David Powlison offered some good words on pastors and the reading of literature:
Of course, we are not all wired the same, but there are an awful lot of pastors who only read objective expositional things. Human life has poetry; it has drama. Much of the Bible is much more understandable from a more literary standpoint.And in a subsequent part:
I am a real believer that pastors need a better sense of the messiness of life. You can have your nose in the Bible, you can do all your exegesis, and you can actually miss how gritty the Bible itself is. And you can certainly miss it and develop little idealistic, plastic-smile versions of the Christian life that are not reckoning with what real life is, the things you read about in a history of World War II or in Dostoyevsky. Even in a redeemed sense of things you read in these other two novels [Cry, the Beloved Country and Gilead] that have a powerfully redemptive, overtly Christian theme to them.Powlison is getting at the way good literature -- both fiction and non-fiction -- helps us to understand, intuit, and feel the contours of real life, not just the outline of it. And this helps us both read the Bible better and enjoy the world better.
But many pastors keen on improving their leadership, preaching, exegetical, and business skills don't see the value in this approach.
Someone once wrote Roger Ebert and asked him why critics loved Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation so much while audiences in general didn't even appreciate it. Ebert responded that the film transmitted on a different frequency than audiences are accustomed to receiving. (I was reminded of this tidbit from Ebert's "Movie Answer Man" column once while overhearing a conversation in a restaurant in which two men discussing the movie revealed no hints of even knowing what it was about.)
It works the same way with books, I think, particularly as it relates to the dulling of the evangelical artistic palate. Is it too much to say that Christian readers have a distinct taste for mediocrity? I know evangelicals take a lot of hits for poor artistic sensibilities, but maybe the critique is a cliche for a reason?
C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy was published only about sixty years ago. At the time, it was considered unabashed genre fiction -- science fiction, to be specific. These days, I'm afraid Lewis's Trilogy is felt by many too difficult, too thick, too confusing for modern readers.
Here's an excerpt from his That Hideous Strength that is both instructive and beautifully reflective of what it instructs:
But it did not matter: for all the fragments -- needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts -- went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision. For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them . . .Besides the sheer beauty of the composition here, I see also a peculiar prescience in these words. For most readers weaned today on what most genre fiction has to offer (which is usually what sells best), this passage (not to mention the entire book) would be completely confounding. You won't find "the very heart of language, the white-hot furnace of essential speech" in most Christian books, fiction or othwerise; some clunky and cliched phrasing propped around cardboard characters maybe, some simplistic outline meated up by a tone-deaf ghostwriter perhaps, but certainly nothing that would benefit those with "some knowledge of poetry."
The Christian life is about worship, and this worship involves activation of heart, soul, mind, and strength. It involves exultation. Pastors are supposed to help us learn how to do that, but it will be difficult for them if they aren't learning how to do it themselves. Reading good literature can help.
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