Points 3-4: Knowledge Soup and Thinking Habits

Recently, I re-read Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall which  won the 1986 Newbery Medal award. Yes, Newbery awards are for children’s literature. Good children’s books make good adult reading. I’m also reading Why Suffering by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Titale. What a contrast! The first is “an exquisite, sometimes painfully touching little tale” (according to The New York Times Book Review), a lovely narrative based upon a true story, while the latter is a theological exposition exploring theodicy and the meaning of suffering by two philosopher-theologians.  Both are nutritious and yummy.

In some ways, I evaluate them differently, because of their differing purposes, audiences, and genres. I bring my background to my reading chair where I’m comfortably curled. “There is no frigate like a book,” Emily Dickinson exhorts us, so from my armchair, I sail, navigating by the six points of my Reader-Navigator’s Map.*  

 Besides your daily, functional reading, what are you reading presently? A magazine to which you subscribe? A gardening book? A novel? Certain websites or blogs (such as JNC)?

We are growing in Biblical Literacy (point 1), and we are considering the Genre Identity (point 2) of a given work, taking seriously the opportunities and limitations of a work’s genre.

When we are reading, we are conversing with an author, and we always bring our background and repertoire of knowledge to the new reading experience. This is point 3: Knowledge Soup (the ocean), more specifically, it is My Knowledge Soup — the ocean in which I sail. What carries me and connects me to another human being, the author in this case, is my inner richness and poverty of experience, study, and understanding. A work new to me challenges me to add to my understanding, and it is my job to consider what I will accept, modify, or deny that the author offers.

For instance, I am reading Zacharias’ and Vitale’s book on suffering after having spent four years studying the theme of human suffering (and joy) and constructing a doctoral dissertation based on my research. If I would have read their book four years ago (but it wasn’t published until 2014), then many parts of their book would have puzzled me because of my lack of background into some of their sources, terms, and arguments. My Knowledge Soup of 2017 lets me navigate this book more smoothly, but not arrogantly, because I have so much to learn! Because I am  familiar with the writings of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Hick,  Alvin Plantinga, and other scholars, I can now concentrate on Zacharias’ and Vitale’s lines of reasoning rather than on learning new vocabulary, concepts, and the history of given arguments.

My Knowledge Soup made my reading experience different  and deeper than it would have been four years ago, and my experiences with suffering made my reading experience different and deeper than it would have been ten or twenty years ago.  Helping us to mature, good reading requires humility, tenacity, and as Mortimer Adler describes it, “teachability as a virtue”.  Yes, meaningful reading demands certain, virtuous qualities from us.

Point 3, Knowledge Soup, is directly connected with Point 4, Thinking Habits. The wind in my sails is my habit of thought. In my last post, I said that I hoped to present Mortimer J. Adler’s “General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette” in which he delineates how to agree and disagree with an author.  Although not fully, these address our Thinking Habits.  In his book, How to Read a Book, Adler offers lots of lists. His analytical mind is on display. Adler lists four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical (or comparative) reading, and he has chapters on each. His etiquette appears in his chapter called “Agreeing and Disagreeing with An Author” and is placed under the heading, “The Third Stage of Analytical Reading”.  The three stages contain 15 points, and the etiquette contains three of those fifteen. (You know that to analyze means to take a part, to separate the whole into its constituent parts, and Adler’s mind works like a surgeon’s knife. Don’t be intimidated! Just take the pieces you can grab and run with them — not with the knife. Never run with a knife.)

Adler’s General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette (Edited, thank you, by KO):

  1. Do not agree, disagree, or suspend judgment until you can say “I understand”.                        Understanding, Adler explains, comes from 1) discovering the book’s genre; 2) being able to briefly state what the book is about (theme and purpose); 3) stating the major parts of the book and their relation to each other; 4) defining the problem(s) the author tries to solve; 5) understanding the author’s vocabulary; 6) knowing the author’s claims and arguments; 7) identifying the author’s conclusions/ solutions, or lack of conclusions/solutions.
  2. Do not disagree contentiously. Attitude is important. Under this point Adler advises that the reader “should be as prepared to agree as to disagree”, which I think should be a separate point that should precede this second point.
  3. Differentiate between knowledge and opinion, and use good reasons for any judgments. (These could be two points, but you see their relationship.)

Ah! These seem sensible. They remind me of the simple steps often taught in teaching people to read and study Scripture by the inductive method: 1) What does the text say? 2) What does the text mean? 3) How do I apply or use this text? (Living by The Book by Howard Hendricks is one such book that teaches this inductive method, and Dr. Hendricks learned how to read and study from Adler’s book, as you remember from my February 1, 2017 post.) The process is simple, but it takes diligence. Reading and studying this way truly slows us down, and this is good! Slower reading gives us time to think, to digest, to analyze, to meditate, to pray. . . .  All that you can, savor and enjoy your reading.

One more aspect to our Thinking Habits which is integral to all of the above is the consideration of our own worldview and the worldview of the author. Consider the following:

In his books, The Universe Next Door and Understanding the Elephant, Dr. James W. Sire helps the reader to cultivate a Christian worldview (via the Scriptures) and to think and read “world-viewishly”, learning to identify authors’ worldviews. Sire defines and describes a worldview in various ways, but probably his most succinct definition is a metaphor: “A worldview. . . is a map of reality; like any map it may fit what is really there or it may be grossly misleading The map is not the world itself, of course, only an image of it, more or less accurate in some places, distorted in others. Still all of us carry around such a map in our mental make-up, and we act on it” (page 15 of How to Read Slowly).

Sire goes on to state, “When writers write they do so from the perspective of their own world view” (15). Adler advises us to seek to understand the author before we take any steps to critique the author. This confirms the cliches, “Don’t jump to conclusions”  and “Think before you speak”.

Maybe we could summarize Adler’s, Hendrick’s, and Sire’s advice into some maxims of reading etiquette:

Reading Etiquette Maxims:

  1.  Practice active listening by reading to understand the author’s positions, claims, and story first. “I hear you saying. . . .”
  2. Consider your own worldview (mental map of reality) and search for the writer’s worldview in order to compare and contrast them.
  3. Establish the points of reality (the propositions, perspectives, and pictures of life) that you agree with (biblical alignment) or resonate with first. Appreciate them.
  4. Identify the areas of aesthetic expression (the art) that you admire, and appreciate them.
  5. Separate knowledge from opinion in the text and in your thinking.
  6. Describe the author’s strengths and weaknesses of expression, development, and claims.
  7. Express points of disagreement in respectful, reasonable terms, without exaggeration, condescension, or disrespect. Treat the author as you would like to be treated, if you were the author.
  8. Affirm what you can take away from the work that will benefit you.
  9. If you have done the above, you will be able to recommend or not recommend a given book. Some books you can recommend to all readers. Some to certain readers. And others to no one. You can do it with salt and grace.

To everyone age 8 and older, I recommend MacLachan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall. The story starts with a question from a young boy. You won’t have to ask hard questions of this book. Just listen to resonate with the realness of the characters’ longings, responses, and their interactions to life’s challenges. Probably, the main thing you’ll disagree with is the length of this slim story. You’ll want more. Happily, there are four sequels.

Thus, the story begins with a conversation between a little brother and his big sister, the narrator of the story, who has been like a little mother to him, since he was born, for Mama died the day after he was born:

“‘Did Mama sing every day?’ asked Caleb. ‘Every-single-day?’ He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones.
‘Every-single-day,’ I told him for the second time this week. For the twentieth time this month. The hundredth time this year? And the past few years?”

You’ll enjoy this little narrative based upon a true story. So would Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale, who would find a number of illustrative angles to “Why suffering?” in this children’s classic.

In the next post, I’ll address the last two points on The Reader-Navigator’s Map.


*Six sailing points on The Reader-Navigator’s Map:

  1.   Biblical Literacy = both anchor and rudder                                                                                                                      2. Genre Identity = the ship’s hull                                                                                                                                    3. Knowledge Soup = the ocean                                                                                                                                          4. Thinking Habits = wind in my sails                                                                                                                              5. Influence and Influenced = Reader-Pilot’s changes/growth                                                                                      6. Impact = From Pilot to other passengers — changes/growth
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