Today, Reformed Margins is pleased to present an interview with professor and author Brian J. Wright.
Brian, thank you for taking the time to speak with us and our readers today.
Your new book, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus, argues that scholarship — and perhaps the church — has missed something as we try to understand the way religious traditions were shared and even passed down through generations. What are we missing?
The problem, as I see it, is that the entire subject of communal reading, its role in controlling literary traditions, its influence on spiritual and social formation, etc., has been largely neglected in early Christian studies. In fact, that seems to be why Brian Rosner (Principal, Ridley College) calls my study “a missing piece in the puzzle.”
How might a greater understanding of communal reading practices strengthen our confidence in Scripture?
My book demonstrates how another quality control acted as a conserving force over the transmission of the Bible. I was reminded of how important and inescapable discussions regarding the reliability of the Scriptures are when I was teaching an apologetics course at Palm Beach Atlantic University earlier this year. Here’s what I mean.
Many quality controls were functioning in the first century: eyewitnesses, writing, memorization, texts, etc. Collectively, they help us account for the transmission of the Christian tradition. Concerted attention, however, has not been given to communal reading as a quality control. Yet the earliest Christian communities sought to find the best way to read accurately their common literary inheritance. Whether it was a couple’s feedback to a teacher (Acts 18:26), a command written to a community (2 Thess 3:14), a noted concern from an apostle (2 Pet 3:16), or a warning for everyone who reads and hears what is written (Rev 22:18–19), communal reading events helped safeguard the Christian tradition.
Sometimes there was an endorsement from an apostle (Col 4:16), a decree from a council (Acts 16:4), or scrolls examined (Acts 17:11) in order to validate what was read at communal gatherings. Taken collectively, there was a sustained focus on communal reading events in relation to controlling literary traditions. This regular practice of reading texts communally necessarily points us in the direction of a more stable and reliable textual tradition.
As we think about applying the principles you discuss in your book to our current cultural moment, two obstacles immediately present themselves. First, literary reading is in steady decline. Second, as the American ideal of individualism has matured, communities have begun to disappear.
Let’s take them one at a time: how might communal reading combat the decline of literary decline?
At the most basic level, any type of reading would combat such a decline. But communal reading offers so much more. In fact, even in Mortimer Adler’s classical work, How to Read a Book, he notes the importance of reading with others. Merely reading by yourself is not good enough to gain a deep understanding of an author’s work. Developing more ideal, active readers can impact that decline more drastically than merely reading individually, it seems to me.
In chapter 4 of my book, for example, I note the social context of communal reading and how these events even impacted the moral and intellectual fabric of the entire empire. Then later in the book, referring specifically to Christian communities, you can see that the delight of and fruit from reading together was incalculable. At the end of the day, I think the same can and does occur today when put into practice.
How might communities look to reading as a way to strengthen and enhance their community?
I think 21st century Christian communities can look to 1st century Christian communities and draw both inspiration and instruction from them. Turning just to the New Testament, we quickly see how reading in community was able to settle debates (Acts 15:16–30), provide opportunities to rejoice together (Acts 15:31), and enhance unity (Acts 15:33). They brought the light of Christ to an unbelieving world (Acts 17:2). They commended people (Rom 16:1–2). They were able to understand Paul’s insights into the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4). All this strengthened and enhanced their respective communities, and the same can happen today if we’d read together.
Looking specifically to local churches, what are some practical ways that churches can make space for communal reading and encourage members to participate?
If you are a pastor or leader, I would first suggest identifying communal reading as a core value. If your church—in keeping with the NT—values reading, it will promote and foster congregants to read often and communally. In order to cultivate this practice of communal reading, create a church-wide reading list with various genres and opportunities to read them communally throughout the week. This is not a substitute for Scripture, but a supplement to it.
I also would recommend starting with an author or work most people have at least heard about, even if they’ve never read. For example, works by CS Lewis have always worked well for me as a starting point. Once people experience the multidimensional and social activity of reading together, I’ve found that it is easy to branch out to more unfamiliar names and works.
Finally, how might communal reading be a discipleship tool that can deepen our relationship with Christ and one another?
One thing that struck me as I was doing research for my book was the way in which Christians were noticeably distinct from every other reading community. One of the main ways Christians and their communal reading events stood out from their surrounding culture was their unique focus on spiritual formation. They didn’t write to make money, like Martial. They didn’t complain about their exiles or sufferings, like Ovid. They didn’t seek fame and status, like Propertius. They weren’t prideful in their accomplishments, like Juvenal. They read communally so that they and others would become more like Christ. It was about transformation.
So to answer your question, I would say that communal reading is a powerful discipleship tool because it aids understanding, fosters community, and promotes an interactive discussion of our common confession in ways other avenues do not. All of which can deepen our relationship with Christ and one another.