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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." 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 and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Melody

    His post does rather assume that readers are without critical thinking skills, but… if people are coming to him wanting to know which books are safe – aren’t they essentially telling him, “I don’t have any critical thinking skills! I certainly don’t trust my brain to be able to discern good logic from bad or to be able to compare what I read with the Bible.” I also think it’s quite possible that they’re also sort of saying, even if they don’t realize it, “I don’t want to read the Bible enough to be able to see how an author’s views line up with the Bible.”

    I think my biggest problem with Challie’s post (and I like Challie’s so I really didn’t want to have any issues with it) is that he doesn’t once say that people should be reading what the Bible has to say on the subjects the book talks about.

    If you’re not reading the Bible any number of persuasive arguments can sound like they belong in the Bible. Plus, you can trust a person all you like, but they’re human beings and they can be (and are!) wrong about things.

    And – what happens when you’re talking to people who don’t always (or ever) adhere to talking points or arguments set out in your reading material?

    Like, I do understand the value of tell-tale signs that a book is probably coming from a particular perspective, but, you’re going to figure that out after a while on your own. Just like when a person very carefully avoids saying anything about the deity of Christ, you start to pick that out as a sign that their assertion that they follow Christ may be a bit hollow. After a while, you just notice those patterns.

    • That’s fair; the point about Bible reading is good, although to be fair to Challies he has made the point elsewhere many times.

      Even so, I think the specific advice to someone who recognizes they lack discernment and wants to grow in that is still not great. Part of it is b/c his criteria isn’t great–blurbs are an awful way to decide on books b/c of how broken the process of getting blurbs on a book actually is. The only thing a blurb usually tells you is “the person who wrote this is friends with the author, scanned the book, didn’t see anything wrong, and decided to do him a favor.” But part of it is also the fact that we’ll never develop wisdom if we only read “safe” books. You develop wisdom through testing–read something that has some really really high notes but also a few howlers. Identify which is which. Explain why. That’s how this process should work.

      Thanks for commenting. :)

    • gk

      ‘? ?? ?????????? ??? ????? ?? ????-???? ????? ???? ? ???? ?? ???????? ?????? ???? ? ?????????? ???????????, ???, ???’?? ????? ?? ?????? ???? ??? ????? ? ????? ?? ???? ???.’

      I wish this were the case.

      Having been raised in, and lived in, a ‘well-read’ environment and atmosphere for my whole life, the reality is that heterodoxy prevailed—and that heterodoxy affected how reading and critical thinking were done. My history as a Christian is a reasonable facsimile of what Jake describes as his—and in my case, the folks were, generally speaking, highly educated. But the sheer atomization of Christian life into individual autonomy generated a subculture (now indistinguishable from the larger culture) of, ‘You can’t tell me what to think.’

      Everybody gets an opinion, everybody gets a perspective, everybody gets to say what they think their favorite part of the Bible means. This kind of individualization of the spiritual life has a direct bearing on how ‘good fiction’ or ‘good theology’ or ‘good pastors’ are understood, ie, as ” I ” decide.

      And this ethos came out of the Good ‘ol Days of 50s/60s Evangelicalism.

      What’s embedded in, yet unsaid, in Jake’s thoughtful piece, is that, as in the entire realm of the intellectual, spiritual, and work lives we lead, we need legitimate authority to guide, discern, and bind (to bind as in Chesterton’s playground).

      The scattered fragmentation that is present day Christianity, with theologies not only at cross currents but at cross purposes, demonstrates this need.

      Reading lists can be helpful.

      The Church even more so.

  • shevrae

    As someone who has really been struggling with my faith, I have found that reading “unapproved” books by people who have found peace outside of orthodox Chrisitanity have helped me realize that I don’t want that. It surprised me.

  • Dan Grubbs

    Enjoyable post, Jake.

    If I take my limited understanding of the Hebrew word hokma often translated as wisdom, what is built into that understanding is skillfulness. I believe that if we limit our input, we are naturally going to limit our skill set regardless of how much Bible we can recall accurately. If our skill set is limited, we may find ourselves with limited background to supply our evangelistic, apologetic, or discipleship efforts (all three we’re commanded to do). In the marketplace of ideas, it will serve us well to have even a superficial understanding of others’ positions on issues, ideas, doctrines, etc. Those that stand on one side of a polemic who have an understanding of the other side are more likely to persuade.

    As an agrarian, Jake’s post brought to mind my willingness to study the writings of Prof. Ellen Davis and Prof. Norman Wirzba (both of the Duke Divinity School). From my position, these two thinkers and their institution are more liberal in their interpretation of scripture and subsequent application. However, the perspective I gain (hokma) from their looking into the Bible from an agrarian perspective is extremely valuable to me as I examine God’s creation, its lessons for my farmstead, and my sanctification. Is there danger of me adopting an “old Earth” position as Prof. Wirzba seems to have when it comes to creation? No. But, I can gain great perspective on his emphasis that God’s provision of food should cause us to break out in worship of the Creator and maintain an attitude of thankfulness.

    We must read broadly as we are carefully studying God’s word.

    • I’m not as familiar with Dr. Davis’s work simply because I’ve not had time to read it, but I am a big fan of the work Wirzba is doing. Anyone interested in Christianity and ecology or Christianity and food should be paying attention to what he’s doing.

  • I think the problem isn’t just “narrow” reading, but “no” reading. Reading seems to be a dying practice with more and more people content to be told what they should believe via their preferred cable or social media channel, as opposed to thinking through ideas and issues with the help and advice found in great (and even not so great) books from many different authors. I had one fellow a few years ago proudly announce to me after he learned that I wrote children’s books that he read only “nonfiction” religious books. “Too bad for you,” I replied, “and too bad for your kids.” I probably shouldn’t have been so snarky, but I couldn’t help it. Thanks for your post!

  • Tim Enloe

    As a teacher myself, for 6 years in classical Christian Schools, I think it’s important to offer a counter regarding your point that if you treat students like adults they will rise to the challenge, because if you can only persuade them truth is worth having they will go after it with gusto.

    The truth of your remark depends upon having students who come to the table willing to be challenged, aiming at the acquisition of wisdom rather than at some other goal. And it depends on these students also being part of a larger community – parents, church, school administration, et cetera – that is also willing to be challenged and aim at the acquisition of wisdom.

    The fact of the matter is, there are many communities out there full of people who believe they already have the truth, already have wisdom. For these communities education is about drawing boundary markers between themselves and all that does not meet with their approval. Education is about the exercise of power, not the pursuit of Truth and wisdom.

    It was in just such a community that I taught Humane letters to 12th graders a couple of years ago. I did not allow the parents and students to run the class by insisting that we do inductive Bible studies and aim for increasing good feelings about their spiritual lives rather than reading Milton and Hobbes and such-like authors and learning to critically engage them. I was removed from the class after the first semester because parents threatened to take their tuition money elsewhere if I was not. A friend of mine had a similar experience in another school in the same town, getting himself fired for such terrible offenses as advocating critical thought about Reaganomics and telling 11th grade students about the Roman Imperial background to the Gospel of John rather than doing a Sunday school like study about asking Jesus to come into your heart.

    A community like this is of course not normal, nor its people ordinary in the sense that you use in your article. Yet in another sense it is ordinary in that is the natural result of hyper democratized American evangelicalism that sees itself already in possession of truth and wisdom, and so is immune to being persuaded it needs to seek them.

    • Thanks for posting that Tim. It’s a good point to keep in mind. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how the breakdown of institutions in this country results in a small number of individual people becoming phenomenally influential in how the institutions we do have actually work–and many of those people are the behind-the-scenes people who control the money to the institution. That said, I’m not sure there’s a solution to that problem because, in the first place, it isn’t unreasonable for someone who funds a project to want to have *some* level of input on how things are done. (Granted, it’s probably not unusual for donors to think they should have more pull than they actually do.) But I also think that this is probably a normal problem in the life of institutions. Institutions are relatively frail in their early days and it doesn’t take much to knock them down. I’m not sure there is a way around that problem, sadly. What do you think?

  • Nathanael

    What I found particularly striking about Challies’ advice on reading was that he limited his suggestions exclusively to book written within the past 10 or 20 years. That sort of temporal parochialism strikes me as extremely unhealthy. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, recent books tend to encourage us in the errors of our own age and it is only by reading books from other eras that we can see the assumptions hidden in all the writers of our own age.

    • That stood out to me as well, but I wanted to be fair to Challies and one thing he has done routinely in the past is recommend reading older writers. So I actually did raise this point in a previous draft but then upon reflection removed it for the reason that Challies actually does encourage people to read older books; he just wasn’t focused on that particular question in this particular post.

  • Guest

    I’d suggest the plagiarism controversies that erupted around some authors who have contributed content to the Gospel Coalition over the years may be another sign of how insular the scene has become. People more widely and deeply read at the level of production in writing and production in editing could have prevented those controversies from ever having occurred, whether in the case of Mark Driscoll’s books or the more recent situation with Doug Wilson and Randy Booth’s A Justice Primer. I was thinking of even picking up that latter book but by the time I got around to trying to place an order it had been discontinued. When a book that is reportedly about what justice means in the era of the blog warrior gets discontinued because a blogger finds plagiarized content in it that is, in addition to being grimly funny, a sign of how many failures had to happen for the controversy to have taken place.
    Whatever the BenOp turns out to be it’s seeming impossible that it will develop within a low church tradition.

  • davend

    Check out the Chicago Manual of Style’s discussion of “amongst”.