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:
- What is he getting at? Can I summarize the main thrust of his argument?
- What fundamental human question does this address?
- Is his question a true and important one?
- Is his answer a true and substantial one?
- 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?