Reading for the Common Good

a-review-ofIn this day and age, we do little actual reading. We skim, peruse, read half of something, or read only a headline or a tweet. The act of truly reading–digging, exploring, researching, and digesting–is neglected.  Now I know this is not totally true, there are many who read, but the standard operating procedure for most of us, especially as we encounter more and more content online, is to not really read anything. And on top of that, we try to comment, argue, and fight for change while not having read those things that we are for or against.

For example, there has been a lot of things spoken, posted, tweeted, shared and reported on the recent executive orders signed by President Trump. But, have you read them? Maybe you have, and that’s great. I must confess, however, that I haven’t. I’ve said my fair share of things about some of them, but I haven’t read any of them. Why have I not read them if I choose to speak so much about them?

When I think about that, I’m a little ashamed of myself. I know how to research. I went to college and grad school. I’ve written a thesis. And yet I am guilty of everything that I just said was a problem. So, what are we to do about it?

9780830844494Chris Smith suggests that we ought to more attentive to the power of the written word and the effects that it can have on society in his book Reading for the Common Good. Specifically writing from the position of the church engaging in culture, he argues that we need to understand the real power of reading to understand and create positive action in our world.

In Reading for the Common Good, he reminds us that literacy has the power to inform us. I think most of us would recognize this. We seek out instruction manuals and cookbooks to help us in our daily lives. Books can teach us crafts, hobbies, sports, history, math, and science. This is not a revelation, but for me it was important to remember that reading isn’t just “academic”, reading a cookbook is just as helpful sometime as reading theology. We need to eat after all.

Not only is reading informative and practical, but reading also allows us to interactive with the world in a meaningful way. Chris writes, “To be engaged in the world in transformative ways, we must understand the history of an issue or a particular policy position. We can ask: what are the forces that have driven this policy to develop into its present form? If we perceive threats to legislation that we believe is beneficial, who are the parties behind these threats, why are they challenging the laws, and how can we best engage them? Without a robust commitment to reading, we are perhaps more likely to stereotype the opposition, assume the worst of them and make sure that the answers we find only confirm those assumptions.”

From there, reading truly has the power to be for the common good. What we read isn’t just for us. When we dive into the history of an issue and truly seek to understand the ramifications, then we can have real dialogue. When we seek to understand all the sides of the issue, we can really converse. Chris give’s the example, “We can also share resources in order to help us understand and appreciate our differences. Reading can help us to understand one another’s experiences and to incite conversation. A predominantly white church might read a book like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and discuss it with a predominantly African American church, listening attentively to how the latter church’s experiences line up (or don’t line up) with what they have read.”

I believe this is where this book really hits home and makes it self so timely for the day and age we find ourselves in. A commitment to really searching and digging to be informed will better serve the church to make real and lasting change in this world. I believe we find ourselves in a time when most of us only choose to read, if in fact we choose to read, those things that we agree with. We believe ourselves to be well read, when in fact we only read what pops up on Facebook and typically Facebook only shows us articles with which we agree. Instead, we all need to be challenged by Chris’s book to be better readers so that we can truly seek the common good. Social media has revealed how much we are entrenched in our positions. Instead of reading that enables real dialogue so that we can have understanding and possible transformation, we hunker down and refuse to see what other side might possibly have to offer that will help me understand. We read for only ourselves, in order that we can readily defend our cause. When in reality, if we were to read and dialogue, we might find that there we have more in common with the other side. We might discover that when viewed from a perspective outside of our own we will gain a better understanding of the truth and are able to act appropriately.

In a world of soundbites, fake news, and alternative facts, we need more than ever to be reading for the common good. So please, pick up this book and find out just how powerful reading can be.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book for free. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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