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Reading for The Common Good

by C. Christopher Smith

The Christian church has been pictured in many forms: as a kingdom, a wedding feast, a sheepfold. But it is not a common occurrence to have the church represented as a community of readers. Tapping into the ancient ideas of lectio divina, C. Christopher Smith invites us to imagine a fellowship of Christians where reading inspires the ways for the church to emulate the compassionate life of Jesus. In Reading for The Common Good (InterVarsity Press, 2016), Smith makes clear that this does not imply that the congregation reads books and meets for discussions only. Rather, it means that the books which a local church reads together, starting with the Bible, are enveloped into the identity of the group and become the catalysts for both learning and action. Drawing on his experience at his own fellowship, Englewood Christian Church of Indianapolis, IN, Smith says, for a gathering of Christians to become an active “learning organization” (a term Smith has borrowed from business expert Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, published in 2004 by CurrencyDoubleday) there is a need to make “Slow Reading” an integral part of the church.

Slow Reading can be seen as a part of the larger contingent of “Slow” movements that have recently developed as a means of resisting the default speed-of-the-age, which is fast. To help explain the difference between slow and fast, Smith includes this definition from Carl Honore, author of the book In Praise of Slowness (2004, Harper San Francisco): “Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections–with people, culture, work, food, everything.”

Early in Reading for The Common Good, Smith states that “the primary task of this book is for us to imagine ways of reading that lead us deeper into the flourishing that God intends for the world.” With deeper flourishing as a goal, and with Slow Reading as the process to approach it, Smith expands on the potential of reading to influence the church, the community, and the world for the common good.

In referring to the practice of lectio divina, possibly the first type of Slow Reading practiced in an organized way among Christians, Smith shared an impression of Kathleen Norris’s best-selling memoir, The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Publishing, 1996):

“During her time at the monastery, she was profoundly shaped by the monks’ practice of lectio divina, the monastic way of slowly reading, praying and reflecting on Scripture. Lectio divina, Norris came to realize, is not a process of dissecting the texts, rendering them devoid of life, but rather a kind of listening that brings life and flourishing to both the text and its hearers.”

The Slow Reading style of Lectio divina is made up of four elements; lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation). Father James Martin S.J., describes the four parts of lectio divina like this: read, think, pray, act.[1] Smith acknowledges that this Slow Reading method is a powerful way to read Scripture, but Smith also points out that the steps used in lectio divina can, and should be, applied to our reading of texts other than the Bible. Here’s why: “Reading carefully and attentively is an essential part of a journey into knowledge that is rooted in love.'[A] knowledge that springs from love,’ notes Parker Palmer, ‘will implicate us in the web of life; it will wrap the knower and the known in compassion, in a bond of awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, accountability.’ ” [2]

Smith explains in Reading for The Common Good that reading together as a church has made a positive, measurable impact in both his church fellowship and his neighborhood. “At a practical level, our church finds renewal in reading and having conversation with one another. Reading and discussing Scripture is primary as we seek to understand the story of God’s creation and how it gives shape to our life together on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis… We also find ourselves reading broadly as we seek to interpret scripture and embody Christ in our particular time and place: theology, history, urban theory, ecology, agriculture, poetry, child development, economics, fiction and more… As we seek to live faithfully in our neighborhood, we have come to discover that our life together is composed of two essential and interwoven threads: learning and action…Without learning our action tends to be reaction and is often superficial..Without action our faith is irrelevant and — to borrow a thought from the apostle James — dead.”

In the chapter “Deepening Our Roots in Our Neighborhoods,” Smith goes through the steps that a fellowship might use in order to put their combined gifts and callings into play in their home locale. Smith tells us that understanding the history of a location is vital to establishing strong connections in the community, and reading about “the commons,” that is, the economic, educational, civic and environmental realms of a neighborhood, in local newspapers and histories written by local authors gives helpful insight that may be otherwise unattainable. Any method of strengthening the ties to one’s neighbors adds to a shared vision of thriving in that place, writes Smith. He says reading together, praying, conversing, and planning for an enhanced future together can help to make the idea of God’s shalom, or flourishing, a reality.

Reading for The Common Good includes chapters about the broad subjects of national politics and economics, but primarily Smith’s book centers on the positive and powerful aspects of an active, reading church within a local setting. Smith writes that he is passionate about embedding the practice of reading into the DNA of Christian congregations and he includes a variety of suggestions to help make books easily available in the church. He also points out that, “In the text-saturated culture of the twenty-first century…reading is an essential tool that [the church] will need to use well.”

From the beginning to the end of Reading for The Common Good, Smith incorporates the names of books and authors that he used as sources for quotes and ideas for his book. Including the Bible, there are six publications/authors mentioned in this review alone. Smith also offers two Reading Lists and thorough end notes for the reader’s use.

Reading for The Common Good by C. Christopher Smith is an excellent book for church groups who wish to combine the inspiration that comes from reading good books with actions that express the compassionate life of Christ.

 

 

[1] James Martin, S.J. Read, Think, Pray Act:”Lectio Divina” in Four Easy Steps (The Word Among Us e-Magazine, November 2007 Issue)

[2] Parker J. Palmer. To Know as We Are Known: Education as Spiritual Journey (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 9.