Reading Matters

Artículo tomado de European Leadership Forum.

Over 200 people recently attended a public lecture on an apologetics subject. The lecturer spoke powerfully and knowledgably about his area of expertise. The problem began when the Chairman invited questions from the floor. A full hour had been allocated for this part of the evening and it had been advertised on the handbills. Questions flowed readily. Some were directly concerned with the substance of the lecture. Most, however, concerned the grounds, integrity and credibility of Christian belief. It was a disaster.

Outside his narrow field, the speaker rarely understood the force of the questions. His answers were shallow, unconvincing and dismissive. Fundamental questions were not addressed and a great opportunity to engage an intelligent audience with the truth of the Gospel was lost. Worse than that, the audience was left to think that Christians had no real or substantial answers on anything.

What depressed me most about the evening was the insight it gave me into the magnitude of the apologetic task. We heard questions about science, history, philosophy, ethics and doctrine all go unanswered.

Of course, you could arrange lectures without a question time. The church has been doing that for centuries, its teachers speaking every week from a pulpit ‘six foot above contradiction.’ The apostles, however, have left us with a greater challenge. They engaged with the questions and culture of their day, proclaiming the gospel in dialogue, not monologue. (See particularly Acts 17-19, where the Greek word ‘dialegomai’ is used repeatedly to describe the way Paul proclaimed the Gospel. In English, this is usually translated as ‘reason or reasoning’, but it implies dialogue.)

Today we face a particular difficulty. As knowledge increased so dramatically in the 20th century, we have all become experts in a narrow field. I had to give up history at the age of 14 years to focus on science subjects. From the age of 16, I gave up everything else apart from science, in order to study for medicine. By the time I was 20, I was reading little outside of science, apart from news and fiction.

Five hundred years ago, however, ‘Renaissance Man’ rejoiced in the breadth of his learning. Such polymaths wrote about literature, history and nature. They composed music, wrote plays, designed buildings, dabbled in politics, carried out experiments, addressed ethical issues – and collected butterflies! The breadth of their education was exhilarating.

What we need in secular Europe today are evangelists with a broad educational base from which they can speak persuasively about the truth of Christianity. Most of us will be specialists in a given field, but we must resist the temptation to be narrowed by it. How is this to be achieved?

For some - who have the ability, time and money – it can be done through the educational system. There are remarkable individuals who have collected Bachelor degrees, Masters and Doctorates in widely different fields. For most of us, we must be self-educated outside of our chosen field.

Thirty years ago, I found myself sitting in a train next to Professor Sir Norman Anderson. He was a legal academic of great distinction, specialising in Oriental Laws. He was also an outstanding Christian apologist, whose books nurtured the minds of a generation. I mentioned an article I had just written and he asked if he could read it. It was no longer than 800 words.

To my great surprise, he took ages to read it, so much so that I commented on it. He said he read very slowly, a habit he attributed to the need to master detailed legal documents. “How then do you manage to write so much, and with such authority and distinction?” I asked. “Ah,” he said, “I have a strategy. When I need to attend to a particular subject outside my field, I write to leading experts in that field and ask them what are the seminal books on the subject which I would need to read?” In other words, he was highly selective in his background reading and guided by expert opinion.

I have always kept that in mind when buying a book. There are only so many books that we have time to read – should this be one of them? Is it recommended by experts? Is it going to educate me? Will it explain matters I do not understand? An authoritative book review can guide our choices and save us hours of wasted time.

While not every reader is a leader, we can be confident that all leaders are readers. How broadly are we trying to educate ourselves? Before going on holiday this summer I bought four books on quite diverse themes. What were they?

I wonder if you are familiar with the Oxford University Press series, “Very Short Introductions” (VSI). They claim to be written “for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject. They are written by experts and have been published in more than 25 languages worldwide.” They run to about 150 pages and sell for about £8 or euros, or $12. There are now over 200 titles and the aim is to produce 300. Forthcoming titles promised include Communism, Fashion, Puritanism and Biography. The range is wonderful.

I have particularly enjoyed Julian Baggini’s VSI on “Atheism”, not least as I was preparing to debate with him. His cavalier misstatement of the Cosmological Argument was something he lived to regret! My understanding of the science behind the Cosmological Argument was greatly increased by Frank Close, Professor of Physics at Oxford, in his excellent VSI on “Nothing”. I am looking forward to reading Henry Chadwick on Augustine, Terry Eagleton on The Meaning of Life and William Doyle on The French Revolution. For those committed to a lifetime of self-education, not least for discerning Christian apologists, this library is a very valuable resource.

Of course the flip side of our struggling to have at least some knowledge of diverse subjects is that most of the people we want to engage in dialogue are themselves experts in a narrow field. Outside that field, they are usually drawing on the little they remember from school.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

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Dr Peter May is a General Medical Practitioner in Southampton, UK. He is the author of Dialogue in Evangelism (Grove Books, 1990) and also wrote the Christian Medical Fellowship's dialogue evangelism training material, called Confident Christianity.  He serves on the General Synod of the Church of England and also the Trust Board of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF). He is a Forum-approved trainer of evangelists and apologists.

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