Why We Read

Are You Listening To Me?
Ever had the experience of talking with someone who isn't really listening to you? You know, they hear your words just long enough to form their own thought or their own idea, and at that point they disengage from what you're saying and just wait for a chance to jump in and talk about their thing. And of course you know they weren't really listening to you. They weren't interested in trying to follow your train of thought, or connect with your heart or your mind. They're only interested in making public the private goings-on of their own little mental space.

Amy and I talked about this just the other day, and we've had similar conversations with a Filipino friend named Lidj who writes a reflective, heartfelt blog called Crown of Beauty. There are those who listen just long enough to look for an opportunity to make their own point, or to get a quick shot of inspiration themselves. They hear only in order to speak, not in order to listen. On the other hand there are those who listen in order to connect with the heart of the speaker. They invest themselves in following another's flow of thought, and seek to get out of their own shoes as best they can to walk in the speaker's shoes. I have learned the value of this from people like my bride and our friend Lidj.

You know, I find it telling that ours is a world full of lonely people. And at the same time it is also a world full of people who are not great listeners. Coincidence? I think not.

Blowing Out Mental Cobwebs
C.S. Lewis applied the same thinking to what - and how - we read. He once wrote that we should all make sure that we read some old books; books that were written in a totally different time period than our own. The benefit is that these books can help us not get stuck in the thinking of our own time. Old books, Lewis wrote, are like "the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds." Reading books from people who lived long before us, and who saw the world differently, gives us perspective and stretches our understanding. In this way, old books help us grow as people and allow us to see things we wouldn't have seen if our thinking was limited only to the vantage point of our own times.

What Lewis was getting at is a problem common to all people: we're comfortable with what we already know. Because of this we're often not terribly interested in entertaining new thoughts or new ideas. After all, being stretched or challenged takes energy, work, and the willingness to tolerate a bit of discomfort. Left to ourselves, we sometimes feel very little incentive to want to change.

What Did He Say?
I find it telling that ours is a world full of people who increasingly know no perspective but their own. And at the same time it is also a world full of people who do not read for an author's meaning. Coincidence? I think not.

When we read, we tend to read for what we want to get out of it. Does it inspire me? Intrigue me? Entertain me? If so, I call it good writing. If not, I don't. In either case the author's intent has not registered as something of significance. We're focused on what we received, not necessarily on what the writer was saying. After all, if it doesn't inspire or benefit me in some immediate way, why should I care what an author wants to say?

Understand First, React Second
When I teach Christian Worldview to adult undergraduate students, I tell them that if they want a good grade from me they have to do two things on every assignment in the following order: first, understand what the author/speaker is saying. Comprehend his flow of thought well enough that you can give it back to me in your own words accurately. Then, and only then, may you move on to the next step, which is to evaluate what he is saying and agree or disagree.

Why do I make such a point of this? Because it doesn't come naturally to us. We tend to quickly get wind of where an author or speaker is going, and we immediately begin making judgments about it before we've even heard him out. We know what we're comfortable with and we have little interest in being stretched beyond it. So we prejudge what others say before they've even finished saying it, which is a defense mechanism of sorts in that it gives us permission to stay comfortable, and to prevent new thoughts from challenging us.

The challenge for the students is a difficult one. I issue this challenge in part to get non-Christian students to at least understand Christianity on its own terms, not just some popular misconception of it. But you know what? The Christian students in my classes are just as bad at this as everyone else. Throughout the course we look at some non-Christian worldviews too and I tell them the same thing: learn it first, fairly and accurately. Then you may respond. But this is hard for many of them to do. The moment they get wind that an idea came from somewhere other than the Bible, their brains shut down and all the emotional defenses go up.

The students who do take me up on the challenge all end up saying the same thing, whether they're Christians or not. They tell me the class was informative, challenging, and they'd never thought about their beliefs in this way before. Many of them go so far as to say they weren't even aware that they could think about their beliefs this way. Because they accepted my challenge to understand first, they leave the class with a whole new set of tools to process what they believe and why. They're better people for having been stretched. For having listened.

Sacred Stretching

And all of this affects our relationship with God. Too often, I think, Christians approach the Bible or the Sunday morning sermon with exactly the same mentality. How often do we open the Bible looking for good advice, looking for a nugget of truth to carry us through our day, or looking for feelings of inspiration, pure and simple? We come to the Bible with our questions, with our felt needs. We come with our agenda. And we may not be listening.

But what of God? What is his agenda? What's he trying to say? What did a Biblical author have in mind when he was writing the text we're looking at? What was his point, what was he trying to get across? Do such questions even occur to us?

God has given us his word to increase our understanding. He does not merely offer us comfort, inspiration, and warm feelings (though these things are sometimes part of the package). Rather, the Ancient of Days beckons us to his throne so that he can teach us, stretch us, and make us new creatures. He does not intend to increase our comfort with who we are. He intends to unmake who we are, so he can remake us in the image of his Son.

The Old Book
So I think CS Lewis was right: we should read old books to expand our perspective and broaden our horizons. But as Lewis himself pointed out, this only works if we read for the author's meaning; if we view the reading of a book the same way we would view a tour through a museum, in which we go to learn and a docent instructs us in things we did not know. Authors of good old books are docents of knowledge. Let them teach you.

And perhaps we should read The Old Book with the same idea in mind. Perhaps we should avoid approaching the Bible firmly ensconced in our existing, limited point of view, determined to find something that fits who we already are. Rather, let us come to the Scripture as the storehouse of the knowledge of the Holy One, and let his Holy Spirit be the Docent of Things High and Lofty.

These things may indeed be too high for us now. But if we let him have his way we'll find that he will re-make us so thoroughly that we will be able to bear them. If only we'll open ourselves up to the adventure.

Learning to listen - to read for understanding of the author rather than just for affirmation of what I already know - is a priceless skill. When this discipline takes root in us it actually changes our character. It makes us good listeners, good friends, good people. And most important of all, it makes us good followers of Jesus Christ.

As Jesus himself said, "he who has ears, let him hear."


Crown of Beauty said...

Hi there!

It's 4 a.m. here... gave your newest posting a quick read through.

Will be back to read it more thoroughly when my mind (and heart!) is fully awake.

I really look forward to reading what you have written. You have touched on many matters that interest me.

C.S. Lewis is one of the authors who shaped my spiritual thinking when I first came to know the Lord in 1973... that was 37 years ago (you weren't even born then!)


Matt Guerino said...

Believe it or not, I WAS born then! But I was only 2 years old. :) Get some sleep my friend!

Amy Guerino said...

I'm delighted to see that Lidj has seen this post already...even if it is just a brief read through. She is one individual who knows how to listen and read well. Her mind and heart is willing to be stretched to unknown territory and she then reacts with a open heart. Her soul is anchored in God's truth and that is the grid with which she passes it through. She responds to any author by understanding what he/she has said and then gives a well thought out heart response. I feel heard and valued when Lidj reads my blog posts and then responds. She knows how to make a connection even though we are so far apart and have never met face to face. I pray that I learn how to listen, read, and respond like her in time. Love to you, Lidj!

Crown of Beauty said...

This post is so meaty, Matt.

One of the things that I have truly missed since my husband died 18 months ago is the way he comes to his wife's rescue whenever he feels that I have been attacked...hurt...unjustly treated, etc., by a life event, or by a human being.

There was just something in him that always saw my side of the matter. I guess this was because we had such an intimate relationship -- we would always talk an hour or two before finally falling asleep at night. In the constant sharing of our hearts and minds with each other, we knew what was going on inside...most of the time. Even without words.

I knew that sooner or later, husband Matt would come up with something beautiful and well written because his wife needs the affirmation and protective covering of her husband.

This post is such an incisive response to the recent events that I have been privileged to know about.

While it is one of those tests sent our way by God to see how our hearts will eventually respond, it is also a golden opportunity for us to evaluate our present positions.

Sacred stretching, you called it. I love the way you said this:

"God has given us his word to increase our understanding. He does not merely offer us comfort, inspiration, and warm feelings (though these things are sometimes part of the package). Rather, the Ancient of Days beckons us to his throne so that he can teach us, stretch us, and make us new creatures. He does not intend to increase our comfort with who we are. He intends to unmake who we are, so he can remake us in the image of his Son."

We are constantly being made, re-made, and unmade...saints under construction.

You are wise to require your students to first understand the reading matter before evaluating. At least it ensures that the evaluation will be based on an honest attempt to understand the writer's original intent, and this will include taking into consideration the context in which it was written.

C.S. Lewis is also wise to encourage us to read books written in another era and time. It gives us the opportunity to get out of our comfort zones, and our of our narrow mindedness, bigotry, and self focus.

How you ever came up with such an appropriate title for your blog, I stand amazed. Your blog posts have lived up to it. You offer such a perspective from the top, so that we are not like hens looking down at our tiny piece of ground, but eagles soaring up high.

I also believe that Westerners who have lived in first world affluent societies should welcome any opportunity to live in an Asian country (like the Philippines) for a time and experience first hand what poverty means.

Life becomes so much more meaningful when viewed from a wider perspective.

Thank you for this excellent post!


Matt Guerino said...

Thank you for your thoughtful insights Lidj. Amy and I have talked about these things many times before, though it was a recent event that brought them to mind again.

Listening to hear. It brought to mind the struggle my students have in doing this with textbooks. Which in turn makes me realize how much we all struggle to do this with God.

And all this makes me realize how important a lesson this is.

Thank you for affirming the perspective you find here. That is a great encouragement to me!

Judith Guerino said...

Matthew, I loved this post. As true as your comments are about the value of being able to really listen with the deliberate goal to really hear, I feel them even more as I grow older. It seems my weaknesses are magnified as I age.

As with any discipline, the more we use it the better we get at it and, sadly, the less we have used it the worse we are in our later years. But there is always hope and your excellent thoughts stimulate this mother heart to "love and good works," if that makes sense. We absolutely can relearn when necessary but we have to want to. Your following quote affirms that to my heart:

"He does not intend to increase our comfort with who we are. He intends to unmake who we are, so he can remake us in the image of his Son."

Thank God.

Love to you,

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