Updated: Apr 27
In a world of voices—what seems often to be a maelstrom, even a cacophony, of competing signals—how wonderful it is to find someone saying good things. It might be an author, a journalist, a preacher, a poet, a pastor, a friend…what a joy to find someone who says what one needs to hear.
Conferences, camps, churches, companies, schools, organizations—we’re all looking for people to bring us information and insight. And we are delighted when we find such a person. So far, so better-than-merely-good.
The strange thing, however, is that often, instead of forming a relationship with such a person, inviting them back and back to keep refreshing and equipping us, we ask instead, “Wow! How can we find another person that good?”
Readers can be the same way. “That book was great! I sure hope I find another one of that quality”—without doing what lots of other readers sensibly do: find another book by that author and read it.
Readers of fiction, especially genre fiction, generally follow that latter course. Have they found a great thriller, or detective story, or romance, or travelogue? Then it’s time to hit the bookstore or download another title for their e-readers by that author.
Yet I find that good habit relatively rarely among readers of theological books. Yes, certain authors have their fans—especially authors with rather extreme voices and messages, who perhaps in the nature of the case incite more powerful allegiance. But reading a book is like being able to hang around that person for a while. If you liked those hours you spent with him or her, why break off the relationship? Why not pick up the conversation on a new topic? Why not enjoy being shaped by that person’s mind and heart, by his way with words and his outlook on the world, so that you can become a better version of yourself as you take on, as you will, some of his best qualities, too?
The same is true for groups and speakers. If you found this speaker particularly powerful, here’s an idea: Invite her back. And consider inviting her back on a continuing basis, to help form your group more deeply and sustainedly. Don’t just hope you can somehow find someone else who will understand and respond to your group’s needs as well as she did. Are you assuming that she has nothing else to say to you? Do you seriously think she’s told you everything she knows in one lecture, or one seminar, or even one course? Form a partnership, sign her up, and look forward to lasting benefit.
I write this as both speaker and conference planner. As a speaker, I have enjoyed the privilege of being invited back to some groups—from churches to colleges to cruise lines (!)—for whom I could prepare more accurately each time because of the knowledge I gained about them in previous acquaintance. As a conference planner, I have been so glad to know I could count on this person to deliver an excellent presentation while I’m having to take a chance on some newcomers I don’t know nearly so well.
And I write this as both author and reader. I am always touched to hear from readers, but there is a special thrill in hearing from readers who have decided to follow my trains of thought through several of my books. (I had one reader, a young philosophy professor, recently tell me how he connected the dots in three or four of my books in a way I myself hadn’t seen before. That was gratifying.) And as a reader, I return to favourite authors because I want to see, and think, and feel, and express myself more like they do: C. S. Lewis, David Martin, Mark Noll, Martin Marty, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Richard Foster, John Wesley, Luci Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, George Steiner, and a few more.
The “notwithstanding clause” in my post’s title speaks to the fact that no speaker or author is infallible. In fact, part of coming to know an author or speaker well is to discern his or her characteristic limitations, mistakes, even shadowy agendas. Chesterton’s anti-Protestantism is embarrassingly extreme; Lewis’s Platonism is alternately illuminating and obscuring; Steiner’s erudition sometimes dazzles, sometimes merely confuses. My guess is that God allows all of us “communicators” to remain conspicuously flawed precisely so that no attentive reader or audience will take us too seriously–and especially not to substitute our authority for that of Holy Scripture.
It is a general rule that we increasingly resemble those in whose company we spend the most time. Shall we be more intentional, then, as auditors or readers, about connecting more intensively and extensively with those who have shown themselves already to be capable of blessing us by their words?