Emotional Bible Reading, Online Community, and the Power of Picture Books

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Redemptive Communities … Online?

Jeffrey Bilbro on how our public sphere deforms us

Everyone knows that our public sphere is polarised, but is there space for Christians to move redemptively within it? Not unless we understand how profoundly deforming our public sphere is for the Christian imagination, writes Jeff Bilbro in this illuminating essay. Bilbro highlights three key aspects of our public sphere: 

  1. It is secular, locked into present happenings with no opening to eternal things.

  2. It is meta-topical, meaning that it draws our attention away from the people and places front of us and into “a single, coherent (if diffuse) conversation occurring simultaneously in many places about many issues”.

  3. It is an extension of the market, always transforming human communication into a commodity (hello, Facebook advertising).

The public sphere needn’t be a bad thing, but for many people it is the only thing, more central in their lives than family, place, ethnic group, or religious tradition. The result? When we get lonely, we scroll social media or watch the news. We seek belonging in online environments that very rarely form communities. They form swarms.

If Christians do not realise the unhealthy dynamics of our public square, even the best truthful content will be co-opted. What can we do?

Our engagement in the public sphere can only be redemptive to the extent that it is predicated on prior commitments—most fundamentally commitments to loving God and our neighbors. If these are indeed our primary commitments, we may learn about and respond to current events from a posture characterized by loving attention to the needs of our places and by a profound sense of our participation in God’s ongoing drama. In general terms, there are two sets of practices that can help us feel and think within healthy communities. The first category entails practices of joining that root our identity in embodied communities. The second category entails participating in the media in ways that counter the particular, warping pressures of the public sphere.

Read Forming Redemptive Communities Outside the Digital Public Sphere over at Theopolis to learn more. It’s an excerpt from Jeff Bilbro’s excellent new book, Reading the Times A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News.

The Power of Picture Books

John Hutton and Sarah MacKenzie on childhood brain formation

Do you ever read to the children in your life? It’s far more than a way to pass the time. The simple act of reading aloud, especially picture books, has brain-altering benefits that follow children into the future.

These are the findings of experts like John Hutton of the Reading and Literacy Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. In this episode of Read Aloud Revival, Hutton shares fascinating findings about the effects of reading on childhood brain activity. In one study, pre-reading children (~4 and under) were monitored during their introduction to the same story in three different formats.

  • Listening to a picture book read aloud resulted in high connectivity in separate areas of the child’s brain — those used for language, visual input, and imagination. 

  • The audiobook activated these areas (especially the language region), but findings showed a strain between the brain’s networks, indicating the content was too difficult for the child.

  • The animated version resulted in a disconnect between the brain’s networks. The visual took over as the child’s brain was dominated by the stimulus of the images, without much engagement in the language or imagination regions.

Their conclusion? Particularly at a young age, a picture book read aloud provides the essential connection between words and the things they represent. This is ideal since a young child’s experience with the world is still in the earliest phase of construction. Activating these different regions of the child’s brain through hearing picture books read aloud builds strong neural connections between language, images, and imagination — connections which affect the child’s brain development far beyond their reading capabilities. 

Listen to What Happens In Your Child’s Brain When You Read Aloud and check out Sarah MacKenzie’s book, The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids. Next time you’re with a child in your life, grab a quality picture book to read. You’ll be building their brains, it’s true, and so much more.

You Can’t Understand the Bible if You Don’t Love Poetry

Matthew Mullins and Dru Johnson on enjoying the Bible

The Bible is a book of divinely inspired information with clear, straightforward moral applications for our everyday lives. Right?

Maybe. This common idea about the Bible can make Scripture seem like an instruction manual. Instruction manuals aren’t written for enjoyment, so is it any wonder that so many Christians are incapable of enjoying God’s word? That reading it is more drudgery than delight?

In a recent episode of the The Biblical Mind, Dru Johnson chats with Matthew Mullins about his new book, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures. The Bible is one of the great literary works of all time (and a God-breathed one at that!). As with a novel or a poem, the path to meaning is not primarily through direct explanation, Mullins insists, “but through the creation of an imaginative world and the evocation of an emotion.”

These emotional responses are a pathway to joy. Dru Johnson puts it like this in the interview:

Understanding the Bible as a piece of literature helps you find a sense of joy in what you’re reading. It’s kind of like being married versus thinking about being married. Once you’ve crossed over, the joy of being married isn’t what you thought it was going to be, but now that you know it, there is a certain kind of joy derived from it being not what you thought.

An information-centered reading often inoculates us to Scripture’s power, but Enjoying the Bible points readers toward forms and practices of reading that cultivate a different attitude.

Listen to How to Enjoy Reading the Bible over at The Biblical Mind, or check out the book.

In the waters of Indonesia there resides a small, aggressive creature called the mantis shrimp. With quadruple the amount of photoreceptors in its eyes as homo sapiens, the mantis shrimp can perceive colours otherwise unknown to us.

That there is more to reality than what we see is not controversial for many people of faith. Yet the relationship of our natural, earthly lives with the supernatural and heavenly is often unclear and seemingly unrelated.

Jim Paul’s What on Earth is Heaven? offers a robust and readable account of the relationship between heaven and earth, between the seen and the unseen. Jim insists that heaven is not a spatial location up in the clouds or awaiting us after death, but a qualitative aspect of the here and now. Heaven is the dimension of reality we experience whenever and wherever God’s will is done. When we are made aware of heaven, we begin to see doorways to it all around us. “In the end, we will find that we do not love heaven because it contains the things of this life,” Paul writes, “but that we loved this life because it contained the things of heaven.”

If this leaves you scratching your head, the central section of the book grounds this claim in a biblical theology of heaven and earth. The book closes with a consideration of what it means to take part in heaven while on earth and addresses the difficult question of what happens to us when we die. 

Written with humble confidence, What on Earth is Heaven? doesn’t provide more photoreceptors, but it does invite us, as another Paul once prayed, to open the eyes of our hearts and see the reality of God’s work in the world. It evoked in a me a desire for more tastes of God’s will being done in the truth, beauty and goodness of this life.

-Joshua Chestnut 


Johnston Baby 2 is due on June 5! Until then (and hopefully after), Phillip is revelling in the long-awaited Hampshire springtime and learning the regional blooms vis-a-vis the Flower Fairies, his firstborn’s current favourite companion volume.

Reading: Friday book group with D.C. Schindler’s Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness and Truth is bringing about discussions that are a highlight of Phillip’s week. He’s also preparing to teach on Proverbs, so Glenn Pemberton’s A Life That is Good is close by, along with Dru Johnson’s new Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments. The remarkable essays Paul Kingsnorth is churning out over at The Abbey of Misrule are also something to look forward to.

Listening: Phillip missed A.S. Peterson’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein a few years ago, but recently discovered an audio production in radio theatre style! All queued up for a woodland stroll. He’s also enjoying 30 Bach, a podcast on the enduring appeal Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for all kinds of people.


Writing: Andy has been doing translations and interpretations of the Psalms in poetic form. If you’d like to read them, email patton.andy@gmail.com and you’ll be put on the list. Here is Psalm 1.

Reading: Andy can’t put down The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. It is the mysterious, well-wrought story of a Christian missionary reaching out to an alien race. What could go wrong?

Listening: Ryan O’Neal of Sleeping At Last is known for his ambitious, highly-specific and esoteric album topics including: The Enneagram, the cardinal directions, and Earth’s oceans. Now he has released an album on the Solar System. It is beautiful, ethereal, and thought-provoking.

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