This past weekend, I attended a symposium, celebrating the life of Pauli Murray, a Black, queer, feminist legal scholar and Episcopal priest from the last century. It was an enlightening and encouraging event and I recommend everyone look her up and learn more about her amazing life.
But that's not what I'm here to write about this week.
During one of the panels, a panelist brought up how she believed that we, as a culture hate reading, that clergy seldom realize how little their parishioners read (or, rather, how much time clergy spend reading in comparison to most laity), that there are endless resources for all of us if we just took the time to read. She brought this up in response to a question from the floor, I believe, and after she said all this she summed up with, "We don't know our history." (I probably have grossly misrepresented her words, which were eloquent, but I think this is the gist.)
I was floored that someone said this for me. She said it for me. She didn't know and maybe I should track her down and let her know, but it was terribly affirming for me.
Because I'm a reader.
I've always been a reader and while I know many people who are much more voracious readers, it's just a part of my identity. I don't know how to not be in a book. (Unless it's when I'm in a play, as I was recently, and then I'm reading and re-reading the script.)
And, honestly, I've experienced the church not reading and it always disappoints me.
You've experienced this, too, I bet. You may even have been the person I'm about to complain about. It's okay. Jesus still loves you and I probably (probably) do, too. But here we go.
There's a study group or book group and you come excited for the conversation.
And no one has done the reading. Even if it's a relatively short assignment (which, to me, is under 20 pages), most people have not done the reading. Still everyone shows up because they want to hear about what everyone else read.
Which is, you know, cool. I've achieved some sort of resignation about this.
But it's also disappointing. In my more bitter moments, I refer to the resulting conversations as "sharing the ignorance of the ages."
It's hard to come out as disappointed about these things because we live in a time where we're stuck between some people encouraging education and other people being anti-intellectual. There are the people who revel in expanding knowledge and there are those who dismiss the pursuers of knowledge as "elitist."
I don't pretend---education creates as many chasms between people as it builds bridges. I know that, have experienced that.
But more than movies or internet articles, reading books, getting a longer narrative, getting a broader view of any one subject, is how we become a knowledgeable people.
The panelist is right---it brings us a sense of history and where we fit into it.
There used to be a phenomenon that I'm not sure exists anymore, but communities used to form around bookstores. Feminists found each other at the woman-centric bookstore. The gay bookstore was a place for the newly coming out to find out about what other gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender folk experienced. Religious bookstores served much the same purpose. They were touchstones for communities, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or . . .
Reading connects people, helps them build their own identities and creates empathy for people who have different identities.
And it plays into class issues. We have to be real about that, too. There is a reason for the stereotype of a well read bore, the ivory tower elite who is out of touch with people outside their income and education bracket. I've experienced it. I've done it. I've already said education creates chasms as well as bridges.
Look, as a Christian of the Lutheran heritage, I don't believe that being a reader has anything to do with the wider themes of grace, mercy, forgiveness, or salvation. I believe that we all have access to these regardless of, well, anything. Reading can, however, open up such themes, bring them into wider and deeper understanding.
I simply wish more people liked to read. I do believe reading opens up our hearts as well as our heads. It helps us experience things vicariously which can build empathy. It can give you knowledge that helps you form not only opinions but informed opinions, which are much easier to put into action in meaningful ways. It expands our imaginations and helps us picture a better world.
We can appreciate who we are, what our heritage is (the good and the bad of it) and begin to see a path for building something upon foundations laid by those who have come before us even as we work to correct their mistakes. Reading helps us avoid the problem of sharing the ignorance of the ages.
(Unless, of course, you're reading crap books---but that's perhaps a different rant for another time.)