Saturday, July 13, 2013

Judge It by Its Caveats

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Judge it by its caveats.

Here’s what a caveat typically looks like: “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying x.” Clearly, the reason a caveat like this gets expressed is because whatever has been said up to this point will probably make the reader think that the author is indeed saying x. Otherwise, there would be no need for the author to worry about being misunderstood, and no need to bother clarifying. As an experiment I once marked every caveat that I came across while reading a book for school. Here are several of the kind of statements I marked:

“Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the need for Christian participation in social service.”
“I’m not speaking of driving a wedge between the evangelistic mandate and the cultural mandate, as if the Gospel does not penetrate every aspect of life.” 
“I am not minimizing the importance of sound doctrine.” 
“I’m well aware that doctrine is vitally important. . . . I have no argument with people who are concerned about doctrinal purity. I share their concern. But . . .” 
“I am not saying that every member ministry entails either the participation of all believers in every gathering or the abolishing of leadership.”
“This is not to deny the fact that there were pastors/elders/overseers in the primitive Christian community.”
“I am not saying that [Jesus] is against ministries such as preaching and teaching and leading.”

Why did I make note of all these caveats? Well, because I think we can learn a lot about the overall thrust of a book’s arguments by giving careful attention to how the author feels he needs to clarify himself. D. A. Carson (who is not the author of the above quotes) has often said that his students rarely learn what he teaches them. Rather, they learn what he gets excited about. The trouble with caveats is that they’re almost never understood to represent something that matters deeply to the author. And so the caveats I’ve quoted above are good indicators that no one is likely to come away from that book thinking, “Man, this guy really wants me to care about social service, sound doctrine, and church leadership.” Because those things are consistently relegated to the occasional caveat.

So what’s the lesson to learn? I think pastors and teachers and writers could all benefit from a conscious effort to use caveats less. It's easy to overstate our case, for the sake of having a strong effect, and then attempt to pull back the reins by way of a simple caveat. While the caveat might keep us from getting into trouble for our overstated case, it accomplishes little in the way of actually teaching and instructing in a faithfully measured way.

No one should be expected to walk away from a book or sermon with any real concern for what the author or pastor briefly said he was not saying. So, to throw out a random example, if a critic notices that you’ve championed foreign missions to the point of minimizing the need for faithful gospel ministry at home, it won't be much of a response to say, “But didn’t you hear my caveat? Weren't you listening when I said that’s not what I was trying to say?” If the content of your caveats is truly important, then look for more believable ways to sincerely emphasize those things.

Now for a couple of ironic caveats of my own. (1) I’m not hating on the book from which Ive drawn the exemplary quotes. It was written by the fine professor who taught me Greek, and has lots of commendable content from what I remember. (2) Neither am I saying that caveats are always bad. They can be occasionally harmless and even necessary. But if ever you feel the need to use one, it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself why. Why is a caveat necessary here? What have I said thus far that would potentially mislead the hearer or give false impressions? And is there any way for me to change that without relying on a cheap and forgettable caveat?