One of the defining characteristics of the evangelical tradition is the authority we find in Scripture and the value we place on reading it. Although we may vary widely in our convictions about the role of Scripture in God’s reconciling work in creation and about how the Bible should be read and interpreted in the church, we take Scripture seriously.
We have inherited the studious tradition of early and medieval Christians—and the long tradition of Judaism that goes back even further. Our ancestors in the faith were bookish people, for whom reading, writing, and studying were essential practices of Christian discipleship. The medieval church, for instance, was instrumental in the creation of universities. As Thomas Cahill recounts in his bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization, the work of medieval Irish missionaries in preserving libraries, teaching literacy, and painstakingly copying texts by hand may have preserved key elements of Western culture.
But over the last century or two, a number of sociopolitical developments have weakened our commitment to taking Scripture seriously. With the rise of the technological society—defined by increasing reliance on labor-saving devices—we are becoming averse to the slow and intensive work of studying God’s Word. With the dissolution of neighborhoods and other social groups, as Robert Putnam documented in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, we are losing the capacity to wrestle together with Scripture in our local churches. Evangelicals today also face a dire temptation to use Scripture as a tool to reinforce our political ideology, rather than a means to discern what faithfulness to Jesus looks like in the life of our local communities and beyond.
Working as the editor of The Englewood Review of Books for almost a decade now, I have had the opportunity to reflect on our habits of reading Scripture and a wide range of other works that help us understand, interpret, and embody Scripture. Out of these reflections, I have envisioned a way of reading for the common good that orients us away from the unhealthy tendencies described above and toward the rich tradition of faithful reading that we have inherited.
Reading with One Another
In the classic book Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues described the challenges that individualism creates in modern society. The author’s note that “there are at every level of American life … temptations and pressures to disengage from the larger society.” In such a culture, reading for the common good is rooted in the conviction that reading is primarily a social practice.
As followers of Jesus, the most important reading we do is interpreting Scripture together as local church communities. Even when we read personally, we read best when mindful of our vocation and identity as a part of a particular community of God’s people. Theologians Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones, in their important book Reading in Communion, have explored the social nature of reading in our churches. Reading in communion, as Fowl and Jones describe it, is more than merely reading together. Rather, it is reading as a community that is located within a particular tradition and in a particular place. We read in communion as we read together with an eye toward these particularities and the way they shape our common life.
Reading in communion also provides a layer of accountability, calling into question individual convictions and practices of individuals that might sidetrack our shared efforts to follow Jesus. “Left unchallenged,” Fowl and Jones observe, “we will fail to recognize the corrupting power of these predispositions, ideologies, and theological presumptions. The interrogative power of Scripture challenges us to be constantly reforming the preconceptions we inevitably bring to interpretation.”