This post originally appeared at LeaderWorks on April 17, 2018.
You are not a robot.
When someone asks why they should bother to read novels, that’s my answer. And when I’m asked this question by someone in ministry, I bold and italicize it.
Because behind this question is an ugly utilitarianism: What will these books do for me? Reading fiction is reduced to a matter of return on investment.
I prefer a slight alteration to the question: What will these books do to you?
If we were robots, of course, the question would be irrelevant. Books would be, for us, like software patches or new file uploads, supplementing our systems and optimizing our performance. We shouldn’t clutter our hard drives with frivolous stories—we should download only rote theologies and pragmatic leadership guides. If we were robots.
But, as I said: You are not a robot.
You are an organic creation, capable of shaping and being shaped. We don’t read only to be informed but also to be formed.
For this reason, the Bible—God’s Word— comes to us in a panoply of genres. Certainly, we need the didacticism of the commandments and the complex theological gymnastics of Paul’s epistles. But we also need the great narratives of the patriarchs and kings, the poetry of the Psalms and prophets, the nuanced parables of Jesus, the wild, imaginative landscapes of John’s revelation.
Does your personal reading reflect the diversity of form given to us in Scripture, or have you constricted your reading into a merely informative exercise?
The Spirit is Willing But the List is Weak
This probably isn’t a revolutionary concept for you. The difficulty for most isn’t so much philosophical as practical—the spirit is willing but the reading list is weak. In other words, while many pastors want to read imaginative works such as fiction or poetry, they don’t have a confident-enough starting point. They feel that this sort of reading is already a luxury of time they can’t afford, so they certainly can’t ‘waste’ it on a book that may or may not be any good.
It’s a fair point. Which is why I created (a few months back) a list of the ten poets that every pastor should read. It’s a quick guide to help anyone find at least one book of poetry to fall in love with. If you haven’t already, check that out.
Still, poetry isn’t for everyone, and many people will probably rotate poetry into their reading diet once every year or two. Nothing wrong with that. But fiction is much more accessible—we all read novels growing up, right? Even if you haven’t read a novel since The Chronicles of Narnia, you’ve got a basic understanding of how they operate. Plot. Character. Setting. All that stuff. Now you just need someone to point you in the right direction.
Where to Start
You’ll see some unavoidable overlap on my list below, but I did steer clear of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, which are probably the most ubiquitous ‘novels a pastor should read.’ I’m assuming those have already made it onto your radar.
A few other notes about my list. I’ve grouped them according to their variety of style and content. This is not just to account for different tastes, but to offer a reminder that your reading of fiction shouldn’t be cloistered into the narrow section of ‘books about pastors or Jesus.’
We read the Bible and we pray to learn more about the character of God; we read fiction to learn more about the character of humanity. We should sample as broad a swath as we can. For this reason, I haven’t filtered any of these books for their content. If that is a concern for you, I am sure there are reviews available that can help you discern if a book will be edifying to you.
Finally, I hope this would be a jumping-off point for your own reading of fiction. These books provide perspectives on themes that will shape your preaching and thinking, but—you know what?—it’s ok to read for pleasure, too.
On that note, I would point you toward Alan Jacob’s wonderful little book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, in which he discusses cultivating and following your own reading ‘Whim.’
At the end of this list, I’ll provide a few more authors that I have enjoyed in the last few years. And I hope you’ll share some with me!
Saints Who Sin
When it comes to novelists wrestling with issues of faith, Roman Catholic writers pretty much dominated the twentieth century. Flannery O’Connor is usually invoked as the matriarch here, and her Southern gothic short stories and novels are well worth your time.
1. The Power and the Glory and 2. Silence
Both works center on protagonist priests who are in the midst of brutal persecution. B