On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers. TGC editor Matt Smethurst corresponded with Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville and author of the new book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Crossway), about what's on his nightstand, books he re-reads, his favorite fiction, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I drive my wife crazy with my nightstand. The stack of books lying there is, at times, absurd. I always have a few books going in different genres. Currently, I’m reading Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, and G. K. Chesterton’s autobiography. I also have a few books of short stories lying around the house that I pick up and read when I just have a few minutes. Those, currently, are Joy Williams’s Honored Guest (her writing is like crack to me) and Alice Munro’s Dear Life.
At any given moment, though, I might pick up Hemingway again. Always Hemingway.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
- C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory. I first read it after hearing Dallas Willard rave about it in a lecture. The book hints at a potent apologetic that is potent for our secularized world—we have a sense of something that our immanent world can’t account for, and Lewis winsomely and beautifully tells us why. And speaking of Willard . . .
- Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. This book changed my life because it made following Jesus something that sounded comprehensible and connected to real life. Willard had a powerful gift with language, taking abstractions and Christian lingo and making them earthy and approachable. I often quote his description of prayer: “Talking to God about the things he and I are doing together.”
- Robert Capon’s Between Noon and Three. My copy is literally held together with packing tape. Capon was wrong about plenty. (His eschatology was pretty lousy, as were his views on sexuality.) But no one has better articulated the scandal of grace.
- Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems. It’s too long a story to tell here, but this book (along with Harold Best’s Dumbfounded Praying) was a lifeline someone gave me when I was drowning in ministry. Reading Berry’s poems and praying in response helped me climb back from a dark season of struggle and burnout. I read them on almost every vacation or retreat now.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
- James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom was a gift for me. It affirmed something I—along with many others—intuited about the importance of worship, how it works, how it changes us, and how it fits into our lives more broadly.
- Eugene Peterson’s whole corpus of writing, especially The Contemplative Pastor and his memoir, The Pastor. Those two in particular have had a huge influence on how I try to shape my interior life. Peterson basically says, “As a pastor, you’re superfluous to most people’s lives. They will marginalize you and take you for granted. Keep your eyes out for opportunities, though, to subvert them, to sneak gospel hope and truth into conversations, to plant ideas and images like parables that will haunt them or comfort them in their hour of need.” Peterson is a wise guide for pastors trying to make sense of pastoral work in our commercialized, celebritized world.
- Harold Best’s Unceasing Worship. This is another book that was a pivot point for my thinking as a pastor. There was before, and there is after. Best uses the concept of “all of life is worship” and helps us see its roots in the gospel and its implications for the church, for culture, and for personal holiness.
What biographies or autobiographies have influenced you and why?
Ha, well, this might get me in trouble, but here it is. (Let’s all remember that I said Peterson’s memoir earlier.)
When I was 16, I first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Now, a few years ago, Walter Salles directed a film adaptation of the book that I’d say 95 percent missed the mark. (Its one redeeming quality were the scenes that took place at Old Bull Lee’s house, featuring Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams as Lee and his batty wife.)
Salles highlighted the book’s emphasis on drugs and sex, and presented Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) as a repulsive, addictive, and manipulative character. All of that was certainly true of Dean Moriarty, but that’s not what On the Road was about. Instead, I’d argue On the Road is about how Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac’s own life), feeling lost and listless, disenchanted with the middle class life he’d grown up in, fell in love with the world—its people, its sights and sounds and tastes and smells. Moriarty’s madness was a catalyst to Paradise’s discovery of the world.
Reading that book made me much more interested in people and places. It turned me—a pretty introverted person—outward. Not that it made me an extrovert, but it taught me to pay attention to other people and to appreciate them. It also made me want to write.
What are your favorite fiction books?
That’s tough to nail down. I tend to fall in love with authors and read everything they write. Here are a few in no particular order:
- Cormac McCarthy, The Border Trilogy, Suttree, Blood Meridian
- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast
- Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (which is a wonderful book with some rich spiritual themes of longing and messianic hope), Telegraph Avenue, Wonder Boys
- Kafka, everything
I’ll end on this thought: I always encourage young guys who want to be pastors to make reading fiction a habit. There’s a practical benefit and a personal benefit. Practically, reading great fiction helps you dwell with words, which makes you a better communicator and a better listener. It fills your mind with images, narratives, and metaphors that then inform how you approach and communicate the strange world of the Bible to others. Personally—and this is just as important—it gives you some place to go. A healthy escape. Ministry can be so brutally exhausting emotionally, and reading, to some extent, allows you to suspend that stress and that burden for a while. It can help you get in touch with your own humanity when you’ve begun to feel like a hollowed-out shell.
Okay I lied—one last thought. Check out Eugene Peterson’s book Take and Read. In it he makes a case similar to the one I just gave you, but mostly the book is just an annotated list of his favorite books, telling us what they’re about generally and why he loves them. It’s a gift to have something like that from a pastor who loves books.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Matt Chandler, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Jared Wilson, Kathy Keller, Tullian Tchividjian, J. D. Greear, Kevin DeYoung, Kathleen Nielson, Thabiti Anyabwile, Collin Hansen, Fred Sanders, Rosaria Butterfield, and Nancy Guthrie.