A writer friend recently pondered (in an online writing community I’m part of) whether he should use a pen name when publishing his fiction. The reason? He’s a minister at a church and feels that other staff pastors won’t “get” his fiction gig. In fact, some might be downright hostile to it.
Sadly, this is not an uncommon position for Christian ministers who pursue writing and/reading fiction. I recall contacting a pastor friend shortly after I released my first novel. He ran a ministry for other pastors and I thought it would be a perfect place to give away some free print copies of my book. (After all, the story was about a pastor and his church.) However, the interest was minimal. My friend confessed afterwards that many pastors just aren’t very interested in 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 often 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 Pastors 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 one 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.
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This article was expanded from a previous post on the subject.