You Know It’s a Good Book When …

Twenty years ago, in my senior year of high school, the English honors teacher, Mr. Jeffrey Naruszewicz, ended the class period by going around the room asking each us what university we were planning to attend.  When it came to me, I answered, “Wheaton College,” and assumed that he would simply move on to the next student.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he stopped, turned his head to look back at me, and said this:

“That’s a good fit for you.  Just make sure you keep reading books that piss you off.”

And then he moved on.  Now some might object to the “salty” nature of his advice, but truth be told, it’s one of the best pieces of guidance I’ve ever received.  Reading books that “piss you off” means you read books that don’t agree with your understanding of the world.  Reading books of this nature means exposing yourself to other ideas that are in deep conflict with your own perspective.  It means refusing to accept the construction of “strawman” arguments in favor of reading arguments by people who have a radically different worldviews.  In the end, reading books that challenge you means becoming a life-long learner as opposed to being someone who is comfortable in the mistaken notion that the world is easily understood and categorized.

Last night, as I began a new book entitled The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are, I couldn’t help but think back to my old teacher.  He would be proud of my selection.  For this is the kind of book that is fearless in its orientation.  It’s the kind of book that is not afraid to take a very sharp blade to the throats of our sacred cows on both the left and the right.

Indeed, no sooner is the author finished slashing away at the “privileged status” of the heterosexual majority, when she openly assails the cultural belief that sexual desire can form the core of a human identity.  She’s looking at the right, she’s looking at the left, and she’s taking shots at everyone.  It’s an audacious book; and one that I suspect will earn its rightful place among my Top-10 books of 2012.

But that’s not really the point of this post.  The point of this post is to ask you: are you still reading books that “piss you off?”  Or have you settled into a genteel reading cycle where the books you read simply confirm what you already know to be “true?” 

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12 Responses to You Know It’s a Good Book When …

  1. Bill says:

    I remember someone saying, “There are too many great books for me to waste my time reading only good ones.” I am sure that applies even more so to dumb, foolish, false, misguided, erroneous, boring, sensationalistic for the purpose of getting attention, etc. books. I think you can get opposing view points in articles, columns, and blogs (like this one) without taking (wasting?) time reading entire books that fit into the aforementioned categories.

    • mahoneyrm5150 says:

      @Bill…maybe I am not totally grasping your point, so please correct me if I am misinterpreting your statement. It appears you are advocating engagement with alternative points of view in only succinct venues that don’t allow for the depth of argumentation necessary for detailed comprehension, of sometimes of complicated issues. Assuming that sentence is an accurate reflection of your reply, you are likely engaging only caricatures of a position rather than a true position. Take for example the issue of women in ministry, given the genuine complexity of historical background, hermeneutics and exegesis necessary to truly understand both sides of this debate, I am very doubtful that a blog post will adequately provide the time and space needed to flush out all the issues.

      And I don’t get the sense from Scott’s post that he wants us to read “dumb, boring, sensationalistic” books, but I think he is asking us to be stretched, engaged and culturally able to spread the gospel into corners of the world unreached due to an overly isolated and unengaged type of Christianity that is more accustom to shallow and reactionary thinking. But I could be wrong about his post too

      • @Ryan … You have not misread my post. My interest here is not reducing our level of reading. Rather, I would choose to read the very best of the people who disagree with me on a host of different issues. For only in reading the best of their work are we likely to find worthwhile critiques of our cherished positions. And only by reading the best of other’s work will we come to truly understand why they believe as they do. In a lot of ways, It’s all about simultaneously avoiding complacency and arrogance – traps that all of us are prone to fall into.

      • Bill says:

        I guess I wonder who this sentence – “unreached due to an overly isolated and unengaged type of Christianity that is more accustom to shallow and reactionary thinking. “- is referencing?

        • Morning Bill,

          I just read Ryan’s comments below, so I don’t want to speak for him. But I think, broadly speaking, there has been a … dumbing down within evangelicalism. In my opinion, Mark Noll hit the nail on the head when he wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” as did David Wells in his book, “No Place For Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?”. Both are concerned with the widespread trend in shallow thinking amongst many evangelicals.

          This, of course, was the backgound thinking behind my post when I asked the question: do you read books that openly challenge you at every turn (for the sake of sharpening your own thinking) or have you settled into a reading pattern where you typically read only works that you know you will agree with before you even begin to read.

          Having said all that, I really do appreciate your challenge of Ryan’s statement. While I believe the “scandal” is all too real, there is a concurrent danger amongst those who are trying to fight in becoming arrogant and/or condescending. While I don’t believe that to be Ryan’s issue in this case, it is a very, valid concern and I appreciate you calling it out.

          Blessings to the both of you.

      • mahoneyrm5150 says:

        @ Bill…I did not have any specific individuals in mind when I crafted that sentence, but now that you have asked, more than a few names are popping into my mind. However, it would be in very poor taste to name names here, and I am sure you would agree.

        I did not have, nor presently have, any groups in mind when I wrote those words. To generalize in such a fashion would be to engage in the overly isolated, unengaged, shallow and reactionary thinking that Scott and I are writing against. I am suggesting that such intellectual patterns are not hard to find in individuals, and I am quite certain that you know some people like this, as do Scott and I.

        We as Christians are called to love God with all our minds too, and we should being showing our intellectual sanctification to the world as well as our moral sanctification. In doing so, we (those that are able) have to engage at the highest and best levels possible, and there are a number of significantly complex issues that are most suitable to the venue of a book rather than a blog post.

  2. Mary DeVries Yager says:

    Oh…to have time in my life to read!!! I can barely find time to read your blogs – but I read them because you are one of my dearest friends in life. next time I have time to open a book for pleasure instead of class-prep, I will cal you for a recommendation of something that will piss me off.

    • That’s a tall, order, Mary. You’ve been on the right side of the political aisle, and now you’re on the left. So your exposure is probably broader than most. Give me some time, and I’ll work on it.

  3. Rich Bennema says:

    How does this book compare with this:

    The goal for all Christians should be HOLY SEXUALITY. God has clearly set out what holy sexuality means. God gives us two options for holy sexuality: if we are single, then abstinence and if we are married, then faithfulness (and God has very clearly proscribed marriage to be with a man and a woman).
    http://christopheryuan.blogspot.com/2008/07/does-ex-gay-mean-straight.html

    Christopher used to go to my church. He is currently working on his doctorate on this subject of Holy Sexuality. I’ve heard him speak several times and agree with him 100%. I think the American church has gone way overboard on homosexual sin while almost giving a pass to heterosexual sins. For every one sermon on homosexual sin, I think their should be a corresponding sermon on heterosexual cohabitation, pornography, divorce, etc. And I mean one sermon for each of those topics, not one homosexual sermon paired with just one heterosexual sermon. Then you truly have the balance of Scripture. It is no wonder that homosexuals feel picked on by the church – because they are!

    So, is this book like that – a sin is a sin and our identity in Christ calls us out of our particular sinfulness? Or, can this book be summarized as “pretend Romans 6 doesn’t exist?”

    • Morning Rich,

      As I sit here thinking about how to respond to your final question, I find myself hesitating. And it’s not because your final question is a bad question. Rather, it’s a polarizing, binary question. If I say, yes, she writes from a perspective that considers Romans 6, my evangelical readers will say: “Good,” while my more secular readers will say, “No thanks.” And the opposite scenerio is just as true. In either case, one group or the other is likely to dismiss the book. And that would be a genuine shame, because her work deserves the broadest possible reading from a diverse population of readers. So let me say this, and I’ll let you decide how to move forward. The core of her work is not oriented around exegeting biblical passages. She is a cultural anthropologist who is interested in the power of language and cultural constructions around sex and human identity. So you won’t find the usual recitations of Leviticus or Romans. Having said that, you will find a biblical framework based on Romans 2 and the transforming of our minds. So here’s the deal. If you’re interested in this topic, read the book. It’s a relatively short read (about 150 pages). You’ll be challenged in a great way; and I think you’ll see a roadmap forward for critical engagement on these issues.

      • Rich Bennema says:

        Short or long, my reading list is so backed up that Kelly got me a book on CD for Christmas. So there’s little chance this book would ever make it to the front of the line.

        And “Romans 6” was my shorthand. I wasn’t asking if she cites or expounds the passage. Romans 6 presents the question, “now that my identity is in Christ, should I continue my old lifestyle?” Paul’s answer is “may it never be!” Rather, Paul argues that salvation gives us freedom from the slavery of our old life. So my question was whether Paris’ answer is the same or different from Paul’s.

  4. Kim A says:

    Wow, I haven’t heard that name in a long time. I remember I had Naruszewicz for a class, but I can’t remember which one. For some reason I associate him with Golf.:)

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