Great New Book by Must-Read Christian Writer: Alan Jacobs’ How to Think

by Oct 17, 2017Books, Epistemology

I read pretty much anything Alan Jacobs publishes. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds was yet another great read.

This book is Alan Jacobs not half-baked but maybe 90% baked, and it’s still a fantastic read. It felt to me like one long essay, very much in the Jacobs style, which means a lot of trenchant intellectual commentary, delivered smoothly, on interesting stories. But whereas Original Sin, which was very much in the same vein, felt to me like it drove me to a point and wrapped a theological bow around it; this topic—good thinking—is simply too large for this small book to handle with anything feeling like finality (that’s what I mean by 90%). If this book had been titled “How to Keep Cool in a World of Social Media Firestorms,” it might have felt more complete. Jacobs does deliver numerous insights for the social-media-addled. (For example, “Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.”)

But his self-critical exploration of intellectual honesty, an exploration which skirts the realms of the theological, was the most valuable part of the book for me. He brings thinkers back to love, a theme he explored in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Here Jacobs offers no final answers. We can’t keep an open mind at all times; he knows that and proves it with verve. But when it comes to thinking, there is no algorithm by which we can necessarily determine whether we are guilty of kowtowing to some Inner Ring or are part of genuine community, no way to know with certainty whether we are susceptible to narrow influences or are truly loving thinkers. Life is, or ought to be, a pursuit of that knowledge, even if we’ll never perfectly achieve it. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world,” Jacobs says, “any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its roots every morning to see how it’s doing.”

If Jacobs perchance reads this review, he ought to know that I read most words he writes publicly—and that I think this once he missed a great opportunity to quote Stanley Fish. Fish has a story he appeals to a number of times in his writings that is much like the Phelps-Roper story. It features a member of the Aryan Nation who finds himself instantly disaffected with his erstwhile crowd when one of its leaders gives a speech consigning those with cleft palates to the gas chambers. This man’s daughter had a cleft palate. What Fish points out is that people who change from one worldview to another don’t change wholesale; they pivot on at least one point they held before. In this case, the man loved his daughter and this was his pivot point. I think Jacobs could have explored this story with great depth—and could have deepened his own case by using it. In it again love is key to thinking.

One more thing: I’m a Christian, and Jacobs is a Christian, and says so in this book. I think Jacobs could have gotten away with more Christianity. Augustine, for example, surely could have figured prominently in a book on how love is essential to right thinking. And, for that matter, the Apostle Paul.

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