That Awkward Conversation
February 4, 2016
Have you ever read something that you thought was really good, only to return to it years later with embarrassment for your poor discernment? Or, have you ever really enjoyed a movie, only to be crushed when someone points out how bad the acting was or something disturbing about the message? I think most of us have been there. But it’s even tougher when you are on the other end. Have you ever been in a conversation with a person you care about who is recommending a so-called Christian book that you know is full of bad theology? What do you do then?
That’s a question that I get asked often, and one to which you can’t give a simple answer. I find myself in this situation more often than I can count, which is why one of my biggest passions in writing is to challenge Christians to read with discernment. But writing about it and actually talking someone through it are not the same. After an encounter with a friendly woman in the grocery store, a thoughtful woman emailed me asking, “What are some ways Reformed Christians can engage in meaningful conversation with evangelical Christians struggling in their walks with the Lord without trashing their choice in movie/books & devotionals?”
Let’s face it, we become defensive when our judgment is challenged. And who wants to be the continual Debbie Downer in the conversation? And yet at the same time, you want to help encourage people whom you care about to discerningly engage with the content of what they are reading. Truth is important and our theology shapes the way we live and interact.
I haven’t written much about this particular element of discernment, the awkward conversations, because I struggle through them and look back with regret just like the people who ask me about it. But I want to get better at it. So here are some guidelines that I thought may be helpful for all of us:
Think ahead---I have failed in so many of these encounters because I haven’t thought ahead. I may have done plenty of thinking ahead about a book, maybe even read it myself and written a critical review. But I don’t think ahead about how to carefully engage someone who is caught up in its teachings. When a friend begins talking about a book he has really been enjoying, your first response shouldn’t be to immediately kick into book review mode and provide the matches for the book burning. Trust me, I have learned the hard way. Which leads to my next point.
Don’t Tell Them How to Think---We want to encourage one another to think critically and to read for understanding, which means we want our friends to actually think for themselves. When we notice a lack of discernment, it is easy to want to “fix the problem” and start downloading all the essentials of the faith that this friend has apparently missed all her life and install alarm bells that will help her recognize when an author has left the station. But most of us did not become discerning because we were offered a crash course in the grocery store. Maturity in this area usually happens because we were seeking theological answers as we went through some kind of crisis of our own, whether major or minor. In this way, God has even used the books with poor theology that I have read in my earlier years as a Christian. Whatever may have been attractive about them, their solutions weren’t all that satisfying and I had more questions. We can value our conversation partner as a person by finding out where she is theologically and encouraging her to think for herself.
Embrace This Opportunity--- If you have heard of the book and have some red flags, don’t lie and pretend like you haven’t and plaster on that forced smile. That is far more insulting to your conversation partner than the honesty she deserves. If she brings up a book in conversation, she is trying to be engaging by sharing something from her reading. What is it? It’s so easy for me to hear the title, to not want to go there because I know that it might get sensitive, play it off like I don’t know much about it, and quickly change the subject. Meanwhile, inside my head I'm screaming whyyyy, or not you too! That isn’t respecting the person at all.
Ask Questions--- Something is attractive about this book, which is why she is talking about it. So connecting this with the last points, how can you be honest about your own thoughts on a book while engaging in those of your friend? There are all kinds of responses, but you will have to move outside of your comfort zone. Think of it like that moment right before a hug. Sometimes there are the awkward few seconds of the unspoken, are we going to hug?, but someone has to break through the barrier and initiate. It’s worth it. So you could say something like, “Yes, I’ve heard of that book but have had some concerns about it; tell me about what you’ve read.” From there, you can get an idea about what she likes about the book and you can ask some questions to get her thinking a little more critically maybe. She may even ask you about what your concerns were, and you can have an opportunity to share that.
Ask if You Can Share a Book Review---When I first entered the realm of reading Christian books, I quickly learned to check out some book reviews to help me size up a prospective book purchase, or to learn more about a book others were talking about. I often find that those who lack discernment skills also aren’t much for reading reviews. Maybe you could be the first to expose him to some thoughtful critique. So the conversation may turn to, “You know, I’ve heard of that book and have read some engaging critique. I wonder what you would think about that, having read the book for yourself? Can I email one to you?” And then do the work to find a good review that you think your friend would interact with. Please understand, this approach is different from, “Well you should read what [insert discerning blogger] said about that book, I agree with him. I’ll send you the review.”
Have You Actually Read the Book?---A book review is not the same as reading the book. Trust me, I get it. You only have so much reading time and you don’t want to waste money or valuable time on reading bad books. But there are times when it is helpful to do so. First of all, maybe the reviews you have read have not represented the author’s message well after all. That is what your conversation partner will likely be thinking. If he asks you to read it, or makes the comment that you haven’t actually read it, are you willing to do that? Sometimes I think we should be---not every time. You may have multiple friends or church members talking about the same book. Maybe you should read it then. And don’t read it just to trash it and show you were right. I know how tempting that is! Read it with the spirit of the thoughtful woman who wrote me in mind. And if you are an elder or a pastor, I highly recommend being in touch with what people are reading in your congregation. Reading the book will give you credibility then for my last suggestion.
Recommend Another Book---If someone is eating Salisbury steak and you offer them a filet mignon, she is going to see what she’s been missing. So when you pick up on the latest popular books promoting bad theology, have some specially selected finer books to offer up. This takes some investigating about what the reader was thinking she was getting from the poor theology and supplying those nutrients from a rich source that will be a good match for her. Maybe you could say, “Sure, I’ll borrow your book when you’re done with it. Do you want to swap? I have one that I think you would really like.”
None of us want to be bad readers. So let’s be careful not to treat people that way. We want to help sharpen one another’s thinking and grow in our understanding as we make discoveries and seek the truth. These are just some suggestions for what I know is a tough situation. Too often, I have been the model of what not to do and so I offer these from reflection on my own mistakes and experiences. Please, if any of you have had success in this area, share your experiences and tips in the comments.