Multicultural Reading Groups


Another multicultural discussion group. Photo by Robert Trube, 2012 (all rights reserved)

I am in the midst of a multicultural reading experience. Our book group, The Dead Theologians Society is reading Shusako Endo’s Silence. We’ve had four new participants join us this fall: a student from Japan, another from China, a third from Ghana, and a woman from Venezuela, who joined in for the first time today.

The Japanese student has been a special gift in explaining some of the cultural references of this novel, set in Japan. But today, the Chinese student gave us an interesting take on a hymn a Japanese martyr was singing, and the similarities to a Buddhist outlook. We just were reading it in Christian terms but it made us wonder how much Buddhist beliefs had been mixed with these. Our Ghanaian student has added interesting observations and questions about relationships in the book that others of us have missed.

Our group meets in a university context, which often is a global crossroads. Yet I’m struck with how rarely, even when we have the opportunity do we enjoy this wonderful mix of perspectives, to see a work with different eyes. I’m also appreciative of how helpful this is with a work that originates in a different culture. A bunch of white people reading a book from another culture will still miss many cultural nuances.

I think this is equally important in discussions of books from Western sources. We don’t see our own cultural blind spots very well, the things we assume because that’s just the way it’s always been. I’ve found this in Bible reading groups as well. The truth is, the Bible originated in a Middle Eastern context, and sometimes people from Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe, or even Asian cultures may understand this better, or certainly differently than I.

One important challenge in such groups is making sure we welcome and encourage the contributions of everyone. Those from other cultures may defer to the Westerners or “dominant culture” folk in the group. Asking for the ideas of someone who has not spoken yet can be helpful, both in creating space for those from other cultural backgrounds and reminding the more gregarious to listen.

A group like this won’t just happen. It probably means thinking about who you’d like to invite to the table beyond your own cultural group, and being intentional about that, and inviting them to invite their friends as well. It means listening to their book recommendations in deciding on new readings. And it means being open to having your thinking changed.

I’m still on a learning curve here. I’d love to hear what others who have tried this have learned works well!

So What is a Dead Theologians Society?

Yesterday I mentioned our Dead Theologians Society reading group.  What’s that all about?  Very simply we are a group who reads the works of “theologians” whose works have outlived them.  The name was inspired by The Dead Poets Society which dates us.  We’ve been meeting for about 15 years.  We were not the first, however.  I actually shameless stole the idea from a then-Florida colleague, Robbie Castleman who started the first such group. Recently, the Emerging Scholars Network posted news about our group and some of our history, along with our reading list from the past 15 years.

Our group consists of Ohio State faculty, staff, and graduate students and some community friends.  We meet Wednesday mornings at 7:45 am at a Panera Restaurant adjacent to campus.  We select a book or two for each semester with readings no more than 30 or so pages a week.  Generally our selection process begins with member looking on their shelves for those books they’ve always meant to read. Sometimes one book will lead to another. Sometimes a new member suggests something totally out of the blue we haven’t considered before.  Usually it doesn’t take much more than a brief reminder of the section comment and an open ended question to get the discussion going.

What is the attraction?  For me, one has been tackling challenging but worthy texts in community.  When we read C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces we found this particularly so as we wrestled with his various allusions and the dangers of inordinate love.  For many of us, it has connected us with the rich resources of a two thousand year theological conversation that gives us a wealth of resources upon which to draw as we engage the intellectual marketplace of the university.

I’d love to hear about book groups you’ve been a part of, how they’ve worked and how they’ve shaped you.