From the new book Reading for the Common Good
By C. Christopher Smith
Reading is essential to the health and flourishing of our churches. However, reading and conversation must go hand in hand.
Reading that is most beneficial is reading that takes its cues from and is shared and discussed—in some way or another—with the local church body. Just as a body works together—seeing, feeling, listening—to understand its identity, so our churches are faced with the task of working together to understand our identity.
Reading is a valuable tool in this process of discerning our identity, but only to the extent that it is shared and discussed for the benefit of the whole body.
Who and Why Are We?
Scripture, of course, is the primary story through which we come to understand who we are. However, reading an English translation of the Bible can present numerous challenges. The first challenge involves translation. What did the biblical texts mean in the languages in which they were originally written? We will need some people in our churches who have familiarity with Greek and Hebrew and can help us navigate the challenges of translation.
If we are to be the body of Christ, then we must explore vital questions about who Christ is. Reading works in biblical studies and theology—commentaries, studies of first-century culture, works of theology and church history—can shed some light on these questions, helping us understand what the biblical text meant in the language and culture in which it was written and how Scripture has been interpreted in other times and places.
Understanding the scriptural story is essential to deepening our sense of identity as a local church body. All members of our body should have at least a basic understanding of biblical studies and theology and will occasionally read books or parts of books that continue to foster a deeper understanding. Some members, of course, will go much deeper than that and will guide the congregation toward deeper understanding of who Scripture calls us to be and of the ends toward which creation is moving.
Although works in biblical studies and theology are important tools in discerning our identity, they are not the only type of reading that will help us wrestle with the questions of who we are and why we are. Other nonfiction works will shed light on the human experience and in this way also play a role in helping us understand who we are.
• Philosophy asks a lot of difficult and probing questions about human experience. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue explores the significance of virtues, tradition, and community, for instance; Michel Foucault’s work explores the dynamics of power in the contemporary world.
• History, sociology, and cultural studies can help us to understand better how our cultures have taken the form they have and can help us name the types of brokenness in and around us. The work of social critics like Neil Postman, who is best known for his critiques of technology and media culture, and Bill McKibben, best known for his critiques of ecological devastation, are especially important for us as followers of Christ who desire to embody an alternative to mainstream culture.
• Works in psychology, like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and, more recently, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, can also give us insights into what it means to be human.
Well-written fiction can do many of the same things as nonfiction, probing the human experience, but its use of story can grab our attention and challenge us to examine our condition in ways that nonfiction often fails to do. Poetry can provide new language or images that lend powerful insight into the human experience.
When and Where Are We?
We need to consider not only questions of who we are and why we are. We also must wrestle with the questions of when and where we are. The challenge of understanding when we are, in particular, involves discerning what it means to live in this particular age and how the present day is interrelated with previous ages.
Reading history, of course, will be essential to understanding the times in which we live, but news and commentary will be equally important. Reading politics and economics also will help us understand our times.
Once again, contemporary poetry and fiction can shed 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 emphasize that we need to be ever attentive to why we are reading and not just what we are reading. Our end is 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.
Adapted from Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith. Copyright ©2016 by C. Christopher Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.
C. Christopher Smith is a member of Englewood Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books.