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Four Things Questions Can Do

March 15th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

With the discussion surrounding Rob Bell, it occurs to me that questions could become an innocent bystander in the mess.  Bell's book apparently has some 350 questions, about half of which are in his now infamous book trailer (that is, my friends, a joke).

Of course, questions have an uneasy relationship with Christianity.   After all, we've got the answer, the Fact--if I can deploy some Lewis, who's all the rage these days.  So what good does sitting around asking questions do?  Best to move straight to the answers and be one with it.

Or maybe not.   When I was in finance, I realized that nearly every financial instrument out there is good, if it's in the right spot.  And the same is true of questions.  They're an extraordinary tool--but only in the right spot.  A well-placed, responsibly asked question can contribute to someone's sanctification and deepen their understanding in a way that few other things can.

With that in mind, here are four things that questions can do.

1) Questions focus the attention of discussion participants. A nerdy example:  We could ask, “What is Lord of the Rings about?" but the range of options is so broad (at the beginning of a discussion) that an answer is virtually meaningless.  Good!  Evil!  Large moving trees!  Narrow the question to “Why does Tolkien include the story of Tom Bombadil, when the plot obviously works so well without it (pace the movies)?” and our attention narrows accordingly.  The question sets the frame or the context for the discussion (which is perhaps why good questions should probably be used sparingly).

2) Questions make the familiar unfamiliar, which can help us see it more clearly. Having a discussion about the Gospel of John is really difficult because everyone thinks they know the right answer.  “What is John about?”  Jesus!  True enough, but at the start of a discussion it's not particularly illuminating.  But try on this for size:  “Why does it matter that the Apostle John–rather than Peter, or any of the other disciples–wrote the Gospel of John?” Anyone got an easy answer to that?  Where do we start to look for an answer (hint:  "the beloved disciple").  You can read the whole gospel of John through that frame and find fascinating insights that are really in the text.

3) Questions expose our presumptions and thoughtlessness. “Good Teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus. “what must man do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response? “Why do you call me good?” Jesus’ response (wherein he answers a question with a question) exposes the rich young man’s presuppositions and presumably thoughtless use of a customary greeting. He said more than he realized, and the question exposes that.

4) Questions engender curiosity by pointing our attention to the unknown.  Ultimately, a question differs from a statement in that it gives us a hint of a reality that is enshrouded in mystery–the answer to the question can be known (hence the asking!), but it isn’t. At least not yet. As we are confronted by this unknown reality, our thirst for understanding awakes.

In a way, a question dignifies the world or the subject as that which is different than ourselves and as a thing that is worth knowing. It draws us out of our complacent relationship with the world and makes us attentive to its other-ness, its distinctness. The more we ask questions, the more we are able to love the object as we seek an understanding of it.

None of this, of course, says what questions can't do.  And the limits are many.  Perhaps if there's interest, I'll take a stab at unpacking those at another time.*

*This is a repackaged version of a previous post that talked about questions in a specifically pedagogical context.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.