C. S. Lewis once offered a strikingly obvious but frequently ignored piece of advice. His advice addressed those who wanted to learn about the thought of the ancient philosopher Plato. Most students begin by reading an introduction to Plato or by reading what other modern people have said about Plato, but Lewis took a different line. Lewis said that if we really want to understand Plato, we have to read Plato.¹
Again, this seems obvious. However, in a culture where everyone has an opinion about everything and can easily share it with the world through blogging, social media, or YouTube, it is not hard to see how frequently Lewis’s advice is ignored. Many of the loudest and most entrenched opinions are constructed on second- or third-hand sources.
A common example is the news media. You hear some slanderous thing about a political candidate on CNN or Fox News; usually it is accompanied by a soundbite of the candidate who’s up for criticism, along with a singularly unflattering photograph. From this caricature, we form an opinion about the candidate and then go blast them on social media or our blog. Rarely do we take the time to actually see what was said by the candidate himself.
Another common example is when hardcore atheists criticize the Bible. People will frequently charge the God of the Bible with all sorts of heinous crimes, but oftentimes they have not even read the Bible, they’ve only listened to Richard Dawkins’ angry retorts or Ricky Gervais’ amusing caricatures of Christianity.
Christians can fall into the same trap, whipping up overused arguments against other faiths without actually taking the time to do our own research, talk to someone who believes that other faith, or to read a book by a serious-minded person from another faith. As people called to love God and love others, this is simply unacceptable. If we are going to love our fellow image-bearers and to love God with all of our mind, we need to do better research.
We need to get to the original source, or, to put it in terms of Lewis’s illustration, we need to read Plato. If you are going to speak publicly about an issue, critiquing or criticizing a person or an idea, make sure you take the time to listen carefully to what they are actually saying. Read their books, listen to their extended arguments. Once you do this, you’re in a much better position to see if what other people are saying about them is actually accurate or helpful. In the world of ideas, this is part of how we love God with our minds and love our neighbors—even those we dislike or don’t agree with.
By way of cultural absorption, we hear different things about authors, speakers, or subjects through numerous cultural mediums—meaning that sometimes it’s hard to track down the original source—but as Christians, we do not get a pass because it’s hard or because it takes time to find the source. If you are going to go after someone’s view, make sure that you have done them the justice of actually reading their opinion, not just hearing what someone else has said about their opinion.