5 Reasons Why Your Pastor Should Read Fiction

by Mike Duran · 34 comments

So I wanted to raffle off a few copies of my novel to pastors. The book’s themes seem like something a pastor might get into, plus I just wanted to encourage those in ministry.  I contacted a pastor friend of mine who oversees a terrific ministry for ministers. He ran the contest and last week I mailed out three autographed copies of The Resurrection. Well, I happened to ask him how many entries he received. Surprisingly (to me), he said “not many.” The reason he gave was this:

Pastors just aren’t very interested in reading fiction.

And my heart sank.

It reminded me of an article I read a while back at Out of Ur entitled Formation via Fiction. The piece was aimed at church leaders, and its gist was that most pastors sorely neglect reading fiction. Having been on staff with two different churches over an 11 year stretch, I can attest to building a library top-heavy with the subject of 1.) Theology and 2.) Administration. I’m guessing when most pastors aren’t reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or Barth’s Church Dogmatics, they’re reading Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Blanchard’s The One-Minute Manager.

But The Hobbit?

There are probably lots of reasons why pastors don’t read fiction. When one enters the ministry, a whole host of demands start pressing. Suddenly, time management becomes an issue, as does doctrinal integrity, church government, and the care and feeding of troubled souls. Reading fairy tales, frankly, seems irrelevant to someone dealing with such heady issues as the Atonement, Salvation by Grace, and such practical issues as resolving marital conflict. Compound this with the fact that we tend to see fiction as make-believe. And being that pastors traffic in Truth, it cuts against the grain of their fundamental mission. Another factor is skepticism toward pop culture in general. Over the last thirty years, the Church has largely retreated from cultural interaction, opting instead to quarantine themselves against secularism and sit in judgment. As such, the arts — theater, film, music, literature — are branded as “worldly” and left to the devil.

Either way, pastors often develop a utilitarian view of life, one in which art and imagination become tertiary, non-essential, expendable, if not altogether perilous.

For the longest time, Narnia just seemed irrelevant to what I was doing as a minister. However, there came a time in my ministry — precipitated, I think, by the ever-present need for spiritual fresh air — when I decided to read something other. I’d been enjoying some of C.S. Lewis’ non-fiction works — Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, etc., which seemed status quo for a young pastor — and was intrigued by the amount of fiction in Clive’s canon. Why would someone with such philosophical prowess devote so many pages to spacemen and talking animals?

So I started with something up my alley, you know, just to see…

Having read Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur Clarke and the other sci-fi-ers of my adolescence, Lewis’ Space Trilogy seemed apropos. The story of Ransom’s journey out of the “silent planet” to a world of fantastic beings ruled by a great spirit named Maleldil, captured my imagination! Far from pure escapism, the trilogy encapsulated Lewis’ theology wonderfully.

Could it be that fiction was a powerful vehicle for truth?

Anyway, it opened up the floodgates. From there I read The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce. After that, it was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion, George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith,  Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and finally the fictional work that Lewis considered his best, Till We Have Faces.

I suppose someone could view it as escapist. However, for me, reading fiction transformed my worldview, informed my theology, and reinvigorated my ministry. How?

Allow me to offer Five Reasons Why a Pastor Should Read Fiction:

  • Reading fiction — good fiction — awakens the beauty and power of language. No other book made me want to be a writer more than The Two Towers. The grandeur of the story and the eloquence of the craft kindled something that lay dormant in me. I wept, at times, as I read that book (silly, huh?). Good fiction reaffirms the power and beauty of words. And since words are the preacher’s stock in trade, he does well to see them strung together rightly.
  • Reading fiction stokes the imagination. “Christian imagination” is not an oxymoron. If anyone should explore and articulate the wonder and mystery and sublimity of creation, it should be believers. And because we are made in the image of our Creator, we are built to create. Good stories rouse our creative genes. And, frankly, there’s no one who needs to keep those creative synapses firing like a minister.
  • Good stories speak to us in ways that exposition and data cannot Of course, some could argue that Christ’s stories were instructional. Nevertheless, it doesn’t negate the fact that He used fictional persons and plots to engage people. This says a lot, I think, about how Jesus viewed His audience. Fact is,  It’s one thing to be told God is gracious and merciful. It’s another to watch the prodigal leave his home, blow his money, and come limping back, only to see his father running towards him, arms outstretched, with plans for a big party. Or as Tim Downs in his keynote address to the ACFW conference last year said, “Thou shalt not” touches the head. “Once upon a time” touches the heart.
  • Reading fiction also helps us stay tuned to pop culture at large. Granted, this might not be the best reason to read Harry Potter. But the Harry Potter phenomenon says something about people. Why are we drawn to certain films and stories? Could it be our fascination with certain themes and archetypes is indicative of intrinsic spiritual needs? Sure, fiction has its share of sleazy, shoddy, ill-intended stuff, just like any other medium. Nevertheless, popular fiction can be a great gauge of cultural interests and an effective springboard to address the needs of a congregation.
  • Reading fiction breaks the potential monotony of the ministry routine. During the peak of my ministry (if there was such a thing), I can recall retiring every afternoon to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. Oh what joy it was to leave the meetings, the counseling, the delegation, the study, to visit with Saltheart Foamfollower and his cynical sidekick. Yes, we need hard theology, and woe to us if we don’t apply ourselves and our congregation to it. But there is nothing like a story to flesh out the mystery and majesty of Grace and provide a fresh wind to our weary soul.

Perhaps some will interpret this as an argument against exposition, as if I’m suggesting doctrine takes a backseat to entertainment. No doubt some ministers sacrifice substance for style, and prefer fiction to the more rigid implications of Christian theology. After all, it’s a lot easier to thrill a congregation with a good story, than outline eschatology and atonement. Still, there’s a lot of good reasons for pastors to read fiction. In fact, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Institutes of the Christian Religion may be equally essential to the minister’s library.

* * *

If you are a practicing pastor (i.e., one who is actively ministering to a congregation in a professional capacity) and leave a comment on this post, I will send you a free copy of my novel The Resurrection. This offer is open until 10 pastors submit their name.

Dennis February 27, 2011 at 6:18 PM

Mike – I love good fiction! Among the other things you mentioned, it’s a great way to escape the pressures and challenges of ministry. To take a break from the work of the ministry, yet still enjoy a story of redemption, hope, etc. is a great way to spend my time.
I am reading your book right now and I must say, old friend, that I am very impressed. You are a great story teller and wordsmith! I look forward to reading some more this evening! I will let you know when I finish “The Resurrection”.
Every Blessing,
Dennis

Mike Duran February 28, 2011 at 7:46 AM

Thanks, Pastor Dennis! Great to hear from you. And I hope my novel does provide a respite, a spark, inspiration, or simply a good laugh. Godspeed to you and all your ministry endeavors!

Guy Stewart February 27, 2011 at 7:57 PM

Mike, this is SO well done, but for the first time deCOMPOSE just doesn’t seem to be the most appropriate venue. Is there ANY way you can get this on a pastoral website, pastoral resource site or SOMETHING where preachers will read it? I’m going to forward a link to this to as many pastors I know and cross post it on my FACEBOOK — but that’s NOT going to touch many folks…you GOTTA get this one OUT THERE!

Mike Duran February 28, 2011 at 7:52 AM

Kind words, Guy. I appreciate your enthusiasm for this piece. No, I haven’t thought about cross-pollinating this article. So feel free to send or direct it to as many of those as you like. Blessings!

Jay February 28, 2011 at 5:13 AM

Pastors, I don’t think, are encouraged during their training to get involved with something creative because they are too focused on Biblical literacy/getting right doctrine or, after training, they get too wrapped up in the practical or business side of church-building. But if they are focusing on preaching as a career this advice is good to follow.

I don’t know too much about pastoral training so my opinion won’t carry too much weight.

Scott Tilley February 28, 2011 at 7:27 AM

Thank you for the reminders for reading good fiction. I have been in full-time ministry for 11 years and I agree with most of what you said. Funny thing is, one of the unique things that God has woven into me is “creativity.” And, sometimes this character trait gets a bit buried beneath the tasks, burdens and responsibilities. And yet, I need creativity to continue to be flamed in my life, as it influences how well (or not) I can minister to others. So, thank you. I think I’ll treat myself to a new book of fiction!

Dave Jacobs February 28, 2011 at 8:42 AM

You said, “Reading fiction breaks the potential monotony of the ministry routine.” If not monotony then fiction provides a simple break to the one who’s world tends to revolve around his/her church. Fiction is an escape. Pastors need to escape once in a while or else they go crazy.

Guy Stewart, I’m going to be posting this on my site. Mike, no need to send my a free copy…I’ve already got one.

N.E. Barry Hofstetter February 28, 2011 at 9:05 AM

I read, and encourage reading fiction, all the time, both for pure enjoyment and toward a critical analysis of worldview. Thanks for writing this. I’ll be looking for my copy of the book…

John C. Martin February 28, 2011 at 9:49 AM

I, too, will be looking for a copy. I read fiction often as a break (especially in certain “rooms” of the house).

Nathan Anderson February 28, 2011 at 10:49 AM

Hey Mike,
Great post. I wholeheartedly agree. I was a pastor for ten years in churches, now a radio pastor for kids, working on a young adult fantasy series to take readers through the entire Bible. No better medium than story to open up a person’s mind and help them think as they never have before.

Blessings on you and your writing,
Nathan

Rex Hutto February 28, 2011 at 12:29 PM

I was reading good fiction well before I met Christ and never stopped. Having pastored for over 30 years now, I find fiction to be a therapeutic escape from the realities of life and ministry. We all need to “check out” every now and then for our own emotional well being. What better way than to slip into a well crafted alternate reality…one you can easily escape when YOUR reality comes calling once again?! 🙂

One of your observations so resonated with me: “Reading fiction — good fiction — awakens the beauty and power of language.” As a communicator, I fancy myself to be an artist working in the medium of words. And I appreciate others who ply this craft well. I can’t count the times I have said excitedly to my wife, “Honey! You have to hear this. I can’t believe how well this guy crafted this phrase!” To which she replies a polite, “That’s nice, dear.” 🙂

I also find good fiction to be both challenging and mind-expanding. I try to reread Randall Arthur’s “Wisdom Hunter” about every two years because, quite frankly, I find a good portion of the book to be among the best practical theologies of the local church I have ever read. His account of a body of believers in Oslo, Norway, though it is fictional, continually rekindles my belief that a group of imperfect people CAN in fact live out New Testament principles of body life. This is essential when my reality threatens to turn me into a cynic.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say…good fiction is a significant part of my personal self-care.

Karl Pishaw February 28, 2011 at 1:10 PM

Hi Mike. I am a pastor, and I enjoy reading fiction. I read everything that Tom Clancy writes, as well as Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. I’ve read the Narnia books either before or after the movies have come out, and I have ventured into C.S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet” Trilogy, though not completely yet. I read these pretty much for entertainment and escape, and because I love to read. There was a time in my life, though, when I had to give myself “permission” to read fiction and not consider it a waste of time. I’m glad I did that! By the way, I’m here thanks to Guy Stewart and his sending this out to me on Facebook. Thanks, Guy.

Sally Apokedak February 28, 2011 at 1:23 PM

humph. I wonder who posted this offer on the Reformed email loops. 🙂

R. L. Copple February 28, 2011 at 1:32 PM

Mike, these are excellent points. Having been a minister, I can testify to what you say. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy as a teen in high school. When I went into college, my focus shifted and fiction fell by the wayside. I don’t know that I ever thought about it specifically, that simply wasn’t where my interest lay. And my interest didn’t go there for many years. Not until my wife reading a book to the kids caught my imagination and a story came to mind that I had to write down. In a month I had written a 94K novel. I had never written anything like that prior. But I knew one thing at that point, that this is what God wanted me to do.

And I’m grateful for the journey. The very points you make are why I not only write but read fiction now. It is the most effective method for getting truth into the hearts of readers. Most pastors know this because we tell stories in our sermons. We make it personal with story. What we do in writing a novel is nothing more than an extension of that reality. Not focusing on keeping a balance of fiction in the mystery actually neglects a key component of our job.

Brandon Clements February 28, 2011 at 7:11 PM

Such a great post…this really resonates with me. I am a full-time pastor on staff at a church, and I also love to read fiction and am trying to finish my first novel. I hate how it seems that many pastors see fiction as a waste of time. Reading fiction is one of the best things in the world for my soul as a pastor. Thanks for sharing…great thoughts.

If you haven’t given away all 10 yet, I’d love to get one! Been wanting to look it up anyway.

Johne Cook February 28, 2011 at 7:52 PM

My pastor not only reads fiction, he reads RGR!

Morgan L. Busse March 1, 2011 at 5:56 AM

When my husband was attending seminary, he read Star Wars novels on the side to wind down from all the pressure and homework. We would also play RTS (Real Time Strategy) games together 🙂

Tom Farr March 1, 2011 at 9:38 AM

This is a great post. I’m a full time pastor to students in my church, and I absolutely love reading fiction. I agree with all the points you made. I often use fiction to illustrate points in my messages. Thanks for posting this.

Alan Oathout March 1, 2011 at 11:50 AM

Amen, Mike!

1) It’s good to shine the spotlight on those wonderful Servant/Pastors out there…but there’s a broader point to your message, too. Pastors are a subset of this thing called “people”–and people as a whole “just aren’t very interested in reading fiction.”

2) Accordingly, I read through your list and thought of many people I know. Some in Christian ministry (missionaries, Bible translators, musicians), and some in general vocations, to whom your wise words also apply.

Best theological truth from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Despite Lord Foul, despite the Ravers, despite our own human weakness and doubt, “There is also love in the world…” (Wasn’t it Foamfollower who said that?)

Rex Hutto March 1, 2011 at 4:20 PM

Alan observed that “pastors are a subset of this thing called ‘people’–and people as a whole ‘just aren’t very interested in reading fiction.'”

I think we might even take this a step further. People in our culture tend to not be very interested in reading, period. Though traditional pastoral ministry is now only a small portion of my time investment (my primary ministry is to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in an urban rescue mission), when I was more commonly in the homes of “church folks,” I was appalled at the lack of reading material I observed. I guess my wife and I are odd, but nearly every inch of wall space in our home is covered with book cases. Our kids love to read. But I went into home after home after home and saw hardly a book or magazine anywhere. It was shocking to me as a “readaholic.”

I was talking with a couple other middle-aged guys in my church a week or so ago about technology changing culture. The widespread availability of the automobile changed our parents’ world forever. Television changed our world (all three of us are in our early 50s, so we’re among the first who can’t remember life without television). The Internet is changing our kids’ world. And these last two are very contrary to sitting down with a good book.

I’m cautiously optimistic that the Internet may create a new generation of readers, however. It is obvious, though, that literature will take a very different form, as it already is. Publishers are struggling to figure out what it will look like when the smoke clears and how they can continue to make the reasonable profit necessary to continue what they do. This could be the biggest world changer since the printing press. I just hope it doesn’t spell the ultimate death of the hardback/paperback book as we have always known it. It’s just not the same snuggling down in be (or the tub!) with a good netbook!

Well, enough of my rambling………………………..

Rex Hutto March 1, 2011 at 4:23 PM

Oops! Make that “snuggling down in beD (or the tub!)…” Sorry.

BTW…Thanks, Mike, for the book. I’ll look forward to reading it.

Peter Johnson March 2, 2011 at 12:08 PM

I am also a pastor. For my own part, I love reading fiction and always have. I have experienced some of the utilitarian shift in reading that you wrote about. However, for me reading fiction is also, in one sense, utilitarian. I have a hard time getting to sleep at night unless I spend some time reading fiction. I need to take my thoughts out of the world in which I live and place them in another in order for my brain to calm down.

Heather March 9, 2011 at 3:36 PM

My husband has been in ministry for about 15 years and is in seminary for his M.Div. I read novels nonstop and he rarely picks one up. We have this argument all the time. Love this post!

Rebecca Lee March 15, 2011 at 2:17 PM

I come from a family of readers and I read the Space Trilogy off the bookmobile in Catholic grade school. I know it made a deposit and was a factor in the return of this prodigal. I discovered Hobbits in college and Narnia as a mom whose daughter did a wonderful job of being Lucy in the church play. Matt Beckham, our director and Mr Tumnas will soon be in a movie ,The Dueling Accountant. Creativity is important and reflects the God we serve. I’m glad the arts have place in my church, NLF,Queens, NYC.

Melanie N. Lee August 6, 2014 at 1:36 PM

😀 (sister of the commenter Rebecca Lee)

Tom Farr May 26, 2011 at 10:47 AM

Is the offer for a copy of your book still open? I’m a full time pastor to students in a church. I love reading fiction, and your book looks really interesting.

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