Reading as Discipleship

This fall, I have gotten to start a new adventure: I’m participating in the Newbigin Fellowship through our church in San Francisco. I’ll spare you all the details (and the exciting reading list!), although you can follow the links and poke around to find out more. But as I’ve been reading, I’ve been frantically scribbling notes to myself to share with you on the blog. This will be probably be one of many Newbigin-fueled posts!

Two weeks ago, I had the fantastic privilege of going on retreat with the other Newbigin Fellows up to Lake Tahoe. (Totally unrelated: I always imagine Tahoe and the surrounding mountains when I read The Great Divorce, or the “Further Up and Further In” chapter in The Last Battle.) Our retreat was led by James KA Smith, whose writing I’ve reflected on a little here. I happily regressed into full-nerdy-student mode, sitting in the front row and feverishly taking notes.

On Sunday morning, our Scripture was Colossians 3:12-17. Dr Smith spoke about the metaphor of “putting on” Christ, noting that (no surprise to anyone with kids!) getting dressed is an acquired skill. It takes lots of practice. The virtues that Paul lists in this passage don’t come to us naturally. Just like the “habit” of getting dressed, the “habits” of Christlikeness can only the be result of a “second” nature, acquired, through grace, by practice and imitation.

We imitate Christ first of all, but elsewhere Paul exhorts the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Most of us learn how to live the Christian life – to “put on Christ” – by watching those more mature in the faith. We see others who are patient, or loving, or humble, and we try to practice what they do. We keep trying, and pray to God’s Spirit to help those habits become ours as well.

Well, no surprise here: this got me thinking about reading with my kids. Specifically, I started thinking about missionary biographies and stories about saints past. I love these kinds of books. And Dr Smith’s Sunday sermon helped me name why. It’s not just because they’re sort of vaguely inspiring. It’s because they offer concrete examples (for my kids and for me!) to imitate. They capture my imagination and make me excited about the possibilities of the Christian life. They often make me feel, keenly, how half-hearted and perfunctory my own discipleship is. As a result, these books are terribly compelling.

So, since that weekend, I’ve been dragging out some of our saints books and biographies that have been buried lately. I’m ready to get busy with my kids, reading to practice discipleship!

If you’re looking for some books to start with, check out some of our reviews here. Or offer your own suggestions: who do you find worthy of imitation? What books have been little schools in virtue for you?


12 thoughts on “Reading as Discipleship

  1. The Newbigin group sounds fantastic. Just don’t let it lure you into staying in CA longer than you must. Your MN book group misses you too much!

    Last night my Charlotte Mason group met and talked about habits, so this post fits right in with what’s been on my mind this week. CM talks about habits near constantly, as I’m sure you know, and has so many helpful things to say about habit formation. Actually, the video my group was discussing made mention of how in CM education the books being read are completely intertwined with the work of building good habits!

    Anyway, getting to my point… I’d say that novels providing “negative” models can be just as helpful to discipleship as biographies that provide shining models of faith. They can help us see the tragedy of our own waywardness and the ugliness of our own sinfulness and thereby give us the nudge we need to make our way back to Christ for another round of repentance, Spirit empowerment, and growth towards godliness. I, at least, have several characters from novels that reside in my imagination and when I start to become too much like them alarms start going off and I remember, “There’s a better way!”

    • Oh, Haley, I couldn’t agree more. Can I say Charity? Or Isabel Archer? Reading Crossing to Safety, in particular, totally changed my life — I feel like Charity Lang inhabits a corner of my imagination, and while I have sympathy for her (and for the parts of me like her) I am terrified of what would happen if I gave in to her particular temptations!

  2. I probably don’t need to say it. But I will. I am so, so jealous of you getting to be a Newbigin fellow! What an absolutely splendid program. It makes me want to do the same out of our own house! 🙂

    I can’t wait to read you Newbigin-fueled reflections.

    As for recommendations, The Story of Ruby Bridges is at the top of my list.

    • You know, I’ve had the same thought about the fellowship — that it would be really neat to focus a small group around its curriculum for 9 months or so. It might be harder to attract big name speakers, but a lot of reading and discussion could still happen! I say go for it!

      I’m 100% with you on Ruby Bridges – especially since it’s not particularly “aimed” at a Christian readership, so it lacks some of the more churchy-insider assumptions that some missionary biographies can have. I fear those assumptions can sometimes obscure the attractiveness of those lives to those outside the church. I know you grew up listening to missionary biographies – what do you think?

  3. Thank you for posting this because it was one of the things that led me to buying Desiring the Kingdom (my husband had just listened to the podcasts, too) and I’m excited to see how it will influence our homeschooling.

    On a side note, your church planted my church here in Marin (just over the GG Bridge), so it’s fun to get a peek into that program which we heard a lot about back when it was getting started. I, too, am a little jealous, but I know I couldn’t possibly do that and homeschool (if you’re doing both, I’d love to hear about it!)…perhaps when the kids are a bit older 🙂

    • Oh please, do let me know what you think of Desiring the Kingdom, and your thoughts on how it relates to homeschooling! We’re not homeschooling right now, but I’m so thankful for how the book has helped me think critically about what IS happening at my children’s schools and the role of our church community (in addition to our home) as a place of counter-formation.

      And I had no idea our churches were so closely connected. What a small world!

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