Read to be challenged, not only affirmed

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

A few years ago, another blogger, who was writing a review of a pretty terrible book, began with the following story:

A professor at Southern (who shall remain nameless) once said in class “Incestuous breeding produces bastard children.” In context, I think what he meant was that serious scholars and pastors should not consume themselves with only reading things with which they agree. It is good for the mind and even sometimes good for the soul to read people who have different opinions and even different theological positions.

This really left an impression on me when I first read it. It still does.

We who live in this peculiar world of the “Young-restless-reformed/gospel-centered/whozamafaceit” have a nasty habit: we tend to be pretty insular in our reading.

While there’s much to like (even love) about writers from this particular group—we are right to appreciate writing that makes the gospel great, to be sure. But there’s a danger, too: if you’re not careful you can wind up only reading and listening to people you agree with.

Your arguments become second- (even third-) hand. Your discernment dulls. You risk becoming, well, kinda boring (and not in a good way).

“Incestuous breeding produces bastard children” indeed.

This is why I try to regularly read people who are firmly within the evangelical sphere who aren’t in the same camp as me. As frustrating as I find them to be at times, it’s helpful to read something by Craig Groeschel or Andy Stanley every once in a while. Sometimes you pick up a genuinely good insight that makes it worthwhile.

It’s why I also regularly read material from outside the Christian sphere altogether. Reading books by non-Christian authors allows me to see what people are picking up on via the common grace of God, while also getting a better sense of where the world around me is going.

It’s why I also have a simple rule I’ve been following faithfully for the last several years: Read at least one book a year that I know I’m going to flat-out disagree with. This year, I’ve read at least two, one on being a “biblical” woman, and another that wasn’t even worth talking about by a very famous hipster ex-pastor (there are probably more, but I can’t think of them).

Why would I do this to myself? Do I have some sort of perverse need to bang my head against a wall?

I do it because reading something I disagree helps me to think clearly about what it is I do believe—and why.

It forces me to not rely on the arguments and opinions of others, but to actually interact with the assumptions of someone very different than me, turn to the Bible and see for myself whether or not it lines up, and to see where these authors may be asking the right questions (even if they’re giving the wrong answers).

At the same time, though, this should only be done within the context of an ever-increasing knowledge of the truth. Handing a new believer a Rob Bell book, for example, is rarely going to end well. He or she needs a firm foundation before being able to test the mettle of the voices vying for his or her attention.

The point of reading is not only to be affirmed in what we believe, but also to have our assumptions challenged. Reading outside of our comfort zone allows us to do both—to be affirmed in what we know is true, to embrace truth that is coming from outside our usual sphere of influence, but also to test our discernment to the glory of God.

What have you read lately that’s been particularly challenging for you?