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.