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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Capturing the Constellations

Written by: on November 19, 2019

In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Paris-based professor of French literature and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, has fused French satire with sheer brilliance. While the title suggests a hack’s guide to reading-by-never-reading, the book is a thoughtful examination of the art of reading. Throughout its pages, Bayard reveals how unrealistic it is for the civilized learner to read the library of tomes on a given subject. No one has the time to read what’s already been written, much less to stay up to speed on the vast amounts of books being published on a daily basis.

That said, the author is less interested in one’s ability to keep pace with the mass production of literature and far more in one’s ability to be thoughtfully conversant about the subject matter of a book. “Non-reading,” according to Bayard, “is a genuine activity.” (pg. 12) Different than the “absence of reading,” he identifies the “true reader” as “one who cares about being able to reflect on literature.” (pg. 12)

While much of the content of this book is common sense, where it stands apart is in its liberating invitation to establish a better relationship with reading. Rather than the consumption of knowledge, to read is to interpret.  It is to allow the content to be in conversation with what I know, what I think I know, what I agree with, what I disagree with, what I have read in the past, and what I have experienced. Bayard encourages us to identify books as “mobile objects” that are “animated by the subjectivity of the reader.” (pg. 148) He implores us to become untethered from “a whole series of mostly unconscious taboos that burden our notion of books,” (pg. 181) and right-size our relationship with reading.

For years, I’ve been drawn to constellations. I’m compelled by the mythical stories told by our ancestors of adventure and passion that are captured in cosmic formations such as Scropio, Cassiopeia, Orion, and Aquila. I so appreciate the imagery of unity in diversity and the celebration of both independence and interdependence that are expressed by each unique collection of stars in the night sky.

Borrowing this celestial concept, I’ve made it a priority to become surrounded by a “constellation” of leaders, coaches, and mentors who accompany me throughout my lifelong pilgrimage as a human, a white male, a husband, a father, a learner, a theologian, a faith leader, an author, and a social innovator. I exist within a “constellation” of peers who are committed to challenging and encouraging one another.  As a family, we interact frequently with the idea of navigating our shared life as a constellation of individuals marked by both unity, expressed in our commitment to pursuing a mission, in relationship, and on purpose, and diversity, expressed in our celebration of one another’s uniqueness, giftedness, and independence.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was drawn to Bayard’s idea that books make up systems that are intended to provoke, inspire, irritate, and mobilize. Each book like independent stars, when linked, form constellations of resources that grow thoughtfulness, encourage discourse, and stimulate new ideas. As his expertise is in literature rather than astronomy, Bayard understands each book as “an element in the vast ensemble” he calls the “collective library” and argues that we need not know each book (star) “comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements…. The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.” (pg. 117) He concludes that it is more important to understand a particular book’s role in our collective libraries than to meticulously understand the detailed arguments that lie within.

I’m impressed by the timeliness of this read in relation to our current learning location as Doctoral students. Having gained clarity on our NPO, we are now beginning to explore the vast cosmos of literature that lies in front of us. Quite literally, we’re entering into a literary Planetarium in search of the stars that form the constellations of books that will inform the next two-and-a-half years and, hopefully far beyond. In his book, Bayard offers a four-category rating system for the collective library. (Bayard, 182) I want to reflect briefly on these four categories in an effort to highlight how a conversation about books that lie within each could contribute to the formation of our research constellations.

  • UB: A book that is unknown to me. While the details of this artifact are unfamiliar, the subject matter and general argument seem to dwell within the constellation, making this a book that I can reflect on in relationship with others that I’m more familiar with. Throughout the conversation, I will listen for the meta-themes to my project in order to ascertain the value and/or distinct contribution that this book would add to my project.
  • SB: A book that I have skimmed. Here lies a book that I have some situational awareness of with regard to the title, its author, and its key idea.  In conversation about books in this category, I will ask penetrating questions to excavate the more subtle nuances that others have picked up in their more thorough exploration of the text.
  • HB: A book I have heard about. Familiarity with what others have said about books in this category will help me locate it within my constellation and reflect on the larger themes and ideas that show up within. Utilizing tools like GoodReads and Blinkist, I will dive bit deeper into the content in order to discern the role this book could play in my research.
  • FB: A book I have forgotten. With humility, there are untold remarkable and unremarkable books that I have read and simply do not recall that could provide value to the research in front of me.  I already have begun to scour syllabi of past course-work and annual reading lists that I have compiled in an effort to remember the dimming stars to my research constellation.

I am awakening to a whole new universe made up of constellations of literature.  I’m eager to capture the essence of each, not simply to become conversant, but in order to become transformed.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

19 responses to “Capturing the Constellations”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    When I was young I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved the stars and the vast wonder of the solar system. When you wrote: “…we’re entering into a literary Planetarium in search of the stars that form the constellations of books that will inform the next two-and-a-half years and, hopefully far beyond,” I was reminded of when I was little and that desire to see up close those lights I could only see from afar. I’m still not quite sure of where my NPO will settle. But I will be more mindful to situate all the pieces a little more thoughtfully, hoping that in some way, a constellation will emerge, revealing shape and form.

    You concluded with words like “essence” and “transformed.” How have you seen those realities play out thus far in your research for your NPO?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy,

      What’s been most humbling thus far is facing the reality that what is broken around me is an external manifestation of what is broken within me. As the constellations have come into focus, so has the realization that I could “capture” them, reflect on them, write about them, and generate an artifact because of them without ever allowing the interior work to occur. I’ve been groomed to master content. But the opportunity in front of me (and, I would argue, all of us) is to allow ourselves to become mastered by the content such that the person who writes and creates is a difference, better version of ourselves than we are today.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        So interesting you mention the internal transformational process before each of us. Having just rolled out of seminary, I know this reality too well. In fact, every class I took for my Mdiv was internally transformational on some level. So when we all met in London, and I didn’t hear that type of language in the “why I’m here” introductions, I began to pray, asking God to do that work first and foremost within each of us, before we are sent to care for others. To not allow it to happen, I believe, is a disservice to those around us. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. Such a glimmer of grace for God to allow me to see so quickly evidence of that which was placed so heavily on my heart to pray for our cohort.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          Out of curiosity, if not transformation, what did you hear in the initial introductions in London?

          • Darcy Hansen says:

            Jer,
            The idea of transformation was present, but to me it felt like it was more transformation for external systems and communities rather than an internal, personal transformation. If personal formation was mentioned, it sounded like “How do I acquire better leadership skills for this season of ministry?” (which felt business-y, to me) rather than “How will God transform my spirit in such a way that those holy changes would impact my external surroundings?” Not that business and spiritual are mutually exclusive. Formation absolutely happens on both levels. I have been in a seminary context for the past 6 years, with a focus specifically on spiritual formation, where the language is different than other ministry contexts, so in large part, it was more what I heard rather than what was said or not said. Does that make sense?

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, you have a gift of a persuasive personage and lexicon. I’m moved by the imagery of a constellation when considering the voices and concepts that surround us. To make one more connection from your observation – just as the cosmic constellations carry a story of meaning, so do the collective constellations of thought. They are driven by a narrative to which we lift our eyes, giving us hope and drive to press on through the Conflict. I’m honored to consider you and the rest of the cohort in my constellation.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      That’s right. I agree Shawn. Just this morning I was reflecting with my team on this concept of constellations and recognized that each one is populated with the “stars” of literature, experience, and relationship. Each constellation is alive and tells a unique story. The limitation of the illustration is that a constellation is to fixed. It’s not a living system. Perhaps I swap metaphors as this process progresses, but for now, it’s helpful.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Thanks for the powerful imagery! Like the others i am honored to have you in my constellation of peers. You summed up Bayard be stating “it is more important to understand a particular book’s role in our collective libraries than to meticulously understand the detailed arguments that lie within.” I would agree with this in most cases. I do believe when it comes to the Bible a meticulous understanding is called for so we can avoid being tossed and turned by every wind of doctrine that sounds enticing.
    I too have had this book awaken in me to a world of new possibilities. I pray I can do justice to this new found excitement with literature.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Greg!

      In some ways, I agree with your sentiment about the Scriptures and in other ways your conviction causes me to wonder.

      From my view, the Bible is an indigenous manual written by occupied and oppressed people who were sorting out the complexities of life in relationship with God, self, others, and the planet. It’s a wonderful, imperfect, self-contradicting book streaked with the fingerprints of humanity that is authoritative (yet not THE authority) in that it points to Jesus (who is THE authority). It’s a book that has inspired myriad of interpretations/theologies.

      Thus, where your comment gives me caution is with regard to the “meticulous understanding” required of the text. It begs the question, “Whose meticulous understanding?” Yours? Mine? A liberation theologian’s? A queer theologian’s?

      What if each of us takes an integral theodyssey through the Scriptures that result in “meticulous understandings” that differ from one another? What do we do then?

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    I agree that “meticulous understanding” can be a concern if we allow it to be liberally guided by personal opinion and experience. I should also clarify that to me meticulous understanding doesn’t mean unreasonable dissection. Current translation attempts focus on seeing scripture through social translation tools and other ways to dissecting an ancient text to get 21st century results. Can a scientific mindset and approach truly bring clear understanding of the mind of God when Paul tells us that a part from the Holy Spirit it is impossible. The point I am making rests on a couple of personal convictions. One: A meticulous understanding should fall within proper exegetical interpretation which requires specific rules. Two: I believe the bible is God breathed and was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Though it has a human element it also has a divine element as well.Therefore it is more than a history book. How else can we explain a book written over several centuries made up of 66 books from multiple broken individuals having a single message of hope along with a great level of unity. I also openly acknowledge it wasn’t written to 21st century christians but is written for all believers in Christ. Proper biblical exegesis requires scripture to be understood through the context of the author’s message and the audience to which it was written prior to application. Each author had a purpose for what they wrote. If we don’t understand the author’s purpose how can we truly apply what we read. Scripture is suppose to translate scripture and the individual meaning viewed through the unity of the whole as well as the context of the whole. I am sure you have read several books discussing the common principles of the biblical interpretation process. The problem is we break these rules all the time and take the liberty to put our personal opinion and experience into a book that was not written in 21st century thought. I personally don’t feel I have the right to make the bible say what I want it to say. I try to interpret my experiences through scripture not scripture through my experiences. Frankly at times I wish I could. I wish it was clean and clear on every topic but it isn’t. Where it speaks I try to speak where it is silent I try hard to stay silent. There are more grey areas than what I would like but I rest in my faith in the promise that the word of God doesn’t return void. For some, rules are a way of restricting one’s thoughts and choices. For me they provide a safety net around a freedom that can easily be misused and abused. Despite the abuses the scripture has experienced throughout history it has withstood the test of time. It alone holds the words leading to eternal life and provides a wisdom designed to confound the smartest of scholars. Why God chose to use broken people to reach broken people is a question I often ponder. Since Christianity is in many ways just one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread of life the abundant never ending grace of God is a treasure to embrace. Can we really separate Jesus as the authority from the Bible, especially since much of His teaching refers to the Old Testament scripture? Can a person truly embrace the authority of the Jesus in scripture apart from the authority of scripture? Thanks for the feedback.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I’m grateful for such a robust response, Greg. And for this dialogue.

      It seems to me that you critique “current translation attempts” as though ancient translation attempts weren’t also made through the lenses of contemporary understanding. I wonder if we were to arrive to a place of alignment on the “ideal” translation of the Scriptures, that that we’d agree that that translation wasn’t also & equally marred by interpretative lenses that were informed by bias?

      I’m certain that you and I could get into a deeper conversation about this, yet I want to point out (and, perhaps, celebrate) that we’re currently doing exactly what Bayard suggests that books are intended to do: namely, to inspire thoughtful, directional, transformational conversation.

      And…for what it’s worth, yes, I do think that it’s essential that we separate Jesus from the Scriptures as the authority. From my view, Scripture as authoritative and Jesus as authority is a HUGE, deeply significant difference.

      Before I offer my thoughts on the difference, how would you interact with that sentiment?

      • mm Greg Reich says:

        Jer,
        I would love to go deeper. I can sense your heart and convictions in what you write. Sadly I fear the limits of this format promotes a tendency toward assumptions most likely due to my choice of words and limited ability to communicate what I am trying to say. As I reread our conversation I realize that through some of my broad statements, choice of words and limited space you were lead to assume that I feel ancient criticism methodologies or methods of exegesis are better than current methods. This is not the case, Each method has value and a set of rules by how they function. I do have concerns (not disapproval) that criticism methods such as Sociological Criticism are not always meant to bring new understanding to the text, as much as, they are to be an intellectual exercise for academics. Alas Adler proves true in that a reader can’t really judge a text until he learns the heart of the writer. I respect and value your insight and would love th find a different venue to hear you heart and learn from you wisdom. This format sadly is very limited and the ability to truly be detailed is lacking.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I’ve heard you talk and write about the important distinction between information and transformation. Certainly one of the challenges in the church is when our focus is solely on acquiring knowledge and greater understanding, without any of the practice or experience that helps us make better sense of what we are learning. Playing with your imagery, what are some ways we can teach our people to move from the safety of looking at the stars through a telescope to the adventure of boarding a rocket ship and reaching for them?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Relationship.

      From my view, at some point in our formation, we have to move from “learning about” to “learning from.”

      Relationships (especially with folk who are not like “me”) are the “rocket ship.”

      What do you think?

      • mm John McLarty says:

        I think that’s right. And I think that answer parallels what Nancy posted on her blog and hesitancy we sometimes have in entering into those relationships.

  6. Nancy Blackman says:

    Jer,
    I love the analogy of surrounding yourself with a constellation of leaders. It shows that you recognize the beauty of each person surrounding you. That’s beautiful.

    By the end of your doctorate research I’m sure your UB section will be much smaller!

    How do you imagine the “unreading” that Bayard refers to will become a part of your research process? Or will it?

  7. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Thanks Nancy.

    Unreading is already informing my research as I’m learning that within each “constellation,” there are primary and secondary stars. I’m learning to pay a different level of attention to the primary stars than I do the “dimmer” stars. While it’s important to me to be conversant in what the dimmer stars have to say, I want to know the arguments and limitations of the brighter stars.

    What’s been your process so far?

    • Nancy Blackman says:

      Jer,
      Before I answer your question, I thought I would share Krista Tippett’s “On Being” latest podcast with you as it is related to one of your fascinations — https://onbeing.org/programs/marilynne-robinson-marcelo-gleiser-the-mystery-we-are/

      Apparently, Marilynne Robinson and Marcelo Gleiser believe there is a connection between the cosmos and understanding the human mind.

      In answer to your question, my process over the years has been to surround myself with people that can share with a gift of vulnerability and wisdom. I don’t place boundaries on these people. I think we can hear from the youngest as well as the eldest. That’s the non-Korean side coming out of me — ha ha!

      I think we can also learn from the homeless. I used to have the most amazing theological conversations with a woman whom I served at a skid row facility in Los Angeles.

      I’m curious why you place more value on the brighter stars? What makes their voice or thoughts more impactful for you?

  8. mm Steve Wingate says:

    So sorry to be late to the game. “where it stands apart is in its liberating invitation to establish a better relationship with reading.”

    This is a personal endeavor of the pastorate for me: reading, interpreting, and speaking. One of my pastors, Dr. Jeff Crosno wrote a wonderful article speaking to the pastor is the chief reader.

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