February 20, 2019

The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (3)

Sunset in February. Photo by David Cornwell

The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (3)

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.

• Chris Smith

We are spending some time during these winter months considering Chris Smith’s fine book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish.

Further honing in on the transforming benefits of reading, Chris Smith moves from talking more generally about how it refines our social imagination to discuss how we more fully understand our identities and vocations as we practice reading, reflection, and conversation together.

A Christian community’s sense of identity is shaped primarily when we read scripture and learn to take our place in the biblical story. However, studying the Bible is not just as simple as reading the English Bible together. Having people in our congregation who are familiar with biblical languages and the history of interpretation can help us go deeper in what it means to read this ancient book faithfully. Being able to place our congregation in the flow of church history and in the traditions of theology and church practice that we follow can further help us understand our ancestry and what we have inherited.

But Chris recommends that we access other kinds of books as well.

  • Books of philosophy that ask probing questions about human experience.
  • Books of history, sociology, and cultural studies that “help us understand better how our cultures have taken the form they have and can help us name the types of brokenness in and around us.” (p. 66)
  • Works of psychology that can help us understand what it means to be human and to live whole and healthy human lives.
  • Works of literature and fiction that explore these and other themes but grab our attention and stimulate our imaginations in ways that nonfiction books might not.
  • Poetry that gives us new language and metaphors to help us understand ourselves and our world.
  • Furthermore…

Questions of who we are and why we are are not the only ones that we need to consider. We also must wrestle with the questions of when and where we are. “Where are we?” is a question that is fundamental to our identity….The challenge of understanding when we are involves discerning what it means to live in this particular age and how the present day is interrelated with previous ages. Reading history, of course, will be essential to understanding the times in which we live, but news and commentary will be equally important. Reading politics and economics also will help us understand our times.

Once again, contemporary poetry and fiction can shed needed light on the times in which we live, often helping us to see connections in ways that narrow, siloed genres of nonfiction — politics, economics and the like — cannot. (p. 67)

Identity leads to vocation or calling. Coming to terms with “Who am I?” we are led naturally to ask, “What am I here to do?

Chris Smith encourages to think more broadly than we often do about this. It is common for Christians to narrow our understanding of vocation to two things: (1) God’s call to follow Jesus, and (2) our individual call to recognize our gifts, interests, and the opportunities God grants us. But, as he argues, “If it is in the local church that we are to embody Christ together…then it is within that context that we should discern how our individual skills can be made available for the shared work of bearing witness to the love and reconciliation of Christ.” (p. 73)

An illustration from Chris Smith’s own church may be instructive.

As a small urban congregation with a massive building to maintain, my own local church was thrust early into the sort of economic uncertainty that many churches are facing today. We have been wrestling with these challenges for almost twenty years. Through practices of reading and conversation, we have been fortunate enough to have cultivated a little imagination regarding the shared economy of our church. We have started several businesses that use the gifts of our members to benefit our neighborhood and other churches. These include a daycare and preschool, a community development corporation engaged in affordable housing and economic development, and the Englewood Review of Books, which recommends resources for our church and other churches around the world. These businesses provide common work for us, employing people in full- and part-time positions and involving many others as volunteers. This common work allows a growing number of our members to be together on a daily basis, working with each other and thinking and talking often about how our faith gets lived out amidst all the wonderful assets and deep challenges of our neighborhood. (p. 75)

Englewood Christian Church could have taken what I would consider an easier way. They could have moved out to the suburbs where many of their members were living. Instead, in the 1980s they decided to stay in their struggling urban neighborhood with their older, expensive building and to explore who they were (and could be) in that setting, and what God might be calling them to do for one another and their neighbors. Their journey of reading, conversing, and serving entered a new era.

• • •

Note: We are using some of our friend David Cornwell’s pictures to grace this series. David is a big fan of Chris Smith and the work of Englewood Christian Church. For more of his wonderful photography, go to David’s Flickr page.

Comments

  1. David Cornwell says:

    Recently colleges and universities have been moving away from the liberal arts in order to emphasize occupational and professional skills. Certain departments, such as English, sociology, and history may find that they are being combined into a unified or merged department of some sort.

    I recognize that one cannot always make a good living with only a major in one of the liberal arts. But I think a case can be made that these should be foundational to all other learning. Otherwise we will continue our drift toward a citizenry that knows how to make a living, but without the foundational tools of how to be a good citizen. If we believe in liberal democracy, which I do, then an educated class (preferably our entire population) should be able to discern and make wise decisions in the voting booth. And also as participants in churches and local community.

    It should be unheard of for us to favor a president or other seeker of high office who dislikes to read, listen, or learn. It’s a recipe for disaster. I’d much rather have a man or woman in high office who understands history, English, other languages and cultures, and the basis of our commonality. Business education is important, but an understanding of basic economics may be more important.

    What Chris Smith’s book does is point us toward a better educated church membership. The kinds of books Chris is recommending are essentially those that lead to a liberal arts education, perhaps on a smaller scale, but still those that will help us to understand our diverse culture and neighborhoods. A reading congregation is one much better suited to be in conversation with each other and with our neighbors.

    • Christiane says:

      That’s a beautiful photograph, David

    • Whatever their bent, the founding fathers were, correct me if I’m wrong, all highly educated men. Thy were all men of letters you might say. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of this for the people we choose to represent us.

    • Awesome photo by the way.

    • senecagriggs says:

      “It should be unheard of for us to favor a president or other seeker of high office who dislikes to read, listen, or learn. It’s a recipe for disaster. I’d much rather have a man or woman in high office who understands history, English, other languages and cultures, and the basis of our commonality. Business education is important, but an understanding of basic economics may be more important.”

      “7. George W. Bush read an incredible amount during his presidency— he finished 186 books in two years.

      In contrast to his reputation, George W. Bush was a prolific behind-the-scenes reader. Despite the fact that he was regularly derided as incurious and unread, Bush has long read a great many books. Karl Rove wrote in 2008, “In the 35 years I’ve known George W. Bush, he’s always had a book nearby.”

      Bush read 186 books between 2006 and 2008, mainly history and biography. By way of comparison, the typical American reads four books annually and 27 percent of Americans report reading no books over the course of a year. Bush, in contrast, read fourteen biographies of Lincoln alone while in the White House. “

      • Seneca, good info regarding GWB. I deleted your last comment because it was unnecessary and needlessly provocative.

      • Better education, greater intellectual curiosity, and an appetite for reading do not necessarily mean that one is better formed morally or a better leader, that’s for sure. That’s a conceit of intellectuals, or those who identify themselves with the party (I’m not talking political party here, folks, but socioeconomic) of intellectuals, with which they flatter themselves.

        That’s still no excuse for the all-but-illiterate and proudly ignorant Current Occupant of the Oval Office.

    • Nice picture, David.

      David Cornwell wrote:

      “Recently colleges and universities have been moving away from the liberal arts in order to emphasize occupational and professional skills.”

      It’s hard to blame colleges and universities for doing this. A college education costs so much here in the USA that students must be able to get a fairly high paying job after graduation just to pay back their massive college loan debt.

      “I recognize that one cannot always make a good living with only a major in one of the liberal arts. But I think a case can be made that these should be foundational to all other learning. Otherwise we will continue our drift toward a citizenry that knows how to make a living, but without the foundational tools of how to be a good citizen.”

      The tools of how to be a good citizen should be taught and learned far before college. They should be taught every day at home and school. I you haven’t learned to be a good citizen before college, you are not likely to learn it in college these days. Colleges are not exactly sanctuaries for freedom of though or speech recently.

      “If we believe in liberal democracy, which I do, then an educated class (preferably our entire population) should be able to discern and make wise decisions in the voting booth.”

      If you learn to make voting booth decisions based on what is learned in college these days., we would have every office held by a leftist.

      • David Cornwell says:

        Some of it depends on what college one attends. The most important thing one can learn is how to think. If all we are going to learn is how to make money, it’s a rather narrow focus. I agree that we should be taught more as children and that much of the best learning is what one does for himself/herself. But I think there is far more to learn than one normally is taught in the home. The home should help open us up to learning and help us understand its importance.

        The college I attended was basically a conservative Methodist leaning school. It had a certain bent, but it was more about how to learn. Other viewpoints were not shunned and a curious student could end up being a liberal or a conservative.

        However in recent years they have they have opened up a professional degree program in equine studies. Being close to the bluegrass horse capital of the world, Lexington, they say the following:

        ” Many of our majors will focus on Equine Studies providing a broad range of instruction and experience in hands on learning for the equine industry. Some of our majors will focus their studies in the area of Equine Facilitated Wellness with the intentions of pursuing an avenue of equine therapy for their career. Others will choose to double their equine interests with business, media, art or other campus offerings to relate equine to a wealth of possibilities within the equine industry.”

        I have to strain to comprehend how programs such as these further the original intent of the school to provide a liberal arts education for those who will later become pastors, teachers, missionaries, or medical workers i.e. doctors and nurses.

        There are some excellent Catholic schools as well as good evangelical colleges. And many other church related schools have sound reputations. Some students will become leftists, others conservative. One of my classmates became a liberal congressman, then governor of Ohio. Another became a very conservative congressman who is still serving. And a third became president of the NEA.

      • Colleges are not exactly sanctuaries for freedom of thought or speech recently.

        Colleges have never exactly been sanctuaries of freedom of thought or speech.

  2. senecagriggs says:

    “Works of psychology that can help us understand what it means to be human and to live whole and healthy human lives.”

    I’m not a fan.

    • So you are willing to throw out an entire category of inquiry? This is why people sometimes struggle with you, Seneca. Baby and bathwater, and all that.

    • It also might help your case if you actually *gave reasons* for your assertions. You just toss out your statements and seem to assume that they are self-evident. Try explaining WHY you believe what you believe, and see what happens.

      • senecagriggs says:

        I’ve been in the business. Worked in psych hospitals.
        Just read the great literature – such as Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.

        BTW –

        From a talk given in my hometown some years back.

        “IF I’M OKAY AND YOU’RE OKAY; WHO KEEPS DOING ALL THESE TERRIBLE THINGS?”

        • Well, that’s what I would call a limited perspective on psychology.

          And you are right, and it is something Chris Smith affirms and which I note in the post. Fiction and literature can cover the same aspects of human experience in ways that are often more powerful than the nonfiction material.

        • What was the nature of your work in psychiatric hospitals?

        • Christiane says:

          Hello Senecagriggs,

          you are right about good literature helping us to understand the human condition, and sometimes though, we can ‘get hold of the wrong horror’

          I highly recommend to Christian readers the works of Flannery O’Connor, if they can stomach them, that is.
          She was a Catholic and wrote in the southern tradition of the ‘gothic’ style, but she herself warned those who evaluated what she had written with these words:

          ““I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call ‘A Good Man’ brutal and sarcastic,” O’Connor wrote to Betty Hester of Atlanta, one of her most faithful correspondents. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism … when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

          Senecagriggs, I think you would like O’Connor’s works if you ‘got’ Dostoevsky’s depth, yes. Most people cringe at the lady’s writings, but I think you may have a chance to understand what is the ‘real’ horror in them, and that is something important to the discussion here, because we are out to know the meanings and blessings of ‘grace’ and in great literature, it is seen often in disguise in ways unrecognizable to our sensitivities. Give Flannery O’Connor a try, and see what I mean. And hold on for the ride. 🙂

          https://www.ajc.com/entertainment/arts–theater/flannery-connor-goes-the-movies/re3u4n7oQL8i8o7CMnCLYK/

          • The fact I was born and raised in Georgia may have something to do with it but I love Flannery O’Connor. I was fortunate in my college days at Emory U in Atlanta to be guided through Shakespeare by William Sessions who as a young man was a very good friend of Ms O’Connor. (If you read her collected letters he is “Billy”.) Dr Sessions had some great stories and a drop dead gorgeous French wife. (He gave great parties and they were always well attended, mostly I suspect because of his wife.) All this has nothing to do with the topic of the post, sorry, but I wax nostalgic.

            • Christiane says:

              Hello Stephen,
              thank you for sharing that! It’s fascinating. I am a bit of a literary historian and have research on the lives of several authors including Emily Dickinson and how her brother’s mistress saved her poems and kept them and later they were organized and shared, or how else would we have had the treasure of her work shared.

              I am fascinated with Flannery O’Connor’s life myself and have read a bit about her childhood and her
              Catholic faith and her illness . . . . what a gift she had and like Michael Spencer who was so gifted, she was taken from this Earth too soon.

              Thank you for telling me about your teacher William Sessions ‘Billy’, and I am so glad I mentioned Flannery O’Connor to Senecagriggs so that you would have a way to share that information with me.

              I suspect in the long run, there may be more commentary about Flannery O’Connor’s work than there is the actual body of work, but that is in itself as signal as to the richness and depth of her writing.

              You made my day! 🙂 Thanks, Stephen

            • Flannery is one of my favorite authors
              …trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus…the Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire… –Flannery O’Connor

            • –> “but I wax nostalgic”

              Waxing nostalgic is fine by me. I enjoyed reading your blurb.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Neither was L Ron Hubbard.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “Englewood Christian Church could have taken what I would consider an easier way. They could have moved out to the suburbs where many of their members were living.”

    And where the BIG money was.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    I want to say: Wow! The courage a leader has to have to point his community in such a direction.

    This is truly admirable.

    How deeply inverse this is to what was essentially the “do not read _____” mentality of the church I experienced.

  5. Burro (Mule) says:

    Books That Got Me Into Trouble For Reading As A Christian
    Tao-Teh-Ching
    The Koran
    Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance
    The Master And Margarita
    The Last Temptation Of Christ
    The Lord Of The Rings
    The Communist Manifesto

    Christian Books That Screwed Me Up
    The Satan Seller
    Pigs In The Parlor
    Escape From Reason
    The Two Babylons
    Evolution: The Fossils Say No
    Institutes Of Biblical Law

    The two sets do not intersect.

    • My oldest son, an avid reader, majored in philosophy and graduated from a Roman Catholic school. He was criticized by others in the evangelical chuch we attended at the time for choosing a Catholic school. That insular thinking was one of the reasons we eventually left that church.

    • Christiane says:

      Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ may be read by fundamentalist/evangelicals, but they will be impacted by its Catholicism without realizing it, in many cases. Nothing all that subtle about it, but they do not realize what they have entered into until they are impacted. I don’t think Tolkien set out to do this, but my goodness, he did it.
      That these readers ARE impacted may not even dawn on them because they don’t know what ‘Catholicism’ teaches anyway for real, only what they have been told about it from the anti-Catholic establishment in their world.

      Doors open in the mind and journeys are entered on that do change how people understand the important things, when they take up good literature without realizing that the encounter with it can be very powerful indeed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The Satan Seller — Mike Warnke’s kickoff for The Satanic Panic. Warnke was later found to be a complete fraud.
      Pigs in the Parlor — one of many-many Satanic Panic Conspiracy Scare Jobs.
      Escape from Reason — never heard of this one, but sounds around the same vintage as the above two.
      The Two Babylons — Hislop’s classic of Anti-Catholic Hate Literature, dating back to Queen Victoria. Every Born-Again Catholic-basher since has plagarized from Hislop. If the tract says Catholics worship Satan under the names “Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz” (with a barrage of Bible-Bullet Proof Texts), it’s a direct swipe from Hislop.
      Evolution: The Fossils Say No! — only heard of this one, but it’s pretty obvious. Ken Ham?
      Institutes of Biblical Law — never heard of this one

      The ones that screwed me up were:
      Late Great Planet Earth
      The Calvary Road
      Dake’s Annotated Bible

    • –> “Escape From Reason”

      Umm… just curious… what was it about that one that screwed you up. It seems a bit unlike the others you mention.

      • EfR is one of Francis Schaeffer’s main books, where he decries the decline of rationality in Western thought and culture.

      • Yeah, I found Escape From Reason really helpful when I was about 21. What was it that screwed you up? I have read other books such as some by Watchman Nee that really did my head in, & yet others found okay – for me it was his conflation of humanity & sin that did the damage.

    • Burro, there is of course one Book that can go on both lists.

  6. Dana Ames says:

    “A Christian community’s sense of identity is shaped primarily when we read scripture and learn to take our place in the biblical story.”

    I would posit, rather, that a Christian community’s sense of identity is shaped primarily by its manner of worship. Reading scripture in that context is how we learn to take our place in the “biblical story” that continues in and through the Church.

    I echo Finn’s praise of C. Smith’s leadership – the kinds of things his congregation are doing is what Christians should be known for. God bless all of them.

    Don’t forget C.S. Lewis’ dictum: two old books for every new one (he defined “old” elsewhere as mostly before the 1400s, with some bleed-over into the next three centuries – certainly no “newer” than 1800 or so).

    Dana

  7. Do mega churches have libraries?

    • Some of them do. The church I “converted” at in college had a large one. Some dross (a lot of old-style “after the rapture” fiction), but some good stuff too (Martin Luther amongst others). It at least started me down the path of independently reading theology.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Some dross (a lot of old-style “after the rapture” fiction)…

        Just out of morbid curiosity, which “old-style after-the-rapture fiction” did they stock?
        (And the formal name for the genre is “Christian Apocalyptic”, i.e. what tries to pass for Christianese SF nowadays.) Two I remember from the Seventies:

        666 by Salem Kirban — The WORST End Times Novel novel ever written, the “Eye of Argon” of Christian Apocalyptic. I read this once in the Seventies and cannot exaggerate how truly awful its storytelling, writing, and worldbuilding is – even worse than three-times-removed bad fanfic. At least it was only one volume (instead of Left Behind’s 22 plus spinoffs), but it was a Christianese best-seller, the Left Behind of its time. And it had a sequel, 1000 (which I never read; could not take any more SAN loss).

        For some real Art Bell at 3 Ayem weirdness, try to scare up a copy of the accompanying Orchestral Cantata. And the Godly all-bread fad diet books by the same author (you had to save and measure all your stools while on the diet, and you could tell it was working by the Holy Spirit shining from your eyes, I kid you not).

        Seven Last Years by Carol Balizet — Actually a decent read, filling most of the holes usually found in Christian Apocalyptic plotting. And with some idea of storytelling. Not a great piece of writing, but mainstream average. Author later did another “spiritual warfare” novel (predating Peretti) of similar competence, but stopped writing at that point to Spread What God Commanded Her about Godly Childbirth (a Christian Fad which ended up with a few fatalities; she should have stuck to fiction writing)