Read Widely

Eugene Peterson did a bad thing in 2017. He said the wrong things about homosexuality and those who disagreed got very angry with him. A few days later he retracted his statements. Perhaps he had a change of heart. Perhaps he was goaded into the statement by the interviewer. The cynic says that he was scared of lost book sales. You can read all about it here. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote a response to the controversy titled “Should We Still Read Eugene Peterson?” My concern is not about what Eugene Peterson said. My concern is about Russell Moore’s question. My answer is that of course we should still read Eugene Peterson! I am horrified that we even have to ask the question. We should read widely. Agreement on essential issues should never be a prerequisite for reading and learning.

When agreement becomes a prerequisite for reading, all you do is build an echo chamber for yourself. You only hear your own opinions retold to you on the page. We all appreciate someone validating our opinions. That is simply human. However, if we limit ourselves to an echo chamber, we are intellectually bankrupt because we are not challenged. We can learn in disagreement.

Russell Moore generally hits upon the correct answer in his piece, but he hedges his bets significantly. You can still read Eugene Peterson, but he would not give Peterson to a new Christian for fear of the neophyte following Peterson on the issue of homosexuality. That Moore disagrees with Peterson on this important issue does not invalidate all the things Peterson has taught him in the past. I would go a step further than Moore. You should read Peterson BECAUSE you disagree with him.

It has been my personal experience that you learn a great deal from disagreeing with intelligent writers and thinkers. Disagreeing with a worthy dialogue partner forces you to refine your own position. At best, it is a case of iron sharpening iron. If you find that you cannot defend your position in the debate, you are forced to consider whether it was a worthy position in the first place.

I have been reading the work of the late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg. I am over a decade late to this party, and I deeply regret not having read him sooner. Borg is a progressive Christian, and I generally find myself in a more moderate theological framework. In other words, we have some deep disagreements. However, Borg is a lucid writer and provocative thinker. When presented with his positions, I have to dig deep and work hard to preserve my own. For example, I disagree with Borg that the Bible is a fully human response to the experience of God. I believe the divine inspiration of Scripture runs deeper than that. The Scriptures are more than “just human.” However, some of Borg’s arguments resonate with me. It is in that tension between resonance and dissonance that my own position becomes strengthened and refined.

This whole conversation reminds me of a maxim of my favorite undergraduate professor. He was teaching at a state institution in the heart of the Bible belt. He knew that ideas presented in the class would challenge the beliefs of some (if not most) of his students. He had a “Ten Commandments” for his class. The first was the most important. “You don’t have to believe anything presented in this class, but you have to know everything.” We should read widely because knowing and understanding more is always better than knowing less. If we read from the best of those with whom we have disagreement, then our own positions can be sharpened (or found lacking). Reading Borg has been a boon to my intellectual life — both in agreement and disagreement. One such illuminating avenue is his historical-metaphorical reading of the Bible. I have posted a number of articles lately concerning dialogue in disagreement over biblical interpretation. However, I have not offered anything more substantial than our dialogue should be generous, humble, and cordial. I think Borg’s way of reading the Bible has the potential for pointing to a way forward. His central question in reading is “What does this story mean?” Truth is not tied to historical veracity. Even if we disagree on the historicity of a passage, can we coalesce around the truth the story conveys? Can meaning, independent of historicity, shed light for all parties rather than generating fuel for heated argument? It may be possible. I want to spend my next few posts exploring those possibilities. I would have never come to this point if I demanded that Borg and I agreed on everything that is essential before I was willing to read (and even learn from!) his work.

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