I love good books. I love hearing about good books, being given good books, asking for good books, reading good books and recommending good books to others. And as any avid reader knows, there’s this odd anomaly that occurs when you keep a running list of good books you want to read: the more you read, the longer the list grows. Sometimes I wonder, if I read 12 hours a day would I ever feel like I made a dent in my list? So why in the world would I ever consider taking the time to read a book that I know isn’t good? As in, a book that I know to contain ideas that go against what I know to be true?
Last year I was planning the books I wanted to read, and a friend suggested an idea that probably would have never occurred to me. He recommended that I read a book that I knew I would disagree with. Despite the difficulties, the more I considered the idea the more I saw value in its challenge. It could develop my listening skills as I participated in a somewhat one-sided conversation. It could sharpen my critical thinking skills as I processed what I read. It could help my communication skills for engaging with people I disagree with.
We tend to read books we already know are good, according to our bias or a reliable recommendation, that we know we can learn from and agree with. And this causes us to read with our filters down because we already know what we’re reading is worthy of being read. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, but this isn’t an accurate reflection of how we interact with the world around us. When we’re processing information on a daily basis, we need to have filters up, thinking on the spot, discerning truth and responding to untruth.
So I took on this idea as an opportunity for training. I chose a book on the smaller side and that I was somewhat familiar with and started reading. I read with pen in hand and made notes as I went, marking out points I agreed with, strongly disagreed with, and statements and ideas I had questions about. I tried to trace the author’s arguments in order to identify not just where I disagreed with him but why. I wanted to identify when it was a flaw in logic or a misinterpretation of Scripture. There were some places I knew what I was reading wasn’t quite right, but I would need to come back to it and think through why.
I wish I could say I had thought of this ahead of time, but I’ll admit it was the book itself that prompted the idea. Along with my pen in hand, I read with my Bible open, looking up many of the passages the author had included. He used a significant amount of Scripture references throughout the book but I knew most of his conclusions were wrong. So it was an added challenge for me as I went to discern how the author was using (or misusing!) Scripture to support his views. I was thankful for the opportunity to develop this skill as I read—it’s one that easily translates into ‘real life’.
Now obviously this challenge should be entered into with some caution. Don’t take this challenge on if you only read a couple of books per year; then it might be best to adhere to solely good, solid, truth-filled books. But if you regularly read good books, you may benefit from challenging yourself to a book that contains ideas that you disagree with, that go against Scripture or Christian tradition.
Keep in mind that all reading should be done with careful listening and discernment. It’s not something we should turn off when reading a ‘good’ book and turn back on when we pick up a questionable one. And I’m not recommending we choose to read a book we know we disagree with just to reinforce our prejudices. We should always read with both discernment and an open mind. The process and the outcome will vary based on the reader, the author and the book. You might choose a book you disagree with completely, and ultimately be able to better understand and articulate why. You might choose a book where you disagree with some points, but realize you agree on more than you expected. (Or the other way around!)
I would also recommend asking a fellow trusted Christian who is wise, thoughtful and well read to read along with you. While reading, or when finished, discuss the arguments in the book. Practice discerning where the author departs from or adds to what the Bible says. Discuss how to form gracious, truth-filled responses to these arguments. Thoughtfully consider ways to approach people around us who may hold the views you encountered in the book.
This is definitely a type of reading I will add to my regular routine. I knew it would be a good exercise, but the benefits and lessons were even more helpful and applicable than I expected. Reading an author expressing ideas I disagreed with for 200 pages, without being able to interrupt or directly respond, was a great way to hone my listening skills. I trust this will make me a better listener when I’m interacting with friends, neighbours or strangers. It exercised my skills in examining arguments and ideas and distinguishing truth from error—especially when it’s subtle or hidden. I hope these skills make me a better thinker, whether I’m consuming the evening news, Facebook or a Sunday morning sermon. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, reading this ‘bad’ book caused me to open my Bible alongside and test what the author was wanting to teach me.