Reading Conversationally

Since a couple of people encouraged me to go on with the theme of my last post, I was thinking more on writing, and on what kind of writing I might contrast with Miller’s. I would contrast his with writing that encourages one to creatively respond with thoughts and actions and revisions of one’s own. I would contrast it with writing that presents a strong point of view, but leaves the conversation open precisely as a conversation, and not as an infatuation. The whole problem with The Purpose Driven Life phenomenon is precisely because, as much as there are discussion notes, discussion guides, small group discussions, and whatnot, it did not lead so much to discussion as to infatuation: at least from what I saw, people either rejected TPDL and wanted nothing to do with it, or wanted to try re-working their entire lives in accordance with Warren’s suggestions. Neither is a helpful response, because neither is a conversational response, that can perceive what’s there, what’s being said, and agree at points, disagree at points; find some parts worth accepting and acting upon, and others worth speaking against. So the problem was not so much the book — though the book is not very good, and does make conversation difficult — as with the response. The same is true of Eldridge and Miller: they each have something to say that worth saying, though in a fairly minor way, but E. especially has no sense of proportion, so when people respond with infatuation it becomes silly very quickly, so that even the parts that were true are lived out falsely.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there’s a natural process of reading and responding to a text that is compressed and distorted in many educational trainings, and this is also true of many themed conferences. The process is something like this:

  1. What is he getting at? Can I summarize the main thrust of his argument?
  2. What fundamental human question does this address?
  3. Is his question a true and important one?
  4. Is his answer a true and substantial one?
  5. If not, do I have a truer response? If so, how would one live that out? How might I live that out as the particular person I am, in the circumstances within which I find myself?

A good liberal arts education will teach students to approach books in something like that way; in class they’re most likely only to get as far as # 3, and the other two parts are left to the student to address — or not — in his own way. Infatuated readers, however, traipse lightly from the first part of #1 to the last part of #5. That may be warranted if one is reading a church text, and has already assented to believe all the teachings of the Church, but even when assent is nearly certain we’ll understand what we assent to and why we need to respond to it in action if we also consider what we are thereby saying about what it is to be that which we are (2 & 3).

Often popular books — even Bible study books, and, oddly, textbooks — take advantage of and encourage that infatuated response, or else the lazy response of simply wanting someone to tell me what to think. They do this in a few ways: by arranging a response format with built-in social pressure (e.g. a conference, retreat, themed study group, or workshop); by adding discussion questions at the end of chapters that simulates and confines some of the questions an attentive reader would already be asking, but which also control the discussion so that the responder cannot step outside the assumptions of the writer without upsetting the flow of the group; by directly approaching the reader with those last questions about how to apply what he has learned, while providing responder “correct” answers and pressuring him to respond immediately with formatting, such as workbook style lines, section breaks, “circle where you are” meters, and other educator strategies; by concluding the study or whatever with an activity or discussion that forces participants to respond before they (well, some of us anyway; I hear that extroverts process faster) have had an opportunity to even get through #1, thereby short-circuiting the response process, and possibly leading the participant to spend the next several days or weeks wondering irritably what happened, and what went wrong (“what’s wrong with me!? why can’t I respond the way that leader so obviously wanted me to?”).

Not every writer uses every trick, of course, and some are very transparent about what they expect of readers, while others just subtly hint at it, and still others don’t have a particular response in mind, but instead are vague about what their question is, so that readers get bogged down in # 2 and 3 (Miller is more like that).

A friend asked: how might it change your assessment if you simply learned that these writers don’t know what they’re talking about? That would depend upon the writer and what it is he’s doing with his writing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Donald Miller is simply ignorant on many topics — that seems to be part of his charm — to which I would say, simply, that in order to grow as a writer and thinker he should read old, difficult books, since he seems educationally stuck in the past century. In the case of Eldridge, I would respond that in that case he is being dishonest, since he presents his ideas in such a way as to pressure others to live them out. My feelings on Rick Warren are similar: it’s dishonest and tyrannical to have a 40 day long church make-over for a somewhat helpful but rather pedestrian presentation of ways in which we might live as better Christians. I would also say that the educational trainers would, in that case, be dishonest, since they present their “methods” as necessary and “scientific,” and do not in any way admit that they often use research as a way of getting out of having to answer # 2 and 3: given these methods will help me achieve whatever end you were studying for, what end is that, and why should I desire it above other possible ends that may be lost if I use your methods?


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4 thoughts on “Reading Conversationally

  1. I wonder how J. Gresham Machen might contrast to Miller, since they are both Evangelical Protestants, not Orthodox. (disclaimer, I haven not read Machen). However, one is a theologian, while the other is not.

    My followup question is, supposing Machen did meet your criteria for a good writer, are there examples of writers at a general population level (one that a non-scholarly person will enjoy and understand) that still meet your above criteria? I’m sure Machen is not a general population author, so he would be a poor substitute for Miller, Eldridge and Warren. What about The Shack? How does that meet your criteria?

    • I haven’t read Machen either, so I’m not sure.

      CS Lewis is a very good popular protestant writer, because he was well informed, thoughtful, and expected his readers to know how to read (asking summary questions at the end of chapters is a way of saying that your readers may well be illiterate); at the same time he was accessible, interesting, and didn’t expect readers to necessarily know very much theology (though he apparently hoped that they could read Greek script and follow complex arguments); one could read Lewis’ books in the above fashion without him getting in the way with neatly packaged applications.

      I hear that Francis Schaeffer is as well, though I haven’t actually read him. George MacDonald is a very good protestant middle-brow writer, and should be more popular than he is.

      My post on The Shack from when I had just read it might be more accurate , but as I recall I thought that Mr Young was a decent writer with some good theological points, but his narrative was overwrought and contrived. His characters are not so much characters in the modern literary sense of persons, as they are depthless symbols. The book is, therefore, much more interesting as an elaborate theological illustration than it is as a story. This would be less of a failing if Mr Young were more forthright about that: I would expect an obvious allegory to have realistic characters, since the whole purpose of an allegory is to flatten the world in such a way as to bring out essential truths about certain characteristics and positions that might otherwise lie hidden in the complexity of more realistic persons. As an allegory, therefore, The Shack is fairly good, though a bit tedious. As a novel it’s really lame.

      The Shack does not suffer the same faults I mention above, however. The closest it gets is to assume that the reader will have a theodic hang-up akin to the main character’s, which serves as an excuse to make the main character uninteresting — because the reader should really be paying attention to the answers and not to the character. Since the main character is, in fact, a person very different from me, with quite different questions and problems, it would be much more interesting to find out about *him* then to have his questions addressed as though they were my own. It would also be much more difficult to write, however.

      • That was very rambling; re: The Shack:

        1) What is he getting at? Can I summarize the main thrust of his argument?

        IIRC, the reason the Shack is poorly written is precisely because Young is making an argument, rather than showing a truth (emphasis on the *showing*), which is what novelists do. It’s an argument about how many of us, especially if we come from a Reformed Protestant tradition, misunderstand God, and especially the way in which He loves.

        2) What fundamental human question does this address?

        The question of evil: why would a good God allow evil to exist in the world?

        3) Is his question a true and important one?

        Yes, but it’s more appropriate for an apologetics book or essay; one has to be a much better writer to pull it off in a novel. Dostoevsky did pull it off, but he did so by showing the opposing perspective — that the goodness of God and the reality of evil are not congruent — to be intellectually stronger than the Christian answer; the Christian answer is not explained intellectually, but is lived out by Fr Zosima. This is because the Christian answer, historically, is not so much explained, but rather lived out by Jesus Christ, and by the martyrs of the Church.

        4) Is his answer a true and substantial one?

        I can’t remember well enough to say.

        5) If not, do I have a truer response? If so, how would one live that out? How might I live that out as the particular person I am, in the circumstances within which I find myself?

        IIRC the main character lived out his answer in forgiveness, which is good.

  2. “people either rejected TPDL and wanted nothing to do with it, or wanted to try re-working their entire lives in accordance with Warren’s suggestions.”

    I remember I would always forget to read the chapter (which was typical of many people), which made discussion very hard to do!

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