In 2016, when I read the wonderful Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Neighborhoods and Churches Flourish by C. Christopher Smith, I was at the same time preparing to move to a new state and minister within a new church family. Brian and I felt strongly that our role as the new Rector and wife needed to be first as guests in a place that, while new to us, was a community where, within and without Church of the Apostles, Christ's kingdom was alive and active. We wanted to enter with an appropriate curiosity to the stories of life, love, and loss in southwest Connecticut. At the same time, we knew we'd need to cultivate conversations that would help us find kindred spirits. It's this sort of solution that Reading for the Common Good helped me imagine. While reading and discussing a wide range of excellent books wasn't the only way I began to build relationships in Fairfield County, it certainly was one of the most delightful.
My husband gets a lot of credit for trusting my idea (as he's done so many times in the last 27 years). From the broad idea for churches to read good books together generated in Reading for the Common Good, I customized the details to fit our needs and context. For one thing, we've added a liturgical slant - reading one book per liturgical season informed by the broad themes of each season. For Advent (our first book), we read Shusaku Endo's Silence (which prompted a somewhat unintentional group initiation!) and then swung to the verbose and jubilant essays and poems of G. K. Chesterton for Christmastide. That's a kind of intellectual athleticism (and maybe gracious response to the new Rector's wife) only the most open-minded readers embrace.
Another bonus has been getting to know each other better. On more than one occasion I've been astonished to hear the bits and pieces of life stories that intersect with our book themes - like the lovely woman who mentioned in a sort of "oh by the way" comment during our discussion of MLK's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that she'd worked for the LBJ administration and witnessed first-hand the Poor People's March on Washington the same year as the assassination of Dr. King; another shared privately that she'd protested with the pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan. I'll admit to a bit of jaw-dropping since both of those scenarios are a long way from the conservative church circles in an area that includes some of the nation's top-earning zip codes.
I'm happy to look back on our first year reading together and see that the Apostles Reads group has been up to the challenge. They have responded to each title - from the martyrs and apostates in Endo's 17th-century Japan to the four lonely children rummaging through a wardrobe into Narnia - with grace, humility, empathy, and intellectual curiosity.
I thought you might enjoy seeing the titles we chose and a few notes from our discussions. I'd also love to hear any suggestions you have for our future reading!
Advent - Silence by Shusaku Endo
When we began a reading group for our church, I knew immediately that I wanted us to start with Silence. It's the kind of book that fosters deep wrestling with themes of personal faith, religious institutions, Christian mission, and martyrdom. In addition, I knew the movie would be released in area theaters around January and I wanted some friends to join me! While it's possible to see the movie without reading the book, I didn't want anyone to miss the opportunity to read Endo's exquisite imagining of characters within a historically documented era of his home country. Our group conversation went better than I'd hoped, and I was honored by the intentionality each person approached our first book. Some experienced the book in a positive way, and at least one person called it "devastating". We fell out in different places on what we felt our choice would be should we ever be asked, on pain of torture, to deny our faith. In this time of increasing persecution against Christians across the globe, we felt closer to the idea than just a story from 17th century Japan.
This is a book I will read again and again because it requires both theological precision and deepening empathy. It's a beautiful sort of devastation.
Christmastide - Essays & Poems from The Spirit of Christmas by G.K. Chesterton
We read a selection of 12 Christmas poems and essays by British theologian, G.K. Chesterton. The readings were chosen from the anthology, The Spirit of Christmas, which is unfortunately out of print, but I wrote each of our selections on my blog throughout the twelve days of Christmas. You can read them here.
We chose this selection because there's no one who's written more prolifically about the practice of Christian celebration and feasting at Christmastime than the witty, sharp (and, occasionally, ornery!) G.K. Chesterton. You can read a brief excerpt from a review of The Spirit of Christmas here.
Epiphany - Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this final book. The title question- Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? - read like a prophetic call for prayer in 2017. In Epiphany, we reflect on Christ as the Light for the whole world. During our discussion we pondered where the Light is dwelling among our nation as we face many of the same social anxiety and conflicts as when this book was written.
We were glad to welcome a couple from outside of our church community who wanted to participate in a conversation about Dr. King's writing. Their perspective added an important layer of insight, concerns, and questions that wouldn't have been otherwise represented. I was grateful to our group for their openness and hospitality, and hope we can encourage the couple (and others) to return at some point.
Lent - Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead is one of my all-time favorite novels, written by one of my favorite authors. I chose this title for our Lenten reading because the narrator, Reverend John Ames, is reflecting throughout the novel on his advancing years, and considering what it will mean to not be around when his young son comes into manhood. This is the sort of reflection Lent calls us to consider with the blessing we receive with ashes: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Reverend Ames is also considering the legacy of his parents and grandparents in a way I find especially meaningful.
Another reason Gilead fits the themes of Lent is because, though the book wades into deep themes of loss and illness, the story is set in the midst of beautiful, comforting relationships which provide a nice balance to the books we'd read together up to this point.
Eastertide - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia) by C.S. Lewis
We made Apostles Reads a family affair for Eastertide! The Chronicles of Narnia are meaningful on many levels for all ages and faith backgrounds, but there is no meaning more deeply embedded in the tale than the Gospel of Christ's resurrection and reign. We encouraged adults in our congregation to read along with a child if possible.
What a rewarding experience! Here are some highlights:
We gave away paperback copies of the book to every Easter Sunday visitor which included a couple of people to whom English was a second language. They seemed especially grateful to own a copy of this classic to share with their family.
One of the members of our congregation, now in his nineties, grew up in Britain during WWII, and was evacuated from the city to live with strangers just like the Pevensie children. Brian and I visited him to hear his stories over the pot of tea he properly brewed for us. He shared his amazing experiences, how frightened he was as a little boy during that time, and how God used that anxiety to draw him closer to a faith in Jesus. He also told us about his university years at Oxford (when his group of friends included J.I. Packer!), and his regret at not taking any courses taught by C.S. Lewis like some of his friends had.
Our book discussion at the end of Eastertide was so much fun! We welcomed the children to discuss along with us, and were delighted by their participation. We also crafted paper crowns to give to another person in the group. At the end of our time we held a ceremony to crown each other with the paper hats and a name we'd chosen for them. A dear fellow reader crowned me as "Tamara the Radiant". Oh my goodness, I loved hearing that!
Pentecost - Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon T. Smith
We've deemed the season of Pentecost, the season we celebrate the birth of the Church, as "Rector's Choice". Brian selected Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon T. Smith. This was an accessible, brief book that fostered some great conversations about worship and ministry. June in the northeast is a tricky month to get together for a book discussion so we've decided the next time around to use the entire summer for the Pentecost book selection.
Ordinary Time (summer) - A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 - 1997 by Wendell Berry
One of the ways we mark the season of Ordinary Time is to respond to our Creator's invitation to join Him in Sabbath rest. Because of the finished work of Christ which we follow throughout the liturgical year - from the Incarnation to the Resurrection to the Ascension - we can gladly and boldly enter into God's gift of Sabbath rest. We can rest because Christ completed all the Father gave Him to do and finished his work. In Ordinary Time we hope to live out a Christlike confidence that is marked by a quiet, Spirit-infused strength found in that rest.
For the summer, I invited our group to approach the subject of Sabbath rest "sideways" through the language of poetry as written by one of my all-time favorite authors, Wendell Berry.
My vision was that, whether on a vacation of several days or several hours, we would each carry along Berry's poems as a companion. As a practice of rest, I recommended reading the book one poem at a time. My hope was that by doing this we would allow the earthy images and language in Mr. Berry's poems to gently season our times of restful reflection. I also made the bold suggestion to carry along a journal and pen with the hope that Berry's words would inspire some poems of our own! And you know what? We discovered we have poets among us. Grace upon grace...
Ordinary Time (autumn) - Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
For our last book before Advent, I selected a title I'd read in 2011: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I described it then as "so timely". Now, in 2017, I would actually describe it as prescient.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre believes that we as a culture, generally, and as a faith community, specifically, have not stewarded well the gift of language. After making her case that the Word cares about words, she shares twelve thoughtful strategies to steward language: Love Words, Tell the Truth, Don't Tolerate Lies, Read Well, Stay in Conversation, Share Stories, Love the Long Sentence, Practice Poetry, Attend to Translation, Play, Pray, and Cherish Silence.
I felt like, in addition to the ways we communicate in our everyday lives at work, home, and in ministry, this book fostered meaningful reflection as we completed our first year of reading together. Our group gave mixed reviews on the author's point of view, but all of us felt encouraged and refreshed in our enjoyment and stewardship of the resource of language.
Here's the list of books we've read so far this liturgical year, and the ones we're (tentatively) planning to read in the coming months.
Advent - The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Christmastide - Advent and Christmastide sonnets from Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite (We'll actually be reading the corresponding sonnets for each season through the rest of 2018.)
Epiphany - Chicago by Brian Doyle
Lent - Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Eastertide - The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon
Pentecost - (Rector's Choice) Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman
Ordinary Time (autumn) - The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
Advent - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Values For Our Book Selections:
- Many of our titles will be selected from what's widely understood as classic books or authors, whether that's in a technical or colloquial sense.
- Many of our titles will be selected from books and authors that have been awarded for their literary merit within the larger publishing arena.
- While we love new books and encourage each other to be aware of good books that have been newly released, for the sake of growing in our understanding of the context in which we live, worship, and work we'll veer toward older, established works rather than newer releases.
- All of our books will acknowledge the reality of common grace, most will carry implicit theological themes, a couple will be based on explicit theological themes.
- We value all genres of literature and will work toward including a noticeable variety of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short story, biography, and essays each year.
- We value reading outside of our tradition as a form of hospitality toward people, places, and customs different than our own experience.
- We value literacy for all ages and will, once or twice a year, read something that is suitable for all ages.
Any suggestions? Also, if you could invite your church to join you in reading one book for this year(with the above criteria), what would YOU choose?
p.s. This post contains affiliate links because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!