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!
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