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Revolutionize Your Bookclub
There is power in reading: reading orally, and reading in community. And there is power in dialogue: dialogue over words read, dialogue that deepens words which must first enter the ear but ultimately go to the heart. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a book club is “a group of people who meet regularly to discuss books they are reading.” This implies, and is born out in practice, a separation of the reading and the discussing. But what God has joined together, let no man separate.
Ok, maybe God didn’t create a one-flesh union between reading and dialogue. Still, Christian Bible studies and small groups normally keep reading and discussion separate.1 Such was not always the case, as articulated by Joanne Jung, in Godly Conversation: Rediscovering the Puritan Practice of Conference, and by Andrew Cambers, in Godly Reading: Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England, 1580-1720. The English puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries are known by many characteristics and habits, especially their concern for church reform according to the authoritative rule of Scripture alone. Two practices that are less well known about the puritans are conference and corporate reading. Here are four quotes to briefly summarize the message of these 2 books. First, Jung on conference:
“As a spiritual discipline, or means of grace, employed by the English Puritans, conference was a spiritual activity exercised by small groups of believers whose goal was to explore biblical truths and determine their practical application in conjunction with the estate of the soul.”2
“People would meet at one another’s homes to discuss the Bible or sermons heard the previous week.”3
Second, according to Cambers, “communal reading” was a core puritan practice. Cambers demonstrates
“the special importance of collective, social and public reading to the godly, demonstrating how far reading aloud and in company was a vital strand in the fabric of puritan piety.4
Puritans “read from a broader canon of godly literature to effect the same sort of spiritual transformation provided by the Bible.”5
Putting Jung and Cambers together: when gathering together in small groups for spiritual formation, the puritans read aloud from both the Bible and from other godly literature and conversed about what they were reading.
Corporate reading is formative. God’s people have always practiced corporate vocal reading of Scripture, since the time of Moses onward (Ex. 24:7; Deut. 17:19, 31:11; Josh. 8:34-35; 2 Kings 23:2; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 13:1; Luke 4:16-20; Acts 15:21; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3).
So why not do the same with the latest Christian bestseller or classic spiritual formation book?
What if your small group didn’t have homework, didn’t ask you to have the answers, and instead created space for real-time reaction and discussion over books read aloud together? There is something unique about reading a book out loud with friends and discussing it in the moment. Although this comes from a completely different context—a trauma recovery reading group for combat veterans—these words from classicist Roberta Stewart captures the puritan spirit of how to engage a text: “put the text in the middle of the room and allow its meanings to resonate.”6
So, next time your small group has to decide what book to study next, take a page from the puritans: keep it simple, read out loud, and discuss.
Quote from Eugene Peterson
In the pre-Gutenberg world people did not read, as we say, "to themselves." They listened, even when it was their own voice that was setting the sound waves in motion, to the re-voiced words of the author. One person reads aloud, other people listen in silence. But Gutenberg's invention changed all that. A thorough-going orality in which the word held people in a listening community gave way to discrete individuals silently reading books alone. Mass-produced, inexpensively published books generated a motivation to read, which developed into a wide-spread literacy that changed the act of reading from an oral-aural community event into a silent-private visual exercise. Through the previous centuries when virtually every act of reading revoiced the written words, the connection with the living voice was emphatic. Today, when nearly all reading is silent, the connection with the living voice is remote.
Holy Conference: “A Kinde of Paradise”, by Joanne Jung (shorter article summarizing her Godly Conversations book).
Godly Reading: Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England, 1580-1720, by Andrew Cambers. I believe this is a published PhD dissertation, so it is not light reading, but it is a fascinating study of how Christians in a different time and culture engaged written texts in a more embodied way than we do today.
Do you read aloud when you are alone? Monasteries used to be called places of “mumblers and munchers” because they always (or usually) read out loud.7 It was seen as a way of meditating. Why not give that a try? It will slow you down, but that’s probably a good thing!
Reading books out loud in groups and talking about them is however a common practice in 12 step meetings. I haven’t researched this, but I’m curious if that practice has roots in the Christian Oxford Group from which AA originated.
Jung, p. 124.
Jung, p. 88.
Cambers, p. 7.
Cambers, p. 49.
Stewart, Roberta. Amphora: Ancient Narratives and Modern War Stories: Reading Homer with Combat Veterans, August 8, 2015. https://classicalstudies.org/amphora-ancient-narratives-and-modern-war-stories-reading-homer-combat-veterans.
Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text a Commentary to Hugh's "Didascalicon". Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 54.