Hearts & Minds BookNotes review: Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish ON SALE
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Okay, sports fans, get excited, because this is going to be like a world class championship game, right here.
Get ready to rock, dudes, this is going to be one world tour arena show, right here, right now.
This review is your Great White Whale, your big game trophy, the movie you've been waiting for.
To use an over-used metaphor in book reviewing, this a sumptuous report of a five star meal.
I really mean it.
This. Is. The. One.
I'm talking about Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith (IVP - regularly $16.00.) And I'm talking about why you should buy two and get a third one free. We have to get this book out there.
Look, I even know that good friends have already said that I should have written this book. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I am quite sure that C. Christopher Smith is certainly the best man in all of America to write a book like this, and the time couldn't be better. Although I have said repeatedly that James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is the Book of the Year, this one sort of dovetails with it. I now have to seriously consider adjusting that assessment. Can I award them both -- Smith and Smith?
Reading for the Common Good is the book I've been waiting for.
For like 40 years.
And, yes, other than the one I already did called Serious Dreams, this really is the book I might have tried to write. But I am so glad I didn't as Smith 2 - that's C. Christopher Smith of the Englewood Review of Books in Indianapolis - did the job marvelously. It is a book you simply must buy, and book you will really appreciate and I'd say you should probably buy a bunch.
Maybe you've heard the story of how Beth and I used to work in campus ministry out near Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, before Hearts & Minds, before Dallastown, before BookNotes. We learned about the world of thoughtful Christian literature as we used books to learn about the real relevance of Christian faith, how a Biblically-based view of all of life being redeemed could guide us into relating, as we sometimes said it, the Bible and life, connecting Sunday worship and Monday work, prayer and politics. A whole new world opened up as we read widely, talked about big ideas gleaned from good books. We read old books - C.S. Lewis insisted that we do - and new brand new stuff. We read novels (although not enough) and theology, spirituality and public affairs. Christ and culture, as they say.
Literally - was it this way for you? - reading those kinds of books changed my life. As I wrote in a column about the power of books a few years ago, page by page, authors invited us to see the world differently, to live differently. Sometimes lightening bolt type epiphanies came on a certain page or from a certain chapter; more often it just crept up on you, small changes in perspective, new imaginations, different desires, transformed habits as we learned to live into the new creations the Bible said we were.
I hope it is for you as it was for us: we read in community. We read with other friends, with book sellers and reviewers, within networks of friends at church, colleagues in ministry, idealistic kids almost as young as we were and older ones, teachers, mentors, pastors, parents.
We have been told that we here at the bookstore serve that purpose for some of you and what a honor it is. Reading BookNotes maybe puts you more knowingly in the great tradition, the great conversation. By being aware of and sometimes engaging with good authors and good books, and talking about them together, we increasingly broaden our horizons. Books, we often say, can enlarge our hearts and deepen our discipleship.
It is why nearly any good book on spiritual formation and almost every book on leadership reminds us to be readers.
One of the chapters that helped me really appreciate this notion that reading is a spiritual discipline and an act of faithful discipleship came in Richard Foster's now classic, nearly seminal contemporary work of ancient spirituality, The Celebration of Discipline where he explains in chapter 5 that reading carefully is a tool not unlike prayer and worship and meditation and service, gifts from God to help us grow.
I still treasure and recommend books like Discipleship of the Mind and Habits of Mind by James Sire or the lovely, compact A Mind for God by James Emery White - his stories of reading are so inspiring and I've re-read it several times. As a grand opening gift the day we opened 33 years ago we passed out the potent little book by John Stott called Your Mind Matters -- still in print, and still timely. When Eerdmans released in the late 1990s a collection of miscellaneous essays by Eugene Peterson called Subversive Spirituality, I nearly memorized certain stories about how reading novels was important to him, and his own advocacy for Christians reading broadly. His 2009 book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading is an extended meditation on slow, meditative reading, mostly about reading the Bible deeply, but is a must for any loyalists to the printed page.
It is a tad dense for some, but we love the brilliant Oxford University Press title The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by the splendid Alan Jacobs. For deeper thinkers, I sometimes tell about The Love of Learning and the Love of God by Jean LeClercq, a study of learning and reading within medieval monastic culture. Nurturing the heart and mind by being in a community of bookish discourse is nothing new; I sometimes joke (maybe by reminding listeners about the book reading regimen of Charles Wesley and his Methodists or the impact of books on the likes of world-changers like William Wilberforce) that Oprah didn't invent the idea of book clubs. Ha. In our bookstore we have a whole section of "books about books" and we gladly offer resources about the ups and downs of a bookish life.
If you are a pastor and you've heard me at any number of clergy events where I've given talks about books I have probably tried to press you into buying Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga. It is one of my all time favorite books about books, with the great title The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. Although it is preachers, firstly, anyone who teaches or is a public speaker will appreciate it, showing as it does how books can influence our moral imagination, our rhetoric and vocabulary and cadence and more. I have sometimes sold it paired with another all-time favorite, the truly wondrous, insightful, oddly powerful Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a writer I very greatly admire.
I am not the first and certainly not the most knowledgeable or eloquent to say that books matter and that the art of slow reading and even "caring for words" is of huge importance not only for personal health and maturity but for the culture at large. McEntyre makes the case rather allusively, with great charm. Smith brings his gifts of cultural analysis and helps us understand the times. Please not the subtitle on the new Chris Smith book -- the end-goal isn't just personal enrichment or reading for personal pleasure, but for human flourishing.
Anyone who has heard me in workshops on all this know I often draw on Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and Nicholas Carr's must-read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, both which bring a sober warning about what happens when we allow our fast paced e-culture of zip zip zip to erode our commitments to real reading, to reading a lot and reading well.
Our enthusiasm for learning and growing, for using books as tools for spiritual growth and public discipleship, for book clubs and book conversations and book budgets and church libraries are all under threat. We need reminded - often and urgently - that books matter and that our culture is not as friendly to reading well as it perhaps once was.
And we have found our prophet, we have found a voice, we've got the book that can help us consider and reconsider why all this matters.
I'm obviously talking about Mr. Smith and his brand new Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish published by IVP.
This new book by my friend Chris Smith is a wonder, and he gets it just about pitch perfect, bringing a passionate love of books, telling some tender tales of his own love of reading, explaining why it matters, how it has worked out in his life and his own church and its presence in their neighborhood. (For what it is worth, unlike Chris, I was not particularly bitten by the book-loving bug as a youth. We went to the library often, but I wasn't as keen on reading as being outside playing with my pals.)
Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help... reminds us why books matter, and Smith uses some great devices, on-ramps to the conversation, so to speak, that will thrill the true book lover, and will convince those who are less passionate about their love of reading. He even helps us understand a bit about the obstacles facing us these days, although that isn't his main focus. He knows it isn't easy, but he knows what is at stake. Unlike Postman and Carr, say, he doesn't mostly moan about how little people read these days or how much time we spend on the internet; Chris spends a lot of time on the internet. He mostly invites us into a better story. Pun intended.
READ FOR THE KINGDOM
For instance, unlike nearly any other book about Christian learning and reading, Smith invites us to read with and for our neighbors. That is, this is decidedly a missional book; "read for the Kingdom" I used to exclaim at youth conferences or events like Jubilee and Smith and his gang really do so. Smith takes us beyond sloganeering and walks us through the complex matter of being attentive to our locale, our communities, our world, and explains how books help us do that. (The chapter called "Hope for Our Interconnected Creation" is just splendid!) The subtitle about public flourishing is no mere add on, but is at the heart of Smith's project. He tells us about his own urban congregation and how reading and talking and learning together as a faith community within their own neighborhood has helped them bear witness to God's work in their city, among their friends. (Some of this includes literacy classes, God bless 'em.) Reading rightly can truly be an act of mission, and this book explains that better than anything I've ever seen. Bar none, this book helps us appreciate a missional approach to books.
I hate to sound prideful by even bringing it up, but for those who wonder, I am positive, quite literally, that I could not have said it better myself. Smith has a gift, and he's done so much as a missional reader, a church leader, an applied theologian, a down-in-the-trenches practitioner, albeit always with a few books under his arm. My hat is off to him and his family and his community. Yours should be too!
In fact, this marvelously-written book is all about being attentive. Novels and poets and any serious work of literature when carefully engaged slows us down and helps us attend to the details and nuances of the writing, and almost unknowingly schools us in paying attention, of thinking in terms of story, of plots and nuances, of seeing our own role as agents within a story. Smith explains the quiet impact of books on our "social imaginary" and how good readers become more humanly engaged in the world around them. Maybe they even gather some skills at self-awareness, seeing how they see, perhaps. Books can do that.
SLOW CHURCH, SLOW READING IN A HURRIED AGE
Do you recall our BookNotes review of Smith's co-authored first IVP release, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus? It has an incisive social critique, looking at the dangers of doing church within a superficial culture that erodes quality for the sake of quantity and speed and efficiency. Think of the dangers of fast food, and, as an alternative, the famous slow food movement with its values of authentic and local ingredients, care, community, scale. In a way, that book was Smith and Pattison's cry against the McDonaldization of the church.
In some significant ways, Reading for the Common Good is a sequel, a how-to, next-steps kind of book. Do you want to "cultivate community in the patient ways of Jesus" that counteracts the toxic influences of fast-paced, hot-wired, disembodied lifestyles? Read. Read slowly. Read together. Read with a view of how what you are reading impacts your world. Read about your world. I think that Chris and John wouldn't have written Slow Church, or at least it wouldn't have had such wise depth, if they themselves weren't readers. (Did you know that they worked together several years ago with a third guy to release a book called Besides the Bible which included 100 book reviews of books most often suggested "besides the Bible, of course." I even had a chapter in there, a huge privilege to get to describe one key title. That book was one indication of Chris's gift of being a bibliographer and curator of book lists.) Reading is key to being alive and well in this crazy culture, and is a marker of church health. It can make a difference, as these gents showed. Books matter.
Think this is idealist? Don't believe me?
A SENSE OF PLACE
Smith told us a bit in Slow Church but he tells us even more in Reading for the Common Good about his Englewood neighborhood in the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and he explains how his church started a little bookstore, a book review journal, and how very small groups of folks grapple with books together. He obviously loves the decent, lovely writing of "sense of place" authors like Scott Russell Sanders (who has a blurb on the back), Wendell Berry, Norman Wirzba, and Parker Palmer; he is very fluent in the new urbanism conversation and his bibliography in the back offers all kinds of great suggestions for those wanting to deepen their own awareness of this strain of nonfiction literature. From fun fiction (including science fiction) and poetry to astute social analysis and cultural studies, Smith guides us through books that can help us see and care anew. His breadth of reading and depth of understanding amazes me.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, explaining that Reading... is truly about civic flourishing, guiding us towards books that might help us understand even the politics and economics of our neighborhoods and towns; I'm getting ahead of myself when I say this truly about missional reading. It is the moral center and passionate vision of the book (notice the map on the cover) but it isn't where Smith begins.
BEING THE CHURCH
Quite properly, Smith reminds us that before we read for the Kingdom, read with our neighbors, read about our communities, enjoy books that will broaden our understanding of our place in God's world and God's story of redemption, before all that we must be the church. His Anabaptistism gives him particular theological resources to strengthen his analysis of the local church as alternative community, but all of us should agree that the local church needs strengthened, that we cannot give ourselves to innovative, social entrepreneurship within our region if our own worshiping and spiritual formation practices are thin or ill-conceived. (This, by the way, is a great strength of the other Smith's You Are What You Love, which ends up "every square inch" comprehensive in scope - we serve Christ as Lord in all of life - but is mostly about renewing the worship practices of the local congregation, realizing that good liturgy is transforming in ways that form us for service in the world.) For both Smith's the local congregation is of supreme importance.
Chris Smith's Reading for the Common Good starts with a must-read, tremendous and energetic introduction called "The Local Church as Learning Organization" drawing on the insights of Peter Senge. It is sound and insightful in how it describes the context and foibles of local faith communities, how to understand the culture of an organization. It is thrilling to hear how his own church sees itself as based upon good relationships, relationships forged around engagement with Scripture. The act of reading - primarily the Bible! - forms us in new kinds of relationships and gives us practice in the art of conversation (including the skills of civil discussion, dialogue, and disagreement.) Books help in significant ways, and these few pages are worth the price of the book.
Wonderfully, in that introduction, Smith lists a few ways books help us learn, Christianly, even. He uses a line from Parker Palmer's To Know as We Are Known (that has been influential for other writers, perhaps most notably for many of us, our friend Steve Garber, seen in his mature and thoughtful Fabric of Faithfulness.) Smith says,
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."
KNOWING WHAT TO DO
I love that he reminds us how books can help give shape and direction to our impulse to get involved, the "just do something" reflex. Yes, we need to care about the issues of the day, and the needs of our community, and, as he notes, "to ignore this reflex is to be hardhearted." But, "we must be attentive not only to what is to be done but also to how and why the work gets done."
That is, to be church, and to be faithfully missional, means knowing what the heck we are to do once we show up. Books - and the very habits of heart that reading and discussing them nurtures - help us discern, help us learn to discern. In a way, Smith is saying that reading helps us become motivated to action, but only the wide and studious reader will have deep wisdom to know what to do and how to do it. Ahh, yes, books become conduits of wisdom.
Anyway, this opening chapter is worth its weight in gold, and I hope you read it, talk about it, wonder with your own church family how you can be more intentional about learning, about the ethos within your community, as learners, as readers. Is your congregation and your circle of friends interested in books and reading?
The upbeat foreword by Scot McKnight nearly made me cry as he told of being at a party with church members, and they chatted with enthusiasm about the books they were reading. In what order should we read Marilyn Robinson's three related novels? What do you make of the differences in the faith/science conversation between authors such as Francis Collins and Michael Behe? How can our congregations embody Godly unity within diversity if we all read the same thing? What if we don't read much at all, or have little common vocabulary about what books are important?
Our unity at Church of the Redeemer is of the Spirit and in Christ through the Father's deep grace, but at work in that unity is a fellowship of shared ideas and beliefs and associations and joys and images and metaphors because we read similar books and talk about them with one another.
I do not have this kind of experience in my life, and certainly not in my own fairly large church. Do you? Do you hunger for that, long for that, wish for conversation partners and shared assumptions about faith and the Bible, nurtured in part because of shared familiarity with the same sort of authors, the same formative influences? If so, Chris Smith's Reading for the Common Good is for you.
READING AND CONGREGATIONAL IDENTITY
It starts, as I've noted, with the local church understood as a learning community. There is an amazing chapter called "Reading and Our Congregational Identity" where Smith explores this more deeply, with wonderful insights. In it, he uses a bit of a case study, drawing significantly on a book called Reading in Community where theology profs Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones explore the process of reading a Bible passage (and allowing the text to read us, as it is sometimes said.)
After this rigorous study of how we engage the Biblical text, Chris uses the insights of Fowl and Jones to guide us to a process of reading other books, also in community, for the sake of the world.
He reminds us,
Once again, contemporary poetry and fiction can she needed light on the times in which we live, often helping us to see connections in ways that narrow, siloed genres of nonfiction - politics, economics, and the like - cannot.
I should emphasis that we need to be ever attentive to why we are reading and not just what we are reading. Our end it not to make a successful life for ourselves and our family or to navigate the turbulent waters of our times successfully. Rather, our end is to understand our times in order that our church communities might be able to live faithfully in them.
Reading is essential for the work of understanding our identity as churches that are seeking to embody Christ in our places. And our identity is interwoven with our vocation, and reading likewise is essential for discerning and maturing in our vocation...
DISCERNING OUR CALL
Which is exactly the topic of his next good chapter, "Discerning Our Call." It offers new insight (and believe me, I've read a number of books on this topic-- calling, vocation, work.) He again suggests we orchestrate much of this process of reading and discerning in the local congregation and delightfully cites authors as diverse as Dorothy Day and James K.A. Smith, quoting from Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak to Thomas Merton's classic No Man Is An Island. I have written before about using books to help young adults think faithfully about their own vocations (have I mentioned Serious Dreams? Ha.) More could be said, but Smith's chapter here is right on. It will be profitable, maybe provocative, for you.
If you want to be renewed in your own intellectual journey, need a reminder of the joys of learning and the value of reading, this new book should certainly be on the top of your list. What a wonderful, delightful, stimulating read this is, reminding us that books can change lives, and that reading together can change communities. Aren't you just thrilled to be reminded of that, to have a book not only to convince you, but that you can share with others. I think some of you will want to be evangelists of the book, sharing this one, to help others renew their own commitments to reading. As I've noted, his commitment to localism and a sense of his own place, has informed his reading so this is - if I may inelegantly use the phrase, "pay off." The ripple effect is going to be seen, I just know it.
Walter Brueggemann weighs in on the book, saying, nicely, that it is "a fresh, rich and quite unfamiliar proposal concerning human renewal and church regeneration." That someone who gets around as much as Walt (and who reads as much, fiction, social science, Biblical studies, history) it is fascinating that he suggests this proposal is not only "fresh" but "quite unfamiliar." Wow. Is he right? I don't know any book quite like this, come to think of it.
Maybe some of us have been saying this for years, but, yet, in Smith's hands, this invitation and his almost programmatic agenda does, indeed, seem new. Listen to the uber-creative Ken Wystma (founder of The Justice Conference) when he states that Reading for the Common Good
...is a paradigm-altering book and one that is sure to enrich and inspire as we seek to find meaningful ways to think about and engage our communities, cities, and the world.
Karen Swallow Prior (who wrote a tremendous memoir-by-way-of-book-reviews called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me) assures us that Reading for the Common Good will motivate "anyone who cares one whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church." Let us pray that it is so. Won't you please order some today? I'm serious!
I simply cannot say enough about this fresh take on an old practice: reading widely and well so that we might be equipped to be better people, better Christians, within better churches, for the sake of the world. It is the best case I've ever seen for why we need to promote books in our congregations, why books are important for robust and lively faith lived out in the culture, locally and down to earth.
Reading for... will surely appeal to serious book lovers but also those who maybe are more practically-minded, wanting just to get on with things. It will be of use to those who want to be thoughtful about forging a faithful sort of life in the world, and will be inspiring to those who aren't that worried about such things, but just love reading novels and short stories. From heady theology, Bible study, and cultural philosophy (yes, he cites Charles Taylor) to crazy fiction and memoir, kids books and fantasy, Chris Smith reads really widely and he has stories of how he and his comrades have together been shaped by talking about these books. For the most astute reader to those still young in learning how and what to read this book is a winner. It brings together "two interwoven threads: learning and action."
It helps us read for the Kingdom.
BECOMING A READING CONGREGATION
And, it ends where it begins, in the local congregation. In a lovely chapter called "Becoming a Reading Congregation" he takes on the questions of how to make this happen within your own church. He talks about Godly Play as one method of Christian education (do you know Jerome Berryman's Montessori-influenced work, inviting children to slow, meditative engagement with Bible stories?) He talks about ways we read throughout our shared lives, he advises on how to curate book lists and how to more effectively promote reading (even slow reading in our "accelerated age.") His Slow Church is part of the background here, but his book-lovin' ways and his wide familiarity with authors of note on display here is just wonderful to see. And so, so valuable. I hope you agree.
ONE TOUCHY CRITICISM
(One criticism here, which I have to get off my chest. Chris and I have talked about this, and I would rail with greater might about it if I didn't love the book and the author so much: there is a positive passing reference to Amazon, which I find reprehensible since they are corporate bullies, are under investigation for anti-trust violations and tax fraud, are well known for abusing their workers, remain one of the larger porno dealers in the land, and by selling below cost with little regard for the common good they have damaged our civil society, the health of our mainstreets, and, some think, our book buying habits in ways that a localist like Smith surely knows. To order under-priced books from them is flatly an act of huge compromise with a dysfunctional and unstewardly economy. For a book about economic faithfulness learned by reading good books curated by a trusted community to not distance itself from their amoral algorithms and well-documented injustices is ironic, if not shocking. Did not the good editors at his publisher even note this? I suspect not, which is terribly disappointing. Further, that there is very little discussion about finding and supporting good bookstores as partners in forming a reading culture in our families and churches and neighborhood organizations is unfortunate.)
Despite this oddity, and with my self-righteous opposition duly noted, Reading for the Common Good: How Books -- not bought from Amazon, I'll add -- Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish will be, if bought and read and discussed and shared, the most important missional church book in years. It is visionary and practical, fun and serious, attentive to our virtue and formation as well as our social imagination and worldview. Smith helps us realize how books can help us in the journey inward and the journey outward, so to speak. Smith himself is obviously interested in beauty and justice, in delights and hard service. It surely is one of the best books that is most dear to me, one of the most interesting and valuable that I've read in my entire life.
Let me say that again, more simply: Reading for the Common Good is one of the best books I've ever read.
So I'm pulling out the stops here, charging you with all the muster I can, to buy this book. I have tons of other books to tell you about yet this year, but I'm saying it now: if you only buy one more book this year, let it be this one.
BUY TWO GET ANOTHER ONE FREE
Or, better: take us up on our buy two get one free offer. Three's a perfect number to make stuff happen (says Andy Crouch at the end of Culture Making as he's prompting us to take fresh steps to "recover our creative calling" by getting busy thinking and doing something new.) Buy a couple of these and give 'em away. Sow seeds that will help us be better readers, more fluent in the best books for missional living. For the glory and reputation of God who cares so much about the life of the world, read Reading for the Common Good and share it widely.
BOOKS AND THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF CONVERSATION
A closing reminder: although I tend mostly to review non fiction books at BookNotes, and Chris is himself a very well-read reviewer of good non-fiction works - and what an education we get just by paying attention to the books he cites here. He is a fan and connoisseur of good novels. In a great chapter where he draws on Charles Taylor explaining what "social imaginaries" are and how these worldviewish assumptions work, he draws nicely on Madeline L'Engle, a little known novel called Flatland, and then, in a splendid few pages, explores "Reading and the Social Imagination." His quick name-dropping foray into novels from across the centuries and across the world is, again, nearly worth the price of the book, as he tells us how this or that author can help us. But where does it all lead, these references to everything from Oliver Twist and Uncle Toms Cabin to the Hunger Games trilogy, from Shusaku Endo's Silence and Geraldine Brooks Caleb's Crossing to the poetry of John O'Donohue and Robert Frost?
That chapter ends with a section called "The Transformative Power of Conversation." That is an important phrase, and it carries a deeply help assumption for Smith and his Englewood Christian Church. Reading good books will enhance your own commitments to the conversational arts. Readers, it ends up, don't just become leaders. They become listeners. They become more empathetic. They become better people. And maybe there is a key to changing the world, to Christ-honoring missional living.
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