Reading for the Common Good (Christopher Smith) -- Review

READING FOR THE COMMON GOOD: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish.  By C. Christopher Smith. Foreword by Scot McKnight. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 176 pages.

                When I was a child I loved going to the library. I liked to hang out in the 900s (Dewey Decimal System) – that’s the history and geography section. I was also a member of my elementary school’s Library Club. Very in life I became an avid reader, and continue to be so to this day. While I will dip into fiction books on occasion I’ve always preferred nonfiction, with history and religion/theology being at the top of the list. My embrace of reading has both informed and formed me into the person I am today. Books and magazines and newspapers open up new worlds and new opportunities. Literacy was once the province of a small group of elite persons, but when Gutenberg invented the printing press a new world was born. Indeed, it’s pretty clear that without it the Reformation would never have occurred.   

                Chris Smith is a kindred spirit. He too is an avid reader, and has been since childhood. He too loved going to libraries and discovering its riches. He took his reading inclinations to the point of launching a book review website and book review journal (I have contributed to both). The Englewood Review of Books has become one of those must read sites for all who love to read. In this book, Reading for the Common Good, Smith invites us to expand our vision of what reading is and what it can be. He speaks of reading in terms of the way in which books, as the subtitle declares, can help “our churches and neighborhoods flourish." This is a book about reading with a purpose. It's a book about recognizing the importance of not only being informed, but being formed by the disciplined practice of reading, both as individuals and in community. What is at stake here is the opening up of the larger world so we might participate in its flourishing.

                Chris writes here about the role reading can play in the life the church. What he envisions is that the church can be a "learning community" so that it will be in a position to benefit the neighborhood. As a Christian who is part of a tradition that puts a great stress on the witness of scripture, he believes that the reading of scripture, especially slow reading of scripture, is foundational. However, as important is reading scripture is, our reading materials can’t end there. Indeed, if we’re to help our neighborhoods flourish we need to read broadly, from theology to books on agriculture (in his context, urban agriculture).  Thus, he writes that "we also find ourselves reading broadly as we seek to interpret Scripture and to embody Christ in our particular time and place: theology, history, urban theory, ecology, agriculture, poetry, child development, economics, fiction and more" (p. 15).

                In the course of this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, offers us insight into how the church can become a learning community that blesses the neighborhood (and beyond). One key is the embrace of “slow reading," which fits with his vision of the “Slow Church.” Chris’ previous book (written with John Pattison), by that title, explores what it means to be a “slow church.”  A slow church is one where conversation and relationships are central, and slow reading allows us to engage in deep conversation about things that matter. The principle of slow reading is rooted in the ancient practice of lectio divina, which invites us to meditate and converse on passages of scripture. He would like us to expand the usage of the principle to other forms of reading material.  With this vision in place our reading can help shape our social imagination. It can also help shape the congregational identity—remember he wants us to think of the church as a learning community—this requires reading in community. There is benefit in a community reading the same books and materials, and then gathering to discuss what we encounter there. It provides us with common language that furthers conversation. Even as we read the text, it reads us. Reading helps form the community, but it also helps us discern our calling or vocation within the community. Reading helps us understand who we are (identity) and what we're going to do (vocation). Reading helps, he notes, the congregation discern how it will be involved in the neighborhood. As we read and discuss our reading together we begin to mature in knowledge and understanding, that leads to more disciplined action in the world.

                It should be noted that Chris is part of a congregation has committed itself both to reading and to being an integral part of its neighborhood. Englewood Christian Church is located in urban Indianapolis, in a neighborhood that was changing economically and demographically. It had become a church whose membership lived outside the neighborhood and who then drove in and out for worship. This is a reality faced by many largely white congregations that are situated in urban locations. What is somewhat unique here is that some of the members of the congregation decided to return to the neighborhood and commit themselves to its vitality. They became involved in community development work and in advocacy on behalf of the residents. All of this was aided and abetted by their reading together.  Not only did they read in the congregation, but they invited the neighborhood to join them in reading. For those who needed help with their reading, they launched literacy classes. They opened up their church library, but they also partnered with the public library, making sure it stayed open and had sufficient resources.   Chris reminds us that civic engagement requires civic literacy. This commitment to reading with the community accompanies a commitment to deepening roots in the neighborhood. This involves understanding the context—the educational, economic, environmental, civic contexts. I admire this commitment to inhabiting the neighborhood, especially since our churches have largely disconnected from neighborhoods. 

                Chris doesn't stop with the neighborhood. He speaks of how reading can help us re-imagine the world. He speaks of an interconnected creation, where the congregation equips people to pursue shalom in the world. One thing that's clear is that Chris invites us to consider reading broadly. Reading theology and the Bible are central to our task, but we can't stop there. We need to be informed on matters economic and political. These are matters of context, and we can't address the world in all its complexity unless we're literate on such matters. As I write this review, there is grave concern about economics and politics, and great numbers of citizens seem uninformed and disconnected. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and we learn afterwards that many who voted to leave didn't even know what the EU was. That's dangerous, especially for democracies, which depend upon an educated citizenry. Part of the solution is to read broadly. For me that means reading more fiction. For others, more non-fiction! 

                Chris closes the book by recapping the journey, and resuming his call for churches to become learning/reading communities. He suggests that we connect reading with as many of our activities as possible. If we’re engaged in a mission project, then it would be beneficial for the congregation to engage in reading materials that speak to the context of the project. Our reading will include both common materials and diverse kinds of materials—both being necessary for having fruitful conversations that lead to mission. Chris recognizes that not everyone is a reader in the same way that he (and I) is, but even those who do not read can be included in the conversations so that they might benefit from what others have read.

                This is a long-awaited book. It appeals to me, in part because I am a committed reader and I believe in its power. I’m already a member of his choir!  It also appeals to me because he draws out the practical implications of reading both with specific goals in mind and broadly so we are well-formed. This is, of course, a principle of liberal arts education. Being well rounded makes us better prepared to live in this world. That means we need to find ways of enabling our congregations to become learning communities that can bless our neighborhoods and thus the world. Chris has provided us with an important resource so we can engage in that work.

                As a final note, I should point out that Chris has created a companion to Reading for the Common Good titled 101 Transformative Books for Churches to Read and Discuss. This is an e-book that provides a starting point for the work he has tasked us with. Most of the books are themselves downloadable as e-books or PDFs.

                Reading can be and is a pleasurable experience, but as Chris reveals here, it is much more than that!  As a reader, I can only offer my strong endorsement of the project! 


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