and what should we read? – An Introduction

November 3, 2013

I am going to try to explain to you, here in this blogpost, how one should theoretically, theologically speaking, choose what is right to read as a Christian. It’s an essay I’m writing at the moment, and I keep running into mental blocks about it in the Word processor so I figure a different medium might help. Here. This medium. This voice. Talking to y’all.

I like talking to y’all.

 

So. The last time you chose a book, that fresh paperback you practically inhaled whole about the woes of teenage werewolves or bitter city-slicker detectives in Armani suits, that worn library copy spinning fantasies of small children dying of consumption in West Berlin, or white-armed priestesses eating olives while Odysseus slept his way back home- why’d you pick it? What made you pick that particular book up and go, “this looks like it might suit me, I’ma spend several hours frolicking in this mental field? What implicit beliefs, what assumed reasons, in fact, were you operating on when you decided that particular work of fiction was right for you to read?

And ethically speaking, did being a Christian even factor into that decision?* Implicitly, I mean. People don’t often stand before a crisp and shiny display of the latest fantasy hardbacks going, “I’m a Christian, I should watch what I put in my head (Philippians 4:8). Here’s my list of categories, and if the book has any of this in it (a. torrid sex scenes, b. gratuitous violence, c. ghastly necromancy, d. violently anti-Christian vitriol, e. clowns, etcetera) I’m not going read it.” By which I largely mean that people don’t walk around with clipboards and a list of explicit rules for each Fiction Encounter; we do, however, all have that mental checklist operating subconsciously to some extent, judging and weighing in on each decision we make.

There’s stuff we’ll read and there’s stuff we won’t, and there are reasons why we do that, and some of the reasons come down to what we believe is right, or good for us, even if we don’t consciously examine them. There are aesthetic reasons (“-books with pink sparkly covers for teenage girls make me break out in hives, sorry-“) or reasons from sheer personal preference (“- I like stories based on fairytales, and if the novel happens to be deconstructing the fairytale, so much the better-“), and there are ethical reasons. Reasons where “is this book right for me to read?” becomes a question of not just suitability to preference, but of what is right. Suited to or fitting with your implicit beliefs about good and evil, justice and injustice, true and false. Wrong and right. Morally, or ethically, sound.

 

If we have any desire to be people of integrity, as self-professed Christians we should be operating out of our system of beliefs, as expressed by one very large, very old book** and clarified by over two thousand years of our family examining it, arguing violently about it and occasionally killing each other because of it. Also, y’know, as communicated and testified to by the living witness of the Spirit of Christ present and actively working in the world and the church and our lives today. That too. Christianity has a whole set of beliefs about what is right and wrong, what is good for us and what isn’t, and as Christians this needs to affect us when we’re making decisions about- well, everything, from what books we read to what groceries and clothes we buy (think social costs, fair trade, sweatshops) to what we do with our time to what we do with our money to what we do with our entire lives.

That’s what Christian ethics is about. The details and difficulties and decisions about how we are to live and behave if we truly believe what we believe; the actual how-to of how we live as Christians, of how we are to love God and others rightly. Orthopraxy. Much of systematic or dogmatic theology is about the why, about right belief or orthodoxy (or literally, right worship, which says something about the relationship of belief to worship); Christian ethics on the other hand focuses on orthopraxis, the right action, the how. They’re natural corollaries to each other and the boundary lines between them are blurred; one melds into the other, and back again. Right belief should lead seamlessly to right action, which should feed right back into and inform and support right belief. (I came to study at Carey to get my beliefs sorted out, by the way. How I behave has started to get sorted out too as a consequence. Funny how that works.)

 

So. Given that Christian ethics is all about how we should live as Christians, how does one read as a Christian? How does one read rightly?*** That’s the question I’m asking here. We’ll tackle this in two parts, because trying to write The Lengthiest Blogpost In The World, while an admirable aim for someone of my exceptional monologuing calibre, is probably incredibly off-putting on a purely stylistic front. Nobody likes Walls of Text, not even me. Also it’s late and this’ll take a while; it’s supposed to be a three thousand word essay, folks.

Two parts. Part one: how do we know how to read rightly if we’re not sure what right or ethical is? Ethical and morally right are not concepts that are exactly the same across all cultures and communities; I’ve spent far too long this semester reading arguments by ethicists about how having human nature in common doesn’t mean everyone has some kind of standardised universal sense of right and wrong. “The just person is not everywhere and always recognizeable as the ‘just person'”, say Hauerwas and Pinches.*~ I offer pop cultural evidence: Batman. Captain Mal Reynolds. Snape. Any morally grey superhero or antihero you care to name in existence. So we’re going to need to take a moment to define right or ethical as Christians, particularly from the vantage point of ecclesial character ethics, which I am A Very Big Fan Of. It’ll be fun; it kinda shook my worldview up a whole lot, doing this research.

Part two: once we figure out what right means as Christians, we’ll take a quick look at what reading involves- or more specifically, who reading involves. Writer, reader and text. Alright, the text isn’t a who. Nonetheless. Ecclesial ethics is agent-centred, which means who people are is emphasised over what people do, so we’ll take it apart that way. In particular, we’ll be looking at how the context of the reader plays an enormous part in determining what is right or ethical for them to read in their circumstance; what we’re looking at doing is not so much defining and judging what might be right or wrong for Christians to read (Twilight: No! Lord of the Rings: Yes! Harry Potter: Depends How Violent Your Opinions Are About Witchcraft!), but instead constructing a process and a method for you, as a Christian, to make that decision yourself.

In short, I’m equipping and resourcing you biblically and theologically to make ethical decisions on this issue. That way you get to share the enormous headache I’ve had for the past two months, compounding exponentially on a particularly vicious parabola curve every time I’ve walked past a bookstore or glanced at my bookshelf or watched Youtube or read something on the internet or even thought of a story. Which is, by the way, all the time. I am practically inextricable from stories, and I have been plagued by this gentle but is this really ethical? question hanging around in the background of my brain since I started this essay, so my response is pretty much OH GOD STOP ASKING ME NOW I DON’T ACTUALLY WANT TO CARE ANYMORE.*~~

 

And now it’s your turn to experience the joy that is Living And Thinking Like A Christian. Tune in next time, ladies and gentlemen, for What’s This Word ‘Ethical’ Anyway?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* (If you’re a Christian. This whole blogpost series is gonna assume you are.)
** I use the word ‘book’ loosely. if we’re going to be correct with our ‘very old’, perhaps ‘collection of extremely ancient documents over many centuries from a Middle Eastern people group that somehow, providentially, manage to cohere in a terrifyingly logical, powerful fashion’ is probably a better term to use than ‘book’, although it’s not precisely handy. Yes, I’m using ‘providentially’ here to mean Providence. As in, this is also the Living Word of the Triune God, the self-revelation of the person of Christ, inspired or spirated by the Spirit, which is why it’s so impossibly coherent and like an eternal rabbithole which a billion brainy scholars have and will continue to tumble down for millenia. That, or it’s proof that some of the most intelligent people in all of Western history are as prone as uneducated peasants to being massively delusional together in a way that is occasionally as co-ordinated as a symphony, despite their enormous rationality and intelligence.
*** (orthoanaginosko? I don’t know, I can’t parse Greek. Ask me in three months.)
*~ Referencing’s gonna get heavier as we go. This one’s by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, ‘Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics‘. Good book, but not nearly as amazing as the ones I’ma reference later. Those ones I want to buy and drag around with me everywhere I go like a particularly uncomfortable comfort blanket and cuddle when I’m tired and stick under my pillow when I sleep in vain hopes of information osmosis until they’re dog-eared and smeared with crumbs and unreadable. Yeah.
*~~ Less blasphemy, more Prayer of Exasperated Remonstrance, which is totally a plausible spiritual discipline. (See: Job, Habakkuk, various Psalms.) Equally well translated for those still dubious about swearing as “OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN, I AM BLAMING YOU FOR THIS AWFUL MESS IN MY HEAD AND ALSO THE ABSYMAL CATASTROPHE THAT IS MY ESSAYS. WHY DID YOU DO THIS? YOU KNOW STORIES ARE PART OF MY EXISTENTIAL MAKEUP AND QUESTIONING MY EXISTENTIAL MAKEUP ALL THE TIME IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE TO SANITY. I AM GOING TO FAIL MY COURSES BECAUSE OF YOU. PLEASE DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS. AMEN.”
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One Response to “and what should we read? – An Introduction”


  1. I love this. And want to read it all.


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