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.”
Having been so saturated in a culture of individualism, how might our churches take reading seriously as a shared, social practice? We might, for instance, look to the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina (although it survives today mostly as a private habit). This method invites us to not only read a passage of Scripture, but to pray the passage, to meditate upon it, and to contemplate its significance for the shared life of our church community and for the massive web of other communities in which our church is enmeshed.
For many churches today, preaching is the form of social reading that parallels lectio divina in the ancient monastery. Preaching, however, faces some stiff cultural challenges. First, amidst our consumer culture, there is a temptation to commodify the sermon, viewing it as little more than a choice religious morsel that we might ingest for the benefit of our own individual faith and life. Second, contemplating and interpreting what a particular passage might mean is left in the hands of one person, albeit one who has been entrusted by the congregation with this work. Even the most virtuous and gifted of preachers have their limitations and blind spots. “No particular community of believers can be sure of what a faithful interpretation of Scripture will entail in any specific situation,” Fowl and Jones note, “until it actually engages in the hard process of conversation, argument, discussion, prayer, and practice.”
In response to these challenges, some churches are beginning to make space for reading and interpreting scripture as a community. Some churches, like my own in urban Indianapolis, set aside time for members to respond to the sermon by asking clarifying questions or making constructive comments. Other churches take more radical approaches. Delta Community Christian Church in Lansing, Michigan, for instance, forgoes preaching altogether and incorporates a time of conversational Bible study into their weekly worship service. A facilitator gets the conversation rolling and keeps it on track. The church gathering ends with a meal, which, as one member observed, creates space for the conversation to continue informally.
Although our expressions of the social practice of reading might vary drastically in different contexts, reading for the health and flourishing of our churches invites us to engage our entire congregations in the vital work of reading, interpreting, and embodying Scripture.
Reading for One Another
Reading for the common good also requires learning to read in ways that draw us into deeper engagement with one another and with our neighbors. Our private reading habits of reading often focus on either entertaining or educating ourselves. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with either pursuit. But when they become the chief purpose for reading, we fall deeper into the hole of Western individualism, steering us further from our goal of deeper love for and connection with our church and our neighbors.
Reading, for the follower of Jesus, can never be merely an intellectual exercise. Although we will undoubtedly exercise our minds in the process, reading faithfully ultimately immerses us in an encounter with the living, transforming God. And God’s work of transformation happens not in some abstract sense, but in real, embodied relationships with the people who surround us: our families, our churches, our neighbors. Reading for the common good keeps us attentive to changing realities; it keeps us focused on the continual learning and discernment necessary to live faithfully in this particular time and place.
For instance, in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, and other recent tragedies of racial violence, some churches have started reading groups to help people wrestle with questions of racism, privilege, and racial violence. These groups read books like Drew Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me.
Silverton Friends Church, a rural Oregon church in the Evangelical Friends tradition, found recently that it neither knew how to talk gracefully about human sexuality, nor how to love and care well for its LGBTQ neighbors. Silverton gained some notoriety when it became the first American town to elect an openly transgender mayor; since this election, there has been increased visibility for the town’s LGBTQ community. Silverton Friends spent almost a year reading and discussing books by evangelical authors that offered a broad range of perspectives on faith and sexuality. In addition to having a congregational reading group, they also coordinated a parallel neighborhood reading group that included members of a number of different local churches. These reading groups studied books like Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation, Tim Otto’s Oriented to Faith, and Deb Hirsch’s Redeeming Sex. As a result of their reading and reflection, Silverton Friends began to better understand its LGBTQ neighbors and to engage more compassionately with them, including envisioning a community center that would be a safe space for LBGTQ teens.
Churches and neighborhoods are at the crossroads of all of life’s complexities: everything from environmental issues, to economics, politics, and health, to evolving theologies and ecclesiologies. As a result, reading for the common good requires reading a broad range of books in diverse genres. This doesn’t mean that every member has to read broadly—only that the collective range of what we read as a community should be expansive. In reading broadly and then following that reading into a wide array of work, we bear witness that God is reconciling all things through Christ, things on earth as well as things in heaven (Col. 1:20).
Reading works in theology, biblical studies, history, and archeology can help us better understand and interpret Scripture. Our calling, however, is not merely to interpret Scripture, but to embody Christ together in our particular place. Embodying Christ means not only understanding our identity through reading Scripture, but also learning where we are and when we are.
Reading local history, ecology, economics, and literature by local writers can help us explore the question of where we are. Reading works about the type of place in which we live—urban, suburban, exurban, small town, rural, etc.—also helps us pursue faithfulness in a particular setting.
Keeping up with the news is vital to understanding the when. Even more important is reading to understand the deeper issues behind current events. For that sort of knowledge, we can look to history and sociology, to poetry and literature.
A major part of reading diversely as a church community is encouraging our members to read about things that intersect with their passions. Evangelicals have had growing interest over the last decade in careful reflection on vocation, on how our daily work relates to our faith. In the spirit of such reflections, we should encourage our members to read things that help in doing their work faithfully and well.
Recent evangelical conversations on vocation often say little about the role of the local church community in discerning and cultivating vocations. One crucial role of the local church is orchestrating the gifts and skills of our members in a way that bears witness to the unity and all-encompassing reconciliation of Jesus. Key to this is finding ways to integrate the things that our members are reading and learning, developing habits of conversation that allow members to share pertinent thoughts from their work or from something they have recently read.
Twenty years ago at my own church, Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, we decided to replace our Sunday evening service with a gathering for intentional conversation about our life together. A primary focus has been reading and interpreting Scripture together, but the open format allows space for our members to introduce thoughts or stories from their own recent reading. Someone might share part of a story by Wendell Berry, or a thought from Scot McKnight, Christine Pohl, or Jane Jacobs. We are presently in the midst of a conversation about racism, and we recently read Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” (Read more about our habits of reading and conversation in this recent Local Church piece). Sustained practices of reading and talking together are helping us to understand one another, our neighbors, and this place in which we live and work. This in turn offers us a richer imagination for what it means to really love God, love one another, and love our neighbors in new and deeper ways.
My hope is that we would continue to read Scripture seriously, and that in reading for the common good—reading in communion as local church communities, reading toward deeper engagement, and reading diversely—we would bear witness to the many-sided wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) in our particular places. By reading, interpreting, and embodying Scripture together, we open channels for God’s grace to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2), and guide us ever deeper into the loving and compassionate way of Jesus.
C. Christopher Smith is author of Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (InterVarsity Press), and founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also co-author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (InterVarsity Press).