Since my book Reading For the Common Good (RFTCG) came out last month, I’ve had numerous people ask me about the connections between it and my previous book Slow Church (coauthored with John Pattison). I could write ad nauseam about the connections of the two books, and I would recommend reading the books in order; RFTCG will make a lot more sense if you have read Slow Church.
For now though, a few thoughts on how Slow Church can be helpful – and maybe even transformative – for our personal reading habits. One of the biggest themes of RFTCG is reading in community with others, and while there are times when it is beneficial for churches, families, or neighbors to literally read together through a book, I still believe that most of our reading will be done on our own. The challenge then is finding ways to weave together the things I am reading with those that others in my church are reading, bringing our personal readings into conversation with one another and with the daily realities of our shared life. Slow Church is fundamentally about cultivating a conversational life together where the things we are reading can be an asset to the whole community.
Here are three thoughts on the ways in which Slow Church should matter to our reading habits. These thoughts parallel the three major parts of the Slow Church book: Ethics, Ecology and Economy.
- Read GOOD Books / Writing. Ethics, as we discuss it in Slow Church, is largely about learning to prefer quality over quantity. There are an absurd number of new books that are published in any given month, and the vast majority of them are mediocre at best, and sometimes downright atrocious. Life’s too short to read bad books! Be willing to try new books and unfamiliar authors, but if you don’t find them compelling, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning them. Read book reviews (and not just customer reviews on Amazon / Goodreads), talk with friends whose tastes/opinions you trust, and find good books that align with your interests (more on this momentarily) and savor them.
Life’s too short to read bad books! Be willing to try new books and unfamiliar authors, but if you don’t find them compelling, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning them.Christopher Smith
- Find Ways to Connect Your Reading to the Daily Realities of Your Life. Central to the concept of ecology, as we talk about it in Slow Church, is the deep inter-connectedness of God’s creation. We should not pretend that we are completely autonomous individuals doing our own thing, but rather should seek to be attentive to the ways in which we are connected to other people and to the whole of creation. Read local history, or if history isn’t your cup of tea, then read fiction that is set in your place or poems written about it. Are your children getting ready to start school? Read about the local options that are available and the educational models on which each option is based. Read the local newspaper. What activities are you involved in as part of your church? Read about ways that these ministries could be done better and more compassionately. Try to understand the ways in which your work fits with the mission of God in the world (Yes, of course, reading can help with that!). Wherever you live or whatever you do, be engaged in life, and the implications that your life has on other people, in your place and beyond.
- (Mostly) Read Things That You are Passionate About – Although there is something to be said for reading things that challenge and stretch us and draw us closer to our neighbors (see #2 above), God has uniquely created each one of us to contribute to the economy and the well-being of the communities to which we belong. The richest resource in the economy of our churches and neighborhoods is the people that God has gathered there, and the skills, talents and passions that each of us has. Discerning and maturing in a vocation, and understanding how that vocation fits with those of others in our local church is vital to our shared life and flourishing. Our communities are much better off when we read things that we each are passionate about, and seek to discuss these readings and to connect them with our shared life and daily activities, than if we develop habits of half-heartedly reading things that are of little interest to us.
I am confident that cultivating habits of reading along these three lines, and at the same time being keenly attentive to the people (and all creation) that surround us, will radically transform our lives – slowing us down and bringing us the joy of living in the way that we have been created as humans. God has designed us with a passion to know, and to know in a way that draws us closer to God, humanity, and creation. Reading in the ways I have described here points us in this direction.
C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and the author of several books including Slow Church (co-authored with John Pattison) and How the Body of Christ Talks. He also is on the leadership team for Cultivating Communities, a project which helps local churches deepen relationships within their congregation and with their neighbors.