On Reading “Their” Books

Brothers and Sisters,

First off, thank you for your prayers… and spare medical equipment! I’m happy to report that my foot is much, much better than it was this weekend. I was convinced that I’d torn or broken something, yet here I am walking with no trouble whatsoever.

Praise God for answered prayer! Now, onto the real subject of today’s letter…

Twenty minutes (or so) after I hobbled up into the pulpit on Sunday, I challenged us to rejoice in what God is doing to advance the gospel even in churches that don’t share all our convictions.

Afterward, one of our members approached me about a book she was reading (and enjoying) by an Anglican priestess. That provoked a short discussion and a lingering question: what should we think about books from authors outside our theological tribe?

Here’s how I’d answer that question…

First, let’s briefly consider non- or anti-Christian books. We ought not to dismiss out of hand everything we might encounter “out there.” If we’re to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5–6), then we need some knowledge of those arguments and opinions. One way to get that knowledge is to read “their” books.

More positively, God’s common grace is such that even a broken watch is right twice a day. There’s much we can learn from books outside the Christian pale, so long as we read carefully (more on that below). Many of us have been edified by works written from drastically different worldviews than our own. We ought to acknowledge and celebrate the grace in that.

As for books written by Christians from different tribes, we should recognize the grace of God at work in their writing, as well. They’ve got the same Spirit and read from the same Bible. Like Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos (Acts 18:24-28), we have things to teach one another.

By the by, we need to recognize that we might be the Apollos in that scenario.

In all, we should take a cue from Paul: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 10:23). We can read anything, but that doesn’t mean we should. And we certainly shouldn’t believe everything we read. It’s good to keep an open mind, but as G.K. Chesteron said, an open mind is like an open mouth. It’s made to close on something solid.

How can we know what’s solid? Here are three guidelines to help you discern what to spit out and what to swallow as you read any book—whether from outside our tribe or within:

1. Read Critically

Pay attention to what you’re reading. Pause to ask questions of the text. What kind of worldview is the author writing from? What does she take for granted? How has she arrived at her conclusions? Is she relying on facts or feelings? Get curious and force your author to make her case—much the same as you would if the two of you were sitting down together.

Well-written books seem right at first blush. It’s only when we cross-examine what we read (Prov 18:17) with the help of others (see #3 below) that we recognize how much of what we’ve read ought to be rejected.

Reading critically is a skill to be cultivated over a lifetime. It’ll pay immense dividends if you put in the time and effort.

2. Read Confessionally

You might’ve expected me to say read biblically, but I’m trying to stick with C-words. Regardless, reading confessionally most certainly includes the Bible.

Throughout church history, every heretic has had his Bible verse. Arius, for example, used verses like Col 1:15 (“[Jesus] is the firstborn of all creation”) to make his case that the Son wasn’t divine but the first of God’s creatures—a semi-divine Savior. Faithful, Bible-reading Christians rejected that argument as heresy and codified their results in a creed.

So, yes, read biblically, but do so through the confessional lens of the church and tradition to which you’ve entrusted your spiritual care. That doesn’t mean you can’t look at the Bible, ask questions, and even challenge your tradition. You can. Indeed, you must.

But it does mean that tradition provides guardrails to help you discern whether someone may be leading you to misunderstand the Bible. Reading confessionally will force you to slow down and ponder so that you’re not lulled into believing something ruinous to your spiritual health.

3. Read in Community

Really, to read confessionally is to read in community with the saints who’ve gone before you. Why not add to that choir of helpful voices by enlisting the input of those who walk with you today?

Here’s what that might look like in practice:

  • Ask friends for book recommendations
  • Seek the input of your pastor or an elder
  • Start a book club
  • Read book reviews written by people you trust
  • Bounce what you’ve read off a discerning friend

God has called us to “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16). One of the ways we can do that is by helping one another to recognize what is true, good, and beautiful (and what isn’t) in the books that we read.

There’s so much more that could be said on this. I do hope I’ve given some guidance for reading books from outside our tribe. If you have any other thoughts or questions and want to keep the conversation going, then you know where to find me!

In Christ Alone,