Gregory E. Reynolds
Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature, by Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012, 185 pages, $16.99.
English professor Leland Ryken conveys his life-long passion to interest Christians and pastors in the value of the best literature in this brief volume. He does this with his son Philip, president of Wheaton College, and pastor Todd Wilson, senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois. As far as I know, this book is unique in distinguishing literature that deals with pastoral life and ministry.
The book consists of two parts: a guide and a handbook. The first twelve chapters consist of a guide to the most important books in the genre. A concise survey of the work provides themes and interpretive analysis to whet the reader’s appetite. The second part consists of fifty-nine brief book summaries for further exploration. The brilliance of this arrangement lies in its extension of the trust the authors build in the more comprehensive coverage in the first part, to the handbook.
Of the listed titles I was pleased to discover authors of which I knew nothing, such as Witch Wood by John Buchan (1927), as well as titles I had not expected to find, such as Updike’s A Month of Sundays. Then there are books that I was aware of, but had never had an interest in reading, until I read the comments of the Rykens and Pastor Wilson. I also discovered books by authors I know, but books of which I was unaware, like Trollop’s The Warden (1855).
Some classics, such as The Scarlett Letter, are known by most only anecdotally. The description in the guide portion of the book corrects common misconceptions, like the idea that Hawthorne is simply unmasking an inherent flaw of Puritan orthodox Christianity—the hypocrisy and censoriousness, especially of its clergy. The authors set the value of this classic in a whole new light by demonstrating Hawthorne’s interest in portraying Christianity at its best as a religion of forgiveness and grace.
The twelve books explored in detail in the guide portion make up a hundred pages, while the fifty-nine listed in the handbook cover only a little over seventy pages. The pattern of analysis in the first section invites the reader to employ the same as he reads the works suggested in the handbook, which dedicates slightly more than a page to each work. The guide begins with a brief description of the book, followed by a taxonomy of the contents, with author, dates, length, present publishers, genres, setting, characters, and plot summary. Then the main themes and value of the work for the minister are explored, with provocative questions for reflection or discussion interspersed.
It took only a few of the descriptions of these masterworks in clerical literature to convince me of this book’s immense value. The self-reflection that even these brief introductions stimulate is enough to invite the pastor to begin the journey of reading or rereading the classics themselves. The subtitle sounds to me like something an editor suggested. “Timeless lessons” doesn’t do justice to the nature of the classics. Each embodies aspects of the ministerial vocation as it appears in actual life settings in story form. As the introduction so well states,
The literary author’s first task is to present human experience. This means that the subject of literature is human experience concretely presented. A work of literature is not primarily a delivery system for an idea; it is an embodiment of human experience. A work of literature is a house in which we are invited to take up residence and out of which we look at life. (13)
This has Leland Ryken’s fingerprints all over it. In a future edition, his article in Ordained Servant (May 2012), “Why Read Literature?” would make a superb introduction.
Unlike the school-marm approach to the classics, pressing the duty of reading the time-honored tomes, this book invites the reader through the special interests of the pastor, to enjoy a kind of reading that at once delights and edifies. Many pastors avoid fiction because of the mistaken notion that it does not deal with real life the way nonfiction does. Another way of stating this is that fiction does not address the immediate needs of the minister in his vocation. A quick perusal of the first few suggested books should quickly disabuse the reader of these notions. The unique exploration of human existence and experience offered by well-crafted fiction provides the pastor with insight that ordinary life may not afford.
My only criticism is an editorial problem. It would have been helpful to list authors as well as titles in the table of contents, since this also functions like an index. An alphabetical list of authors would also be useful, especially since the book functions as a reference tool. I would enjoy seeing a similar treatment of poetry for pastors.
One cannot overestimate the value of this work, both for its function as an introduction to an excellent selection of fiction and for the insight ministers will gain from reading these works. In Pastors in the Classics, the value of good fiction as an entrée into the human condition is simply focused on the minister’s life—a very clever and worthwhile way to catch the attention of the clergy.
Once the appetite is whetted, my hope is that pastors will realize the great value of good fiction, whatever its subject matter. Entering into various worlds of reflection on the human situation can only enrich our ministries.
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, May 2012.