Growing up, I attended a church that had a very narrow conception of what basic Christian orthodoxy was. Though we never talked about things like the Apostle’s Creed, we would have agreed with most all of it except for “he descended into hell,” and we would’ve wanted to modify (or cross our fingers while saying) the bit about “the holy catholic church.”
That said, the list of essential doctrines that constituted “orthodoxy” went well beyond this—any sort of reformed or covenantal theology was probably heretical because it denied the rapture. Catholicism was heretical because of their teachings on justification and Mary amongst many other things. Orthodoxy was probably heretical but I’m not sure we even bothered to understand why—we just knew it was weird and looked like Rome so it was probably not a real church.
Even other dispensational Bible churches that did not share our understanding of the rapture and end times—or that did not talk about them often enough—were suspect.
I couldn’t help thinking about my time in that world while reading Tim Challies’ recent post about how to choose what books to read and what not to read.
DG Hart has critiqued one aspect of this post by making the point that Challies’ habits essentially amount to creating a kind of “New Calvinist safe space” in the minds of his readers where only Big Eva Approved writers can be read. That’s a true critique and an important one, particularly given the way it blunts our own rhetorical power when critiquing the mostly absurd safe space movement as it exists outside the church.
But that critique also only scratches the surface of the problems with Challies’ advice, which in my experience is relatively common within certain parts of the evangelical world and especially in the reformed world.
The chief problem behind Challies advice is much the same as the problem behind the narrow reading habits prescribed by the folks I grew up with: Both basically assume that ordinary lay people are fundamentally lacking in their ability to discern good from bad and that there is little which can realistically be done to help them in that. Therefore, the best thing to do, in the absence of being able to teach people to read critically, is to simply control their reading.
The fear behind this mentality is notable, of course. Once when scolded for reading a novel by an author well outside the approved list I asked my interrogator what they thought would happen if I finished the book. Will Christianity cease to be true because I’ve read him? When does that magical moment occur? When I open the book or finish it? Or is it when I chance upon the book in the library and decide it looks interesting? At what point does my act of reading this book become an imminent threat to the gospel and the church?
Yet the fear isn’t the most important thing. The far more important point is what such a limited reading list suggests about our expectations for the Christian mind and our hopes for how lay people can study, learn, and grow in their understanding of the Gospel. Matt made this point beautifully on a recent podcast with Christianity Today:
The way to reach the broadest swath of people is not by setting the intellectual bar low, but by setting it high and by persuading everyone that they can rise to it—not by being an intellectualist, but by presenting your sermons in a way that is challenging for everyone in the room, and maybe particularly challenging for the most intellectually inclined people in the room, but still aesthetically compelling enough that those who are not ordered that way or don’t dispose themselves that way will still be interested in what you’re saying. I think that’s the hardest challenge that pastors have.
One of the main frustrations that I’ve had about working in the local church over the years is getting pegged as a “smart guy.” It’s just the worst. Like, “Oh, that’s Matt. You know—he needs to sort of go off to seminary or grad school and do his thing, but that’s not what ordinary people think.” And I think, “No, that’s actually backwards.” When people are persuaded that the truth is worth pursuing, they’ll go after it; they’ll work hard to get there.
When I taught high school, I resonated deeply with my students: I had great relationships with my students in part because I didn’t set the bar low for them. I talked to them as though they were adults, and advanced adults, and they felt like I had something that was worth giving to them, [and] that caused them to work hard, to want to work hard to give it.
And so I think church communities that try to win people by setting things on the lowest shelf actually get it backwards. They will win more people by presenting goods that are inaccessible in their presentation, but beautiful and compelling, that make people want to pursue them.
This, then, is the chief problem with narrow reading of the sort that many evangelicals have traditionally practiced, often at the encouragement of influential leaders like Challies. When we read narrowly, only from publishers and authors that bear the (ironic) nihil obstat of Big Eva, we can easily develop an impoverished imagination. We are narrow, shallow individuals who need to be deep and broad.
Certainly, we could get along decently by reading everything we can get our hands on by John Piper, Tim Keller, and Al Mohler or, thinking of the next generation, Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, and Russ Moore. Indeed, I’ve been richly blessed by my reading of several of those authors. There’s nothing wrong with reading these more prominent, widely known evangelicals and as prominent, widely known evangelicals go, these men are some of the best.
And yet, we must still ask this basic question: Why should our choice be between reading a fine popular and widely read author or a bad popular and widely read author? There is so much neglected gold to be found if only we would take the time to look. Why not read more deeply? If you have an interest in Christianity and the life of the mind, for example, you could certainly begin with Dr. Piper’s fine book on the subject. You’ll be rewarded by it. But why stop there? Read more deeply. Pick up Alister McGrath’s recent book or Paul Griffith’s Intellectual Appetites.
You might even pick up my personal favorite book on the topic, A.G. Sertillanges The Intellectual Life. That book will blow your hair back, as they say. Speaking only for myself, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read in the past five years that have delighted me as much as that 100-year-old book by an obscure French Dominican did.
Given the general friendliness of this site to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, this advice may seem surprising. Isn’t the BenOp about protecting church members, and particularly young church members, in precisely the ways that Challies’ reading advice would? The answer to that question is a resounding “no.” While we should of course practice basic Christian wisdom in making decisions about when a child might be ready to read a certain book, such judgments necessarily assume that the people making those decisions do in fact possess Christian wisdom. But acquiring such wisdom demands hard work. It will not be acquired from simply reading books from an approved “safe list” provided by mainstream organizations and publishers.
Rather, Christian wisdom is cultivated and, one might even say, earned, through the difficulty and patient work of immersing oneself in the Scriptures (which must be the foundation of all our reading) and in the world, the world’s books very much included. It is through patience and attentiveness that we can cultivate wisdom. This can be done by, amongst other things, reading good books. But it will be much harder to do if we limit our reading in the ways that American evangelicals so routinely have for the past 100 years. God’s world is good and worth knowing. But that knowing will only come if we, through the aid and illumination of the Holy Spirit, read broadly enough to know it. You may have parochialism or you may have wisdom. But you cannot have both.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).