Books that changed me (part 4)

When my husband started seminary, we attended a new student orientation. At a session for students’ spouses, the wife of a seminarian nearing the end of his studies warned us that our spouses would have their faith challenged by their seminary studies, and that for a while they might seriously question it. I didn’t observe that happen to my husband, but I decided it was time for me to take that kind of rethinking about my own faith.

I read so many books during those years I can’t remember most of them. I read my husband’s books from his classes, books from the local library, books from the church library, and – after my husband’s graduation but before he was ordained – from the nearby Princeton Seminary library, to which he had gotten a library card so he could check out resources for sermon preparation (he did pulpit supply, mostly for small churches that did not have a regular preacher).

I was determined not to believe something just because it was what I had been taught. Some beliefs I had never been strongly convinced of, such as Dispensationalism. Others I had assumed, not realizing there was any viable alternative, and it took little more than raising the question of their veracity for me to let them go. Even those beliefs which I saw no reason to jettison were not guaranteed a place in my future thinking. I put them in a sort of mental “cold storage” to be reexamined later. I wanted to be sure that I was willing to accept truth whether it fit my preconceived ideas or not.

At the same time, I had to start adjusting to the idea of being a pastor’s wife. Most of the pastor’s wives I had known played piano, taught Sunday School and women’s Bible studies, always looked nice (and so did their houses), and were assumed to have a greater level of spiritual maturity than the average woman in the church. My husband assured me that any church that called him would understand that they were hiring him and not me, and that he would put our family ahead of the church. But I knew that people would still have expectations of me as the pastor’s wife that they had never had of me as the molecular biologist’s wife.

Please Understand Me by David Keirsey

As part of the process for becoming a pastor, my husband was required to have a psychological evaluation. One part of this was a Myers-Briggs assessment. I had once had to have some kind of psychological assessment (when I was so depressed that the school I worked for required I get counseling as a condition of continued employment), and it had showed that I was just about the complete opposite of a healthy psychological profile. I wasn’t too keen on another such evaluation.

But Myers-Briggs, I learned, isn’t about rating psychological health, but rather personality types. My husband learned that he is an EFNJ (though at times his scores have shown him to be an EFNP, evidence that he shares traits of both profiles). This means that he is extroverted, that he relies more on feeling than thinking in making decisions, and on intuition to acquire information rather than fact-gathering. As for the J or P, he is perhaps just slightly more inclined to want matters settled than to keep his options open.

None of those are judgments of his character, only a description of his personality. At his urging, I took the much shorter version of the personality type “test” included in this book he had purchased to learn more about the personality types. To no one’s surprise, it showed that I was strongly introverted – about as far to the introverted end of the scale as you can get. What did surprise me was to learn that that was not a bad thing.

I had always known I was introverted, even back when I just thought of myself as “shy.” I was generally a loner, and even after I learned to make friends and interact more socially, I still preferred to have a good deal of time to myself. Crowds made me very uncomfortable, and talking to strangers required a huge dose of willpower. In churches where the ideal Christian seemed to be someone who went about telling anyone and everyone about what God had done in his life, I felt pretty much a failure.

But according the David Keirsey’s explanation of the personality types, being an introvert was not a defect. It was simply a description of me, specifically of where I got my energy from. My husband feels charged up by spending time with people, so of course he welcomes such opportunities. I feel drained by interactions that are intense either in the number of people or the length of time spent with them, while spending time alone restores me.

I also learned that I prefer thinking to feeling, and fact-gathering to relying on intuition. Neither of those were a surprise to me either (nor was the fact that I far prefer to have things settled than unsettled), but again I was buoyed by the thought that these traits were not negative ones. In those same churches that equated introversion with succumbing to fear and selfishness, depending on logic and facts was seen as trusting in human reason rather than God’s leading through Scripture and prayer.

(Wanting things settled, on the other hand, was the one area where I seemed to fit with the way things were valued at fundamentalist churches. It is an overgeneralization to say that they want everything “black and white” with no troubling shades of gray, but there is enough truth behind that stereotype that I have wondered sometimes whether people tend to self-select for such churches based on whether their personality type includes the “J” characteristic.)

Not only did I come to accept my personality as a God-given aspect of who I was, I also realized why I fit my IT (information technology) job so much better than I had in my failed attempts to teach high school. My husband’s personality type is well-suited to such people-oriented work (as well as pastoring), while I am much more suited to information-intensive jobs such as librarian, business analyst, bank examiner, or just about any computer specialist.

I was by this time in the middle of getting an MBA, which a former supervisor had strongly urged me to pursue. I had never had any interest in getting into management, and this new understanding of my personality permitted me to stop feeling I needed to. I finished the degree, but with the goal of improving my marketability as a business-knowledgeable computer professional rather than a prospective manager.

The Ring of Truth by J. B. Phillips

I found this in the church library, where I often browsed after church while my husband met with some of the church leaders regarding his calling to the ministry and his progress in seminary. Everything I have read by J. B. Phillips has been good, but this one particularly helped me because it deals with the truth/reliability of the New Testament

Phillips approaches this with a perspective different from that of most authors whose books I had studied. He not only had studied Greek and Hebrew (as pastors in many churches are required to), he knew Greek well enough to translate the New Testament himself. I had long ago stopped using the King James Version of the Bible, switching first to the New American Standard and later to the New International Version. But Phillips used his own translation of verses he quoted in the book, and the words seemed to have a relevance to me that I had not encountered before.

I ended up asking for a copy of his translation of the New Testament for my birthday that year. I also was able to read it with a more confident answer to the doubts that still plagued me, because of Phillips’ statements about his reading of the NT in the original language. When you read a translation, you inevitably get some flavor of the translator’s perspective, because words, unlike numbers, carry so many layers of meaning, and no translation can capture exactly the meaning of the original and no more. But Phillips read the NT in the original, and what he read convinced him that the writers absolutely believed what they wrote.

That doesn’t prove they were right, of course. But if they were telling what they believed was true when they recorded incidents in the life of the early church, either they were recording actual history or they were so out of touch with reality that their writing would show more than a touch of insanity. Their writings have, as Phillips puts it, “the ring of truth.”

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck

I found this book on the shelves of my in-laws’ home, during a visit shortly after my mother-in-law’s death (also not long after my husband’s graduation from seminary, which his mother had managed to live long enough to see). I had heard of the book before, as the church we attended had used it in a discussion group the previous year, but I knew nothing about the book or its author. Finding it where and when I did, I decided to check it out.

From the first sentence (“Life is difficult.”) I found it a breath of fresh air. Unlike much of the pop psychology I had been exposed to, it discussed life in a way that matched my own experiences. While not written from a Christian perspective, it emphasized the spiritual nature of life, and acknowledged the reality of evil. It offered no easy answers, but neither was it pessimistic about the possibility of spiritual development.

Peck wrote about love as a choice and as action, in a manner very consistent with what I had heard at most churches – though without the same starting point of God’s love as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. Peck also wrote about grace, though here his approach was very different from that of the Christian church. People ask why there is so much suffering and evil in the world, but Peck pointed out that people rarely ask why there is so much beauty and good in the world. That there is, Peck said, was because of grace.

By the time I finished reading the book, I felt that my outlook on life had been fundamentally changed. I couldn’t even put into words what specifically was changed, as it seemed that I could no longer remember how I had viewed things just a week earlier. The one particular lesson that I thought about a good deal in the following weeks and months was that every single circumstance of life is an opportunity for spiritual growth.

I had been taught for years, in probably every church I attended, that God uses suffering to bring about spiritual growth. But because those same churches tended to emphasize the role of Bible study, prayer, church involvement, and “witnessing” as the key factors in spiritual growth, it was hard to see how to grow in a given circumstance unless I consciously prayed or thought of an applicable Bible verse.

I had practiced finding verses that various everyday circumstances could trigger in my mind, but I failed to see how thinking of them led to any real gains in spiritual maturity. I also was accustomed to distinguishing between spiritual growth as a Christian, and the ordinary process of developing maturity as a human being (which doesn’t cease when physical maturity is achieved).

Peck’s approach seemed more holistic. I didn’t have to know how a difficult situation would lead to spiritual growth, I only had to approach it as an opportunity for growth rather than an unpleasant obstacle to be gotten past as painlessly as possible. When I tried to think specifically in terms of James’ exhortation to “count it all joy,” I worried about whether I was actually exhibiting joy. By simply reminding myself that the situation was an opportunity for growth and welcoming it as such, without trying to evaluate how well I was doing, I found myself approaching life with a more positive attitude.

2 Responses to Books that changed me (part 4)

  1. Margaret Packard says:

    Interesting discussion about personality types. I have long wondered how people end up in different churches. If three people hear the gospel and put their faith in Jesus, then one becomes a Baptist, another becomes a Presbyterian, the third becomes a Pentecostal or Charismatic, why? Obviously most people will (initially anyway) attend the church of their friend who shared the gospel with them. But how many will eventuallly end up in a church that appears to suit their personality? And what role does the Holy Spirit play in this, anyway?

    • Pauline says:

      One of the important insights in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is about how people who are able to pick their church tend to find one where they have much in common with the other people. He considers the parish system better, because it throws together people based on living in the same community, so they have to learn to get along with people they might not otherwise choose to associate with. They actually have to learn to “love their neighbors.”

      I have also heard the argument that it’s good that there are different kinds of churches, so people who appreciate the richness of traditional liturgy can worship that way, people who want informal worship can do that, etc. I feel out of place in a very emotionally-based setting, so I am glad to have other options.

      But if we did all worship in churches most local to our homes, I doubt that the churches would develop such extremely different modes of worship, precisely because each congregation would be made up of people with different preferences. And we would have to learn a mode of worship that would not please everyone but would – one would hope – not cause people to feel out of place.

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