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Why Preachers Should Read Fiction

A. Craig Troxel

Introduction

I love everything about weddings; the great music, the fancy clothes, the bounty of food and the radiant smiles everywhere you look. Yet, preceding all the pomp and celebration of the gala event is that confidential privilege of a pastor, the premarital counseling sessions. Those who are engaged may be novices, for they cannot speak from long-proven experience, but they are also amateurs, as their speech and the glances they exchange can hardly contain their genuine excitement as they anticipate and talk about a new life of discovery together.[1] There is simply something inspiring and contagious about the fresh innocence of a young couple's new love. True they are beginners, but their newly discovered excitement always does my heart good, and reminds me how privileged I am to do what I do as a minister and to love whom I love as a husband.

Now, when it comes to literature and fiction I am definitely a novice. I am not well read. I am not very cultured. So, why should you listen to a beginner ramble on about the virtues of reading fiction? The reason is because I am a bona fide amateur. What I lack in experience and competence perhaps I can compensate for in enthusiasm and the "eloquence of sincere earnestness." Perhaps my eagerness will encourage you to take the plunge!

Why We Should Read Fiction

The Lesser Reason: Mining for Illustrations

Reading fiction is a helpful way to gather sermon illustrations. Often we can reach into the literary world and find that perfect metaphor or suitable character that helps us to open up our congregants' minds so as to "prime the pump" for our message. Similarly, we may refer to just the right anecdote or quip to seal a biblical point with greater clarity or added panache. Allow me to illustrate.

Recently, I began a sermon from a book of prophecy by referencing the famous children's book, The Secret Garden, by Frances Burnett. I said, that as far as I could tell the garden symbolized the relationship between the boy, Colin, and his father, Archibald Craven. The garden, locked up ever since the tragic death of Mr. Craven's wife, suffered such neglect that it was all but dead and overgrown with weeds. Similarly, Colin was virtually locked in his room continually, suffering great neglect and it was assumed by all that he was dying a slow death. The deteriorating garden is a symbol of the neglected relationship between the father and the son. This too was the case between Judah and her God. The withering Promised Land was evidence of how Judah had long neglected her relationship with her God. Its barrenness reflected her nearly dead faith in her God. Look around, God said, and you will see all the evidence you need to understand where our covenantal relationship stands.

On another occasion, in order to set up Isaiah 9:1-2, which speaks of a piercing light that will shine on a people walking in darkness, I referred to The Fellowship of the Ring and the scene in which Frodo is lost in Shelob's dark and gloomy lair. There he remembers that Galadriel, the Lady of the Wood, gave him a crystal vial containing rays of light from Earendil's star, as she spoke these words: "It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in the dark places, when all other lights go out." Subsequently, the vial's silver flame grows into a blazing light, like a white torch, which penetrates the cloudy darkness of the cave and afflicts such brightness upon the gigantic spider that she withdraws.

A sermon illustration has to be obvious and simple, if not self-evident. For instance, the idea of the constant oppression of continual darkness clicked in the minds of my children when I likened such darkness to Narnia where it is "always winter, but never Christmas" (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). They understood. On the other hand, I remember once trying to make a point in an adult Sunday school class about priorities. When I alluded to how much we men love to fish, I received nothing but blank stares. I polled the class and discovered that not a single man in the room enjoyed fishing. So, the illustration did not make sense to them. The same is true for allusions to literature in the middle of a sermon. The point must be obvious, or the book must be well known, for the quick reference to come off clearly.

It is also important to remember that literary references, like many well-intended illustrations, can be distracting. This became clear to me this last year when I began a sermon by using an illustration from Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Apparently, in my illustrating I exhibited such excitement about the book that over the next two weeks several people in our congregation informed me that they had begun reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I learned two lessons from this incident. First, it showed me the persuasive power of earnestness, even when simply making a point of explanation from literature. Second, I learned that the next time I begin a sermon with an illustration I should use one from Scripture, so that in the ensuing weeks several people might come to me and tell me that they are reading the Bible!

There is no question that one benefit of reading fiction is that it can provide helpful illustrations for preaching. But as noble a reason as this is, I do not think that it should be our primary reason for reading fiction. It is too utilitarian. Sermon illustrations may be a practical by-product of the preacher's reading, but this alone is not sufficient to sustain our desire to read. Furthermore, this approach also encourages a form of reading that is superficial and flat, failing to take fiction seriously as a form of art. As helpful as it is to find illustrations for our preaching, I think that there is a far more important reason to read the great works of literature.

The Better Reason: Developing as Pastors and Persons

Getting to Know our Flock

If we are going to be effective ambassadors for Christ, then we had better know something about the people to whom we are sent. This may require us to expose ourselves to things outside the realm of our own experience and become acquainted with things beyond our own world. Literature can help us here. Reading various types and genres of literature helps to acquaint us with our flock, the "world" in which they live, and the ways in which they think. This is why fiction has been called "escapist literature" or "imaginative literature" in the positive sense of those words.

Fiction has the ability to lift us up out of our world and transport us to different places for a few moments or even hours, leading us into new worlds, giving us fresh experiences, and introducing us to unfamiliar perspectives that we would not have otherwise encountered. A skillful author enables us to feel the oppressive humidity of a jungle and the refreshing coolness of cold water, or smell the fragrant morning rain on the grass or the sickening stench of the T-rex about to devour us. Just as an author can enable us to experience these things, so also can he place us, movingly, in another person's skin, so that we sympathize with a given character's life, frustrations, and feelings. For instance, I find myself moved by the suffering of Edmond Dantés in The Count of Monte Cristo, the bewilderment of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, and the self-consciousness of Binx in The Moviegoer.

We are prone to generalize and universalize our own experience too quickly. Literature helps us to appreciate another person's unique life and situation, and in turn, encourages us to speak more patiently and intelligently in foreign settings. When I first came to my present pulpit, I discovered that most of my standard allusions and examples, understood instinctively by my friends and family in rural western Nebraska, did not translate smoothly into the suburban life of Philadelphia. Imagine that!

If we wish to deepen our appreciation of how our congregants think and feel, then we should pay attention to what they read, even if it is not our standard fare. Last summer Bob Meeker, one of our elders, handed me Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. I received it with some skepticism, wondering if it would really interest me. To be more honest, I assumed in my conceit that the book was a little beneath me, but salved my conscience with the thought that I, the noble and condescending pastor, would agree to read it simply because it was important to Bob. All my pretensions quickly fell away in the first chapter, and I was hooked. Soon after, when Bob produced its sequel, Surprise Valley, I nearly snatched the book from his hands as if it were Gollum's "precious"! Interestingly, and not news to Bob, Riders of the Purple Sage is one of the most popular westerns ever written and even Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia is not too snooty to laud Grey as a "first-rate story teller."

I was similarly provoked to read J.K. Rowling's best-selling Harry Potter: The Sorcerer's Stone. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and more importantly, why my son John wanted to read the book. So, I read it, and I read the next five! I am anxiously awaiting the last, and seventh volume. If you want to know why children, as well as adults, are devouring Rowling's books, it helps to read them. While I may not share Rowling's worldview, the "mythopaeic world" (to use another's words) which Rowling has created is dazzling and captivating. I was also driven many years ago to read The Color Purple. I wanted to learn more about child abuse, since I was a social worker at the time. Surprisingly, the book also helped me to see this particular form of suffering from an angle which I could never have imagined. Similarly, when I read Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King en route to India (my wife, Carol, and I had been married for only six months), the book immediately helped me to appreciate how easily one can take his spouse for granted; this radically changed how I experienced the next twenty-one days, at a great distance from her. Likewise, a missionary might want to read a book like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart for the same reason: empathy makes us more affective and credible communicators. In his article "Why Read Fiction?"[2] Bob Godfrey talks about how literature can powerfully inspire us. He uses as an example Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004). This book will move you as you learn how a small group of Muslim women were affected by the works of Jane Austin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladmir Nabokov and Henry James. The world of fiction is imaginary, but the people and lives described seem all too real. We can profit greatly from such convincing portrayals.

Growing As People

The best reason to read literature takes me back to the beginning of my thoughts, and my opening remarks about marriage. One reason that my wife and I try to get away on a date and spend some time alone is to attempt to keep our relationship fresh. We want to maintain the vitality of our love and keep it from growing stale. Similarly, I dread growing stale in my preaching. I fear even more growing stale in my Christian walk. The chief antidote to each of these ailments is to maintain spiritual vitality.

Now, I need to make an all-important qualification. Reading great classics of fiction will not maintain our hearts. It will not invigorate our preaching with spiritual power. It will not help us improve in holiness. The way these things can be accomplished is by God's Spirit ministering grace to us through the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments. But good fiction can help make us more interesting people with greater scope of understanding and a richer vocabulary to articulate it. Fiction can provoke our minds and hearts to a deeper admiration of God's world. It can embolden us to greater goals, such as reaching people in their various stages of life, whether or not they are believers. Although such benefits are difficult to quantify, they are no less real. Let's be honest brothers, we ministers are probably regarded as the least interesting of all professionals. We are generally thought of as people with the least scope and the most predictable vocabulary. There is no denying that the air can get a little stuffy in our minds on occasion and we need to throw open the windows and let a fresh breeze blow through.

For this to happen we must read literature in the manner described by C.S. Lewis as "whole-heartedly," that is, with our whole being. We have to be receptive in order to enjoy any form of art, including literature. That does not mean that we need to get carried away and abandon our Christian convictions. It simply means that we have to be willing to learn.

The incompetent and lazy "Lucky" Louis Sears in The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer helped me to be a more faithful and effective ambassador of Christ. I have similarly learned from other fictional characters, good and bad alike: Bronte's Heathcliffe, Dickens' Uriah Heep, Greene's Scobie and Crane's Fleming. Sometimes the best way to get a good and honest look at ourselves is through someone else, even if he is a fictional character.

In a similar way, if we read fiction whole-heartedly, it can truly inspire us. It expands and animates us by showing us the starkness of truth through the back door of our imagination. It has been said that literature is less about the "true" than the "beautiful." Nevertheless, fiction can paint in our minds the shades of a character's nobility and gallantry or the hues of his hideousness and blackness. In other words, the goodness of truth and the wickedness of falsehood are often painted in starker or more alarming contrast than they would be in nonfiction or strait-forward prose. In his The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does not merely juxtapose good with evil. Rather, Tolkien enables us to sense the hideousness and repulsiveness of evil, so that we can smell its foulness, feel the sinking despair of its prey and cringe under the ugly cruelty of its bondage. Conversely, he lifts our affections through the virtues of the fellowship and their friends, to see the pure glory of justice, the enviable bonds of friendship, and the universal and exalted honor of sacrifice. Evil is painted in very dark colors. Good is extolled in the highest with glorious tones. As I once told a friend, every time I read The Lord of the Rings I want to go out and do something incredibly brave. Why? Because Tolkien inspires me and emboldens me to stand for all that is righteous, true, noble, and lovely. Only God's living and active Word can convict me of my sin, assure me of God's pardon in Christ by faith, change my heart and sanctify me in grace. But literature can help me to understand myself more fully, as well as all who walk this same middle-earth.

How You Can Get Started

I know what you are thinking: How in the world can a busy pastor read in addition to his study and preparation for sermons? I had the same question. Susan Wise Bauer gives a very practical answer: the goal is not to read a lot of novels and become culturally expert. The goal is simply to begin reading more than you are now. Even if you read only one or two books in this next year, at least that is two books more than you read the year before. Many of us have to start out modestly and that is what I did. Many years ago I laid down a systematic plan with definite goals for reading theology. I figured that if I read only thirty minutes a day, in one year I could read 2,600 pages! (Assuming I read ten pages in thirty minutes each day that adds up to fifty pages per week; and 2,600 pages in a year). If you translate this equation for fictional works you can digest quite a few books by just reading the books on your nightstand thirty minutes a day. It is amazing how much time becomes available when you become absorbed in a good book. Finally, to state the obvious, if any of us simply translated the hours we spend in front of the TV into reading, we could probably read a novel per month, or more!

Here are a few resources (listed alphabetically by author or editor) that have proved very helpful to me.

  • Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book is well known as an overall guide to reading. He explains and illustrates important principles of reading and offers many helpful suggestions on how to read "imaginative literature."
  • The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003) by Susan Wise Bauer is a treasure. Not only does she give helpful insights about how different genres of literature should be read (using the Greek trivium as her model), but she also inserts an annotated reading list to accompany each chapter. These entries usually offer something about the plot of the particular book and a few suggestions about what to look for or pay attention to in the story.
  • In a similar vein W. John Campbell's The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics (Barnes & Noble, 2000) contains comments on the backgrounds, characters, main themes, symbols, and plots of some of the world's finest literature. For $9.98 it is a steal for what you can learn about everything from Frankenstein to Romeo and Juliet.
  • Invitation to the Classics, Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, editors (Baker, 1998), lists the great authors of western civilization along with their biographical information, brief descriptions of one of their principal works, and offers suggestions for further study.
  • Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan, Fourth Edition (HarperCollins, 1998), introduces and offers opinions about 133 international authors, listed alphabetically, as well as a few of their own works. The book also contains a helpful annotated biographical list of one hundred contemporary authors.
  • Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor (HarperCollins, 2003) is not your run-of-the-mill guide on how to read fiction. Some portions read more like a stream of consciousness, but it does provide some helpful insights on what to be alert for as you read.
  • C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1961) is indispensable on how to and how not to read literature. Also, remember his "On the Reading of Old Books," in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 200-207.
  • John Muether, "Something Short of Redemption: The Pilgrims of John Updike and Douglas Coupland," Modern Reformation 10:4 (July/August 2001), 19-23. A fine example of how to read fiction as a Christian by our very own OPC historian.
  • Bruce Murphy, editor, Benét's Reader's Encylopedia, Fourth Edition (HarperCollins, 1996), lists authors, literary terms, genres, the world's most important novels and plays, and even the names of the characters in various books. It is also cross-referenced.
  • Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Zondervan, 1985) is a wonderful guide by a living authority on Christians and literature. It is an invaluable read on why and how Christians should read literature for their improvement.

Endnotes

[1] A novice is a mere beginner, someone who has just started to learn something. Whereas, in its classic usage, an amateur is someone who loves something and pursues it for pleasure rather than pay.

[2] Evangelium 4:3 (July/August, 2006), 1-5.

The author A. Craig Troxel is the pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He serves on the Committee on Christian Education. Ordained Servant, March 2007.

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