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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I’ll Understand If You Don’t Read This

Written by: on October 10, 2017

So I must say that in Pierre Bayard’s book “How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read,” I kept finding myself conflicted over the pure irony of the message. On one hand, I wanted to not read the pages simply to prove his point, and yet on the other hand, I kept feeling as though I might miss something if I had. I did come to a conclusion though, and that is that my previous belief that if the book is truly great, then they will make a movie. I am not sure this one would actually make my “movie” list. It is not that the book itself was bad, nor did I have a problem with the message (too be honest, I have been “not reading books” for years), however, I could not help but wonder if he was intentionally dragging out some of his thoughts simply to see if the reader would skip ahead. To answer the question…I did. In fact, for full disclosure, I skipped ahead on a number of parts, which I suppose only helped to prove the point that he was making. See…how dizzying of a concept in a book. It was that constant feeling as though I was actually doing the author a disservice by wanting to know what he had to say. At one point Bayard actually made the comment, “Valery’s stroke of genius lies in showing that his method of non-reading is actually necessitated by the author, and that abstaining from reading Proust’s work is the greatest compliment he can give him.”[1] If this is the case, then is the best justice I can do to this work is to not read it?

There are a few points I would like to draw attention to that I did find thought provoking; the concept for scholarship vs. readership; the struggle of biblical study with this concept; and the sad reality that this is probably all rational and true.

First, Bayard mentioned that there was an importance to not losing perspective when we read, and that certain situations definitely seemed to warrant a different reading style than others. He made reference to “Musli’s librarian”[2], and the extreme quantities of books he had qualified himself through. When we anticipate our dissertations and the massive quantities of resources required to accomplish that task, I sit here even now looking at just the starting stack of 30+ books on my desk and realize that there is not a chance in this world that I could come anywhere close to reading all of these sources in the next 3 years. Not only are the books to great, but my desire is too small; sooner or later I would become frustrated, probably overburdened, and most likely…I’d give up. Because of that self-knowledge of my own limitations as well as my understanding of the task at hand, I easily comprehend the need for a better method of reading. However, the author also mentioned a book that I was quite familiar with, “In the name of the Rose” (not because I had read it though, but rather have watched the movie a couple of times). Though I cannot speak for the book, I know the movie is a deep, very thought-provoking and challenging story that kept me captivated through its telling. For this reason, I know that there are books that not only deserve an entirety of reading, but actually seem to demand it. Bayard’s very act of telling the story reveals how many twists, turns, and deep thought techniques are used to finally build up to the ultimate climactic conclusion. To “skim” through its pages may give the reader an idea of the story, but it would actually compromise their enjoyment of it. I suppose it was at this point that I related more to “How to Read a Book” than to Bayard’s method.

Second, was the difficulty I had with this concept in regard to religious reading, specifically, in regard to the Bible. One of the greatest struggles I face as a minister is people that argue scripture when they actually have no idea of what it says. It seems in the world today, everyone believes that the Bible is open to interpretation more than to truly understand what it was that God intended. Though I can see from the point of a dissertation perspective, the value that skimming or reviewing the analysis of others can have in regards to time saving and concept building, I believe that there has to be a thorough study of scripture rather than an abbreviated one. Furthermore, I believe that more damage is done to the Gospel when people fail to true seek the knowledge of God in a hope of simply pushing their agenda. When beginning this course, one of the comments made to me concerning topic selection was to choose a topic that I was passionate about. How can I prove my passion if I do not really even know the topic? Though not originally my comment, I have long since adopted it for my own when I caution people about “cherry picking” from the Bible. This refers to taking a single verse and massaging it in just the right way to make it say whatever I want it to. As an example of this, my sister once told my father that he could not spank us kids because it was a “sin”. As was the tradition of my father when we decided to bring the Bible into it, my father said, “Book, Chapter and Verse.” Without skipping a beat, my sister said, “The bible says ‘Spare that rod! Spoil that child!” Clearly, as I now know now, my sister actually had no understanding of that passage; however, at that very point in time, none of us other kids really cared, we were all behind her interpretation of it.  I truly believe that when the Bible comes into the picture, you can skim all the other books you want, but you need to take the time to get your Bible reading right.

Paul warned Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”[3] Interesting enough, the next verse of this warns him to “shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness.”[4] I could not help but think about this verse while I read because at one point early in his book, Bayard wrote, “Our propensity to lie when we talk about books is a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading.”[5] Again, I was faced with this dilemma of thought; how do I write a religious paper if in its writing I am forced to “lie” in the process? Granted, I believe most of the lie comes with trying to lay claim to something I did not do by suggesting that I had. For this reason, I believe there is a great difference between using a source as a topic reference as compared to trying to convince someone that I have read in full every book that I will be using in my dissertation. It seemed as though Bayard was leaving hypocrisy way too justifiable.

Lastly, to admonish the need for biblical integrity and study is very important in my opinion, especially since this review is for a Doctor of Ministry program; however, the importance of this book is not lost on me either. Bayard wrote, “It is even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details.”[6] There is a necessary, and I do mean necessary approach to topical writing that requires “skimming” verses deep contemplative reading. There is a time to sit down and enjoy a good book, or to even consume every single word on the pages of a scholarly book; but there is also a time to be more narrowly focused in your endeavors. The idea that I can search through the index, read the back cover, and even read the reviews of others to grasp just enough information to be of value is actually a time-saving, and perhaps life-saving reality. I could not begin to fathom how many books I have now gleaned information from over my years of study; from writing sermons, research papers, and even my own novel, there is no way I could have, nor even wanted to read those books in their entirety and still accomplished all that I have accomplished. The fact is that skimming is a necessity of scholarship.

With that said, I do struggle with the concept of skimming simply to be socially acceptable. I do not see the shame of admitting that I have never read a book, or even know who a particular author might be. As I read this book (okay, at least a lot of this book), I struggled with the respect question; How do I respect someone that presents themselves to be someone or something they are not? I do not need to read a book in order to enjoy someone else telling me about it. Perhaps our desire should be to not take away the opportunity to learn from someone else’s experiences. I think I learned this even more graphically in Cape Town, South Africa. I do not have to say that I have had the same experience to learn from the experiences of other; in fact, I believe we learn more when we are honest about our ignorance and use that as a motivation to learn more.

[1]  Bayard, 370.

[2]  Ibid, 234.

[3] 2 Timothy 2:15.

[4] 2 Timothy 2:16.

[5] Bayard, 119.

[6] Ibid, 314.

About the Author

Shawn Hart

5 responses to “I’ll Understand If You Don’t Read This”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Shawn,

    You are the “movie man” for sure when it comes to evaluating books. I like your style, much like Bayard, you enjoy shaking the traditional academic trees to see what falls out. You are my first review, but I will keep a tally of our Elite-8 members who “confess” to Bayardisms in their academic past. Regarding your first point, I agree that we should “drill” into our Biblical readings and research much more than the others. This is where I agree with Bayard and will keep my other related books, themes, and ideas on the “periphery”.(1) Like you said, “skimming is a necessity of scholarship”. Won’t it be glorious when our mental hard drives get the JC 1.0 divine upgrade? That will be the day we can really read in a new dimension. Great Post!

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

    1 Pierre Bayard. How to talk about books you haven’t read. (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2007) Kindle Edition, Location 245.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Shawn!

    I like your writing my Brother. This one quote you gave is one reason why, “Lastly, to admonish the need for biblical integrity and study is very important in my opinion, especially since this review is for a Doctor of Ministry program.”

    Well said! There are some things we must read at depth, and the Bible is certainly one of them. Won’t find us skimming the Good Book for our next sermon. Non-reading isn’t going to cut it there.

    Keep on keeping on!

  3. Greg says:

    You crack me up. I wrestled with some of the same thoughts of should I read this book, what parts can I skip, is he just giving examples to fill pages….how much of this book can I “not read”?

    When I think of the avalanche amount of books we are going to have to sift through, not reading is attractive. I too took some of what he said to heart knowing we are on the path to not reading knowledge dissertation writing.

    I won’t give you too hard of a time with this statement, “everyone believes that the Bible is open to interpretation more than to truly understand what it was that God intended”. I will say that rooming with you I know your heart, but be careful saying that you know what “God intended”, because that alone is an interpretation of the scripture, yours. “more damage is done to the Gospel when people fail to true seek the knowledge of God in a hope of simply pushing their agenda”. I whole heartedly agree that coming to scripture with our own agenda and looking for the Bible to prove what we already believe allows us to create God in our image rather that the other way around.

    Bayard said, “a book stops being unknown as soon as it enters our perceptual field”, to me I hear him saying that we begin to understand the book and can talk about it, not for the purpose of promoting that we have read it or not, lie or not, rather to engage people with the ideas we got from it. Good Job.

  4. Mark Petersen says:

    Shawn, thanks for your post. You mentioned the problem of people cherry-picking Bible verses to prove a point without having a comprehensive understanding of the text. This is such a common practice, and unavoidable in a culture that values individual autonomy and everyone’s voice is valid. But it does lead to some bizarre theological interpretations!

  5. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    You raise some interesting questions, particularly in regard to reading as it relates to the Bible. If we take Bayard’s words as true then even as we read the scriptures we are connecting with them utilizing our own inner book which will affect our interpretation of the text and our future exposition of it. In addition if as we are reading we are also forgetting what we have read, or remembering only those parts that seem to connect most clearly with our perspective then our reading of the scripture will be thoroughly tainted by our own biases. This clarifies some of the tension experienced in the church at the beginning through to today when it comes to Biblical interpretation.

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