May 4, 2012

Everything Matters: Reading as a Cultural Act

Editor's Note: On Fridays we're hosting a series called Everything Matters, where guests share why the work of their particular vocational fields is a cultural act. Each installment serves as a response to the post, Creating a High Calling Culture.

There is a cute graphic floating around the internet, a spoof on the old, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs” ad campaign. It shows iconographic images of children and reports, “These are your kids.” Below this are the same children now transformed into imagined geniuses: a wizard, a cowboy, a deep-sea diver. “These are your kids on books.”

Writing is obviously a cultural act with its new phrases and new ideas, but reading? Is the poster true? Can the act of reading itself transform us from ho-hum ordinary to new creations--cultural leaders, even?

The poster has garnered such appreciation and joy because it is true. Children who are read to, and who then enter the alternative worlds of fiction, poetry, memoir, history, science—well, they become more interesting people. Reading creates new possibilities as we enter those worlds offered by writers. We enter a pact with them to follow their trails, imagine their places, absorb their insights. As a result, we grow, improving the culture-making possibilities as we ourselves are transformed.

Yes, reading matters!

As changed people engage the world, we do so differently and thereby re-construe that world, or some small part of it. After reading Teju Cole’s novel of an African med student who walks through New York in Open City, I doubt if I will walk through cities again in quite the same way; I have learned to notice things just a bit more acutely. After reading the cry for criminal justice reform by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, I will not hear news of drug busts in the black community without thinking of the racist overlays of our disproportionate arrests leading to mass incarceration. After reading N.T. Wright’s recent study of the gospels in How God Became King, I will not read the Bible quite the same way again. And after devouring the hilarious collection of holy capers as told by Bob Goff in Love Does, I simply cannot be so lackluster and demur about faith and action.

In none of these cases have I been led to become a full-time activist or grand cultural reformer. Consider the words I chose to describe the impact of these printed pages: I now notice, hear, read, and respond, differently. Books shape us like that, occasionally as a lightening bolt, perhaps, but often as a small matter of formation. We forge tiny new paths in our fallen world as we live in (even slightly) altered ways, based on small changes in perspective, insight, and imagination.

In God’s economy, where everything matters, books help us become culture-makers as they help us see anew.

Interestingly, one Facebook comment under the “This is your kids on books” graphic caught me off-guard. An angry fellow exclaimed that this is what is wrong with allowing kids to read any-old-thing: They might become wizards and witches. Perhaps not realizing the playfulness of the poster (recall the old “Reading Rainbow” song and its promise that books can take you places for fun and enrichment), he was promptly shouted down by many who accused him of being a killjoy.

But I’m not so sure. The power of a book to transform us is not always benign. Culture-making—cultivating the possibilities in God’s world and making something flourish for the common good as a way to honor Christ and serve our neighbors—happens on a planet rife with idols. We inhabit a glorious creation, but there are demons and dangers. The Bible warns us not to be seduced; not to allow our minds to be “taken captive.” Reading is not only an artful way of growing and of being transformed, it is a battleground, with books shaping us, sometimes toward dysfunction and worse. We just may re-make the world in toxic ways.

Reading is an act that bears fruit, for better or for worse.

Scripture reminds us to be discerning and that includes being aware of the assumptions and values between the lines of the books we read. Yes, the man complaining about the poster was a bit dour. We needn’t be so censorious. But we should be aware. We are faithful when we enjoy the best of an author but think well about her vantage point, her perspective, her worldview. As we grow in the art of discernment, we will read more wisely, and live more faithfully, touched by writers and their gifts, allowing them—with discretion—to turn us into, well, cowboys and wizards and more.

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The "Everything Matters" Collection

 

Image by Joel Bedford. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Byron Borger. Byron and his wife, Beth, run Hearts & Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, where they "serve business folk, scientists, artists, college students, moms, dads (and kids!), pastors, poets and politicos." They also carry the books listed above.

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