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Why (And What) A Pastor Reads

I don’t read much for pure inspiration or for raw information. I read mostly to shape my imagination. This year, my reading list has been mostly master story-tellers and massive theologians because both, in Eugene Peterson’s phrase, treat “words as holy.”

I haven’t typically thought of theologians as shaping an imagination, but I’ve realized that some of the best, most brilliant theological minds are able to tell God’s story in a compelling, and relatively cohesive and comprehensive narrative. For them, doctrines are not disconnected theological propositions; they are more like stanzas in an opus. The best theologians are, in fact, master story-tellers. The ones that have been on my list– and my list is by no means a measuring stick– over the past year or so are N. T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, George Eldon Ladd, and C. S. Lewis, though he is not technically a theologian.

My list of story-tellers include some clear masters, like Dickens and Twain and Harper Lee, but also some less obvious picks. J. R. Moehringer was the ghost-writer for Agassi’s memoir, and his writing– in that memoir and in his own– is simply beautiful. Gladwell, though a bit on the pop side of things and not quite a “master”, is a skilled story-teller who weaves seemingly disconnected scenes into a cohesive theme. Tobias Wolff has been called our generation’s best short-story writer. His sparse, clean style is reminiscent of Hemingway, though his themes tend to have more warmth and less depressing overtones. (Again, these are not all the writers I would recommend, neither are my recommendations the point. I am only saying why I have chosen to read what I have.)

This sort of reading– reading to shape my imagination– will go on for the rest of my life. You can see my list of specific book titles for 2010 and 2009 on the sidebar. There are obviously many more I need to add (the new updated translation/edition of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics is on my wish list for Christmas!).

Is it important for everyone to read this way? Not necessarily. But I feel the responsibility as a pastor/teacher/author to drink more deeply than the congregation I am leading so that what I say and teach and write is not just clever word-smithing. Let others read the latest popular Christian books, aimed at addressing felt needs and inspiring people. If I want to write and teach and give spiritual direction, I must take my vocation more seriously. I have to let my Biblical imagination be formed by “masters.” The truth is, I’m not sure a pastor can take his or her role seriously and only read for inspiration or information, or worse yet, to not read at all!

Imagine a person who’s never been to medical school trying to pose as a doctor and treat patients with only the information that he’s picked up by over-hearing what other doctors say. He may have clever-sounding phrases and even the right manner. But how can he properly heal the sick if he’s never devoted himself to study? Yet this is what many pastors attempt to do. The Body of Christ has many self-proclaimed physicians who read little beyond the latest inspirational “Christian Living” book. It’s no wonder the content of our preaching has progressively gotten more diluted over the years. So many pastors pay more attention to their communication style and not enough to the content. But the goal, again, is not content that is mere data or information. The goal is to shape the imagination of our people, and in doing so, to invite their participation in the Story.

To do that well we need to read more deeply, to read master storytellers and massive theologians.

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