the ways in which books can be read so I can loosen my grip on content that does not interest me or does not fit my current scope of learning.

In thinking through the content of each level and how they are used, I begin to see ways Adler’s reading methods could be applied to various types of literature, such as the news, and even in various disciplines such as reading culture or the church. After visiting South Africa and returning home to another mass shooting in the United States, I feel the need to both research using the skills from Adler and then also utilize his work as another tool to navigate the world around us.

I understand that using Adler’s methods of reading to pragmatically read culture may seem to miss the point of his book, but I think both are necessary. We need to read books at a variety of levels depending on the time and need. We also must read our world at each level Adler mentions.

My interpretation of taking the four levels of reading into a practical application would look something like:

The First Level of Reading Culture: Elementary

Take everything in, listen and acknowledge what is. This level of reading the culture, just as in reading a book is not as much for meaning as it is to simply observe to understand. One widely used source for understanding culture at the elementary level is social media. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are available primarily for posting photos, videos and links with the intention of readers receiving the content provided. The culture widely supported on these sites is one of acknowledgment with simple clicks to add how the content makes the reader feel.[2]

The Second Level of Reading Culture: Inspectional

To be an inspectional reader of culture one must be more mindful, interested and personally present. Inspectional reading suggests an interest by the reader and when reading culture, one does not read it with a mind to stand apart from the culture but to learn with an interest in participation. One might use inspection to determine whether their family will join in a community recycling program based on reading a website, asking community members about their experiences with the program and seeking to understand the end goals for recycled products.

The Third Level of Reading Culture: Analytical

Being an analytical reader of culture considers the details of current and historic happenings, specific structures in place and particular messages given by key figures in the culture studied. Analytical reading digs in to not only understand the whole and its parts but also to critique the content by digesting it well. When researching a church culture it is necessary to analyze the gatherings, people, theology, spoken and lived values, polity, language used in the community, historical roots to the movement and the current context. An analytical read of culture will be the most in depth and time consuming level of reading within the single group.

The Fourth Level of Reading Culture: Syntopical

A syntopic read on culture would compare a minimum of two cultures with one another to learn and understand the questions of life and culture more clearly. Being guided by a specific topic such as racism or separation of races may guide one to choose a particular set of cultures over others. As research across cultures is conducted a general perspective or set of facts will likely emerge on the topic.

As I have reinterpreted Adler’s way of intellectually reading, I have recognized this can be translated to many contexts including politics, family systems and so on. I believe our world needs critical thinkers who can read well at all levels of both written and lived content.


[1] Adler, Mortimer J, and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Revised edition (New York: Touchstone, 1972). 4.

[2] I recognize readers analyze many controversial posts but on the whole, fewer people are posting for analysis, but would rather have others receive their content at an elementary level.

About the Author


Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.