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. Both works force the main character (and reader) to ask impossibly difficult questions about what it means to be faithful to one’s call in unimaginable circumstances.
Greene’s hero (or anti-hero) is the ‘whiskey priest’, a broken, alcoholic priest who also happens to be the last living priest in his region of Mexico. In Endo’s book (made into a haunting, difficult film in 2016 by Martin Scorsese), a missionary priest in 16th-century Japan must decide between his own integrity to Christ and the suffering of those he came to serve. Overriding both of these bleak works is a gorgeous, complex meditation on the grace of Christ.
Written by a Protestant pastor, Frederick Buechner’s short novel Godric recounts an imagined biography of a real medieval Catholic saint.
Buechner uses earthy Anglo-Saxon language to give a voice to this rugged man who looks back at his life for what it was, not what the legend it will become. It’s an essentially humble story, beloved by critics for Buechner’s remarkable ability to make the strangeness of this ancient ascetic feel human and relatable.
Lost and Found
Long novels can be an acquired taste, and it’s tough to commit one’s reading life for the duration of 500 or more pages.
Still, there is something impressive about a book that unfolds in lavish narration, complex characterization, plots and subplots into a world large enough so we can lose ourselves. And there’s a goosebump-inducing magic when an author can guide us skillfully to an ending that so perfectly ties the work together that it leaves us breathless.
At a time when many novels eschew coherence in favor of ambiguity (and there’s plenty of that elsewhere on this list), there’s something deeply satisfying about a novel that comes full circle.
4. A Tale of Two Cities
Which is why you need to return to that book you blew off in high school and re-read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. No one has constructed such clockwork-perfect novels like Dickens, and A Tale of Two Cities is the best of what Dickens does best.
The story has plenty of intrigue and action and each character serves a crucial role in furthering the plot and the reader’s enjoyment. Once you get used to the narrator’s style, it’s one of the most drily funny books you’ll read. Its structure is like a roller coaster—it may take a little time to heave everything up the hill, but once you get there, the fun begins. The cinematic ending rewards the patient reader by making good on all its carefully-constructed promises, right down to the last lines. As if that weren’t enough, the book’s themes are deeply Christian. The book is a cathedral.
Of course, there are those who find cathedrals outmoded and difficult to relate to. True, Dickens’ diction and syntax is tough for even the most educated modern readers, but this is all the more reason for pastors to take up the challenge. We live in a world of clipped sentences and choppy paragraphs. We could use a little gravitas. So stick with the semi-colons and subordinate clauses. Smuggling in some complexity back into your style will serve you well.
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving is a Dickens disciple and his A Prayer for Owen Meany will win you over.
As with A Tale of Two Cities, the book requires some patience at the beginning while Irving builds the world detail by detail. But it manages to be both heartwarming and hilarious while exploring faith and doubt through the unbelievable character of Owen Meany.
The opening line is enough to get you started:
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
6. The Brothers K
Alright, copy-and-paste all that and apply it to The Brothers K by David James Duncan, a particularly American, slant-wise take on Dostoevsky’s masterpiece (a colossally important novel for pastors in its own right).
The Brothers K may be the only book that literally made me laugh and cry. Not just a little smile or a tear brimming on my eyelid. We are talking guffaws and sobs.
The novel follows a family over the course of several decades; Duncan creates memories for us that make us root for each character individually and for the family collectively. Two bonuses: Duncan’s prose (particularly his imagery) is arrestingly beautiful and much of the plot centers on baseball. (Fine, that last bonus is just for me.)
The Dark Side
When we watch the news, we are inundated with the stark reality of evil in the world. But there’s a naked objectivity to its presentation—death tolls and mug shots. We are rarely able to get an interior look at brokenness on such a scale. And when our lives (either personally or professionally) run into this sort of darkness, we are too close and too involved to reflect and gain any perspective from it.
This is my roundabout way of saying that we need to read fiction that will take us to that dark place. We need to glimpse the hopelessness and senselessness that pervades so much of our world. We must have the courage to account for all of human experience if we are to stand in the pulpit with any authority and announce Christ’s power to redeem and restore all things. Or, as Annie Dillard put it, we must “see the whole landscape” before we can “wail the right question” or “choir the proper praise.”
7. No Country for Old Men
For that reason, I recommend Cormac McCarthy to any pastor. His dystopian novel The Road is more celebrated (thanks, Oprah) and the coming-of-age-story All the Pretty Horses is a more beautiful and more perfect literary work, but I recommend starting with No Country for Old Men.
As you may know from the Oscar winning film adaptation, this extremely violent story centers on a man who is caught up in a drug deal gone wrong along the Texas/Mexico border.
More broadly, the novel’s conflict explores the theme of the relentless inscrutability of evil. The chilling antagonist Anton Chigurh embodies the reckless terror of a world that no longer abides by any sense of morality, but operates solely out of an unfeeling, utilitarian selfishness.
Like so many of McCarthy’s novels, this work asks whether goodness can stand in the face of such an unstoppable force. Don’t look for easy answers or happy endings here—McCarthy wants to leave you with only questions and doubts.
Joseph Heller’s criticism of society’s evil is no less biting but does come in a different form. Catch-22, Heller’s hilarious satire set in an American bomber base in Italy during WWII, exposes not just the cruelty of evil, but its stupidity.
Heller’s ragtag collection of characters, each featured sporadically from chapter to chapter, breaks down any romantic mythology we might ascribe to war (especially modern warfare) but also erodes the ‘grandness’ of evil. Heller shows us a war fraught with death and suffering but traces its roots not to the willful intentions of corrupt nations, but instead to the petty absurdities of individuals too weak or too cowardly to resist the inertia of destruction.
What makes Heller’s novel so enduring is the ability to deliver this message without turning his characters into allegorical stand-ins. The humor of the novel—it really is a tremendously funny book—creates genuine sympathy for these characters and keeps the novel from devolving into an anti-war sermon. It’s a case study in that universal rule of great communication: show don’t tell.
Let’s Get (Meta)Physical
9. Lincoln in the Bardo
I wanted to have at least one wild card slipped into this list, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo definitely qualifies.
Published in 2017, the novel is Saunders’ first—the author was previously known for his short stories, including the surprise best-selling collection The Tenth of December. It’s difficult to summarize this strange book, but the heart of the novel focuses on Abraham Lincoln on the night after he has buried his beloved son, Willie, who died at the age of 11 in 1862, only a year into the Civil War.
The novel is strange in several ways. First, the basic format of the book is unique—the dialogue is formatted almost like a play and large chunks of text are patchworks of actual historical documents and fabrications. It takes some effort to get oriented and comfortable to the presentation.
Then of course there’s the strangeness of the content. The concept of the ‘bardo’ is a sort of Buddhist purgatory, a liminal state between death and rebirth. The novel is set in the cemetery where Willie Lincoln has just been laid to rest and most of the characters are ‘ghosts’ who reside there in this ‘in-between’ state.
Yes, it’s very weird.
The novel is a bizarre homage to Dante’s The Divine Comedy or C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, works that draw upon imagined afterlives in order to reflect on the nature of our present lives. Each of the characters in that cemetery has a story to tell about the ways in which they were wronged and a remarkable facility for overlooking their own sinfulness.
The book is hilarious and terrifying, profane yet deeply moral, and—ultimately—focused on the human capacity for compassion, as Abraham Lincoln must reconcile the unfathomable loss of his child in the light of his own responsibility for the staggering death count rising across American battlefields.
Most contemporary novels seek to blur the ideas of right and wrong—I was impressed and moved by Saunders’ attempt to bring them into sharper focus in such a novel, imaginative way.
Find Your ‘Go-To’
I’ve found that one of the most important steps in maintaining a reading habit is to pick up a new book within a day or two of finishing the last one. If you let a week slip by, other habits will crowd in and suddenly it will be six months later and you are wondering why you haven’t been reading anything. When you put down one book, make sure you are ready to reach for the next one.
Sometimes, though, when you’ve just wrapped up a long or difficult book, you feel like you just need a little break. One way to account for this is to make sure you vary your reading. Finished that long novel? Pick up a light nonfiction read. Slogged your way through some systematic theology? Maybe try a collection of poems. You’ll figure out a balance that works for you.
Still, it’s a good idea to have a go-to novel (or, in this case, series) that you’ve already read and you’ll know you’ll enjoy. That way, you’ll always have a fall back when there’s nothing on your list that excites you.
10. Harry Potter
My go-to is the Harry Potter series.
How or why so many Christians decided to make these charming books a culture wars battleground is beyond me, but if you need reassurance that the series represents no imminent threat, read Alan Jacobs’ thorough discussion (from all the way back in 2000!).
It is true that I will circle back to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings just as freely, but the Potter books always present me with a fluid, page-flipping narration and an immersive world to drop back into from time to time.
Perhaps this seems like a lame tenth book to recommend, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to have at least one book that you will always find delight in returning to. And if you haven’t discovered them for yourself yet, maybe this is the permission you need to check out these wonderful children’s books.
You may have noticed that I cheated a little bit. I promised you ten, but (by my count) I’ve referred to 36 different books. Consider it an embarrassment of riches.
Just for fun, here are a few other contemporary novelists I’ve enjoyed in the past few years:
If you want suggestions for titles or have a recommendation for me, leave a comment here or find me on Twitter (@KolbyKerr). Happy reading!
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