Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On the Pastor's Literary Frequency

I recently asked pastors on Twitter if they read fiction and, if so, what they read last. I was not surprised by the smattering of replies of disinterest, avowals of "lack of time" for fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised by the majority of the responses from pastors who not only read novels, but read good novels, which is to say, literate novels. There were a few popular titles mentioned, but popularity and artfulness aren't always mutually exclusive.

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.

What is Missing from Christian Publishing
Advice for Writers


Gabe said...

Thanks for this.

Russ Moore spoke at the A29 bootcamp I attended two years ago. He had a quote and it has stuck with me since, "Boring preaching is satanic."

I remember the tension rose when he said that and then, as he explained it, it rose further. His point was that if you can disconnect people from the word of God by making it boring, you did Satan's job for him.

I believe boring, flat, meaningless writing is much the same way. Which is why I love reading Lewis to my kids. I can tell it loses them at moments but I love that look they get when they really picture what he's describing.

I hope to one day be a shepherd and, as a writer now, I hope to never leave my love for good fiction.

BJ Stockman said...

Good stuff.

"I think pastors should read fiction alot more than they do." - Eugene Peterson

Don't agree with everything Eugene says in this interview but a decent amount on the theme of story:

Jason said...

Man, I love this stuff. For years now I've struggled with this weird guilt about fiction and poetry. I'm a seminary student and will be a pastor someday and I've felt shameful about reading fiction. I LOVE reading theology and books on church and preaching/leadership. But I want to get back to the love of literature I had when I was a kid (even before God saved me). I tend to think, "Why are you reading this brilliant fiction when you good be reading some brilliant theology?" It's not guilt over right or wrong. It's guilt over wasted time and effort. Is this guilt normal or right? I don't think it's the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jared,

Thanks so much for that...I read a lot, but not much fiction. Any chance you could recommend some other good fiction writers? Thanks.

Jared said...

Anonymous, what genres are you most interested in?

deacontrek said...

Oh I simply love the "Ransom trilogy" and of course all the Narnia series (I read it in chronological order rather than published order). I have gained so much from reading Lewis and Chesterton...I am not normally a poetry aficionado but I did enjoy Chesterton's "Ballad of the White Horse". I am currently reading "Les Miserables" and am enjoying that immensely as well. I am not a pastor, but I would agree that pastors would gain much by reading good fiction.

Anonymous said...

My favorites would be sci-fi, mystery, history, biography.

Gabe said...

For me I am a huge Stephen King, Dean Koontz, et al fan. Dean Koontz writes several books, fantasy though they are, with a clear Christian bend. I wouldn't say they are theologically accurate by any means, but they are interesting, as Jared says, about learning the way life is for some.

I find now that reading entertaining, theologically poor books, is just as informative because it tells me what the world often thinks of God. It tells me about their problems with Him and how He operates in what they consider their world. In a similar vein to the show Lost.