Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith

“In the age of fast food and fast culture, we are often inclined to speed along with the flow of traffic on the highway leading to the death and destruction of creation. Will we, through practices of reading and conversation, attempt to exit from this highway? Will we begin to crawl, perhaps even to take baby steps, along the path that leads to life and flourishing?” (Page 143)

This book is internally-conflicting for me. Perhaps that’s the mark of a really good book, or perhaps that’s the mark of a book that is almost there. Or perhaps that’s the mark of something deficient with me. I’m not sure, so I apologize in advance for any confusing discourse hereafter.

I approached the book with two primary questions:
·        How do I get my church to be a reading church?
·        In what ways does reading specifically influence & better the community?
The first was only generally answered, but the second accurately predicted the thesis and received a fuller answer—though not quite to the extent for which I was hoping or the thesis led me to believe.

Book thesis:

“In this book, we will view the local church as a sort of learning organization, in which both learning and action lie at the heart of its identity. We will explore the practice of reading—perhaps the most important component of learning in the twenty-first century—and consider how we can read together in ways that drive us deeper into action” (Page12).

It will helpful to note a few other details more or less stated in the introductory pages:

Assumption: The church’s primary task is ‘reconciling the world’ (as in Colossians 1:20) and the flourishing of society.

Caveat: Church is a ‘learning organization’ [as defined by Peter Senge: “At the heart of the learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world…. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.”]

Audience: Christians…?

So… in what ways does fulfill or fail his thesis? Well if we accept his definition of the church  primarily defined in terms of a ‘learning organization,’ albeit with a re-creational/reconciliatory nuance supported from Colossians 1:20  rather than a full theological/biblical ecclesiology, then yes, the thesis is supported. He frequently shows the myriad of strings which tie back to reading: from ecology to politics, from grocery shopping to increased education. And yet, I often found myself reading the things that he is saying, getting caught up in the beautiful vision his words convey, only to be reminded that his thesis is 'reading' and that his previous ideas, statements, imaginations, etc. don't quite so easily tie to his thesis. Sure, reading can be tied to all things, but I was looking for immediacy, not abstraction. As it is the book weighs more heavily upon the ‘learning’ side and less on the ‘action.’ Not only the abstract v. immediate, but in the ideological v. practical.

Smith defines four implications for his philosophy on reading & church-community life.

Reading plays a role in “following Jesus in the way of compassion [that is] entering into the pains and struggles of our churches, our families and our neighborhoods” by…
·        Forming us into the compassionate and faithful people of God, deeply engaged with our church, our neighborhood and the world
·        Calling us to understand who God is and how God is at work in the world (particularly by reading Scripture)
·        Guiding us into a deeper understanding of out broken world and teaching us to imagine how such brokenness might begin to be undone
·        Discerning and developing our vocation—that is, how each of us might make our unique gifts available for God’s healing and restoring work in the world
(Page 14)

I found that through the book, the following five verb phrases better encapsulate the book’s argumentative thrust:

Reading can help with the flourishing of our communities by…
… revealing the interconnectedness of things & connecting us further
… showing us the perspectives of other people
… informing us of knowledge and practical how-tos
… increasing education levels, helping us think & evaluate
… guide us into a better sense of identity & vocation

These five reappear repeatedly throughout the book. In fact, whenever it came to a specific topic or discipline, I would hope to discover a new, immediate implication for reading only to discover a restatement of one of these five statements. If it was an aside on fiction, however, it would always state rather similarly: ‘fiction can often do this even better! Fiction shows us the perspectives of others!’ –my paraphrase, of course. Further, I discovered that Smith’s apparent implication #2 is relatively limited in both scope and application—I mean to say that his view of God’s work is primarily Colossians 1:20, and he hardly utilizes this method for influencing the content of his chapters with the notable exception of chapter 3 “Reading and Our Congregational Identity” which primarily reinforces the overarching preunderstanding of the church that we’ve mentioned before a ‘learning organization’ with a view to reconciling the world. Which brings us to my two primary recommendations for improvement.

1.      A more biblically-saturated,  gospel-influenced, theologically-defensible foundation; this book utilizes Scripture, has a view to the reconciliation of the world, and is sound in its argumentation, but somebody who doesn’t subscribe to the Christian faith could just as easily read this book with little difference of significance. Because it is so ‘public-square’ focused, readers may run the risk of devolving into a ‘social gospel’—the only Jesus glimpsed in these pages is truncated: reduced to a compassionate social guru and amicable friend of the trees. ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘flourishing’ areas so a-theologically defined that with whatever presumptions the reader approaches the book will remain essentially unchallenged. And while everything Smith argues ‘makes logical sense’; there is hardly any reason for this to be a particularly ‘Christian’ book. As case in point, read his final exhortation “Reading, reflecting, conversing, learning, working, binding together: these are the ways in which our communities—church, neighborhood and world—begin to mature and flourish. This interconnected life is the joyous and meaning-rich end for which were created. This is humanity fully alive!” (Page 143)… but is that the end? Is that humanity fully alive? What about the gospel, what about repentance and belief? Perhaps we really do need a ‘common grace’ book on social flourishing; but again, I would fear that Christians reading this book and then jumping into all the other recommended avenues for flourishing might forget Christ along the way; would lost sight of the suffering servant who is enthroned as king, deserving of all honor and glory, and soon returning to judge the living and the dead.

2.      The ideal Smith posits is exactly that: an ideal—a utopia. And while he uses his own church & community as an example, I question whether he’s been entirely honest: every ‘struggle’ has been on account of a third-party who ends up defeated. In other words: does Englewood (Smith’s church) have any difficulty in maintaining this vision, in inculcating these behaviors? Are there people who have left over this vision? How long did it take for this to become the church default? Has there ever been a bad book recommendation that spread through the congregation? Or is everything really as perfect as Smith says it is? On the one hand, that would be incredible! And amazing. On the other… it makes me doubt whether my church (or any church I’ve ever been part of) is made of the same moxy…. Utopia is far from where my congregation is. It’s hard enough to get people to read their Bibles. I suppose what I’m looking for is a FAQ, or a “When things don’t go like they’re supposed to” section.

As a postscript to this ‘honesty’ section, I might add that in one significant moment in the book, Smith brushes past an entire theological controversy without remorse. He paints the gender-authority debate as something that no real, thinking person would ever see as a viable discussion—it’s already been solved, case-closed. For someone who over and again emphasizes the value of seeing other perspectives, he dismisses the thoughtful work of many evangelical scholars out of hand. I’m certainly willing to consider that one or the other side is mistaken in their understanding of certain passages or in cultural affability, but I’m not willing to pretend that one side’s argument remains “long after the undergirding theories have lost legitimacy” (Page 36-37). That’s not an argument, that’s an unjustified a priori dismissal. It is unwise to use controversial issues as ‘obvious’ examples, better to just remove it.

I’ve been critical, but I don’t want to end the review sounding sour, having people believe I found this book entirely unprofitable. I didn’t: there were parts that were beneficial; most of it was encouraging, some of it was convicting; the annotated bibliography is worth the price of the book alone. But there were other benefits too. Personally, I’ve discovered three particular applications. I need to broaden my horizons. True, Smith reminds readers that not every church member should be the jack of all [reads], but I personally read enough that adding a new discipline into my schedule won’t diminish my overall ministry effectiveness; if anything it should improve it. Second, I need to consider attending my city council meetings, and be overall more involved in my neighborhood and city. Third, I need to consider interviewing my neighbors, perhaps beginning a neighborhood book detailing the history of individuals, maybe include and appendix of obituaries in the last 50 years. And fourth, I need to remember to slow down. Smith’s first chapter is dedicated to reading slowly. And I need to remember that even beyond reading slowly, change and worldview like the one Smith is espousing will take time. I was hoping for an end-of-the-month solution, but that’s not the way life works… God created our bodies to sleep 1/3 of the time, and to fill 90% of the other 2/3 will mundane things… I need to be more like Fangorn, or maybe even Galadriel fighting ‘the long defeat.’ (Though I suspect Smith’s eschatology sees not defeat but only victory.)

All that being said, I give this book 7/10 stars, reducing it 3/5 on such scales. It has good things to say, but it doesn’t say all the good things. Smith’s style is impeccable, and his word choice winsome and provocative—it’s clear that he has read countless books. And again the bibliography is incredibly valuable!

But for recommendations… who then?
My recommendations are too specific to know/state generally.

Maybe some pastors who need specific ideas to help the church become a reading church.

Maybe some people who don’t see the importance/benefit of reading, but are willing to give one book a shot. People who want to see the vast interconnectedness reading affords.

If, after reading this review, the book still interests you, this book might/might not be for you.

If, after reading this review, you don’t want to read the book because all your questions have been answered… this book is probably not for you.

If, after reading this review, you don’t want to read the book because you think it doesn’t pertain to you… this book is probably for you.

Thanks for reading, and may you go and read more… and may your community flourish because of it.

This review has been crosslisted on Amazon, NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.
I received an e-copy of this book from IVP through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Actually the Bible says..." and "You're on the wrong side of history"

This might come off as abrasive. And I admit, it's a bit harsh, but it's really quite simple. If you aren't a Christian, stop pretending to know the Bible better than Christians. If you can agree with me on that simple point, you don't need to read the rest, and you don't need to be offended.

Does culture think they know the Bible better than those who have dedicated their life to reading, interpreting, loving, memorizing, submitting to it?

Just say you disagree with the Bible, don't say Christians are interpreting their only sacred text incorrectly.

I don't make a habit of telling Buddhists how to interpret Buddhist texts, nor Hindu Hindi, nor Muslims Islamic, nor Communists Communist because 1.) I don't have the background to know how to interpret them within that ideology, 2.) I don't believe I'm subject to those texts. If you don't believe the Bible is authoritative over you... despite your political, cultural, theological, emotional, philosophical tendencies then admit it; don't assume your current persuasions must be the only interpretation of a book you've never read, a book thousands of Christians throughout history have dedicated their life to understanding, a book that has already started cultural revolutions (because it disagreed with the culture of those times). If you don't believe the Bible can tell you when your wrong; when your culture is wrong; when your thoughts are wrong; when your feelings are wrong... then you clearly don't hold the Bible in enough esteem for it to even matter what it does say. And if it doesn't matter what it does say, then stop pretending to be an expert in it. And stop wasting your time trying to convince Christians of what it actually says.

You claim that the Bible was used to support slavery, but has it ever occurred to you that the people who used the Bible to support slavery were the very people in your position: never having read the Bible, but trying to convince others that this is what it actually says. How much more dangerous is a Bible in the hands of those who don't care what it says--who only want to advance their social perspective--than it is in the ones who stake not only their current life upon it, but their eternal destiny. You may not care what it says, but I believe that if I've misunderstood this Bible in several key areas then I'm going to remain separated from the source of all goodness.

Historically speaking, some Christians have misinterpreted the Bible; historically speaking, some Christians have used it to perpetuate wrongs. But historically speaking, it's other Christians who have corrected them; historically speaking, it's other Christians who have condemned the same evil practices. The English slave trade? Christians. American slavery? Christians. Caste systems? Christians. Ethnocentricity? Christians. Colonialism? Christians. Sure, some Christians were wrong, and propagated the wrongs, but where did Wilberforce gain his understanding of human dignity? It surely wasn't the culture around him. Where did Tubman receive her courage and conviction for the lives of the least in society? It surely wasn't the culture around her. And while Christians can't claim to have single-handedly begun every  "right-side-of-history-social-revolution" movement, you can't claim that Christians have been the ones holding progress back.

"The Right Side of History?" Who's 'Right Side'? I assure you the Nazi regime saw themselves as the 'Right Side.' Vietnam was seen as the 'right side' by some. The Hippies and the Sexual Revolution saw themselves as the 'Right Side.' Trump sees himself as the 'Right Side,' and Clinton herself... which one is right? Or maybe there isn't always a 'right side to history.' The fact of the matter is you cannot predict the "The Right Side of History"... because it is History--by definition it must be past, and using it in a present-future tense is an illogical argument founded upon personal emotionalism. And even when it's become history... how then do you evaluate whether or not it was right? Because you still exist? Or because you have some way to evaluate the status of life in this history? And by what to you evaluate it? By your feelings? By 'just knowing' because 'it's obvious'? Well, it's been obvious to everyone who 'just knows' throughout history that you could actually be wrong about the things that matter most, and your personal evaluation does not rule the universe.

But Christians believe there is a God who does. And they believe he has given his word in a book called the Bible. And they believe that while they could be wrong, they certainly don't want to be on the wrong side of this God.

So what if you burn us, so what if you kill us? So what if you imprison us and wrong us? I'd rather be on the wrong side of history as long as I'm on the right side of this eternal & all powerful God.

But stop confusing yourself with the infallible rule of a Scripture you don't believe. That's just courteous.

I'm willing to debate with you; I'm willing to argue logic, consequences, cause & effect; societal norms and ethical 'ought to's, but please--oh please--stop using this history phrase; you aren't persuading, you're assuming; you aren't arguing and debating, you're catch phrase dismissing a priori, and that gets us nowhere. If you're truly interested in the truth, not just your ideological agenda, then stop with the name calling, cliche-inducing, meme-creating one shot 'burn' statements and start thinking, talking, and most importantly listening instead. Because otherwise you become like the 'bigots' you so vehemently dismiss. Are we wrong because we have a different standard of judgment? Maybe, but how can you ever know unless you take the time to hear us out?

Looking forward to a humble dialogue on common ground,

Cordially yours,

EJ Boston

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dear Ruben -or- Acknowledgements 2

Dear Ruben,

It’s been way too long since I’ve written you about some of the people who’ve influenced my life, but that ends today. Though to my shame the cause for my return is the death of a beloved mentor. Perhaps you’ll believe me when I say that this was nearly the acknowledgement I wrote first; but I suppose in the providence of God, I can see a little more clearly now that he’s gone from this earth… for the time being.

His name is Paul, and he was a great deal older than me. With a thick grey mustache and wrinkled face, he had eyes full of bright light. He had known Jesus, and loved him dearly.
I met him while in high school. I had only recently started attending church of my own volition, and decided to join the Sunday school class for youth. That first meeting would set a trajectory for the rest of my life. I remember he pulled out a small book and called it the “Shorter Catechism.” I thought to myself, “Aren’t we supposed to read the Bible?” in addition to “I thought somebody else [younger, cooler] was going to be teaching us.” He read question and answer #2: “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” My 16 year old self sat there in that cold classroom thinking, “What is this? A book of questions, but they give you the answers… what good is that?”; “What does ‘chief end’ mean?”; “What does glorify mean?”; and “Enjoy God? I’ve never heard that before… who enjoys God? This sounds like some [sentimentalism].”

But there, and then, through this man, a whole new world of faith opened up before me. Little did I know he had been reading from the Westminster Catechism, a centuries-old document that had guided the faith of Christians across the world. Little did I know that this man was the chairman of our church’s elder board, or that he and several others would have to leave the church because of certain theological persuasions. Little did I know, that I would purchase the same catechism and keep it always in easy access for use as my own devotional. Little did I know that this small question and answer would help me clarify my own life purpose through high school, college, ministry and marriage. Little did I know I would end up quoting these words countless times to youth ministry I oversaw, and college ministry I worked alongside… fondly remembering and too often forgetting the faith and diligence of this man who took and old text and taught some ignorant and haughty 16 year olds.

I remember that he continued on for some time, monologuing on the glory of God and the enjoyment of his glory. I don’t know how long. In my recollection it was maybe five minutes, but those Sunday school sessions lasted an hour, and although I remember him transitioning to another question, I also halfway recall having to stop not far into its explanation. Maybe he did spend 50 minutes explaining Q/A #1. Oh, how I wish I could return to those minutes and hear them all over again!

I don’t think it was a conscious shift of mind, but that doesn’t make it any less certain. In the weeks and months to come… without ever realizing why, I began to hope for Paul to be teaching Sunday school. I remember being disappointed when he didn’t. I remember being sad when I stopped seeing him around, but I never knew why he had stopped showing up. I remember only a few occasions over the next few years when I actually had conversations with him. In fact, who knows… I can only count 6 times I actually remember being with him for any significant time or conversation: that first time, one other Sunday school session, Starbucks once, another church’s Sunday school, my wedding, Starbucks twice. Surely it had to be more! And yet... maybe it wasn't. But if I were to weigh the significance he’s had in my life, you would be hard-pressed to find something heavier. I consider him a mentor, but I wonder: how did he consider me?

He’s died now. Cancer. And despite the number of times he was actually in the hospital; despite the number of times I determined: “I will go see him,” I never did. He had a loving family and some great grandkids; I’m under no illusion that he needed me, but I wish I could have spent a few more minutes hearing his wisdom. He was a prison guard most of his life; he retired a few years ago, and he’s been spending most of his time reading books and drinking coffee, teaching Sunday school or preaching; and visiting his grandkids up North. He’s a true example of the well-lived Christian life; the guy whose life is a ministry even while he’s not employed by the local church. I wish I loved Jesus as much as I could see that he did.

He’s experienced the sting of death now, but one day he’ll return alongside Christ. And Jesus will recreate the heavens and the earth. Then we’ll all be able to glorify God and enjoy him forever.