On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked John Starke—pastor of preaching at Apostles Church, a regular contributor to TGC, and the author of The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World—about what’s on his nightstand, favorite fiction books, influential biographies, books on prayer, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I don’t have a large nightstand, so they tend to be scattered around the room like the cups of water in the movie Signs. My wife, Jena, and I are reading David Sedaris’s book When You are Engulfed in Flames aloud to each other. We like to read aloud funny books together, but we’ve also read Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter and Robert Capon’s Supper of the Lamb, which aren’t funny (though Capon is witty!). By the way, Engulfed in Flames isn’t Sedaris’s best.
Jena got me a nice hardback edition of John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lillies for Christmas, which I’ve been reading since the New Year. It’s a slow, beautiful novel, following a family line throughout the 20th century.
I just began Tom Holland’s Dominion on how Christianity has shaped the Western imagination.
I’ve never been a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan, but Pity the Reader—a collection of his remarks on writing—has been surprisingly fun.
What are your favorite fiction books?
I remember sitting on a train platform in Boston, finishing Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, thinking, This might be the best book I’ve ever read. I don’t know if that’s true, but it felt so in that moment, and it’s surely near the top.
I love Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy (Gilead, Home, and Lila). She forces you to slow down and catch all the imagery she’s laying down. If you go too fast, you’ll miss it, and that’d be a shame.
I’m a big fan of John Updike and his Rabbit series—a four-part series, exploring the mundane life of American suburbia. Toni Morrison might be the greatest modern novelist, but John Updike is a close second. Updike exposes the heart and desires behind escapism.
I will enjoy any and every P. G. Wodehouse book, but Thank You, Jeeves stands out.
Steinbeck’s East of Eden was one I recently re-read, and now I’m reading everything of his I haven’t read.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
Early on in my faith, I got an old beat-up copy of Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand. You can’t beat Luther’s story.
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is more memoir than autobiography, and more a book on writing than memoir. But I didn’t see any other place in these questions to put in Dillard, and she’s my favorite. I read her because I want to think like she does. Somewhere along the way, God loved us enough to create Annie Dillard.
Eugene Peterson’s Pastor. Peterson roamed the world as a soft-footed spiritual giant, leaving huge footprints to fill.
What books on prayer have been most encouraging for your soul?
That’s a really difficult question. Somewhere someone said, “Prayer is getting close to enough to God to hear him say, I love you.” For some reason that has stuck with me, and I’ve reached for books that push me toward that dynamic.
Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak, which is basically Nouwen’s prayer journal during a season of his life. Nouwen enjoyed a spiritual vibrancy with God that I knew I didn’t when I read it. It made me long for a more loving, intimate relationship with Christ.
Olivier Clément, an Orthodox theologian, has a collection of sayings and teachings from the early church fathers on prayer and communion with God titled Roots of Christian Mysticism. Some of it will feel strange to a modern reader (it did to me), but also, seeing how our early-church heroes thought about prayer was deeply moving and convicting. It was also a challenging book for me. It made me realize that Christian mysticism didn’t have its roots in the New Age movement, but in Athanasius, Augustine, and the Cappadocian Fathers.
A challenging book—more academic—was Prayer After Augustine. This isn’t for the faint of heart. But it nourished and stimulated my imagination for how God is present when I pray. I love that book.
Hans Urs von Balthasar has one of the more important books, Prayer. As a Protestant, I obviously smile and disagree with his chapters on Mary, but to my surprise he bases our prayer in our justification by faith and adoption. I sometimes forget I’m reading a Catholic. Balthasar introduces a majestic God to our prayer life, who invites us into his presence by grace.
For thousands of years, when Christians have wanted to learn how to pray, they’ve picked up the Psalms and followed their example.
The book on prayer I recommend most is Eugene Peterson’s Answering God. For thousands of years, when Christians have wanted to learn how to pray, they’ve picked up the Psalms and followed their example. Peterson provides a path on how to do that fruitfully.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
All right, I have two categories that have shaped the way I think about my ministry: (1) spiritual renewal and corporate revival, and (2) pastoral presence.
First, spiritual renewal and corporate revival:
Lovelace and Miller’s books have shaped the way I pray and contend for my church community, and it helps me think and consider what to labor for, what to long for, what to be patient for.
Second, pastoral presence:
Peterson and Eswine remind us of the dignity and majesty of the ordinary and mundane parts of pastoral ministry. Of praying, spending time in solitude, holding hands in hospital beds, of being faithful, of staying in the same place for a long time, and so forth.
I have found that these two perspectives are incredibly important to maintain in one’s ministry life.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
Sinclair Ferguson’s Devoted to God. It explores our union with Christ. I think this is Ferguson’s best book. There’s a depth to this book that never seems to run out, and a worth that will never lose its value.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
Our church has been going through the Sermon on the Mount together, and Jesus is teaching me how weaknesses and vulnerability with him is the beginning of real spiritual breakthroughs. I believe that, but sometimes truths like this don’t get down into your heart unless it comes through lessons of failure and humiliation. So Jesus is teaching me these truths through his sermon and through life circumstances. They’re hard lessons, but they usually come with his presence. That’s a gift.