[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good is graciously available free to Christ and Pop Culture members through our partnership with InterVarsity Press.[/su_note]

Whether for relaxation or mental refreshment, I almost always read alone. The process of confronting the thoughts of another is seldom a solitary one, however, as my clarified thinking on the subject often results in a blog post or two. In fact, whether my reading results in a book review or a simply a post introducing a key thought from a chapter that strikes me as interesting, my reading often lays a foundation for social interaction. Even within my church context, I’ve built a small community of like-minded friends who enjoy reading and reflecting together; it’s hard to get together and not talk about the latest book we’ve read.

Christopher Smith, founder and editor of The Englewood Review of Books, figured out a while ago that reading is a helpful tool for building community. The Review actually grew out of a discussion group in Smith’s local church, and it’s a testament to an idea that Smith clearly champions: that by pairing reading and conversation, one has the potential to reap more benefits than simply reading alone (which, to be fair, is already plenty beneficial on its own).

When reading takes this slower form, it can shape our social imagination. 

This idea is the subject of his most recent book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish. In it, he urges churches to adopt a new, collective approach to reading:

Although we are often inclined to think of reading as an individual practice, and although most of our reading will inevitably be done alone, the social way of reading that I envision . . . is guided by choosing books and other reading materials that are intimately tied to our communities—especially our church communities. (20)

As Smith writes, “Reading is a vital practice that can—if done carefully and well—ultimately contribute to the health and flourishing of our communities” (21)—and according to him, doing it “carefully and well” means doing it with others, since “Our personal reading cannot transform social groups without some sort of conversation—written or oral, online or face to facethrough which reading is shared, engaged and discerned” (49).

According to Smith, this pairing of reading and conversation is what helps to transform a community into a “learning organization,” a concept borrowed from the business world. As Smith explains in the opening chapter, a learning organization is a community “in which both learning and action lie at the heart of its identity” (17).  The steps in formation begin with reading in community in hopes that such reading will develop a drive for learning, which then leads to action and application.

Smith’s book begins by emphasizing the importance of slow reading. Borrowing from the monastic practice of lectio divina, a habit of slow, meditative, spiritual reading that has been practiced within the church for centuries, Smith sets out a vision for intentional and communal reading. In order for reading to be the formative practice Smith hopes for, he argues, it needs to have time to marinate the minds of readers; when reading takes this slower form, it can shape our social imagination. Smith explores this shaping process in the following chapter, drawing on the important work of Charles Taylor, specifically as it relates to “social imaginaries”—that is, the social imagination that we bring to our encounters with the world around us.

In the chapters that follow, Smith takes the practice of reading and expands it outward in concentric circles of influence. He first explains how reading can help shape the identity of a congregation (or community) and how it helps us discern our individual as well corporate callings. He then moves outward to show how reading connects us with our neighbors and can deepen the roots we have within our neighborhoods. Finally, he widens the circle even further to show how reading can sharpen our engagement with Creation, economics, and politics before closing with an encouragement to strive to become a reading congregation.

In order to further facilitate communal reading, the book includes a couple of closing reading lists. The first gives readers an annotated bibliography of books that shaped Smith’s chapters, while the second is a collection of his church’s suggested reading lists for such topics as theology, Christian community, social criticism, and fiction. The former list is perhaps the most helpful, since it helps to expand on the ideas and insights presented within the book; if one were forming his or her own reading group, the books in that list might be the place to start. The latter list provides helpful categories, but I would personally select more books to flesh it out; it might make sense within a church context, but the first list could is more suitable for a variety of settings.

One of those settings may very well be the membership community of Christ and Pop Culture; however, while CaPC provides a unique opportunity to implement slow reading together accompanied by discussion, it is certainly not the only option. In fact, Smith’s book may be the perfect opportunity to gather a few friends, work through a book together, and discuss its implications.


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