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Four Lessons I’ve Learned from Reading Broadly

(Lisa Robinson)

It’s comfortable for Christians to read inside our denomination/tradition. People who think like us, who draw the same conclusions make learning fun. But I think we can become too tribal about Christianity, put our stake in the ground to quickly and use it to battle others in the body, often unfairly.

I’m increasingly realizing the value of reading broadly and by extension, learning broadly. By broadly, I mean works outside of our denominational/doctrinal perspectives. Actually, I don’t think I read broadly enough. But the more I do, I’ve recognized some characteristics about myself have emerged that reinforces the need to get out of the comfy box.

1.  My discernment: or rather lack thereof. There’s something about having to read through work that doesn’t necessarily align with my doctrinal/denominational perspective that forces an examination of what the author is really getting at. I love that in seminary, some professors intentionally assign books for this purpose. Some books even have such troubled theology that sounds really good, not unlike what we might encounter in the contemporary evangelical landscape. I’ve observed that going through the exercise of deciphering what is valuable and what is opposed to historic Christian orthodoxy, sharpens discernment. But if we only read from one perspective, the tendency might be to oppose anything that doesn’t sound like how the gurus from our tribe define it.  Reading broadly on the other hand with the intention of understanding, strengthens discernment. That last part is important because reading to tear something down defeats the purpose of learning.

2.  My arrogance: I can place a great deal of confidence in own investigation. And I have certainly done this. Of course, there were many instances where I claimed to “fairly” evaluate all sides. But honestly, I really didn’t.  Reading broadly confronts that sense of superiority I feel when I think I have everything figured out. It helps me realize that I can learn from others, even those with whom I disagree. When combined with point #1, I’m increasingly finding some valuable nuggets that a more tribal perspective might suppress…and has suppressed.  In fact, I can’t even count how many times I’ve dismissed something just because it’s aligned with a certain teacher or doctrinal perspective without giving it a fair shake. Yep, arrogance.

3. My ignorance: Unfortunately arrogance has a way of maximizing ignorance. There is nothing more humbling that recognizing a doctrinal position that I disagreed with and thought I understood, but I really didn’t.  It kind of goes with point #2, when I’ve gotten smug in my conclusions it really doesn’t leave room with other considerations…or further investigation. But honestly, the more I read and learn, the more I discover premature assessments I’ve made and misrepresentations of positions that I was only treating on the surface.  Relying on an author from one’s tribe to define an alternate position won’t cut it because the perspective will be skewed. We must learn from those who actually advocate a position. Reading broadly also helps me realize that maybe there’s something else to consider and especially from an historical perspective.  Meaning, that I’ve drawn conclusions without consideration of how something developed historically, which provides the framework for how it should be understood. That’s not to say I will change my mind but at least my convictions are supported by a more thorough study.

4. My family: There is only one body of Christ, with many members. Now granted there are those who are like those lost relatives who claim familial ties when there’s something to benefit them. But I’m talking legitimate family members with whom we might experience some sibling rivalry over doctrinal issues…and who love the same Lord. In fact, I am frequently humbled by those with whom I disagree that seem to have a greater affection for Lord.  Yes, this is humbling but also encouraging. Because really what is at stake is our ability to love God and each other, keeping in mind that Jesus said how we are to each other will be a defining characteristic as his disciples.   Reading broadly helps me to remember that there are other members in the family who study too, who want to know truth too, and who are equally convicted by their conclusions.

Granted their is a line we don’t want to cross past which we lose an appropriate definition of Christianity. I also wouldn’t confine this to reading books, but blogs as well as learning from others. If you don’t have friends outside your denominational tribe, you really should. Take time and listen to what they have to say just for the sake of learning not to jump on them with correction. It does our theology good to listen and maybe learn something along the way. I personally am grateful for those who have modeled this for me and taught me a little of what it means to read critically, fairly and Christianly, especially my seminary theology profs. They rock!

Check out my blog at www.theothoughts.com

9 Responses to “Four Lessons I’ve Learned from Reading Broadly”

  1. Lisa
    Thank you for writing and posting this. I would state you are spot on with regard to your points. If we are not careful we can become narrow and too one sided both Theologically and in all life if we do not stay broad in our learning and growing. There have been many contributions to advancement of life and culture who may have not been from a Christian. Good things.
    I have also found we can and need to stay broad in our friends and travels, as well as our study. It is all learning and growing. As an observation I have come to see a great importance that leaders in the Christian community would perhaps be well benefited from time in other aspects of life such as all are in daily. Whether it be an engineer or entrepreneur, actor or a waitperson. The daily interaction by the applied learning only supports the broadness you illustrate.
    Many thanks for this insightful post. Mark Morruss

  2. I agree with this posting in this sense. When I was a Protestant, I listened to debates. Even though I tended to agree with the one arguing in favour of my tribe, I could definitely see where the holes and weak points were in the argument of “my guy”. Over time, listening to a lot of these debates I started to think, wow if it was my job to argue for the other side, I could really make things pretty awkward for my own side, because I knew where the flaws were. I heard debates between protestants and catholics, with JWs, between Calvinists and Arminians, presbyterians and baptists and others too. I thought good JW debaters actually make a pretty cogent argument, and if it wasn’t for the rubbish they talk about the 144,000 I might have take it all more seriously.

    But down this path lies madness. If you are truly open to these ideas, you’ll adopt some of them. It makes sense since many are popular, and they’re probably popular for good reason. The more open you are, the more likely your combination of beliefs will be out of synch with any churches. You’ll believe one thing from this church and one from the other one. Then you’ll be never quite satisfied with the church you’re in. Always church hopping and dropping in on a new one to see if you can find that illusive one has your peculiar combination of beliefs. But then you’ll always be self doubting your combination of beliefs. You’ll hear a good argument for this one or that one, or you’ll mull over some debate in your head and start to see the rationality of that one. Then after a while, when you TRULY analyse, you start to realise that which side is right comes down to presuppositions and hermeneutics. And you can’t really prove which presuppositions and hermeneutics are correct, except to observe… perhaps the ORIGINAL church, living in that time period, is the only one we might assume had culturally correct viewpoint and hermeneutic. Only following the church fathers is therefore objective.

  3. John, I think you’re right about the openness leading to a confused path but that’s not what I’m suggesting. It’s really more about learning, especially positions that we’ve taken a stand against. I have found that disagreements are exaggerated because of a lack of understanding. I do believe that we need to be firm in our convictions but at the same time challenging them.

  4. The “original church” started to go off the rails almost immediately. Read Paul’s letters to them. Look at Peter trying to make people in Jews first before they could become Christians.

    The church is always in need of constant reformation…because us sinners want to constantly make Christian faith over into Christianism…or into one big religious/asendency project.

  5. Steve, I’m not sure I follow that last sentence in relation to the post. If you’re suggesting that reading broadly leads to making Christianity over that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I do think we need to be mindful of the reality of how many differences exist because of the splintering that has occurred through church history.

  6. Mark, thanks for your comment. I think you get the gist of the post.

  7. Thanks for the post Lisa! I love the “comfy box”! (Both my context and the phrase itself.) I think Steve and John are getting at a point that bears consideration. I would argue that before a young (or old!) theologian venture out into the ocean of theology he/she needs to be solidly grounded in orthodox Christianity. Sadly- it seems as if many young theologians fail to invest in orthodoxy before sailing out into the vast unknown… Many times unprepared for the creatures they encounter. Do you agree and if so- when would you feel comfortable sending a disciple into “all the earth?”

  8. Yates, I completely agree with the being grounded part. Even then, it amazes me how quickly new ideas are embraced because of persuasive arguments. I should have been a bit more firm in my proposal in the significance of holding convictions. I was really addressing the opposite extreme of holding so strongly to ones system or paradigm that learning other perspectives is not really considered except to tear them down. I think that results in needless animosity and suspicion.

    Dig the pic, btw :)

  9. Lisa, I loved your article and have come to many of the same conclusions myself in my theological journey. I just went to your blog and read your “about” page. Now that you are “Reformed”, would you choose DTS again for your seminary education? Feel free to respond privately to this question if you do not think it’s appropriate for a public forum and expand on it in any direction you think. I think highly of DTS, and I’ve looked at it as an option for me, but have been unsure if it may be the best fit.

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