Charitable Reading for Lawyers

I’ve just finished reading Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading: A Hermeneutics of Love. It’s a book I need to reread in order to understand it better. But I’ve already learned a number of valuable things from it. Such as, read with this motivation: Love for God and love for neighbor. Whether you eventually agree with the author you’re reading or not, treat her with respect because she’s made in God’s image. She’s your neighbor whom you should love. It doesn’t mean you have to like or agree with everything she writes, but love requires that you at least first listen carefully and respectfully to what she has to say.

Then there’s Jacobs’ point about honoring the gift that the author and her work represents. We have to receive it with gratitude for the gift that it is. And this applies even to books I might not like. Even those books might teach me something valuable: things in my own thinking I need to correct, or convictions I hold that the author unintentionally confirms or even strengthens, because by reading her I see the errors she espouses even more clearly.

Of course, this might not apply to all books, i.e., I don’t have to read every book with the same degree of affection. We do have a right to choose our friends, and our books. But when it so happens that we meet an enemy whom we can’t or should not avoid, we, or at least I, as a Christian, am called to love even my enemy. That is, I’m called to read an “enemy” (whether it’s the book itself or the author thereof) with at least the proper care and respect due it/her, if not with affection.

So read lovingly but at the same time exercise discernment. The Bible does say something about doing good to all people, but especially to those who belong to the household of faith. Also, I remember reading somewhere in the New Testament (I can’t remember whether it’s in Peter or Paul) that “Bad company corrupts good morals.” So, yes, exercise discernment. Love doesn’t require that I read trash, especially when there are so many good books and so little time to read all of them.

Interestingly, Jacobs has taught me something I very much need in my law practice. I get quite stressed and anxious every time I receive an opposing counsel’s brief or pleading. My tendency is to put off reading it until the very last minute. I consider it a threat – a threat to my ego, my intelligence, my work, etc. I mean, here’s a piece of writing that’s out to destroy me and my client! It’s adversarial, it’s hostile, it’s an enemy. But then because of Jacobs, I’ve gained a new perspective: Here’s an opportunity to practice love. I need to read this out of love for God and neighbor. I need to show my opponent’s pleading with proper care and respect, not only for the sake of defending my client’s interests well, but because opposing counsel is made in God’s image. That doesn’t mean I should agree with everything she has written, or excuse any falsehoods or misleading statements in it; but instead of being anxious, afraid, or angry, I should simply read out of love for a neighbor who is a sinner just like me, and who is made in the image of God just like I am. If she writes like an “enemy” (which in my profession is most often the case, and she probably sees me in the same way too – sometimes, sad to say, with justification!), then I remind myself of Romans 12:20-21: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” And for all I know, that threatening bundle of pages is a gift: either something that directly sheds light on the truth, or something that makes the light of truth stand out because of the contrast the darkness (read: errors, falsehoods, misleading statements, etc.), if any, that that brief or pleading provides.

So thank you, Jacobs: Charitable reading is a gem of an idea for law practice!

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