Why reading Marx might not be a sin

 

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.

Mentally stimulating + heart stirring

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey Into Christian FaithThe Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I was not expecting this book to pack the punch that it did. I suspected it would be a book solely about Mrs. Butterfield’s conversion, but it was so much more. She told about her struggles not only coming out of lesbianism, but her struggles in the faith and with other Christians. Her story is beautifully told (she’s an English Literature professor, after all), but the writing only enhanced the powerful story of what life is like when you trust God with everything. I needed to hear what she had to say at this particular point in my life, and I’m sure others do as well.

It’s impossible for a review to do this book justice. In less than 150 pages, she lays out what it means to trust the God who raises from the dead and demonstrates it by personal example. In addition, she raises excellent points about the failures of current conservative Christian culture. She doesn’t criticize as an outsider; she points out flaws as a sister in the Lord that we need to address and strengthen. You won’t agree with all she says, but even what you don’t agree with is edifying to read. Some books are mentally stimulating; others stir up your heart. This brief biographical account is both. If you are soldier in the culture war, you need to read this book.

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Why should we have multiple elders?

Biblical EldershipBiblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch

This book is a great explanation of why multiple elders are the biblical model of the church. There are a few things the author is too adamant on that are more informed by tradition than Scripture, but on the whole it is a sound corrective to the out of control congregational polity many churches practice today.

The first portion is topical and informs you of the type of leadership Scripture calls for in an elder. The rest of the book is biblical exegesis of the New Testament passages that refer to elders. The writing is clear and to the point without being dry. If you want to know why churches should have multiple elders, read the book.

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What does it mean to be a Baptist?

Restoring Integrity in Baptist ChurchesRestoring Integrity in Baptist Churches by John Hammett

This is a compilation of essays written by Southern Baptists about what it means to be a Baptist. There are sections on church membership, church government, baptism, communion, and one essay on the priesthood of the believer. It does a good job explaining what most Baptists, especially those from the nineteenth century until today, have believed.

The book is footnoted throughout, but some the historical scholarship is questionable due to the fact that some authors ignore examples from Baptist history that don’t support their respective points. Also some of the suggestions made for restoring Baptist churches should be ignored. An example from one author is to have church members sign a membership document every three years saying they want to continue as members and those who don’t sign it would be dropped from membership. This is not Scriptural. Nevertheless if one wants to know what what distinguishes Baptists from others, it is a valuable book.

 

A word about parenting books

As my wife and I are in the process of raising our two small children, we know there’s a lot more we must learn about raising them. Most of our learning has (and will) come from experience. There’s only so much you can learn from a book. Even so there are several books that have been instrumental already in forming the foundation of our child-training, in addition to the ultimate book, God’s word.

Most of you either have children, will have children, or know someone who does. If you have children and don’t have a plan for how you will raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, you’re overdue to develop one. Books aren’t the final answer, but they are tools to help you in developing your plan.

If you want to have children in the future, you too need a plan and you have more time to develop it. These books will help you slowly gain the plan you need. I was reading these type of books when I was single and in my early twenties. However a note of warning: don’t judge others for not following what you’ve only read about. It’s a lot easier to know what should be done than actually doing it. When you see someone who isn’t following what you think should be done, pray that God will give you humility to be sympathetic to them as well as the grace to put the godly principles you’ve learned into practice.

The last category is those who know someone who is raising children. I’m thinking mostly of pastors and church leaders who want to offer good resources to the families in their churches. This could also be for those who want to give soon-to-be parents a gift that will help them in the future.

That being said, I must repeat something said earlier, and this is especially for parents. Reading books doesn’t replace reliance on God. You can read the Bible, and every great book on parenting there is and it will not make a difference if you think you can handle it on your own. The parents who provoke their children to wrath have usually read a lot of good parenting books. They sacrifice their children on the altar of abstract parenting principles and grace is nowhere to be found. Those parents end of boiling the kid in his mother’s milk, otherwise known as taking what God intended for good and making it something deadly. There is no replacement for trust in God, daily prayer for wisdom, humility, and reliance on His grace.

Now as to the books themselves…those will have to wait for another blog post.

Another round of most influential books

A good pastor friend of mine, Andy White, responded to my post about the books that have been most influential in my life with a list of books that been most influential to him.  With his permission, I am posting his list.

Reforming Marriage (Douglas Wilson) – My wife and I read this together
before we were married and have consulted it since.  It helped us to
discuss and gain a biblical perspective on a host of issues related to
marriage.  This book helped prepare a solid foundation for our
marriage, which benefits us to this day.

God Gave Wine (Ken Gentry) – The thesis of this book is simple: the
Bible does not forbid or discourage the moderate use of alcohol, but
rather, sees wine as a blessing from God for our enjoyment.  It might
seem strange that this would be high on my list, but I assure you it
is not because I am a winebibber or a drunkard.  The benefit I gained
from this book was in the broader themes that this issue touches upon.
Firstly, that God has bountifully blessed our lives with a multitude
of good things.  God is not opposed to our enjoyment of life, but
gives so many good gifts to enrich our lives, including food and
drink.  And secondly, that we are not permitted to add to God’s
commandments or be stricter than the scriptures and impose that on
other people.  Gentry does a good job dealing with the issue of
Christian liberty.  Gentry makes clear that the Bible is steadfast in
opposing and condemning drunkenness.  But not the enjoyment of wine
and other alcohol when done in moderation.

Knowing God (J.I. Packer) – It’s been a while since I read this book,
but I remember reading it with great excitement and enthusiasm as it
unfolded the character and attributes of God as revealed to us in the
Bible.

The Sovereignty of God (Arthur W. Pink) – Who’s in control of this
world, God or the Devil?  This is one of the over-arching questions
answered in this book.  Pink pulls no punches in showing how God is
sovereign over all spheres of existence, whether it be creation,
salvation, or any other thing.  He also does a good job distinguishing
God’s sovereignty over his own good works and his sovereignty over the
sinful acts of man.  He describes God’s sovereignty over the righteous
in terms of words like: quickening, energizing, directing, and
preserving, while he describes God’s sovereignty over the wicked in
terms of words like: restraining, preventing, softening, and
hardening.

Repentance in the Pulpit and in the Pew (Michael Ivey) – The title
pretty much says it.  This book is about repentance.  It is about the
importance of repentance, especially in leaders of God’s people.  I
found this book convicting and instructive.

Like a cute sweater on a rabid dog

Recently I picked up The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus.  I read through this pretty quickly; it pretty rotten throughout.  The introduction to these stories is well written, and some of it makes sense, with nice, pleasant applications.  It would almost lead one to believe them, and therein lies the trouble. 

The cult of gnosticism has been around for a long time and because of the modern pietistic, individualistic emphasis in modern evangelical churches, some of this makes sense to Christians.  But if you’re grounded in the Bible and historic creeds, it should be easier to spot the garbage.  I don’t see any need for a Christian to read this, except to be able to warn others.  The flowery introduction makes this book like a rabid dog dressed in one of those cute sweaters; the outside looks good but it only covers the diseased inside.

My list of most influential books

I love book lists.  I have too many book lists on the computer.  But some books are more influential than others.  The following is a list of the five books that most reflect my Christian walk.  I’m not including the Bible in this list, although if you want me to, it would be #1.  They aren’t in any particular order, so here goes.

  • Desiring God – John Piper  This book changed the way I thought about God, myself, and the way the Church does business.  Reading it required me to reorganize my priorities and unsettled my thoughts about the process of salvation.
  • Chosen by God – R.C. Sproul  When I started reading this book, I believed man’s free will trumped God’s sovereign will in salvation.  After reading it, I knew I had to submit to God’s sovereignty in everything (including salvation) or live a lie.  There may be other books that explain God’s sovereign grace more clearly, but none ever gripped my heart like this one.  I’ll never forget the feeling of my old belief system crumbling as I read.  It was truly life changing. 
  • Angels in the Architecture – Doug Wilson and Doug Jones  This book was also a surprise, somewhat because of the title.  It isn’t about architecture (which I knew) but it is about almost everything else.  It highlights Christian culture in the past and crafts a vision for what the rule of Christ looks like in every area of life.  Many can describe abstractly what Christianity should look like when it’s lived out, but this book puts flesh on the bones of those descriptions.
  • Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton  I had no idea what I was getting into when I first read this book, but it changed the way I look at, well, everything.  Chesterton’s thought is best summarized in this volume, which turns everything upside down in order for us to look at it right side up (if you don’t understand what I mean just read a page of this book, you’ll get the idea).  Many books talk about Christians having joy in their lives, but this one describes what that looks like.  Chesterton does include a few nasty references to Calvinism, but they are straw men arguments that can be easily ignored.   
  • Postmillenialism: an eschatology of hope – Keith Mathison  This book is the best combination of several books that influenced me in the area of prophecy.  I came into a little maturity in this area through the likes of Gary DeMar, Gary North, Doug Wilson, and R.J. Rushdoony.  Mathison presents the ideas of the gospel spreading throughout all the earth by way of sound exegesis.  It’s a great introduction to the topic. 

How do you get there from here?

I recently finished Allan Carlson, Third Ways, a book on how certain countries attempted to build family-centered economies (and economy that protects and promotes the natural family through its basis on moral principles rather than greed or power).  Carlson is an interesting figure, serving as a family historian and sociologist.  He is a leader of the Howard Center, a family think tank in Rockford, Illinois. 

Carlson has devoted his writing to topics centered around the family.  The major premise throughout his writing is that the family-centered economy has disappeared, with the main culprit being industrialism.  This book is a discussion of previous attempts in various countries to change that.  The first chapter discusses two of the most colorful characters in the twentieth century (more…)