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On The Ethics of Reading

Reading is an ethical activity.  You can do it well, or you can do it poorly. It is my belief that Christians should read often and seek to read books in a way that honors both Christ and the author. How do you do that?

Dr. Michael D. Williams, Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, wrote a brief piece on how to read books well. While directed at seminary students, I thought his words might encourage those of you who are avid readers. Used with permission, it has been edited for space and clarity. You can find it below.

On the ethics of reading

On The Ethics of Reading

Expect books to challenge you in some way. Some books will challenge your thinking. Indeed, it is our hope that most of the books you read in seminary will do so. They will ask you to think new thoughts. They might even ask you to believe new things. But things you will read will also challenge you in that they will not always be easy to read. Expect that you will have to stand on your tip-toes on occasion. New ideas and new language may take you a while to get used to. The book that challenges how we think, the assumptions we make, even the things we believe raises the question of what a constitutes a good book.

More often than not we think a book is good when it affirms what we believe. Such a book is good because it’s true. The curious reality, however, is that a good book may be one that we disagree with, one that we believe is not entirely true to reality. This brings to attention the different senses of the word good.

There is good in the sense of the true and good in the sense of the good for you to read, and these might not be the same thing. A book that causes you some level of discomfort is often a better book than the one with which you agree because it forces you to ask yourself why you disagree and whether it is proper that you do so. My point here, however, is simply to say that you should not dismiss a book merely because you disagree with something in it.

While it is increasingly lost in our bumper sticker–text message–sound bite culture, communication–and that includes both listening (reading) and speaking (writing)–is an ethical activity. Communication is an activity in which both the speaker and the listener bear responsibility. The speaker is seeking to connect with the listener, to tell the listener something, and so must speak in such a manner that his or her message can be heard and understood. Listening is an act of cooperating with the speaker. A good listener is one who lets the speaker speak and seeks to cooperate with the speaker in such a way that the listener hears and understands the message.

5 Rules for Sympathetic Reading 

In terms of reading a book, this has sometimes been called sympathetic reading.

First, if communication is an act of cooperation, then the reader must treat the writer as a friend, someone who wants to tell you something that is worthy of your hearing. This means that the reader must allow the writer to speak and the reader must listen. This might seem obvious, but it must be said because many of us evangelical and Reformed believers tend to read not as an act of cooperation, but in a adversarial mode. We start speaking–and objecting–before we have really listened, and when we do speak in response we are often too quick to give negative criticism. And we offer positive comment only grudgingly. We do not read as though the writer is our friend, but rather as if he or she were an opponent, someone we must find fault with, even dismiss.

This is often so, unfortunately, among seminarians. Being adversarial and combative, able to find the flaw in an argument or idea, is sometimes taken as a badge of intelligence. While it is true that we are called to test the spirits of the age we live in, that testing need not take a combative direction. Lack of love, a critical spirit, and a bitter and cynical heart are deadly to listening and learning.

We live in a culture that exalts cynicism and suspicion. We listen suspiciously, looking for the error, jumping on the slightest misspeak. And unfortunately, our churches are not immune to the acids of cynicism. In direct imitation of the spirit of our age, in parts of our Christian subculture there are sermons, TV shows, radio programs, books, and especially websites and blogs that demonstrate the very worst of the culture of suspicion as they inculcate distrust and even hatred toward fellow Christians who might deviate even the slightest from a declared rigid orthodoxy.

Second, whenever possible be constructive rather than polemical. It is “better to praise and share than to blame and ban” (John Updike). The communion between the writer and the reader is based upon the presumption of cooperation: the reader wanting to hear what the author wishes to communicate. And “all our discriminations should curve toward that end” (ibid). The point of your review, of all your writing, should be to build up, to proclaim faith and commend that faith, not to tear down or dismiss.

If a work is to be judged deficient in some way, there are some rules to follow:

  1. Make sure that it is a substantial issue. Do not dwell on minor points. Remember that there is no perfect book, one with which you will agree on every point. Remember that the professor has assigned the book, meaning at the very least that he thinks that there is something there that you can benefit from, and with which you ought to be able to interact as a humble learner.
  2. Make sure that the failure is the author’s and not your own. Make sure that you are reading them right.
  3. Try to understand the failure. Affirm the person even if you cannot affirm what he or she is saying.

Third, a sympathetic reading allows the writer not to say what he is not talking about so that he can talk about what he is talking about. No one book deals with every issue. While we might wish that an author had said more about a particular subject, or connection, or application, doing so would sometimes mean writing a book quite different from what they have actually written. “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” (John Updike).

Fourth, a sympathetic reading properly employs the hermeneutics of suspicion. When we hear someone saying something with which we disagree, we have the tendency to judge the statement suspiciously. But it might actually be an opportunity to check our own commitments. Rather than immediately assume that we are right and the other person is wrong, we should assume neither.

Fifth, a sympathetic reading appreciates that the writer has given considerable thought to his or her subject, has some level of expertise relative to the subject, and strives to be consistent and forthright in the presentation of that subject. Be careful with how you deal with what you take to be contradictions in an author’s thought. As I said, the author has thought longer and harder on the subject than you have. More than likely, he has been more careful in his thinking than you have, as writing just takes far more concentration, discipline and time-on-task than does reading. Oftentimes what readers take to be contradictions are nothing of the sort. Indeed, the are usually failures of reading rather than of writing. Failure to listen carefully, jumping to conclusions or inferences (especially one’s not drawn by the author), pressing word uses (definitions) upon the author that he or she does not espouse, will often end in our seeing contradictions where they might not actually exist. Try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.

You may also like: 

  1. How Not to Read A Book 
  2. 8 Quick Tips to Help You Read More Books 
  3. The Top 10 Best Books on Christian Apologetics 
  4. 11 Books Every Christian in College Should Read 
  5. The Christian Reader’s Resource Guide 

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