On a recent Saturday morning I had a curious, unexpected experience – I witnessed something delightful and intriguing. It has stayed with me and I feel the need to share it with you – let you ponder it a little.
My daughter had some early testing for high school so I was up before the rest of my family. I got a craving for pain au chocolat (a chocolate croissant) and decided to drop by a Panera Bread that recently opened up in a student neighborhood near my home. I got my pastry and a cup of coffee and sat down to read the paper before getting home to my family.
The Panera was not busy or crowded at 8 a.m on a Saturday morning. But I quickly noticed that several of the booths were peopled by pairs of young men reading the Bible together. They were all youngish – in their 20s. They all seemed a little scarred, marked. Not dirty, not threatening. Most were wearing varieties of baggy canvas jackets with capacious pockets. (I confess, at first blush, they looked like ex-cons.) But most significantly each booth – there were half a dozen – contained one man reading to another from a very small, portable, paperback Bible. They were each reading quietly and earnestly. And they were each being listened to intently.
As near as I could tell there was no group leader. They were not sitting in a group. They were distinctly in pairs. I supposed it could have been a small Bible study group. Perhaps it was a dozen men doing some prep work before an AA meeting. It most struck me as perhaps a meeting of parolees. I did not intrude on them to ask.
But the sight, the image, the very attentive dialogue I could see happening at each table – not dogmatic, not a harangue, not one-sided, not loud – has stayed with me. And sparked several thoughts.
It is true that once upon a time – for over 300 years – the Bible was the one thing shared by families as a source of common, shared reading, moral instruction, and discussion. The Bible was a source of common culture. I often make this observation in presenting to groups about reading aloud because families reading children novels aloud are merely an extension of that long lost tradition. Some families certainly still read Bible verses and stories together. But it is no longer a ubiquitous aspect of common culture.
And in truth the very notion of a common culture is waning. Today we are fragmented into our own generational, vocational, and extra-curricular niche interests. Common culture today can now be found in mass media events like the Super Bowl or American Idol or an occasional film like Avatar. Rarely any more is it a book. A series like Harry Potter – that somehow manages to reel in more than one generation- is the rare exception. But gang-buster best-sellers like Cold Mountain or the Da Vanci Code are no longer really sources of common culture – not like a film like the Godfather or a book like Erich Segal’s Love Story was in the 1970s.
The Bible is still surely a source of common culture – but it ain’t like it used to be. I am certain that if we did a Biblical reference identification test among our fellow Americans (or Canadians), we as a population would not do very well – much less well then if we had compared results from a century ago. I recall that when I wrote a screenplay about Pontius Pilate a decade ago, I polled friends and colleagues and acquaintances just to see who knew who Pontius Pilate was. Even among largely college educated adults the results were dispiriting. Harry Potter and the latest American Idol winner are sure to do better on such a test than Pontius Pilate or Cold Mountain.
But the men in the Panera Bread booths were engaging in an act of common culture. Individually (or in pairs) they were fervently consuming a shared text, and just as intently exploring and sharing it with their discussion and dialogue. It was a small example – or it seemed that way to me – of the value and power of a common text – and of sharing it by reading aloud. I doubt very much whether the men involved would have appreciated or mined their text as well had they not shared it that way. Had they not listened to another read it – and bounced their impressions off of each other. That, I am sure, is the power and value of reading aloud. Of creating and re-inforcing a shared artifact of common culture. We encourage families to do it. But anybody can. Married or courting couples can do it. Circles of friends can do it. Book clubs can do it. Teachers and classes can do it. And of course families can do it. In fact, as with the Bible, it starts with the family.