Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature

Written by Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson Reviewed By Gavin Lymberopoulos

Few would question that reading theology and church history are necessary preparation for ministry of the Word of God. But are these genres sufficient to enable faithful ministry fulfillment? According to Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson, literary classics focused on ministry uniquely develop a pastor for shepherding the flock. If theology “tells a minister not to enter into sexual relations with a woman in the congregation, [The Scarlet Letter] shows why a minister should not do so” (p. 12).

In this example and others, the authors argue that literature “can help shape the spiritual life of people in ministry” (p. 12). For readers agreeing with the logic of Pastors in the Classics, it is appropriate to wonder, “What books should I read?” or “How do I even read literature?” In order to address these questions the book has two main goals. First, it seeks to provide pastors with instruction in reading fiction for spiritual change; and second, it seeks to provide an annotated list of literary works involving pastoral themes.

Organizationally, the Introduction instructs how Pastors in the Classics should be used while also explaining tips for reading well. The rest of the manuscript is divided in two: Part 1, “A Guide to Masterworks of Clerical Literature,” and Part 2, “A Handbook of Literary Portrayals of the Pastor’s Life.”

Throughout the Introduction, Pastors in the Classics offers several tools for careful reading. First, one must resist reducing the story to a set of propositions and should instead enter the world of the text. From here readers can evaluate their ministry from an intentionally structured vantage point. Second, the reader should critically evaluate the author’s interpretation of the world of the story. Third, readers should enjoy the artistry in the narratives selected. Fourth, to aid with the volume’s specific goal of developing pastoral wisdom, the authors include questions to help with character analysis such as, “What roles does the pastor fill in this book?” (p. 14). Finally, they encourage group discussion by pointing readers to reflection questions.

Part 1 includes brief literary and bibliographic information for each work. Additionally, included in the table of contents is a description of the one main pastoral issue related to each of the twelve titles. For instance, pastors looking to study the issue of “Scandalous Clergy,” can turn to the section on The Canterbury Tales. From there they can buy the novel, and read it together. While this information is helpful for finding the right work of literature, the main contribution of Part 1 is the pastoral commentary and questions accompanying each piece. One example comes from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which provides notes and questions on martyrdom and ministry. By utilizing Part 1 correctly, a group of pastors could pinpoint a topic they want to explore, and then find assistance in gleaning specific pastoral wisdom.

In Part 2 of Pastors in the Classics, readers will find 58 more titles, plot summaries, and a much briefer description of the pastoral themes present in each work. The pieces of literature in this section are not described as “masterworks,” but they are recommended from well-seasoned readers gathered by the authors.

Moving from summary to evaluation, the strengths of this work are threefold.

First, the instructions on how to read fiction are marked by clarity and precision, especially for unseasoned readers of literature. Second, the titles emerge from a vast range of ethnicities, nationalities, and eras. Thus, while many classics are present, this does not come at the expense of a multitude of perspectives. Third, the diverse questions accompanying the works in Part 1 are insightful. To illustrate the latter two strengths, consider the following examples. While interacting with Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, Ryken, Ryken, and Wilson prompt discussion on the sacraments. Then, in Shusaku Endo’s work Silence, they ask pastors to consider “what idolatries make your own culture inhospitable to the gospel?” (p. 101). Finally, the section addressing a Graham Greene novel asks readers whether a “bad minister can bear good fruit” (p. 71). The multitude of pastoral themes come from a diversity of authorial voices—a Protestant woman, a Japanese man, and a Catholic American—and provide robust material from which pastors can learn and grow.

A brief word of critique will now be offered. In Pastors in the Classics, the authors argue that wisdom and virtue should be gleaned from wise and virtuous literature. They offer clear reasons in the four introductory pages devoted to the question. But since few in the academy share their approach to literature, few educated pastors have been exposed to the approach found in Pastors in the Classics. With this in mind, a more extensive argument for the authors’ hermeneutic would provide a needed voice in the world of literary criticism. If pastors are more convinced that fiction can sanctify one for ministry, they will be more likely to put in the hard work of understanding great books. While this book offers a needed corrective to this problem, even more lay-level, theoretical discussion would have been welcomed. Perhaps instead of focusing so heavily on the catalogue of titles, this volume would more thoroughly serve the church by bolstering the Introduction. While Leland Ryken has certainly published elsewhere on this topic, it would be helpful to have both the theory and the catalogue in the same volume.

Gavin Lymberopoulos

Gavin Lymberopoulos
College Church
Wheaton, Illinois, USA

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