Within this post I will continue my analysis of the debate surrounding the words of Pastor Douglas Wilson’s that Jared Wilson posted over a week ago. I have already blogged twice on the subject – here and here. Both of these posts have provoked extensive discussion, with over 230 comments between the two of them. Do take a look. I now intend to move on to the question of reading.
In one of his initial responses to the comments on the Gospel Coalition website, Pastor Wilson made the following remark:
Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class.
At least since this comment, the question of the duties of the reader relative to the writer and the competence of Pastor Wilson’s critics in reading and interpretation has been a key theme in this discussion (both Matthew Lee Anderson and Steve Holmes raise some important concerns and questions here).
I can relate to Wilson’s frustration, having had my positions egregiously misrepresented by poor readers on several occasions. At such points we are faced with a choice: do we focus on fighting for the accurate interpretation of our original words, or do we prioritize being heard and winning our opponents over? While the latter is generally a more productive way of achieving our ends within a particular debate, there are times when I believe that it is thoroughly appropriate and wise to seek to discredit bad interpreters of your past or present statements. This discrediting is primarily for the sake of other people listening in, who are to my mind frequently the most important people in any debate.
While I will be touching directly upon the substance of the recent actual debate between Jared, Pastor Wilson, and their critics at various points, my principal concern in these posts is to initiate and engage in a ‘meta-debate’, rather than the debate that most others have been engaging in. For this reason, at this point I will deal quite directly with the issue of bad reading.
The forms of bad reading that I will be identifying here are hardly limited to one side of this or any other debate, although they do tend to be clustered together, and in this debate I believe that they are especially present among Pastor Wilson’s critics. However, while I believe that the points that I make below will be highly relevant and illuminating to anyone trying to understand the form that the recent debate took and why there was such a failure of communication, my primary goal is to alert us to what bad reading looks like, what causes and drives it, so that we will begin to recognize when it is occurring in a debate, but perhaps most especially in ourselves. Such faults should first be addressed in our own practice. I would encourage everyone reading the following to do so with an eye primarily to themselves.
Challenging the Reader
Not infrequently, I have seen the writer who protests that they have been misinterpreted being told that the full responsibility for being understood is theirs – they are the one trying to communicate their thoughts after all! This approach neglects to reckon with the existence of hostile and uncharitable, lazy, hasty and careless, unskilled or illiterate, and reactive interpreters. I believe that a few minutes spent reading the posts and the comments in this controversy will make apparent that this dust-up is sadly replete with such individuals.
In many cases, such bad interpreters need to be challenged and discredited as interpreters: merely challenging certain of their mistaken interpretations, as one might do with a regular interpreter, may not be sufficient. They give bad interpretations because they do not have the necessary virtues or skills of a good interpreter. Even a technically correct interpretative conclusion arrived at by such an individual can be a bad one, as the process whereby it was reached is frequently flawed. I believe that we should be more alert to and prepared for the activity of such persons.
At this point I want to introduce you all to a rogue’s gallery of bad readers. With a better knowledge of their appearance, contexts, and behaviour you will be equipped to notice them when you encounter them in the wild.
The Hostile or Uncharitable Reader
The hostile interpreter is the individual who is determined to present his opponents in the worst possible light, failing to hold this instinct in check with careful and rigorous interpretative engagement. While there is nothing amiss with engaging with someone’s position in order to find holes, or in arriving at a position that is staunchly antithetical and opposed to that of one’s interlocutor, such positions are only justified in the presence of fair, reasoned, and rigorous interpretative engagement with the position that you are opposing.
For instance, from my perspective on this recent debate, many of Pastor Wilson’s critics seemed to display a personal animus towards complementarian viewpoints, an animus frequently vented in the absence of reasoned engagement with their defenders or careful justification of the antagonistic posture taken. Complementarian viewpoints were typically represented by their opponents as positions in which men ‘rule over’, ‘seek power over’, or ‘dominate’ women and indiscriminately classed with all other forms of ‘patriarchy’. Anyone who knew complementarian positions better would realize that, for all of their faults, they generally explicitly declare ‘ruling over’ and ‘power’ and ‘domination’ oriented hierarchies to be completely antithetical to that for which they are standing, and present their position to be diametrically opposed to much that typically appears under the category of ‘patriarchy’.
As Christians, called to believe the best of each other, we should conclude that our opponents are driven by ill-will only with the greatest reluctance. In all probability, your opponent isn’t the God-hating feminist or the woman-oppressing, rape culture-supporting patriarchalist that you might presume them to be. Most of our opponents are neither evil nor stupid, but well-intentioned and intelligent. In our presumption of malice or gross ignorance we usually display our inability to adopt an imaginative receptivity to the other person’s perspective, and manifest a failure in one of the most basic tasks of true interpretation.
The Lazy Reader
The lazy reader is usually someone who lacks the patience to engage with a writer or interlocutor to whose thought or opinion they give little weight. Lazy readers are often people who give little weight to any opinion other than their own, so they are poor readers of other writers from their own camps too. Prejudices and preconceptions will largely suffice. Reading is hasty and largely concerned with trying to gather sufficient cues to place the writer in one of the pre-existing pigeonholes that one has established, independent of close engagement. For the lazy reader, a statement such as ‘oh, he’s a complementarian/Catholic/liberal/Republican!’ suffices as basis to dispense with the need for further thinking, and to justify the mobilization of all of the prejudices, preconceptions, and judgments already associated with whatever label is applied.
In such a manner, lazy readers generally inoculate themselves against surprise or new insight from all quarters, as their approach is fundamentally inimical to anything that might disrupt the tidiness of their ideological taxonomies. They read merely to reaffirm what they already know.
Lazy readers will still typically throw out strong statements, without bothering to back them up. As the laziness as often as not arises from an overvaluation of or overconfidence in their opinions or those of their own camp, we should not be surprised to find that they are often the most vocal of all. Their laziness is less a willingness to remain in an agnostic ignorance that admits the fact that it is unqualified to have an opinion than it is a conviction that they already know. Once a lazy reader has achieved their end of pigeonholing you, further engagement is virtually impossible.
The Hasty Reader
Hasty readers are closely related to lazy readers in their carelessness. Constantly feeling pressed to have an opinion, hasty readers rush to premature conclusions, failing adequately to process the facts and argumentation beforehand. In my previous post I spoke of the ‘speed of thought’ online. The problem, however, is that thought can only move so fast: the demand for speed comes at the expense of reflection, meditation, and careful and considered judgment.
The recent hue and cry about Pastor Wilson’s words illustrated the manner in which a prima facie case can be regarded by many in such situations as sufficient basis for judgment. Anyone protesting this was presumed to be supporting the indefensible. No time or process was provided for testing the prima facie case. Hardly anyone showed any indication of close interpretative engagement with the rest of Pastor Wilson’s book or his other writings before casting judgment on him. Even the time to engage carefully with Jared and Pastor Wilson’s rebuttals, with the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty, was not taken. Whatever the justice or not of the claims against Pastor Wilson, the whole matter was treated with the reckless abandon and impatient urgency of the lynch mob.
When you are expected to have an instant opinion on every surfacing issue, you will lack the necessary time to devote to the collection of facts and the processing of argumentation. The heat of the antagonisms do not afford us the time or space within which to approach matters with the sort of open minds that can engage with the differing viewpoints carefully and receptively, leading to a time when we are equipped to make up our minds. Rather our minds are already made up, almost at the outset.
Online conflicts can flare up in a matter of minutes, and often tend to die down within a week. Unless you get on the bandwagon more or less immediately, you will find yourself left far behind. This unhealthy time-pressure drives us to scamper through a minimal amount of data and argumentation as fast as we can, seeking to garner some basis upon which to make up our minds. Unsurprisingly, this tends to lead to a careless handling of the evidence, and an overreliance upon our prejudices. The need to make up our minds takes priority over the responsibility to discern, engage with, test, and weigh the relevant evidence and arguments: sometimes the evidence and the arguments do not provide us with sufficient evidence to arrive at a conclusion. Yet seldom are we granted the opportunity to delay judgment, or the right to be agnostic or undecided.
The initial reading will as often as not set the tone of the conversation that follows. For this reason, it is imperative that our initial readings be considered ones, rather than hasty and careless. Had the pace and pressure of this debate calmed down, it might have been easier for people to arrive at careful and reasoned readings. Imagine if all parties had a week to gather a case and respond, with a moratorium on any sort of public accusation or judgment until this time period had elapsed. I suspect that with cooler heads, a firmer and broader apprehension of the relevant facts and evidence, and more closely reasoned arguments, many of the instant judgments that characterized this debate would have been considerably moderated.
The Unskilled or Illiterate Reader
There are a large number of people who are lacking in basic skills of literacy and yet are nonetheless very well represented and vocally present online. Remarking on the recent brouhaha, Josh Strodtbeck (who very strongly disagrees with Pastor Wilson) comments upon the poor reading comprehension exhibited by a type of person well-represented among Pastor Wilson’s critics:
Then there’s this other type of person. As nearly as I can tell, they seem to create collages in their mind as they read. Turns of phrase here and individual metaphors there get thrown into different places in the collage until they have what appears to them to be a fairly complete picture, then they react to the picture in more of a qualitative way (this reaction is usually emotional since they don’t really do “critiquing logic” or “refuting ideas”). This sort of person really doesn’t do very well at all with complex writing, especially writing that goes in directions they’re not used to. In my experience, explaining what I wrote to a person like this is a lost cause. I inevitably find myself repeating ideas over and over, quoting my own text, and dissecting my own grammar to prove to this sort of person that I said what I actually said. If your audience is this sort of person, you need to be extremely careful in how you choose your individual words and phrases, or you will set off a negative emotional reaction that makes further communication impossible.
Over the years this same thing has struck me too, and I have pondered how best to account for it. This impressionistic approach to the determination of meaning seems to forestall any process of interpretation: the meaning is vaguely intuited rather than carefully interpreted from the text.
In a fascinating piece on the subject of literacy, Ventakesh Rao challenges the common identification of literacy with the skills of reading and writing. Reading and writing, he argues, are merely mechanical and instrumental skills, distinct from and no guarantee of genuine linguistic and hermeneutical proficiency (which can exist in the absence of the mechanical skills). True literacy is manifested in the ability to exposit and condense texts. Exposition is ‘a demonstration of contextualized understanding of the text, skill with both form and content, and an ability to separate both from meaning in the sense of reference to non-linguistic realities.’ Condensation is ‘the art of packing meaning into the fewest possible words.’
Rao argues that an excessive focus upon the mechanical skills has led to a neglect and decay of true literacy. While some might believe that the loss of literacy is most in evidence in the slang of some demotic patois, Rao argues that it is no less present at the highest levels of education, where people’s inability to think with language is often shockingly apparent. The language of such illiterate readers and writers is a ‘language of phrases borrowed and repeated but never quite understood.’
Words and phrases turn into mechanical incantations that evoke predictable responses from similarly educated minds. Yes there is meaning here, but it is not precise meaning in the sense of a true literary culture. Instead it is a vague fog of sentiment and intention that shrouds every spoken word. It is more expressive than the vocalizations of some of our animal cousins, but not by much.
Curiously, I find the language of illiterate (reading-writing sense) to usually be much clearer. When I listen to some educated people talk, I get the curious feeling that the words don’t actually matter. That it is all a behaviorist game of aversion and attraction and basic affect overlaid on the workings of a mechanical process. That mechanical process is enacted by instrumental meaning-machines manufactured in schools to generate, and respond appropriately to, a narrow class of linguistic stimuli without actually understanding anything.
Rao’s description of educated illiteracy was one of the first things that came to my mind when reading many of the comments in response to Pastor Wilson’s statements. Whatever the justice of the claims made against him, the engagement with Pastor Wilson’s text seldom rose beyond the most rudimentary level of linguistic engagement. Any demonstration of the skills of comprehension involved in discerning and articulating the central claims of a passage and the progression and weighting of an argument seemed to be largely absent, as was one of the ability to unpack the meaning of a condense text. The ‘interpretation’, such that it was, was very much along the lines of what Rao describes: a behaviouristic ‘game of aversion and attraction and basic affect’ involving a ‘vague fog of sentiment and intention that shrouds every … word.’
Perhaps this was particularly clear in the way that the interaction seldom seemed to move beyond the smallest decontextualized soundbites: isolated words or brief phrases. Words like ‘colonize’, ‘conquer’, and ‘egalitarian’ seemed to be fixated upon, but no truly literate engagement with the text seemed to occur. These words were processed impressionistically and behaviouristically, rather than by seeking to understand what they might convey within the context of the broader passage and book, or how they might function within the greater argument.
So, for instance, Rachel Held Evans writes:
Wilson contrasts this “God-ordained” relationship of authority and submission to that of an “egalitarian pleasure party,” which I can only assume refers to a sexual relationship characterized by mutual pleasure, mutual authority, mutual submission, and mutual respect—which sounds a lot more desirable to me than being conquered and colonized.
Rather than any attempt to discern what the word might mean in its broader context, there is an unsupported assumption that Pastor Wilson is taking especial aim at a Christian form of egalitarianism, which is actually far from clear in the passage itself, and rather unlikely when read in terms of the book as a whole. Having not read the book (as was obvious from various other comments that she made) Rachel could, as she puts it, ‘only assume’. The depressing thing is that such unsupported assumptions are given any weight at all.
In the same way, while ‘conquer’ and ‘colonize’ may have primarily violent meanings, is it really the case that there are no non-violent metaphorical senses in which they can be employed? I suggest that more literate forms of engagement with language in general, the symbolism of the biblical and literary canon, the offending passage in question, and with the book within which it is found would suggest that there are non-objectionable senses of those words that can make sense in the context.
In the past I have suggested a game of ‘theological taboo’ and of practicing the art of unpacking and repacking our terminological ‘suitcases’ as a means of overcoming the illiteracy that dogs many of our theological conversations. Deprived of the behaviouristic cues and partisan totems of our favourite terminology and shibboleths, and challenged to learn to unpack and repack our beliefs, we will be forced to think with language in a manner that ‘illiterate’ readers don’t and can’t.
The Reactive Reader
The illiterate reader approaches language as something used but never quite understood, as trained or conditioned response to linguistic stimuli: in particular areas, the reactive reader can take this to the next level. I discuss reactivity in my posts on Edwin Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve, and will be relying heavily upon his helpful analysis in that which follows.
The reactive reader is characterized by a particular sort of emotional posture relative to the discourse or their opponents. They are unable to self-differentiate from those with whom they are having the conversation, or from the subject matter, to act decisively from out of a clear sense of who they are and what they stand for, distinct from the people, ideas, and environment that surrounds them. When persons can’t regulate themselves, they are vulnerable to all of the events, ideas, persons, and emotions that surround them and will react on a hair-trigger. They are connected to these things within a sort of ‘feeling plasma’, in which they are constantly being bombarded by the emissions of everyone and everything else. They are triggered by external stimuli, rather than acting agentically and determinedly from a self-defined identity.
Reactive readers can have a number of characteristics. First, they are unable to differentiate themselves from other persons. They create polarized oppositions with other parties very easily, fixate upon such rivalries, and determine their identities relative to these opponents. They cannot easily abide the near presence of someone who strongly believes something different to them, or who holds that they are wrong on an important matter. Feeling threatened by such a person, they react with a violent opposition to them. They almost always seem to be either aggressive or flinching, or poised to be so. If such a person feels threatened by you, it really doesn’t matter what you say: it will be virtually impossible for anything that you say to get through to them.
Second, they are unable to differentiate themselves from the subject matter of the conversation. Idea and person are so tightly bound together for them that when an idea that they hold dear is attacked or challenged they will take it personally. This makes debate almost impossible, as they constantly feel assaulted by their opponents, reacting in a manner driven by emotional reactivity, rather than reason (often even on occasions when reason might initially appear to be present).
The triggered person is a particular case of this. The triggered person is, for some reason or other (often on account of prior abuse, for instance), unable to differentiate themselves from some particular person, subject matter, object, or place, continually reacting rather than responding to it. As soon as the trigger is introduced into their environment, they lose true rational and agentic control of their response. Their actions become determined by their surroundings, rather than by their selves.
Third, they are fixated on ‘symptoms’, failing to appreciate the more underlying problem of the reactive emotional processes that bind them to the issues in question. They are crisis-driven. Even though the matter in question may be important, they are psychologically incapable of getting it in perspective. Reactive persons who move away from a particular Christian tradition can, for instance, remain bound up with the tradition that they left. They devote a great deal of their effort and attention to attacking the tradition and its positions, unwittingly defining their identity over against their former background. On account of their reactivity, they will almost invariably caricature wildly and blow up issues out of all proportion.
Fourth, reactive persons raise the temperature of a debate very quickly. As they cannot establish a clear self-identity distinct from other persons and ideas, they continually feel threatened and attacked. As they develop fixations, they lose all perspective on situations. They have an exceedingly limited repertoire of responses, and almost all of these responses undermine debate. When faced with an ideological opponent or a threatening idea they tend either to run for cover, or react aggressively. When they react, they tend to make things very personal, throwing around ad hominem terms and branding their opponents as ‘misogynists’, ‘racists’, ‘homophobes’, ‘liberals’, etc., unable to distinguish between disagreement and personal attack.
Fifth, reactive persons in reactive situations take everything incredibly seriously. They are completely lacking in a sense of humour and the ability to take themselves, their opponents, the subject matter, or the situation lightly when appropriate. They don’t get jokes and can’t make them. The reactive person is paranoid. People who lack the ability to self-differentiate tend to suffer from a sort of anxiety and easily succumb to conspiracy theory mindsets. The slightest turn of phrase, alteration in tone of voice, or choice of word will be imbued with intense meaning. They read intention into everything, finding it incredibly difficult to entertain the possibility that others weren’t giving full weight to every word used, that they might have spoken carelessly, that they might not have meant what they said, that their words might have been misunderstood, or that they didn’t intend to convey anything by a particular action. Lacking playfulness and a sense of humour, the reactive person does not have the ability to see things differently: their minds grasp onto a particular construction of the situation with a fevered intensity, and they are psychologically unable to try on different framings or perspectives for size.
Sixth, reactive persons play to weakness, and encourage all to adapt to those with the lowest levels of maturity and self-differentiation. Reactive persons will frequently use sensitivity as a means to get their way and gain control over debates and over their communities. Everyone has to order themselves around those who are least willing or able to take responsibility for their actions and emotions. Friedman writes:
One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgment. But the use of the word abusive suggests, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized by dint of the word entering their minds. This confusion of being “hurt” with being damaged makes it seem as though the feelings of the listener or reader were not their own responsibility, or as though they had been helplessly violated by another person’s opinion. If our bodies responded that way to “insults,” we would not make it very far past birth.
He goes on:
The use of abusive rather than objectionable has enabled those who do not want to take responsibility for their own efforts to tyrannize others, especially leaders, with their “sensitivity.” … It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, consensus, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted those humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.
While healthy forms of adaptation encourage people to become more mature, more independent, to develop thicker skins and greater self-control, societies built around those who are reactive privilege weakness and sap persons of strength. The more that people get their way by claiming that they have been offended or that their feelings have been hurt, the less likely they are to develop control over their feelings and self-differentiation, and the more likely they are to become hyper-sensitive to the slightest shadow of possible offence.
None of this is to suggest that the feelings of very sensitive persons should be treated with little regard, especially those who have suffered abuse and mistreatment. It is rather to make clear that we should be helping and encouraging such persons to develop thicker skins and more control over their feelings. One doesn’t encourage the development of strength by privileging weakness – quite the opposite!
Seventh, reactive groups display a herding instinct. Such groups fuse into a sort of ‘homogenized togetherness’. They cannot tolerate the differentiation of other parties, and so everyone is pressured to adapt to those with the least self-differentiated identity. Independent and self-defined voices can’t be tolerated. As a result people lose their selfhood in the group, and tend to stampede with the herd. Friedman observes, ‘in order to be “inclusive,” the herding [group] will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers.’ Reactive groups love to characterize those who won’t give in to the immature members within them as ‘insensitive’, ‘lacking in empathy’, ‘uncooperative’, ‘cruel’, or ‘selfish’.
With the loss of differentiation, there is an incredibly fertile context for Girardian mimetic desire, rivalries, and scapegoating. The ideal scapegoat is someone who is similar, but not too similar to the rest of the group. Unsurprisingly, reactive communities can ensure their identities through scapegoating the individual in their midst who is self-differentiated and doesn’t just dissolve into the mass, so effective leaders will often find themselves crucified. It was the experience of the self-differentiated individual in the reactive group that Kipling described in the words ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…’. Anyone who sees things differently or dissents from the group opinion is ripe for scapegoating. Alternatively, reactive communities find unity in reacting against and symbolically scapegoating a rival demonized community to whom they bear some sort of relation. Without such a shared opposition, the unity of the undifferentiated group would soon collapse into vicious internecine violence.
In sum, reactive and triggered persons are bad interpreters. They typically close down challenging conversations: public discourse atrophies in a context where reactive people hold sway. They think in polarizing fashions, caricaturing and demonizing their opposition. They cannot detach themselves sufficiently from the subject matter to withstand debate. They form stampeding herds that will crush those who seek to withstand them. The can only take things seriously and lack the imagination and playfulness to frame situations differently. They make things incredibly personal. They seek to employ their uncontrolled sensitivities to tyrannize the conversation.
Reactive and triggered persons cannot handle nuance, rhetorical hyperbole, irony, humour, linguistic playfulness, or vigorous debate. They respond to words behaviouristically, rather than approaching them interpretatively. The reactive or triggered person perceives everything in black and white terms and invests all of the statements of other parties with a level of meaning that admits no reserve or shading. You are either for them or against them.
A Few Observations
1. In my previous post, I commented on the democratization of discourse. As they have become less bounded and moderated, there has been a proliferation of bad readers within many of our conversations. While this may have made the conversations more inclusive, it has often rendered them considerably less effective. Despite the assurances of our education systems, most people lack the levels of literacy and self-differentiation necessary to engage in effective debate. For the health and survival of our public discourses, I believe that we need to limit or end the direct participation of bad readers as much as we possibly can, and provides means of advocacy for them instead, where their interests and perspectives can be represented by gifted and trained readers.
2. Triggered people are the very last people to go to if one wants to determine meaning. Triggered people are virtually incapable of engaging with a triggering text interpretatively, even if its author is completely innocent of bad intent. Nevertheless, the triggered reader will fairly frequently impute meaning to the text and intention to the author in keeping with the triggering effect that they experienced. For this reason, conversations surrounding triggered persons will often have a nasty and ad hominem character to them. When they claim too much in such a fashion, the core issue of triggering language is in danger of being dismissed along with the false and unreasonable accusations that typically accompany it. Those dialoguing with triggered persons need to recognize this. It is fruitless to debate meaning and intention unless you have dealt with the fundamental issue of the triggering. Those surrounding triggered persons should also recognize this tendency, hold their triggered friends back from the front line of debate, and represent their central concern in a manner that avoids the demonization, polarization, and hyperbolic accusations that typically result when triggered persons present and press their own case.
3. Dialoguing with reactive persons is incredibly difficult. They react viscerally rather than responding as rational and reflective agents. It is akin to trying to handle a cornered animal. In order to interact with them, one must first master one’s own reactivity and keep a cool head. One needs to avoid any sudden movements and ensure that they don’t feel at all threatened. They must be the ones to make all of the major moves. You coax them out with non-confrontational and inviting questions. You can’t press your advantage home, but must wait for them to come to you. Of course, while there are occasions when such forms of discourse are important, it is not healthy to have such persons in important discourse.
4. Few of the matters mentioned above have anything directly to do with intelligence or intentions. Well-meaning and highly intelligent individuals can be reactive or ‘illiterate’ readers. Most of us have been hasty, lazy, or overly hostile readers at some point in our lives.
A Concluding Thought
We often tend to regard the virtues appropriate to a practice such as reading as fairly particular to it. However, if what I have presented within this post is correct, the art of becoming a good reader is one that requires an extensive and intensive development of character and the cultivation of some of the core virtues of the Christian faith. The person who lacks this character and these virtues is a bad reader, no matter how many technical skills they may possess. The bad readers listed above are primarily marked by particular psychological traits and behaviours, rather than by an absence of technical ability. Perhaps the best way to become a good reader is to allow one’s character to be formed by the gospel. Conversely, when we display the characteristics of bad readers, it is often a revelation of the sin that remains in our lives, sin to be responded to with a penitent faith.
The loving reader strives to believe the best of others and is thereby equipped to perform the fundamental interpretative task of perspective-taking.
The humble reader is not exalted too highly in their own opinion and consequently listens far more carefully and attentively to other voices in the conversation. They are aware of the possibility that their readings and positions may be wrong, and are open to being challenged.
The self-controlled reader overcomes their reactivity, commanding their emotions and learning to respond with thoughtful and discerning judgment after careful interpretation. They thus avoid polarizations.
The patient reader is willing to delay judgment and wait for the right time to make up their mind. Their patience provides the time within which thoughtful consideration and interpretation can occur.
The unafraid reader escapes the fear and the paranoia of the reactive or triggered reader.
The hopeful reader has eyes open for happy surprises possibilities, and convergences beyond present polarizations.
The joyful reader has a freedom, playfulness, and imagination that enables them to frame things differently and not become locked within the driven ruts of the debate.
The kind reader puts the most generous construction on the words of others, preventing disputes from being blown out of proportion.
The gentle reader is forgiving of the human failings of writers, and recognizes that others sometimes make mistakes, express themselves poorly, or don’t fully mean what they say.
The peaceful reader reads others in a non-hostile and receptive manner, leaning in favour of those interpretations that foster unity.
The trusting reader takes others at their words, and seeks to avoid imputing intentions to them and meanings to their words that they deny.
The long-suffering reader is prepared to go to considerable effort to read a person thoroughly and well and won’t merely hastily skim.
These virtues are formed, not by mere human effort, but through faith in Christ. As we take our bearings from him, this character – the character of a good reader – is worked out in us. As I will argue in later posts, the gifted reader is also generally an able leader. It is important to seek such virtuous readers, to surround ourselves with them, and to be formed by their leadership. While bad reading is highly contagious, good reading is also something that can be formed in us by the company that we keep. In attending to the connection between our character and our reading much needless pain and difficulty that we cause to ourselves and each other could be avoided.