Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Summary: Explores how the communal practice of reading in congregations fosters a learning community and shared social imagination the results in clearer congregational identity, sense of mission in one’s setting, and wider engagement with the environment, economics, and political order.
I came across the work of C. Christopher Smith a few years ago through an online version of The Englewood Review of Books. The online site has become one of my “go-to” places to learn about new releases and also great books available for discounts (usually in e-format). Smith is the editor of this enterprise which is tied in with the ministry of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, an urban congregation on the east side of Indianapolis. In his previous book, Slow Church, which I reviewed a year ago, Smith offered a few more clues that books were not just a personal passion that his church indulges but that reading plays a role in its common life. In this book, Smith articulates a vision for reading that goes beyond personal or even common life to the common good of his congregation and wider community.
Fundamentally, he and his community have fostered the idea of becoming a learning organization, building on Peter Senge’s idea in The Fifth Discipline. Learning to read together, beginning with the scriptures both in preaching and the practice of lectio divina, and discussing other works together has helped his church understand its context as well as envision a different “social imaginary.” This is a key idea in the book, borrowed from the work of Charles Taylor. Social imaginaries are our mental images of how things are done in our social context, often not articulated nor evaluated. For example, it might be contended that we have accustomed ourselves to a very polarized political dialogue between two parties. And we may think we must choose one of the two alternatives, both individually, and communally as congregations or church bodies. A different social imaginary might envision a very different type of political engagement.
Smith contends that as we read, reflect, discuss and imagine together around the scriptures, and around books that may speak to our context, we can explore, and be confronted by different social imaginaries that change the way we think about who and why we are as a church, about when and where we are in our context, and how we think about our presence in our communities, in the physical environment we inhabit, in the economic order in which we participate, and the political order of our communities, states and nations.
I had two questions in mind as I was reading this book. One was, can you really hope for all this to happen from our reading of scripture and other good reading? The other was, how does he get his congregation to do this kind of reading together? The answer to the first question was simple. I found myself asking, “isn’t this in fact why I do Bob on Books in the first place?” I believe that not only the “book of all books” but also other good writing can change the way we see the world and our place in it and shape our actions in ways that seek the greater flourish of the people and the places we share life with. What Smith did here is give me better language for what, instinctively, I’ve sought to do on the blog, both in my own writing and my reviews of the writing of others.
Chapter 9 in the book helped answer the second question for me. As noted already, Smith and his community begin with the slow reading of scripture, and he believes that learning to attend to God’s word in these ways is both foundational and helpful in learning, and loving to attend to other words. Congregational leaders promote reading within various teams related to the particular work they are doing. Their goals are modest. Even one book read and discussed together in a year is good. They create spaces for conversations about reading in classes, book clubs and seminars. They make resources available including books related to a current sermon series, they develop a process for including reviews of books on websites and a process to curate those reviews. And they keep fostering the love of reading among the children of the congregation. I read this and was struck with the conclusion that even in a busy congregation (whose isn’t?) of people who don’t read much, this is doable.
Smith concludes the book with a couple of reading lists: an annotated one of books related to the chapters of the book, and a list organized by subjects of books that have been helpful to his church community. My impression was “meaty, but accessible” for both lists–plainly richer fare that the inspirational fiction and non-fiction that is the typical “Christian reading diet.”
It is refreshing when a book comes along that connects the dots and clarifies one’s understanding of the things one cares about. This was such a book, and in doing so, the book accomplished for me, or rather in me, what the author contends reading does for us. I concluded the book with fresh ideas about fostering learning community around books in the professional and church communities with which I connect. Hopefully, that will indeed lead to some “common goods.”
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.