My parents did not always buy me the toys I wanted. Dad was a pastor and we never had tons of money, though I never really knew it. But they did buy me books. I went through a period where I was going through Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books like most kids go through video games. I have this one memory of my parents driving me around to various little local bookstores to find one I had not read. This is a precious memory to me because we were on the way to their friend's house and I wanted...needed something to do while the adults talked. I had no siblings near my age. Books like these were my friends. I would pore over them again and again and again. The stories still stand dust-covered in the shadows of days long gone.
Things have not changed much. I still read novels; many of them over and over, year after year. I have added a memoir or two and I always read stories new to me. These stories have become familiar friends, very familiar, for many have been read more than a dozen times. The stories are never knew but it does not matter, I read them anyway, expecting something new. Never disappointed, though the story never changes, I see glimmers unfamiliar, each time.
But there was a time I had an uneasy relationship with novels. I did not stop reading them, but I started feeling guilty about it. Not the kind of guilt which leaves you up at night. But the kind of guilt which keeps you from talking about what you are reading with others. We pastors (and really spiritual people) are supposed to read “spiritual books” you know…not fiction.
Like I said, the relationship was ‘uneasy.’ Mainly because I was listening to some voices which made me think, as a pastor, I had neither the time nor the freedom to enjoy fiction on a regular basis. The responsibility was too great. The urgency was too real. Hell is burning. And you want to read Dumas? But then I would enjoy the warm comfort of a paragraph written by Austen or O’Connor’s ragged Southern wit. The joy of Dillard’s The Maytrees is without equal. And I am always in the mood for a murder of Agatha Christie’s making. Needless to say, the guilt lost out to the beauty and the profound weight of all I had learned about life and writing from so much fiction. Stories have been good to me since my earliest days, where memories run slow and shallow.
But I want to go out on a limb and suggest novels are ‘good.’ They are not just OK. They are good and not just as sermon illustration fodder. They are stories. And stories I assume are good things. We know this because the Bible is a story. Though it has instructions, it is not an instruction book. It is not a “game plan” for your life. It is not a mere roadmap. It is nothing if not a story, the story of what God is doing. Has done. Will do.
And Jesus told stories. Yes, they are parables. But they are wonderful stories nonetheless – full of life and wonder and excitement and reality and fiction and tears and blood and heaven and hell and violence and passion and sin and beauty. All are works of fiction meant to arrest the listener and now the reader.
The Gospel is a story. And we are justified by faith in this story. We have lost sight of the fact that the facts and truths we espouse as believers are of the kind which belong to a story. It isn’t fiction, mind you. But is has more in common with fiction than a religion of lists and propositions alone.
And every life is a story. The rich and poor alike are stories lived, whether told or untold. And if told would be worthy reads. James Joyce taught us this. No one is an abstraction. Our social security numbers and long lines at airports try to convince us differently. But we, ourselves are the stuff of epic tales…every moment worthy of a memoir.
Novels, though fiction, when they ring true, are full of truth. The kind of truth which makes us sit up in bed, underline sentences and read them to your spouse out loud. The label ‘fiction’ only plays at the edges of what it often is.
All of the above begins to give us a glimpse into the help novels and stories can afford pastors (and those who are more spiritual than everyone else). But also, novels can help pastors in the way they write and teach. Most theology books are not distinguished because of how well they are written. No, they are set apart from books on matters doctrinal because of their ability to impart the themes they have set out to communicate. Novels are often set apart (not always) because they have been written well. The novels usually distinguished are those which have the feel of craft.
We, pastors as a vocational set, could use a little instruction in craft. We could use some informal training in how to craft sentences worth remembering and the subtle wielding of words. Our ability to communicate the truths we love and are convinced of, can…will be strengthened by reading fictional stories.
We are not mere information producers for consumers of religious goods and services. We are story-tellers. We tell our story. We tell the old, old story – the story which gives all other stories depth and significance. We are not solely educators instructing students from whom we expect regurgitation of information. We are in the line of those who crafted those 4 marvelous edifices of Gospel. No one who has looked into the well of the original languages can walk away without seeing they did not just write out information they remembered. They crafted. Our sermons, letters, emails, lectures and for God’s sake, our blog posts could stand some more craft in them.
This is not to say all fiction is created equal. But if I have any ability to write, I owe much to Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. If I can turn a phrase at all I credit Tolkein and Annie Dillard. Certainly some fiction may be not so helpful as others. But this is no reason to not pick up a novel and read some fiction.
Someone will read this and suggest I am telling pastors they should put down their theology texts and pick up Twilight. Let me say with a resounding voice, “Maybe.” Certainly I am saying, we should see novelists and storytellers as gifts from God, who can add much to our ministry. At the least I am pleading for a desire to create a pastoral environment where works of fiction are not relegated to the sidelines of afterthought and leftover pieces of time but are seen as fresh help as we must craft messages of hope and grace.
There is far too little wordsmithing these days. When I think on the hundreds, maybe thousands of sermons I've heard in my life, I can remember specific phrases from about 10 of them. I remember things like:"God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him." – Piper"Religion is: I obey, therefore I'm accepted. The Gospel is: I'm accepted, therefore I obey." – Keller"God's love for you is not based on your performance for Him; It is based on Christ's performance for you." – PlattI remember these statements because they have the feel of craft. Their respective rhythms stick in my mind. You can state the same idea in dozens of ways, but unless it produces an impression on the hearer, it will likely fail to reach the heart.