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Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith

T. David Gordon

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, by C. Christopher Smith, with foreword by Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016, 176 pages, $16.00, paper.

Reading in the West—both its growth and its decline—has itself occupied the attention of cultural observers for some time now. One could easily devote several months of reading time to reading about reading (and its history of cultural ebb and flow).[1] Much of that literature falls into the category of cultural analysis; and a small portion of it is somewhat self-consciously Christian: some medieval monasteries devoted themselves to copying manuscripts of Holy Scripture; Protestants are “people of the book” (to the point that Westminster Larger Catechism 156 says, “Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families”); and the Sunday School movement in America was largely a literacy movement.

What has not been done—at least not with the thoroughness and theological acumen that C. Christopher Smith has shown here—is to promote reading for thoroughly Christian purposes; as a practice conducive to love of God, his creation, our neighbors, and fellow believers. According to Smith, “Reading carefully and attentively is an essential part of a journey into knowledge that is rooted in love … Reading, as explained in this book, is essential to the health and flourishing of our churches” (19, 65). Smith is an avid reader, a published essayist and book author, and contributing editor of The Englewood Review of Books; and he has discovered that reading all sorts of literature—fiction, history, science, poetry, etc.—contributes profoundly to the exercise of dominion over God’s order, the journey of faithful discipleship, and the pursuit of the church’s mission. Smith makes a compelling (and stimulating) case for this basic thesis in chapters devoted to “Slow Reading in Accelerating Times,” “Shaping the Social Imagination,” “Reading and Our Congregational Identity,” “Discerning Our Call,” “Reading with Our Neighbors,” “Deepening our Roots in Our Neighborhoods,” “Hope for Our Interconnected Creation,” “Toward Faithful Engagement in Economics and Politics,” and “Becoming a Reading Congregation.”

In the process of contending for the many significant contributions reading makes, Smith also plausibly argues that reading has benefits in precisely those areas where its opponents have often attacked it. It contributes to our social bonds, to our empathy with and sympathy towards others as the solution to our narcissism and not its cause: “Reading in communion is one way to counteract the influence of individualism” (56). It stimulates us to informed action in the world and in our communities, rather than cultivating passivity and idle speculation: “Without learning, our action tends to be reaction and often is superficial” (16).

One of Smith’s interesting observations regards the importance of reading in community. He insists that much of the value of reading is determined by the conversations we have with others about what we and they are reading, often together; and his discussion of monastic communities centered around conversations about holy texts is as challenging as it is encouraging. He certainly agrees with the common cultural observation of the value of reading for self-understanding. But, going beyond what is ordinarily affirmed, he insists that reading should inform our self-understanding as members of both the general human community and our particular communities:

Our quest for identity cannot evade the questions: Where are we? What does it mean to exist within the human culture, the flora and fauna, the landscape, the topography, the climate of this place? When are we? What are the spirits and the powers that define our age? How have we arrived at this particular stage of our history? (62)

The latter chapters (and sprinkled throughout) contain interesting and attainable proposals for ways of naturally encouraging and increasing the role of reading (and conversing about reading) in Christian church-life. I could not do such proposals justice in a review of this length. Not surprisingly, in a book written by the editor of a book review, the volume is filled with interesting suggestions for further reading throughout. Many readers will join this reviewer in making a good number of additions to the “to-read” list as a result of reading this one.

Many of the apologies I have read through the years for the value of reading appear to have been written/preached to the choir; and, as a member of that choir, I have enjoyed them immensely. Smith’s apology is different; he patiently and compellingly presents the case—in distinctively Christian terms—that reading should be done “for the common good,” and in order to “help our churches and neighborhoods flourish,” as the title says. My only lament is that I have no conversation-partners at this point with whom I might discuss this interesting volume, but I am making plans to address that matter already. I would be delighted if, several years from now, I encountered a nice representation of church members and officers to discuss this volume with me. In the words of Robert Frost, “You come too.”

Endnote

[1] My recommendations would include Robert Alter, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age (1990); Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (2 vols. ed., 1979); Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why (2000); Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955); Dana Gioia et al., Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA, 2004); Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, (2007); Richard Abel, The Gutenberg Revolution: A History of Print Culture (2012); Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, (1994); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010); David Denby, Great Books (1996); Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (1985); Irving E. Fang, A History of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions (1997); Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977); Eric A. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (1986); Hunt, Arthur Hunt, The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (2003); Martyn Lyons, A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World (2010); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962); Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (1977); Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982); David R Olson, The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (1996).

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, April 2017.

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