Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The need to read

reading As long as I can remember I have had a library (I define a library as owning two or more books!). And, for as long as I can remember, I have read widely. By widely, I mean that I have always read outside of my own world view — books that present me with different perspectives than what I currently believe or have heard before.

As I have travelled my life journey, many of these books have led to changes in my thinking — some minor; some radical. Without my reading I would not be where I am today. But changes in thinking worry some people. On a number of occasions, I have had people tell me that reading widely — particularly things that are "in error" — will lead me to destruction. I have been warned that I can be lost by what I read. Dire predictions have been made that I would follow the same path as others who have ended up giving up on things that my "counsellor" believes are essential to salvation. And if I have changed my mind on something, I was told that it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't read so much.

I can remember an evangelist who came to my home city to give a talk to the youth (I was one at the time!) about the creeping new theology threatening the church. During his talk, he referred to a book which was an examination of my denomination's belief system. When I went up to the evangelist after the talk to get details of the book so I could read it for myself, he refused to tell me and said  you had to be a strong in the beliefs of the denomination and the Bible before you could read the book safely. I was very angry that someone should presume to filter out what they thought I should or should not read because they feared that I would be too 'weak' to read it. The evangelist didn't even know me!

This advice not to read anything because it might lead me astray has led me to think deeply about the whole issue of reading widely — particularly reading material that challenges what I think. Is it ok to deliberately read what may challenge what we think and believe? Not only do I think it is ok; I believe it is essential to deliberately and carefully read widely and engage with "dangerous" ideas. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, it is an essential part of thinking critically to expose oneself to alternative perspectives. Whenever I restrict myself to reading only what agrees with my current position on something, I am less likely to counter the products of my own potentially erroneous thinking. I enrich my own understandings with the results of other people's thinking.

I knew a Christian who once said to me that he didn't read anything except the Bible — no commentaries, no books. Reading commentaries and books about the Bible can never replace actual Bible reading. But reading other people's ideas about the Bible leads us into a conversation with other Christians (and non-Christians) that challenges our prejudices, biases, and bigotry. Isolating ourselves from others' thinking can lead to extremism and, ironically, erroneous conclusions. Reading allows us to participate in the great stream of Christian conversation that has been going on for centuries and draw on that wisdom, helping us to correct or confirm our course.

Secondly, reading widely helps guard against those who filter information to promote conformity. One of the marks of cultism occurs when information is controlled by those in power who wish to guarantee the conformity of their followers. Knowledge can be dangerous. It often leads to the questioning of the status quo and, therefore, can become a threat to those who operate from a privileged position of power. Reading widely and seeking alternative views provides a broader source of information that helps us to put things into perspective — a perspective that sometimes uncovers spiritual abuse or bondage through ignorance. Down through history, dictatorships have sought to control their subjects through the manipulation of information. We see it even today in countries like China which tries to suppress information through restricting free access to the Internet. It also occurs in more subtle forms when, out of fear of "contamination", we limit our own reading to that which reinforces the party line. The antidote is to deliberately read widely looking at perspectives that disagree with our own.

Some may argue that reading "error" opens us up to the adoption of that error. However, the advice not to read "error" for fear of being led to believe error suffers from two problems.

First, it assumes that what is to be read is error before it has been investigated. This is a fundamental flaw in thinking — prejudging the quality of something before giving it a genuine hearing. The term we have for this type of thinking is prejudice. If we genuinely believe we need to pursue truth then we need to do so with integrity and fairmindedness.

One of the greatest ironies I have observed within Christian communities is that of wanting to convince others of the truth of Christianity but not being open to new truth themselves. It is impossible for someone to choose Christ without them doubting their current belief system and opening themselves to the possibility of another way of viewing things. How can we expect others to be open to new perspectives if we are not ourselves? When we shut down any possibility of discovering truth by avoiding reading anything that doesn't agree with our positions, we have no right to expect anyone else to listen to what we have to say. How can we be led by God's Spirit if we close ourselves off to listening? Reading widely is one way we listen to the vast wisdom of others — not to accept everything we read, but to think critically about the basis of those other ideas.

And that brings me to the second problem with the idea that we should avoid reading "error" for fear of being led into error. The problem is not so much with what we read. The problem is how we read. Most Christians I have come across who have a fear-based approach to what they read have not been educated in how to read critically. You can often identify this problem by examining the basis of a person's certainty for their beliefs. They are often based on prooftexting Scripture; accepting something solely on authority; or on seriously inadequate information. In my view, uncritically reading what one considers truth is just as bad as uncritically reading what one considers error. We desperately need to teach Christians how to think critically — how to examine evidence, evaluate arguments, interpret Scripture using well-tested principles and methods. Mindless acceptance of "truth" and mindless acceptance of "error" are two sides of the one counterfeit coin.

So reading widely with a critical eye is one of the healthiest, exciting, challenging things we can do to support our growth in understanding. To be a safe reader is to be a wide reader.

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1 comment:

  1. I've learned immensely more from personal reading than I ever have listening to lectures. Not that lectures are bad, though.