Mightier than the sword: The power of the written word

What theological rationale do you believe there is for reading books? Chris Currie, Bridgett Green and Lori Raible discuss.

Convenor: Chris Currie
Participants: Bridgett Green and Lori Raible

Chris: I want to begin with a quotation attributed to John Updike that I saw outside of Octavia Books in New Orleans that reads: ‘Bookstores are lonely forts spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.’ I think such a sentiment is true, not only of bookstores, but also of public libraries, and even little free libraries, which I am always happy to see. In addition, I happened to attend a book signing at Melba’s Po Boys here in New Orleans as part of their ‘Eat and Read’ initiative, and the concept behind this model is that the owner of the shop is also a Harvard Divinity School graduate who believes part of her mission and life’s vocation is to put books in the hands of people who live in communities that might not have a bookstore or library near to hand. Beyond civilizing neighborhoods or our lives, what theological rationale do you believe there is for reading books, being formed and shaped by literature, and flourishing before God?

Bridgett: Books allow us not only to grow in our knowledge but also to question what we already know. When we engage with scholars, writers, thinkers and storytellers, we learn new information, we receive a different perspective on familiar matters and experiences and we deepen our empathy for one another as well as ourselves. Reading helps us think about God, our faith and human relationships; at times, it affirms our understanding, and, in true moments of grace, shifts our viewpoints.

Lori: A week before COVID shut the world down, my longtime colleague and friend retired after 47 years of ordained ministry. I miss having daily access to his encyclopedic knowledge and Rolodex memory, but I have inherited at least 20 boxes of his books. Many in his library draw me back, but they intermingle with my own books, which often rearticulate or reclaim theologies in new and expansive ways. Without the ongoing discipline of reading and the pursuit of understanding, my preaching will become anemic, my pastoral care will become sentimental, and my capacity for institutional leadership will lack the theological foundation necessary to withstand change.

Chris: Daniel Heller wrote an essay recently for the New Yorker, titled ‘The End of the English Major,’ in which a professor of English admits he reads less than he used to because of the impact technology and screen time have on his habits and work life. Knowing that in the future we may have less time to read or make less time to read due to the tyranny of the schedule or the tyranny of the smartphone, what books would you say are necessary reading in how they have transformed you and caused you to flourish or how they have challenged you to more faithful discipleship?

Bridgett: Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of Black Community by Katie Geneva Cannon transformed me and caused me to flourish in my theological thinking, and therefore in my discipleship. In the nick of time during my theological education and after being thoroughly steeped in conversations that centered the voices and perspectives of White Christian, primarily cis-men, Dr. Cannon’s work articulated a theology that saw me as a Black woman and the Black church that shaped me. She articulated how particular forms of Christianities, especially those baptized in racism, classism and sexism, did not see Black women and tried to subjugate us. Yet Black church women, like those who raised me in life and faith, read the Bible in ways that allowed us to see and call out the injustices perpetrated upon our communities and be empowered by the Bible’s prophetic traditions to fashion values of our own to dismantle societal oppressions and to thrive within our humanity and our communities. Cannon taught me academically to be unapologetic as a Black woman and unashamedly Christian. In so doing, I am equipped both with knowledge and a deep desire for the well-being of others as part of my service to (worship of) God through my vocation as minister and professions as an ecclesial leader, a New Testament professor, and academic editor of biblical studies. It is important to have theological understandings and frameworks where we can recognize and see our own humanity as well as the humanity of others, especially when society, and at times the church, tries to marginalize and render us silent.

Lori: Certain books embody a profound theology of grace while revealing the beautiful and broken truths of life. Books like Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart, and more recently, Cole Arthur Riley’s breathtaking collection, This Here Flesh, come to mind. I am changed for having read them. In seminary, I was steeped in the theology of Barth, Calvin and Bonhoeffer. Reformed theology is etched in my bones and embodied in my identity as a pastor. However, a disturbing gap between the theological underpinnings of the church and my experiences as a clergywoman became unsurmountable. Not until I was introduced to feminist, womanist and mujerista theologies did my theological bones dance again!  Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is creates space and freedom while providing a bridge between the (patriarchal) theology I love and my identity and experiences as a woman.

Chris: I watched an interview with author Willie Morris who said that one of the most important roles in American life is the role of the junior high or high school English teacher. He talked about the impact his teacher had on him, helping him truly learn to read and develop a feeling for writing. He remarks in the interview that “long after television, movies and computers are gone, there will still be human beings writing words on the walls of caves.” Bookstores, libraries and beloved English teachers are not the only ‘outposts’ out in the world. How might Christian communities be places that encourage the life of the mind in service to God, the beauty and transformational power of the written word, and how might Christian communities encourage the lifelong habit and joy of reading books for the transformation of the world?

Bridgett: By sharing titles in our sermons, our Bible studies and classes of Christian formation, as well as in our conversations, we encourage the joy and life-giving habits of reading. And for those who are not always able to sit and read, we can promote audible books, as well. As Christians, let’s remember that reading and intellectual pursuits can be faithful responses to God’s love and the gospel of Jesus Christ as they allow for human flourishing. Human flourishing through literacy also aids in our flourishing as society and as participants in God’s kingdom — a relational, spatial, political and spiritual realm of God’s justice and liberation against oppression, destruction and death. God created us and desires for us passions that come from our minds, bodies, and souls. We do well to remember that we are people of logos, the Word, that is Jesus, the Christ.

Lori: Words are powerful. A single word can heal or destroy, bring hope or despair, forgive or condemn. Fourteen years ago, researchers from the University of California-San Diego indicated 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period! That computes into 34GB of television, radio, the web, texts, video games, voicemail, email, notes and – oh yes – books. Words matter, and yet they swirl and float among themselves in a very deep sea. There are only 895,891 words in the entire Bible (NRSV), but who has time?

Ours is an oral tradition. Truths are embodied in story and passed down from generation to generation. Some truths were eventually written down, while others were silenced or erased by the writers themselves. Those who ‘provide content’ have always held power. The last several years have been disorienting and divisive. The church was disembodied by the pandemic, the U.S. Surgeon General declared an epidemic of isolation and loneliness, we are facing a youth mental health crisis, and yet by God’s design, the church is uniquely equipped to gather and heal. We aren’t meant to go it alone. For people of faith, the life of the mind is only as good as the life of the body and soul. Yes, a book can enlighten, inform, and maybe even save, but a book is transformative when it is experienced together. The negotiation skills of many a three-year-old are well-honed on this fact. Perhaps in this existential moment we are in, churches are called to be storytellers, story catchers, story keepers and story cultivators. Within our stories, we expect and trust the mystery of God’s revelation in Christ.

Chris: I believe the gospel has a power that transcends the moment. We may be somewhere else in life, somewhere far away from the initial encounter, somewhere many years later, and suddenly something we heard in a sermon or in a hymn or something we received in the beauty of worship ambushes, illuminates, disrupts and transforms us. And I believe that is true for the books, stories and written words that swirl around us, accompany us, and hang onto us in
this earthly pilgrimage and life of discipleship.

Rev. Bridgett A. Green, Ph.D., serves as the vice president of publishing and editorial director of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

Lori Archer Raible is the senior pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has long been committed to the equipping and connecting of leaders with the PC(USA). Most recently, Lori’s theological interest has been focused on gender, congregational leadership, and the reformed tradition.