How has good literature, whether modern, classical, or ancient, shaped you in your pastorate, in your theology?
Good writers are people who pay attention to language, are interested in telling the truth, and are in some ways finding themselves inoculated against the fads of what will sell, what will please. Good literature almost always goes against the grain of the culture: interpreting it, subtly criticizing it, maybe not polemically. Pastors are right in the center of deceit and corruption and bad use of language. We have a commitment to use words accurately and honestly.
Good writing does not come easy; it takes a lot of discipline, a lot of self-criticism. A lot of people in my position want to know how to write, and after talking to them for a while I realize, “You don’t want to write, you want to get published; you’re not willing to go through the disciplines, the rejections.” Rejections are often compliments, because we’re not writing for popular taste or the stuff that just titillates people, what makes them feel good or bad or whatever. Propaganda is the worst kind of writing; there’s almost something pornographic about it. It just dehumanizes what’s going on, and we’re just filled with it right now politically, so I think of the importance of poets and novelists, because I think of poets as the high priests of the language. No poet writes in order to get published, not in America, so anybody who takes the path of poetry is going a lonely way and a not lucrative way.
It’s hard to be a good novelist in America because of all the Stephen Kings. There are good novelists and great novelists, but I think for pastors their training isn’t how to use their imagination like novelists in the sense that they see the narrative connection of everything, how everything fits into the story. So if our imagination isn’t trained to see these connections, relationships, and the way words work to bring out truth rather than just facts, we are just giving lectures from the pulpit, moralisms in a counseling place. It’s a great responsibility, I think, to learn to use words rightly. Pastors don’t realize how much we owe to our congregations, to the public, to learn how to use words rightly and skillfully and truthfully.
Could you talk about writers who have influenced you and fired your pastoral imagination? You have previously mentioned Wendell Berry.
George Bernanos, a French writer, French novelist. He had an enormous influence on my early life. His book Diary of a Country Priest and novels that followed helped me to re-imagine the pastoral life in terms of simplicity and guts and rejection. When I first read him I thought it was a true story, it was a real diary, and I read it two more times, and then finally somebody told me it was a fiction novel. It was true nevertheless.
More recently, Marilynne Robinson and her novels Gilead and Home. Now she knows what the pastoral life is like. I don’t know how she knows it, but she knows what we do. And there’s nothing glamorous about it, there’s nothing dramatic about it, but there’s something deeply, deeply true about it. She knows what she’s doing.
William Faulkner was very important to me because of his ability to expose both sin and redemption so skillfully. There’s nothing cheap about any of Faulkner’s novels. There’s a lot of suffering, there’s a lot of deceit, there’s a lot of hypocrisy. But it’s always struck me as true; this is what redemption is. I don’t think he was a Christian, at least in any obvious sense, but I don’t look for Christian writers when I’m finding somebody. Some of them write more Christian they know, but I look for novelists who are truth tellers.
You have written many books as a pastor. Can you talk about what your writing life looked like? You advocate simplicity as a way of life for the Christian; presumably writing books and being a pastor means there’s a lot on your plate. How can a pastor both enjoy reading and writing in a balanced way?
You have to decide if you’re a writer or not. I’m a writer because I’m a writer. I can’t say it didn’t make any difference to me whether I was published or not, but I was rejected for ten years before I was ever published. Publishers would suggest ways I could make this more marketable, and I knew I couldn’t do that. I have to write honestly about what I’m doing, and most of those books that were rejected were later published—-sometimes by the same publishers. A lot of people ask me that question, “How can you do all you did and still write?” Well, how does an alcoholic drink and still hold down a job? That’s what you do. You have 3×5 cards in your pocket, and you’re stopped for a red light, and there’s a phrase and you’ve got it down. Or you’re sitting in an emergency room in the hospital, and it takes two hours before your patient is ready to see you, but you’re writing.
Writing is a vocation; it’s not just a way to get published. I knew from early on that I was a writer. I didn’t know what that meant. I did have a sense that it meant something about the integrity of the gospel and none of this cheap Bible exegesis or propagandizing the gospel. I wanted to get into the whole story and the whole Bible. So I don’t think that’s a very good question to ask a writer, “Why do you write?” You write because there’s fire in your bones. You’ve got to do this whether anybody ever reads it or not. If you’re looking for whether you’re going to be published, you’ll probably cheapen what you’re doing.