Living a Sympathetic Life

Posted on April 17, 2012


One of the most helpful books ever written is How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (for more on the later watch the Robert Redford directed, Quiz Show.) It’s title is both ironic and descriptive of the contents. Every high-school graduate should be required to read this book cover to cover during the summer before moving off to college. While there are many tips, methods, and points to ponder in this book, one that I find most compelling is that of being a sympathetic reader.

Being a sympathetic reader means that when you sit down to read you give the writer the full benefit of the doubt. When you are between the covers of a book you grant the author all manner of license in style, logic, and motive. As much is possible, you set aside any bias toward them or reviews that you may have already read about the work. In short, you try read with grace and generosity. There is a time for critical review, but not before or even during the reading.

This is important because if you begin to engage in critical thought too early, you create a domino chain of mental blocks that prevent you from gaining anything from your engagement. In fact, it would not be too far to say that when you are overly critical during the process of reading, you aren’t really engaging with the material at all. You are only waving your eyeballs over the words.

While I recognize that it is impossible to read in a state of complete openness, free from even yourself, the default position can naturally be guarded and suspicious.

I can illustrate this easily by pointing to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, which I am only now getting around to listening to on audio book (to avoid the stylistic formatting of the printed version). Now I don’t care how you feel about this particular book or Rob Bell. What the reaction to this book illustrates for me is that many Christians who read it (or who didn’t read it but still had opinions about it) were non-sympathetic readers. They approached the book with everything figured out, dissected, and put back together again.

What is bothersome about this attitude is that it is not just taken toward books, but it’s used toward people with equal frequency. How many times have I seen someone across a room and because they were overweight/urban/old/mumbling/alone/young/eating at McDonalds/etc. have I placed them in a category in my head; in a nice little mental box on a shelf in my mind, so I could go on with my day without giving them another thought? All the time.

It is more important for Christians to be sympathetic-readers of books and of people than it is for non-Christians, because we are most easily tempted to be judgmental. We do this either because we feel threatened by our own insecurity or because we arrogantly believe that we don’t need to listen to anyone or read anything other than the Bible. It is not easy to listen to people without filling in the blanks of their lives; of putting ourselves in a position were we can see the true motivations driving their decisions and mistakes, as well as having the answers and the questions that they don’t even know they are supposed to ask.

Listening or reading (or living) sympathetically requires that we know ourselves, are secure in our identity, and feel comfortable enough to read a bit of heresy, hang out with “sinners,” or listen to someone’s story, without worrying about being “corrupted” by the experience.

Maybe not everyone is all these things. Maybe most people are scared, insecure, and worried. Perhaps children and young adults need more guidance and grounding. But they also need more, many more examples of adult Christians who live sympathetic lives. Who are secure enough in their faith and in themselves to read, listen, feel, touch, and sometimes even change.

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