DMINLGP

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

Obfuscation

Written by: on October 11, 2018

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read was tough reading for me. I held off writing this to the very end to avoid the real possibility that I may have misunderstood Bayard’s project. I did not want to fall into the same category of people who misjudge books simply by its cover. One only has to look no further than the one-star reviews of books found in popular online retailers such as Amazon to see that many readers are guilty of this. 

For example, there was a book titled The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher that got published last year. The subtitle was “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” This book received rave reviews, some positive and some negative. It quickly got on the New York Times Bestseller list. David Brooks, a writer for New York Times applauded the book and said “Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” That is high praise. However, most Christian leaders I talked to had a different and rather unfair critique of the book. One of them said the book espoused a radical retreat from society which impugned the Christian’s calling to being salt and light. This inaccurate assessment could not be further from the truth. If one had simply read the book, he or she would learn that a temporary retreat, a “going back to basics” sort of approach, which the author clearly advocated, that refreshes and empowers believers enough to be effective agents of change for the kingdom. It is disappointing that many of Bayard’s tips on how to talk about books one has never read might lead us down this same path. 

The title I chose for this post is the word Obfuscation. This is not a very endearing characterization of a person, especially for academics. The Merriam-Webster definition of this word is “to throw into shadow; to obscure; to be evasive, unclear, or confusing.” As bad as it is, in my opinion, the author is perfectly comfortable with this. He said so himself. In an NPR interview Bayard said he was comfortable “living in the gray.”1 In many places in his book he writes about “inner books,” “inner libraries,” “secret texts” a mobility to meaning that one wonders if there is a point to reading anything at all. 

It is one thing to acknowledge that there are gray areas in ascertaining the truth of a matter, but it is quite different to be settled in it. The flaw in Bayard is that in describing the lack of apodictic certainty of truth he has prescribed the lack of any truth. In other words, just because a thing is difficult to grasp, now therefore there is nothing to grasp. That does not follow. A good example of the chaos and folly that attend this kind of thinking is illustrated by Bayard in the game of Humiliation. 

“The game thus consist in humiliating yourself as much as possible: the more you humiliate yourself, the more likely you are to win. But there is an additional twist, which is that victory also depends on sincerity. To win, you must not only give the name of a well-known book, but also convince the others that you have told the truth about not having read it. If you give the name of a book that is too well know, such that it is actually implausible for you not to have read it, the other players have the right to reject your statement. The chance of winning is thus proportional to the players’ trust in the person confessing his ignorance, and so also in proportion to the genuineness of the player’s humiliation”2

Notice that there really is no objective to this silly parlor game. It only ends in chaos since there is no grounding for truth. Lies don’t exist unless truth first exist. One must always assume the truth of a thing before it is shown to be false. That’s a logical order and cannot be breached. Otherwise we all start with skepticism and that’s an unlivable world. In this game no one wins and it only ends in futility and destruction. In fact we do find that one of the professors thinking he won the game actually lost the game, even more, his reputation and his job.

If there is another alternative to how we can talk about books we have not read, allow me to suggest one. This advice comes from my personal experience having managed a bookstore for over seventeen years. The first step is to contact publishers of books that fit your interests, and get on their mailing list. Indicate that you want to start receiving their catalogs which usually gets printed a few times a year. For example, if your interests lie in Christian academic titles, you’ll want to obtain catalogs from IVP Academic, Eerdman’s, Baker Academic, etc. Not only do you get to know about books that have yet to be printed, but the descriptions, table of contents and other promotional material contained in these catalogs will be surprisingly enough to engage in fruitful discussions about a myriad of topics. Collecting and perusing these catalogs actually do start to create the real inner library—similar to the one Bayard talks about. Except this one has its basis in reality. 


1 “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.” How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. NPR, December 25, 2007. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17597717.
2 Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books You Havent Read (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009), 122.

About the Author

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Harry Edwards

Harry is married to Minerva and has the privilege of raising two young men. He is the founder and director of Apologetics.com, Inc., an organization dedicated to defending the truth claims of Christianity on the internet, radio and other related activities. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Education and a Masters of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University where he currently works full time as the Associate Director of the graduate programs in Christian Apologetics and Science & Religion. Harry is currently pursuing a DMin (Leadership & Global Perspectives) from George Fox University. He is an active member at Ocean View Baptist Church where he leads an adult Bible study and plays the drums for the praise and worship band. In his spare time, Harry enjoys doing things with his family, i.e., tennis, camping/backpacking, flying RC planes and mentoring others to realize their full potential in the service of our Lord.

8 responses to “Obfuscation”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thank you, Harry. You and Mary are taking up the challenge to Bayard and it is helpful to consider other perspectives. Each of us comes at this through our own personal lens or filter. Your role in apologetics gives you a unique vantage point that benefits us as a cohort. You gave a significant perspective with this statement, “Lies don’t exist unless truth first exist. One must always assume the truth of a thing before it is shown to be false.”

  2. mm Mary Mims says:

    Harry, you are right in that some of Bayard’s techniques seek to obfuscate. However, I do think he is being a bit sarcastic or having fun with the idea of not reading. I think your method of looking at catalogs is what Bayard describes as what the librarian is doing when he takes Stumm into the catalog room. You are right in that catalogs provide a shortcut and is a helpful way to get information in a hurry. I think we can all agree that there are many ways to get information, but we must not try to deceive anyone in what we do. Glad to know you have such a wealth of knowledge that your fellow students can tap into.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great insight Harry. I think you have picked up on the philosophical side of Bayard. He tends to want to lead you just far enough down the path but never says where it is going, only to say here we are and there is no here!

    This is a good lesson for those in leadership to remember to always ground what we teach with some practical application. I thought your bookstore illustration was a great example. Thanks!

  4. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Harry,
    I am so proud that we share the same first name because you make us look so good, and so smart! I truly appreciate your insights and scholarship. While I honestly am not sure whether to take Bayard at face value, I am very intrigued by your alternate proposal. Your experience and passion for truth rooted in reality fill me with appreciation for reading catalogs about Christian academic titles. Thank you so much for sharing from your experience a very helpful insight. I pray you and your family are well and look forward to seeing you next Monday, H

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi there Harry. Great that you tackled Bayard by question his conception of truth with your own, and also querying why we would read anything if we took his approach seriously. However, I’m not sure your critique fits with Bayards intention. He is professor of literature so one assumes (rightly I think) that he takes reading and interpretation seriously. I also suspect that he would heartily agree with your final alternative offering. I think the title of the book is crucial – ‘How to talk about books’, not write about them. The former is useful, the latter would be disingenuous academically. In this sense I understood his intention as simply acknowledging the wealth of material available and our inability to engage with it all. He merely offers a way continue conversations without having to self-exclude each time we are confronted by a book we havent read. Whether it’s a right action or not, Bayard doesnt say.
    I have two queries for you. First, why do you think his uncertainty about categorical truth is a problem? You state that ‘lies don’t exist unless the truth first exists? Is that statement true? Is not not possible for people to lie about lies that they didn’t know were lies? In that case the lies existed without any prior truth. Tillich and Polanyi declared that all truth is God’s truth. That being the case, human truth must be provisional.
    Second, could you explain ‘apomictic certainty’. So far as I am aware it’s got something to do with asexual plant reproduction, but I’m guessing it’s used differently in apologetics.

  6. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi there Harry. Great that you tackled Bayard by questioning his conception of truth with your own, and also querying why we would read anything if we took his approach seriously. However, I’m not sure your critique fits with Bayards intention. He is professor of literature so one assumes (rightly I think) that he takes reading and interpretation seriously. I also suspect that he would heartily agree with your final alternative offering. I think the title of the book is crucial – ‘How to talk about books’, not write about them. The former is useful, the latter would be disingenuous academically. In this sense I understood his intention as simply acknowledging the wealth of material available and our inability to engage with it all. He merely offers a (cheeky?) way to continue conversations without having to self-exclude each time we are confronted with a book we havent read. Whether it’s a right action or not, Bayard doesn’t say.
    I have two queries for you. First, why do you think his uncertainty about categorical truth is a problem? You state that, ‘lies don’t exist unless the truth first exists? Is that statement true? Is not not possible for people to lie about lies that they didn’t know were lies? In that case the lies existed without any prior truth. Tillich and Polanyi declared that all truth is God’s truth. That being the case, human truth must be provisional.
    Second, could you explain ‘apomictic certainty’. So far as I am aware it’s got something to do with asexual plant reproduction, but I’m guessing it’s used differently in apologetics.
    By the way, I really enjoyed reading your post. It was very engaging for a Myers Brigg ‘T’. Thanks.

    • Hey Digby. Thanks for the interaction. I’m glad you pointed out the wrongly, auto-corrected word that ended up on the post: apomictic. I’m sure you looked it up right away. If you didn’t, the dictionary meaning is: asexual reproduction in plants, in particular agamospermy. Hahahaha! That’s definitely not what I meant. The word I meant, and is now corrected on the post, is “apodictic” which means beyond dispute.

      Ok, I kind of thought my post veered a little too close to being uncharitable, and not taking into account that some of his thoughts were literally lost in translation. But by the time I got to the conclusion (second to the last paragraph of the book) when he says “In these conversations, whether written or spoken, language is liberated from its obligation to refer to the world and, through its traversal of books, …” I knew he was imbibing a post-modern, relativistic (coherence theory of truth) concept of truth.

      You asked if my statement of ‘lies don’t exist unless the truth first exists?’ is true. My answer is unequivocally “YES.” You asked if it’s possible for “people to lie about lies that they didn’t know were lies?” My answer is “no” because while it may be the case that the statement is untrue, the person was simply mistaken. The nature of a lie carries a moral component that simple untruths don’t. But I do believe objective truth exists and this is not impugned in my example. Again, I want to make sure I’m clear, people may be mistaken in their beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean they are lying, nor do they espouse a certain view of truth. I was merely suggesting that one cannot lie without first presupposing the truth of what is being lied about.

      I agree that all truth is God’s truth. I’m 100% with you there. Also, while unpopular in the circles I run, I’m open (1 Cor. 12:13) to a pseudo-relativistic approach (as opposed to the correspondence theory) to human understanding/learning of truth. But that’s only because we are fallen creatures, meaning our mental capacities have been adversely by the fall. However, that doesn’t mean we settle into relativism and give up the notion that objective truth exists. For example, 1+1=2 is truth that falls under apodictic certainty. That truth is simultaneously in God’s mind as well, and some might say is even coextensive with him.

      Anyway, you’ve touched on a hobbyhorse here with me and this is getting a little too winded. Always a pleasure Digby. I’ll come to NZ one of these days and together we can wax eloquent about a lot of things I know very little of. Hahahaha!

  7. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective, Harry. I had never heard of the word ‘obfuscation’ before, so you threw a new one at me. But I understand your concern with regards to ‘obscuring’ the truth. I appreciated your comment that ‘lies don’t exist unless truth first exists.’ Thanks for your insight about getting on the publisher’s mailing lists. As you noted, ‘collecting these catalogs starts an inner library – based on reality.’

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