This article was adapted with the author’s permission from Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan’s new book The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Baker Academic, 2015).
The pastor is a public theologian who ministers understanding to the people of God in order to build them up into Christ. It therefore stands to reason, Andrew Purves notes, that “pastors must ever grow in their knowledge and understanding of people.” The best way to know people is to live among them, to share their sorrows, joys, challenges, and frustrations.
But people come in many shapes and sizes, and there’s not enough time to become acquainted with everyone you meet. Hence the importance of becoming acquainted with literature, the laboratory of the human condition.
Here are four reasons pastor-theologians should read works of fiction in particular:
1. To Become Literate in Humanity
Why should we imaginatively enter into stories that never happened and experiences we wouldn’t want to go through ourselves? C. S. Lewis put it best when he spoke of the “enlargement of our being,” observing: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” Lewis raises a crucial point. It’s most important that pastor-theologians get “out” of themselves and learn to see things from other points of view. To love others we’ve got to be able to put ourselves in their place.
Is this not what God does for us in Jesus Christ? He identifies with us not simply imaginatively but incarnationally. I’m neither black nor female, nor was I sexually violated as a child, but I come to know something of what it’s like be so through reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Reading fiction thus helps us to understand those who are not like us. That is the first reason pastor-theologians ought to read fiction: to become literate in humanity, in all its unity and diversity.
2. To Experience Life Outside Your Own
The great poets and storytellers often write about universal themes: quests for happiness, tragic loss, love in all its permutations, and so forth. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories teach us to look for grace in unexpected places (e.g., in the grotesque). Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov contains one of the most insightful probings of the problem of evil.
Many novels—too many!—communicate what life is like apart from Christ. It’s one thing to know intellectually that some are not saved; it’s quite another to know vicariously with one’s whole being what that feels like. Fiction affords us the opportunity to understand what we have not personally experienced.
3. To Understand Your Own Call
Reading fiction also helps you grasp the special privileges, opportunities, and challenges of being a minister of God’s Word. Sinclair Lewis’s cautionary tale of Elmer Gantry highlights the ever-present temptation to make one’s own name great rather than Christ’s. Another novel with a more positive role model is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, which I read twice with groups of seminary students. I’d be willing to argue that as much—if not more—could be learned about the life of a pastor from reading Gilead than from many books on pastoral theology.
4. To Grow in Missionary Competency
Works of fiction open up not merely the lives of individuals but entire cultures. Before I met her parents, my wife Sylvie insisted I read Marcel Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. These books perfectly captured the distinct culture of the lower classes in mid-20th-century Provence, the world in which her parents grew up. When I finally met them it was as if I already knew them, so closely did they resemble the characters in Pagnol’s stories. It occurred to me that missionaries ought to give as much effort to learning a culture’s literature as they do its language.
Of course, as Lesslie Newbigin rightly observed, our own Western culture has now become a mission field. Accordingly, pastor-theologians ought to read some contemporary fiction in order to get to know the culture in and to which they’re ministering. For example, Paulo Coelho’s bestselling novel The Alchemist (1993) has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. The partly autobiographical story is about a shepherd boy who travels from Spain to Egypt to follow his Personal Legend. He discovers the “world’s greatest lie” is that we lose control of what’s happening to us. The truth, according to this New Age gospel, is that the Soul of the World wants everyone to be happy. “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation,” Coelho writes, and the universe “conspires” to help us succeed. Spirituality means being true to oneself and taking risks, not taking up one’s cross to become like Christ. It’s not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but Humanistic Quixotic Pantheism. Reading a novel like this helps pastor-theologians to better understand large swaths of contemporary culture.
Pastor-theologians are busy, I know. But are they really too busy to read fiction? A cost-benefit analysis would, I think, indicate that time invested in reading fiction pays inordinate dividends. It’s hard to put a price on wisdom and understanding. I recommend dropping in at Hubworthy from time to time, or Arts & Letters Daily. Cornelius Plantinga encourages newcomers to start small: one novel a year.
Reading takes us only so far, of course. Nevertheless, understanding is relentlessly practical. When we truly understand our situation, we’re able to do something about it. To understand is to know how, as in knowing how to act out knowledge in everyday life.