It is time I make a confession. I’ve read a little of Karl Marx. What’s more, I’ve appreciated a few things I’ve read by Karl Marx. That’s not to say I agree with him, but he makes several appropriate criticisms of the capitalist economy in the way it currently operates. It might not be as bad since I’m an economics, political science, and history teacher. Nonetheless because we’ve been taught that certain people are wrong no matter what: Hitler, Karl Marx, Rousseau, etc., to admit that you’ve read them brings out an amount of surprise and sometimes scorn. “Why waste your time reading pagans and atheists?” The only thing worse would be to read a Roman Catholic or Arminian. The answer goes like this: Just because they are wrong on many fronts doesn’t mean everything they say is evil. This would likely be admitted, but the response would be along the lines of, “But there are so many better things to read.” And that’s true. But many times our enemies point out problems that are real problems. They may even point to accurate causes of those problems. We must be willing to call the truth the truth. It reminds me of a Doug Wilson saying that went something like this. “Reading liberal commentators can be helpful because they are willing to say exactly what the text means since they don’t feel the need to believe it. A conservative is not willing as often to fully explain a text because he knows he must believe it.”
So how can I in good conscience read Karl Marx or anyone else and even appreciate some of his criticisms? By breaking down books and articles in several parts (modern educators call this analysis; classical educators called it reading). 1.) Explaining the problem, 2.) explaining why that particular happening is a problem, 3.) listing the causes and symptoms of the problem, 4.) giving solutions to the problem, 5.) explaining the end result of applying said solutions, a.k.a. how this would create almost utopia.
When reading a book or article, you can appreciate any one or more of those five points without valuing all of them. I agree with Marx that capitalism as he defined it is a stepping stone to revolution. It erodes tradition, religion, family ties, and intermediary groups that serve as a buffer between man and the state. In other words, I agree in large part with his explanation of the problem (#1) and the symptoms of the problem (#3). But even in his explanation of the problem, I disagree with him. He doesn’t see capitalism as a problem but a stepping stone to revolution, which is part of his solution to the problem. I see the erosion of the tradition, the family, etc. as something that should be stopped; he wants that erosion to continue because it will prepare the world for revolution. In other words, while I agree with him on part of #1 and #3, I disagree sharply with the rest.
So why read him? Because his analysis of the problem is crucial to understanding the why’s and how’s of world revolutions, from the French Revolution until now. People have followed what Marx described even before he described it. Many have been students of his philosophy; but the problem has not been those who agree with his analysis of the problems and their symptoms; it has been with their attempts to put the rest of his plan into practice.
So what does this have to do with reading other authors? It tells you how you can read those outside the faith without falling prey to their solutions. I’ve discovered, just like with Doug Wilson’s comment on commentators, secularists have some good things to offer in the realm of social criticism. Theological writers like N.T. Wright have wonderful books that describe things about the Lord and His Word that can’t be found anywhere else. But sometimes their solutions to the problems are beyond terrible. Does this mean they shouldn’t be read? No. It does mean that all our reading should be with caution. Unless you train yourself to break down what you read into these five areas and analyze each one, you are a sitting duck for false teaching. Even then you should proceed with great caution before reading just anyone. If you stay in a room with the hash smokers, even if you don’t smoke things will get pretty hazy for you too. If you don’t open your mind to the sea breeze of God’s Word and timeless good books (Pilgrim’s Progress, Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Works of Shakespeare, etc.), your thinking will get fuzzy. And having an older brother or sister in Christ who will direct you through these things is helpful as long as you actually listen to him/her.
Is it a sin to read Karl Marx? Not always. Could reading someone like him lead you into a trap? You bet. Therefore in all your reading, read with balance and care.