Review: Eric D. Barreto’s Reading Theologically

Reading Theologically is compact and robust, examining what reading theologically means for seminarians—although the serious self-taught Bible student could find help here too.

Barreto sets the expectations, “Reading theologically is thus not primarily about mechanics . . . . [T]his book will invite you to be a perpetual pupil, a student always unsatisfied with easy answers for difficult questions or simple caricatures of those with whom you disagree . . . . [T]he gospel of Jesus Christ demands a radical posture of grace towards ideas and people alike” (11). On the following page, he also talks about how regularly reading theologically will not only “confirm our deepest hopes” but also “disturb you, shake you to your core, lead you to question and doubt much of what you have held dear.”

Reading Theologically is a compilation and as you might expect I found some chapters more compelling than others. My favorite chapters were number one and seven. In one, I found Melissa Browning’s discussion about embodied reading helpful. She points out our dualistic tendencies. We think of reading as an intellectual exercise (and it is that). She reminds us that we are not just a mind, but a body. Many readers forget this when exercising their reading muscles. They don’t take care of their body. They don’t find times during the day that are optimal for reading. Instead “we wage a war on our bodies” (18). She ends with a helpful discussion on reading as a communal practice. In seven “Reading Digitally,” Sarah Morice Brubaker ends her chapter with a discussion about celebrating “the blessings of digital communication” and challenging “the vices of digital communication: the virtual yelling, the bloviating, the low standards of evidence, and the free rein given to confirmation bias” (120). She makes four points with that in mind: 1. Take responsibility for which authorities we heed. 2. Every so often, read for some other reason than confirming what you already know. 3. Notice how vetting happens for us, and take as much responsibility as we can. 4. Scrutinize the arguments and evidence given by those with whom we instinctively agree. This section was constructive.

Many of the remaining chapters had constructive content. There were a few that left me concerned. In two “Reading Meaningfully,” Miriam Y. Perkins makes the point that the text may have multiple meanings (“meaning must be plural,” 35) and discusses reading as “meaning-making” (39). This thrust seems post-modern (see 41 and 46) and doesn’t give enough weight to God-breathing Scripture, the Spirit enlightening our understanding, and the unity that produces in a singular meaning for the text. In five “Reading Critically,” Jacob D. Myers makes the point (which I agree with) that we must widen our reading. We shouldn’t just read dead white guys. We need to hear from women. We need to hear from Africans, Asians, Middle-Easterners. Doing this opens our eyes to our faulty assumptions. But in proposing this, Myers also suggests “heterosexism” has “governed a great deal of theological scholarship” (84 I would agree with this point—because all major Christians traditions have agreed that hetrosexual relationships are the norm for the Christian ethic) and, therefore, we should allow “the lived experiences of queer, transgendered, and intersexed persons” to speak into theological scholarship. Depending on what he means here, I might agree. If by that he means, those who have experienced this, but have repented and are now disciples of Christ then let us invite them into theological studies. But Myers tips his hand at the end of the paragraph when he continues. “To ignore the full spectrum of one’s sexual /gendered identity is to miss out on the way and work of God in the world” (84). There’s a cargo ship overflowing with assumptions in that single sentence.

Ultimately I enjoyed Reading Theologically, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to maturing seminarians or aspiring, self-taught theological students due to some of the concerns listed above. It may be too much work wading through the reeds to find the swans.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply. He writes for CBMW Manual, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and is a council member at The Bacon Coalition. He also offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is covenant member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.