Reading for the Common Good:
How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish
C. Christopher Smith
I couldn’t write a straight review of your book. I know you too well and I couldn’t really be objective (not that that is an ideal). Instead I want to offer a kind of open letter, a way to reflect with you about the book and invite others into the conversation.
There are two things that guided my understanding of Reading for the Common Good. The first is that, like you, I cannot conceive of my faith apart from reading. As a child my faith was formed by fiction—Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and so many others. Later, it broadened to include philosophy and theology, the classics of the spiritual masters, and profound fiction such as The Brother Karamazov. My reading now is steady and varied, this year I’ve enjoyed books about microbiology and woodworking, Christian ethics in a time of climate change and a novel about a community in the midst of a fracking boom. All of it has something to say to my life as a Christian because such a life is lived through the God who is the creator and sustainer of all things. This is something you get and communicate so clearly in Reading for the Common Good. You share this deep love and dependence on books and you make that alive to the reader.
But as you so often do in conversation, you are not content to leave reading on the level of individual enrichment. I can always count on you to point back to the implications something has for the community, the church, and Reading for the Common Good does not disappoint in this regard, as the title suggests.
This points to the second thing that shaped my reading of your book. When the book was first released for review I was a seminary student, by the time I read it I was well into the work of a minister in a congregation. Because of that shift I have a much deeper sense of what the book means and could mean for the church. You are from a church community that reads together and I have seen how that reading, and the conversations drawn from reading, has shaped your church life.
Your use of Peter Senge’s idea of “learning organizations” was really helpful in thinking about how other churches can live into Englewood’s example. You express the possibility a learning community has to engage imaginatively with the world around it beautifully:
Reading plunges us into the interconnected reality of creation, showing us our connectedness to people in other places and other times, reminding us how words on paper have the capacity to give shape to our everyday lives. Through language we are continually creating and refining reality. In our churches, we have the privilege of doing so together in ways that are attentive to the compassion, the justice, the healing and all the fullness of Christ.
This is not the only place in the book where you offer reading as a catalyst for imagination. Later you engage with Charles Taylor’s concept of the social imaginary and show how reading together can help us construct social imaginaries that are in line with what God is calling us to as the Church.
Working as a pastor, I found this idea particularly helpful and it has shaped how I’m planning my church’s Christian formation offerings going forward. I want to encourage my church to always be reading something together and to read broadly, not only biblical studies, theology and Christian spirituality, but also great fiction and poetry.
“Fiction gives us the capacity to try on other social imaginaries,” you write. That capacity is more important than ever, I think, especially for our churches. I cannot, for instance, understand the reality of a young black girl’s life, but through Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye I am able to see into her world just a bit and therefor to have greater compassion for her. We need our churches to read the stories of each other’s lives in fiction and memoir. What if a rural white church read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and an urban black church read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and then the two churches gathered to discuss the books? These are some of the possibilities your book has helped enliven for me.
I also appreciate that you did not leave out poetry as a subject for shared reading and conversation. You write that “Poetry is, in essence, the art of noticing.” There is much that needs our noticing and so we are in need of poetry as much now as ever. Christians are people of poetry. Who else comes together each week to sing songs—verse with music? Our prayers, our liturgies they all contain poetry and yet we do little to pay attention those other poets who can guide our language and our insights. Rowan Williams has said that Christian priests should have a poetic heart and yet I only read and wrote poetry in one of my seminary courses. Hopefully your book and the conversations it generates will mean more poetry in seminaries, more novels in adult forums on Sunday morning.
You have been patient in waiting for my thoughts on your book, but thankfully you offered a wonderful out for me in your thoughts on “slow reading.” I’ve been slow in reading your book and it has helped me savor my reading experience more deeply.
For the past couple of years I’ve been participating in the “Goodreads Reading Challenge.” Next year I’m thinking of reading 6-12 books for the challenge. I’ll likely read many more than that, but I’ve been wanting to spend sustained time with a very few books and it is better for me to have a goal of reading fewer books rather than more. As I’ve matured as a reader I’ve been doing a good deal of rereading and I’m more resolved to the idea that I’m not really going to get to all of the books I want to read. There are so many books that I could read and reread over a year and still not have plumbed their depths. It was reflecting on your book that helped lead me to this goal of reading fewer books more deeply.
But again, slow reading is not simply something for individual practice. As you write, “One substantial barrier to a careful and attentive practice of Slow Reading is that all too often we understand reading as a personal practice and have little or no sense of how reading not only transforms the way we see and experience the world but also transforms the ways in which our communities operate.” Later, as you bring the various threads of your book back to the congregation you emphasize that it is this practice of slow reading that is at the foundation of becoming a reading congregation.
Reading is not simply something for the individual, but neither is it simply for the congregation. You place the church in its wider context—the neighborhood and the whole of creation and show how reading can help to foster the flourishing of our places. Your ideas around our churches becoming places that encourage and provide the resources for our communities to read were particularly helpful. There are so many places that do not have access to good books and the church can help fill these gaps. More so, the church can be a place that helps a neighborhood discover what to read. In my own context we are working to learn about our local ecosystem. After reading your book I realized that we need to add books about the plants, animals, and geology of our area to our library and invite our neighbors to make use of them as well as members of the congregation.
The goal of all of this, the goal of the whole creation and God’s work in it, is to bring us to our flourishing—to be fully alive as the given beings God made. Throughout the book you keep this goal at the fore and at the close of the book you beautifully name the point of all of this reading:
Reading, reflecting, conversing, learning, working, binding together: these are the ways in which our communities—church, neighborhood and world—begin to mature and flourish. This interconnected life is the joyous and meaning-rich end for which we were created. This is humanity fully alive!
Humanity fully alive! This is indeed what God desires for us and reading has certainly been among the graces God has given for us to live into this fullness. Thank you for offering this book as a way to spark our imagination for how we can use the grace of reading as a means to cultivate this flourishing in our neighborhoods, our churches, and our hearts.
Ragan Sutterfield is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. He is the author of Wendell Berry and the Given Life This Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (Convergent/Random House 2015), and the small collection of essays Farming as a Spiritual Discipline.