Two weeks ago, James Sire addressed a question from me about learning from artists and writers who have a different world view than my own. In his response, he mentioned Alan Jacobsâ€™s A Theology of Reading, which I have been reading and blogging through lately. I’d like to expand a bit on Jim’s reference to Jacobs’s book with a few examples of charitable reading.
Throughout the book, Jacobs offers â€œinterludes,â€ which are essentially case studies of different styles and methods of reading. â€œInterlude D: Two Charitable Readersâ€ compares two different readersâ€™ approaches to two different subjects which I think relates to the question of influence that I raised. Jacobs posits two different paths of reading charitably:
- Drawing closer to an author you find repellant, so that you can appreciate whatever value is to be found in their work.
- Distancing yourself from an author you love, so that you can assess their contributions more accurately, apart from your own adoration.
As an example of the first path, Jacobs offers Jane Tompkinsâ€™s essay about Buffalo Bill Cody in West of Everything: The Inner Lives of Westerns. The essay reflects on a visit to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center , which Tompkins finds emblematic of the violent, imperialistic impulses of 19th-century American culture, and she is outraged.
But the outrage was undermined by the knowledge that I knew nothing about Buffalo Bill, nothing of his life, nothing of the circumstances that led him to be involved in such violent eventsâ€¦So when I got home I began to read about Buffalo Bill, and a whole new world opened up. I came to love Buffalo Bill. (Tompkins, 195, quoted in Jacobs)
Tompkinsâ€™ love for Buffalo Bill, however, did not lead her to ignore his violence or his personification of a world view she detested.
[Tompkins] does not encourage us to love Buffalo Bill by diminishing or limiting her description of the evils with which he was associatedâ€¦Tompkinsâ€™s charity consists in the wholeness of her attention, her refusal to sacrifice attention to one truth so that another one may be privilegedâ€¦.Had Tompkins been more decisive, her essay perhaps would have been more coherent, but less charitable and less truthful. (Jacobs, 117â€“118)
The second case â€” of a reader distancing himself from an author he loves â€” is that of W.H. Audenâ€™s love for SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard. Auden discovered Kierkegaard in the late 1930â€™s (in fact, Kierkegaard was one the principle influences on Audenâ€™s decision to return to Christianity), and he became â€œutterly captivated,â€ as Jacobs puts it.
As Kierkegaardâ€™s works appeared in English during the 1940s, Auden made a point of reviewing them for major American periodicals: It was his way of spreading the good news about this remarkable thinkerâ€¦What is remarkable about this reviews, for our purposes here, is their expository nature: Auden seems to think it his duty simply to present Kierkegaardâ€™s ideas with little comment or evaluationâ€¦[O]ne cannot help thinking of Bakhtinâ€™s comment about the â€œpurely passive, purely receptiveâ€ understanding of an authorâ€™s intentions that â€œcontributes nothing new to the word under consideration, only mirroring it, seeking at its most ambitious, merely the full reproduction of that which is already given in the wordâ€ (Dialogic 281) and that therefore constitutes something of an ethical failure of engagement. (120â€“121)
In order for Auden to become a truly charitable reader of Kierkegaard, able to honestly assess the writerâ€™s contributions to philosophy and literature rather than simply adoring him, Auden would have to move outside of Kierkegaardâ€™s writings and see not only their greatness, but also their shortcomings. Jacobs notes that Auden was finally able to do this in 1968 (30 years after he first began reading Kierkegaard). Jacobs quotes several criticisms that Auden makes of Kierkegaard, then writes:
But having so strictly indicated Kierkegaardâ€™s shortcomings â€” having distanced himself from Kierkegaard and established a Bakhtinian â€œoutsidednessâ€â€”Auden then pivots his essay toward a renewed appreciation of Kierkegaardâ€¦Having registered the inadequacies of Kierkegaardâ€™s thought, he is then free to turn to the Danish thinkerâ€™s distinctive contributions. (123)
This may sound a bit strange, but itâ€™s important to observe that â€œreading charitablyâ€ doesnâ€™t mean that one accepts an author or book uncritically.
One seeks to avoid error because one cannot love properly when confused or deceived. (Jacobs, 17)
Athens and Jerusalem
This brings us back to the question of learning from and appreciating authors who donâ€™t share our world view. Jim Sire notes Augustine and Calvin as two Christian thinkers who think itâ€™s acceptable to read and learn from â€œpaganâ€ authors (and I would expand that category to include anyone from another world view). Jacobs turns to a different theologian: Basil the Great. In Basilâ€™s time (the 4th century), Christianity had been made the official religion of the Roman empire, but the â€œinstitutions of cultureâ€ were still dominated by pagan literature. So, Christian students regularly faced the problem of being asked to master non-Christian literature and philosophy in school.
Basil, therefore, advises Christian students to learn the skills of discernment that will enable them to recognize when the pagan writers are teaching wisdom and virtue, so that they may eat such good fruit as is available. (141)
How are they to do this? By being charitable rather than overly critical.
It is precisely a less â€œscrupulousâ€ and more equitable reading of the pagan writers that releases them for our use, gives them a role in our school of virtue. By reading them according to the charitable spirit rather than the harsh and inflexible letter, we make them our own. (142)
I ran into this problem shortly after I became a Christian. As an English major at a public university, I was still required to read â€œpaganâ€ authors for my courses. It was extremely tempting to read them according to â€œthe harsh and inflexible letter,â€ critiquing them for their theological and moral shortcomings rather than seeking to learn from them what I could. It took me a long time to be able to read, say, W.B. Yeats in a charitable spirit.
But how is a Christian student to discern â€œwisdom and virtueâ€ if they are studying pagan literature?
â€¦Basil, knowing that the schools are pagan, assumes that the students to whom he writes will be nurtured by the counter-institution of the Church; it is the sound teaching of the Church that provides the students with the resources necessary to reconfigure, properly and healthily, the ideological world of the pagan writers and teachers. (143, emphasis added)
Is the Church today providing sound teaching adequate to this task? Thatâ€™s a big questionâ€”for another day.
About the author:
The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.