In-Between Spaces at Religious Book Clubs

What’s the difference between a book club, a church book club, and a Bible study group? The answer doesn’t lie in the books, the people, or the discussion, but in the results.

A book club is a little like Bible study: both are common ways to read together and think about a text’s influence on our lives. They’re also places where we socialize, talk about families and pop culture, eat snacks, and offer support. One reads scripture, one reads novels; one is “religious” and one isn’t.

What about the “church book club,” then? A fair number of Christian and Jewish religious communities have a book club that is separate from the scripture study group. In my dissertation research, I worked with several of these religious book clubs that were neither scripture study groups nor “secular” book clubs. Exploring how reading fits into our religious lives meant trying to figure out what made these religious book clubs unique.

On one hand, the religious book club’s members and setting are close to the scripture study group. They usually meet in the church or temple itself (although often in a location that has the fewest symbols or sacred spaces – e.g., the basement, the library, or the nursery). Their members are usually part of the congregation, and frequently include people with some degree of authority in the institution, such as the priest, the deacons, the rabbi, or the synagogue librarian. It’s definitely part of the infrastructure that surrounds and supports the “core” religious services of the institution, which kind of makes the people and place “religious” by association.

On the other hand, the actual activities of the religious book club are closer to the “secular” book club. They usually have very few restrictions about what texts they choose, or those restrictions are broad and vague. They read memoirs, biographies, novels, short stories, essays, nonfiction, and just about every genre out there. Like other book clubs, they may have meetings where people happily admit to not finishing (or not starting!) the month’s selection. They talk about characters and plot and use the text as a way to talk about their own lives, rather than trying to find connections and points of relevance in their lives. Texts are rarely if ever “religious,” and the conversations aren’t restricted to sacred subjects.

It seems like the texts and discussions stay close to the secular realm, even as the people and the setting remain quasi-religious. It’s almost a secular club that just happened to wander into a religious location. Many people who learned about my dissertation told me that these gatherings aren’t “really” religious. So why have a religious book club at all? What does it provide that the local library’s club or the Bible study group doesn’t?

What they provide is an environment that draws on both the connection to religion and the secular content. They walk a line between scripture study and public book club, and can easily transform into one or the other. One club I worked with had formed from a defunct Bible study, and another decided to change to a public book club. The religious book clubs offer a different kind of space for conversations, a space that offers the possibility of “speaking religion” without requiring that religion be the central or only topic.

The religious book club’s ties to a religious setting mean that conversations about faith, practice, divinity, or meaning are more welcome, regardless of how “religious” the monthly book selection was. In the religious book clubs I attended, readers used The Madonnas of Leningrad to discuss Jewish identity and a Lincoln biography to discuss Christian stewardship; neither book was clearly “religious,” but both gave rise to “religious” conversations.

In a public library book club, readers may not share each other’s religious convictions or identities, or have a common vocabulary to discuss them. At a church book club, people may not agree about what it means to be “Christian,” but their presence together means that Christianity is important to them in some degree. The readers in the synagogue book club I attended often argued about what a “Jewish” book is, but they did not need to argue that reading Jewish books was a worthy idea.

This shared vocabulary signals that some topics are open for discussion and others are off limits. Without the religious setting and the shared membership, the openness to discuss religious ideas or religious lives would be missing, and such conversations are much less common, and more often combative, outside of those types of settings (not that combative conversations don’t happen in religious book clubs, but the members at least have a shared agreement that religion matters in some way).

The non-religious aspects mean that such conversations are optional, not expected. Instead of taking place in the clearly sacred space of the sanctum, divided from the “profane” world, the book club in the basement (or library, or coffee room) lowers that barrier. This makes it possible for people, conversations, and topics to move freely between sacred and profane, between the religious aspect of a reader and the other parts of his or her life.

In addition, a Bible study or Torah study tends to reinforce the idea that religion is something you do with a text, that being religious is really about how you match your life to a set of teachings. But, the book club with a religious affiliation creates a different effect. The conversations that are possible there reinforce the idea that religion is something done with each other, that even “secular” things like the latest Man Booker Prize novel can have religious dimensions depending on who you read them with.

Religious book clubs end up creating a place where religious conversations are neither off limits nor the norm, but optional, and requiring other people to participate. So, religion becomes less of a matter of doctrine or sacred versus profane, and more a matter of acting together, orienting conversations and actions around “religious” ideas.

It seems that the in-between space of the religious book club provides something that isn’t present on either end of the continuum. How common are these in-between places? Do we need something – like media, a location, or music – to craft it? And what other ways of “doing religion” are there in those places?

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