Reading for the Common Good
By Donald McKenzie
January 28, 2017
Last week, Chris Smith, the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, celebrated his birthday. He offered review copies of his latest book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help our Churches and Neighborhoods to Flourish. Slow Church, Smith’s previous book written with Jon Pattison is one of my favourite books of the last few years. So, I eagerly accepted the offer to read through Smith’s latest offering.
Reading For the Common Good – Main Argument
The basic argument Smith puts forward in Reading for the Common Good, is that it is important that congregations read together. Over time, reading together will transform not only congregations, but also their neighbourhoods around them.
However, this isn’t simply reading for it’s own sake. It involves careful reading. Reading that takes time. It may often take rereading along with reading. As I went through the book I was reminded of a quote from A. W. Tozer. I can’t remember where it was I read it, but it was one of his driver’s who told the story.
The quote was something like this. “It’s more important to be well read, than widely read.” Tozer was referring in part to a habit of periodically rereading good books. This is the approach to reading that Reading for the Common Good embraces.
The first thing about the book that stands out to me is Smith’s introduction to the church as a learning organization. While Smith references Peter Senge, he’s essentially talking about discipleship. Disciples are by definition learners. As we are called into the body of Christ, we are called into a new learning relationship.
Focus on the Common in Reading for the Common Good
The next thing that really resonates with me is the emphasis on the Common. Common means that which is shared by all for the benefit of all. In the Anglican tradition we have Common Prayer and Common Praise, which acknowledge that we are not meant to pray and praise on our own for our own benefit, but together for the benefit of all.
A very important element of the book, is that we read for the common good, because
…through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:20
All we do comes under God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ. That means that every aspect of our lives and the world’s lives are intended for reconciliation. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker all have something to contribute to that reconciliation, not only in their personal, private faith, but also in their public employment.
Another aspect of Reading for the Common Good, one that it shares with Slow Church, is that it is not programmatic. That is to say there is none of the “start a book club and in 10 weeks your church will have been transformed in ways you never imagined.”
reading in the broader community
One thing that elevates this book for me is Smith’s emphasis on taking your reading outside of the your church’s wall. This may involve meeting in different locations to talk about what your reading, but it also involves going out and finding out what is happening in your neighbourhood. Going and listening to the voices of your neighbourhood’s reading.
I mentioned transformation earlier. As we go out and read together we will be challenged to look at our congregations and neighbourhoods in new ways. Eventually this will lead us to action to benefit not only our congregation but also our neighbourhoods. That’s the whole reconciling work aspect of this reading.
Also, as we take action, we are then called to reflect upon that action which we lead us to further reading, which will lead us to further action, which will lead us to further reading, etc., etc. We never stop reading because we never stop learning. This side of the grave we are always disciples.
A Common Objection:
One objection I can easily imagine is from people going through the book and saying, “I don’t agree with Smith’s politics, so I’m going to ignore this book.” That would be a mistake, and would miss the point of the book.
In his introduction to the Englewood Church list of books on page 161, Smith states.
These books have been helpful to us in our continuing journey to discern our identity as a local church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Not all of these books will be pertinent, or even of interest, to all other churches, but they have been transformative for us, and likely some of them will be helpful for your church.
The overall message of Reading for the Common Good is: Start reading. Read together, read separately, but read for the benefit of all. What you read? That will be determined by your community. The books you read together? That will also be determined by your community and it’s outlook on faith, life, and the world.
However, take time to read books that challenge your community’s views. Read books that help your community refine it’s views. Well read communities, no matter their political stripe will be much better equipped to dialogue with each other rather than simply shouting at each other across the political divide.
Reading for the Common Good, is not just a book, but a way of being for a community. I’m fortunate to be connected to St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg. They put this way of being into practice in their life as a community of disciples.
Pick up Reading for the Common Good, and add a couple of copies to your church library. If you don’t have a church library, this would be a good book to start one. Most of all, just get reading together.