How to read: Ask is it true?

[I originally wrote this in 2015. It seems especially relevant now.]

In the Screwtape Letters, the delightfully evil demon said this to his student:

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. – C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters Letter XXVII

For those who haven’t read The Screwtape Letters, it’s a book of speculative fiction by C.S. Lewis wherein he writes from the perspective of a demon attempting to help a lesser demon tempt a human being who begins to consider Christianity.

I think that Lewis’ point above is very important. In a significant portion of scholarship (as well as in internet bickering) the source, background, or reaction others might have to a claim are what people consider. The missing piece is, “Is it true?” After we ask the truth question, we can ask, “So what?” I’d rather read a book by a brilliant New Testament scholar like Maurice Casey who actually asks, “Is it true?” and said, “No.” It gets tiresome reading work that says, “Clearly Paul got this idea from stoicism,” “Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher” or “Aquinas just said things Aristotle said,” without exploring whether the ideas are true and what it means for the reader if they are true.

The idea that one has found the origin of an idea and can therefore reject it is actually a textbook example of the genetic fallacy (the notion that an idea is discredited for its source rather than evidence to the contrary). Now, obviously in a Bible commentary part of the task is explaining parallels, allusions, background, and so-on. But even then, the truth question must be asked in one, if not, two ways:

  1. Is this interpretation true?
  2. Once the text is interpreted, is the text true and if so, how?

Examples of finding the source/influence behind an idea or the hypothetical results of expressing it are rampant on the internet.

There is a good reason for this: making an idea seem unpleasant to believe is easier to do than making an idea seem untrue. For instance, if I explain where an idea comes from, then I can make it seem juvenile to think it (That idea is from the Bronze Age!). Or, if I can say that “so-and-so bad person thinks that idea,” then the idea is shameful. Th

e problem is that many people won’t actually consider ideas on the level of logic and facts because it is rare that people think about the difference between logic and rhetoric. Anyway, I challenge you to ask the truth question when you read.

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