Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part One

I recently, twice in one day in fact, offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I had ten pages' worth of stuff.

About two pages into the morning session, someone raised their hand and asked if I could help them get their book published. And we spent the next forty-five minutes talking about that.

In the afternoon I tweaked my outline and abandoned my script, and I promised to get to getting yourself published by the end of the session. We jumped to publishing before I finished my intro.

Sigh. One in every five adult Americans never reads a book, but it seems like every man, woman and child has at least one book proposal in my in box. It's a participatory, creative culture we're in, with semingly little regard for what happens with the content we create.

I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. And I determine the content of this blog. So I'm going to publish it; frankly, I don't really care if you read it or not. :)

I'll begin with an exercise that we went through at the start of both sessions: two books you love, and one book you hate. After people shared their choices, I shared mine.

***

I knew this was coming, so I brought my three books with me.

  • Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, by Brian Mahan. It’s my favorite all-time book; I reviewed it for the book Besides the Bible: 100 Books That Have, Should or Will Shape Culture. It’s about ambition, vocation and virtue, and it’s clever and practical and a bit mind-bending. Loved it; read it every couple of years—I’m overdue to read it again, actually.
  • The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers. I like those mid-century British authors, and in this book she shows how her interest in drama and mystery draws from (and in return, informs) her deep faith.
  • That leaves the one book I hate. For the record, it’s not the only one. But I picked The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren. It was, to my mind, too formulaic, too reductionist, too brand-driven. Beyond that, it was written in such short, unsophisticated sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I’m an editor; I like a little more literariness than that. (It should be noted that I formed this opinion without having actually read the book.)
  • Imagine my chagrin, then, when my pastor asked me to lead a small group through, not Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, not The Mind of the Maker, but The Purpose-Driven Life. You’ll be glad to know I set my jaw and heeded my pastor. And that’s where I discovered the power of a book.

    My small group was made up of people who were recent converts, recent return-to-churchers, recent discoverers of Christianity as a culture. None were particularly well acclimated to small groups, let alone book discussions.

    At least a few of them hated reading. Hated it. Fell asleep one paragraph into it. We are, in many ways, a post-literate generation; books are intimidating and frustrating and boring all at once—one in five American adults read on average zero books a year. The poster children of that generation were circled around me in folding chairs, each having dropped $15 on a hardback edition of one of the bestselling books of all time.

    And they went for it! We had long, deep, rich conversations about the nature of faith, calling, struggle, hope, all that stuff. People came prepared every week. At the end of the book each of them could name real ways in which their lives had changed, and each of them signed up for another session.

    Behold the power of a book. There’s nothing magical about The Purpose-Driven Life. What’s really going on is something more primal: we were created as creative, inquisitive beings, and we were made to know God by a God who knows us and wants to be known by us, and to discover the similarities and differences in one another, to achieve communion with God and ourselves. A book, like any writing, like any communication, is essentially kindling: a spark to get a fire going.

    ***

    Part two coming soon.

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