In my last semester at Wheaton College, I was confronted by a friend: Wait, you’re about to graduate with an English degree and you haven’t taken a class from Alan Jacobs?
Responding to his look of disgust, I signed up to audit Dr. Jacobs’ class on 20th-century poet W.H. Auden where his lectures on “Horae Canonicae” and “As I walked out one evening” took up residence in my soul. Since that time, Dr. Jacobs has moved on to Baylor University’s Honors Program and written such books as The Narnian (a Lewis biography) and The Book of Common Prayer: a Biography. His short book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, singlehandedly revived my reading life after graduate school.
And now a new book, ambitiously titled How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Echoing the work of psychologists and other thinkers, Jacobs asserts that when asked to make a decision, defend a position, or perform any number of other complex cognitive tasks, we routinely go disastrously wrong. We are led astray by biases and fallacies, and we turn others into “the Repulsive Cultural Other.”
But Jacobs doesn’t leave us mired in hopelessness—he offers insightful wisdom on how we might begin to remedy our bad thinking. And those of us who spend time in the pulpit would do well to pay attention to his advice. I’ve compiled some of the more salient points here, but I encourage you to read the book and carefully consider how it might alter your next sermon.
Don’t Think for Yourself
After rehearsing the common cultural narrative of the individual who breaks the bonds of conformity and dares to think for themselves, Jacobs notes the lie at the heart of this myth: you can never truly think for yourself. In fact, he says, “when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’” We think that our opinions represent pure, independent thought—everyone else is mired in the influence of others.
Jacobs reminds us that thinking is “necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.” As Christians, we can affirm gladly that our faith is formed by the Bible (itself a God-directed celebration of collaborative thinking) and by innumerable others, living and dead.
We are all tempted at times to believe our sermons spring ex nihilo from our own genius. But we will be wiser and more humble preachers when we admit and affirm our dependence on interaction with the thinking of others in our work.
More than Mind
How to Think presents us with the curious case of John Stuart Mill, famed 19th-century philosopher. His father, a taciturn scholar, took the academic training of young John seriously—John became a respected intellectual figure as a teenager. Despite his success and seeming promise, Mill reports in his autobiography that he felt stunted, purposeless, and unhappy.
His father had trained him to ignore his feelings, to feel ashamed of them as something that hindered his ‘rational’ thought. Then, by chance, he picked up a collection of Wordsworth’s poems. Suddenly, he felt delight.
Jacobs’ point: while thinking is enormously helpful and should be devotedly pursued, solving problems, making the world a better place—that takes character, which is formed by thought, emotion, and imagination.
There is a balance to strike here in preaching. To over-indulge in emotion is to risk sentimentalism, shallowness, and error. But to neglect it denies a vital way that our hearts are formed to be able to put our good thinking to work for the sake of the world. Make sure your sermon preparation is saturated in stories, poems, and songs as much as textbooks.
Debate and argument are fraught with competitiveness. Debate teams are awarded points and trophies; political candidates are declared winners by media personalities based on instant poll reaction; Twitter has its own accounting of winning with likes and re-tweets.
When we give a sermon we often—implicitly or explicitly—set ourselves in opposition to other ways of thinking. There’s nothing wrong with that. Far from it. We should speak against errors in thinking and against sin. Thinking is necessarily social and conflicting ideas can help develop our thinking for the better.
But that can only happen when we desire to think better more than we desire to win. Alan Jacobs explains the workings of the Yale Political Union, a debate society. When they interview a candidate for a leadership position, they often ask two questions. First: “Did you ever break someone on the floor?” This means, did you ever argue a position so convincingly that your opponent agreed with you, right there in the middle of the debate. But the second question is even more important: “Have you ever been broken on the floor?”
If you’ve never actually been convinced you were wrong, if you’ve never changed your mind based on the thinking of others, chances are you aren’t really engaged in deep, vulnerable thought. If you never risk jettisoning your own thinking and submitting to someone else, you’ve likely been operating out of what C.S. Lewis calls the desire for the “Inner Ring.” You want to strengthen your place among the IN and ensure your opponent remains OUT.
Man of Steel
We know from our current political climate how easy and—regrettably—rewarding it can be to build up a distorted image of an opposing idea and then tear it to pieces. It’s satisfying and is often met with cheers from those who think like you. Well, unlike my opponent, I DON’T support using endangered species as speed bumps!
This is the classic straw-man fallacy. We mischaracterize ideas and turn them into Repulsive Cultural Others, scoring cheap points by demolishing easy, artificial targets. This is especially tempting in church, for the same reason it proves too tempting for the anchors of cable news programs. When we speak to an audience made up mostly of people who agree with us, there is high reward and almost no risk in setting up a straw man—we all want them to look bad. No one is there to rise to their defense.
And “straw-manning” (as Jacobs coins it) can be subtle. Often it’s a subtle shift in language, what Jacobs calls “in-other-wordsing.” Watch how often you use that phrase to bend someone’s ideas or beliefs into something a bit simpler to counter.
For this error, Jacobs gives a helpful remedy. He mentions debates by the Long Now Foundation in which, before a participant can give a counter-argument, he or she must summarize the original speaker’s argument to their satisfaction. A speaker cannot address an argument until their opponent affirms that they’ve been characterized fairly. When you turn your Straw Men into Steel Men, says Jacobs, your empathy and your thinking improve.
When you characterize someone else’s beliefs in your preaching, ask: Would that individual feel fairly represented? Would they affirm how you’ve characterized their thinking?
Mind Your Metaphors
We often think of language as a vehicle. We stuff our ideas into little train cars of words and sentences and send them off down the tracks where they eventually are unloaded into someone else’s mind.
But language isn’t neutral—the words we select to express our ideas can alter our meaning, for better or for worse. As you have listened to and read great sermons, of course this truth is obvious. The way we say something deserves the same consideration as what we wish to communicate.
This isn’t just an argument for more poetic language (though we could do with more of that in the pulpit, to be sure!). It’s an argument to tend to the metaphors and images we use in our sermons. Our language is loaded with mental pictures that hit a listener at a visceral level, that determine our attitude toward an idea beyond mere understanding.
One example of these loaded metaphors can be found in how we talk about argument itself, as Jacobs points out. When we talk about attacking or defending arguments or shooting down ideas, should we be surprised when our default imagination for debate is a win-at-all-costs battle?
How do the metaphors and comparisons you use implicitly shape the thoughts and feelings of your audience?
We live in an era of information overload. There was a time when the prevailing wisdom said that such unprecedented access to diversity of thought would allow us to hear one another and consider diverse perspectives.
Um, how are we doing with that?
When you combine just how many options we have at our fingertips and our desire to be part of an “Inner Ring,” we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve built for ourselves comforting echo chambers. Those echo chambers not only affirm us in the beliefs we already hold, but they also hold up for us only the flimsiest and most extreme arguments from those with whom we disagree.
As pastors, charged with translating the needs of the world to the church, we have a responsibility to listen faithfully to the very best and most thoughtful voices from those communities we do not understand. And, Jacobs notes, when you listen to these individuals—resist the urge to respond. We are quick to funnel ideas we disagree with into easy categories by conjuring our ready-made rebuttals.
Be patient and be quiet. This is an opportunity to love our neighbor, even our enemies. And we will be better preachers for it.
If all this isn’t enough, Jacobs includes at the back of the book a checklist for better thinking. (I always loved having the answers in the back of the book!) Run your next sermon through it before you step to the pulpit.
A Thinker for All of Us
In How to Think, Jacobs confirms a suspicion I’ve had for some time. While I don’t think Jacobs has the arrogance or foolishness to claim it aloud, I suspect that he patterns his publishing life on that of C.S. Lewis. Like Lewis, Jacobs is a formidable scholar, undaunted when asked to weigh in on weighty matters. Like Lewis, he writes lucid, accessible books and essays meant to convey practical, useful ideas in an academic environment that often revels in obscurity. And like Lewis, he writes out of the steadfast conviction that the claims of Christianity reflect the truest understanding of the world and therefore offer the most reliable common sense for all people.
Again, I imagine that Jacobs wouldn’t invite such a comparison (who would dare?!), but I am glad that one of our nation’s finest scholars has dedicated his considerable thinking to the serve all people for the sake of the gospel.