Friday, October 25, 2013

Good Storytellers Make Good Preachers: A Book List for Bibliophiles and Theologians

 Dedicated to Rachel Bomberger and  literary aficionados everywhere.

Yesterday, my good friend and fellow bibliophile, Rachel Bomberger posted a review of Cornelius Plantinga's recent book (entitled Reading for Preaching) on her blog where she writes reviews for Eerdmans Publishing. Her initial review had more than a few choice quotes regarding the intersection of theology and literature, a corner I frequent regularly. Here are just a few of the highlights.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (by English majors, at least) that good reading begets good writing.  This is our Pythagorean Theorem, our Newton’s Third Law: if you want to become a good writer, read. Read broadly. Read deeply. Look for good literature wherever you can find it — in Shakespeare and Dickens, yes, but in the funny papers and the National Geographic, too. Soak it up eagerly.

I couldn't agree more. After reading this quote again, I think there needs to be a simple addition: If you want to be a good preacher of the Word, read. Become a good storyteller. Now, I don't mean the kind of preacher that tells endless stories that have nothing to do with the Scripture readings used for preaching. In the end all that does is focus  attention on ourselves, and that is the opposite of what being a good storytelling preacher should be. Good preachers tell the John the Baptizer story: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! So, this is that I mean.  If good reading makes for good writing (and it does), then good reading also makes for good preaching. We must not be like Eustace, who never read the right books.

And doesn't Jesus do this in the Gospels time and time again? He opened his mouth and spoke to them in parables. The kind of storyteller a faithful preacher needs to be is that kind, the one who tells the same story week after week and yet leaves the hearer wanting more. That's the kind of story that we find in the Gospels. For the Gospels are the best kind of story of all - a true story, or rather, a collection of stories, which need to retain both their historical veracity and their compelling narrative styles, their complex character development, their plot lines and story arcs. Because in the end, the Gospels are the one story preachers are called to tell every week. That's what we're doing in the creed, in the hymns, in the liturgy; here the Church continues to sit at Jesus' feet as he welcomes his baptized children to hear again and again the one story that really matters (and gives meaning to all other stories along the way). Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

And here's one more quote that made my fingers itch to get to a keyboard.

“Plantinga makes a striking claim: preachers who read widely will most likely become better preachers.”  I’ve now read this page-turner of a book through twice, cover to cover, and Plantinga has me thoroughly convinced that his claim is a sound one.   Not only, Plantinga argues, does reading widely give pastors a wealth of illustrative material to use in their sermons (Yay! Stories!) and teach them to craft more compelling sentences and paragraphs, it also  — perhaps more importantly — helps them gain wisdom.

After Rachel posted this, it got me thinking. What books would an English Major recommend a pastor read? So, I asked her on Facebook and she came up with a fantastic list, some of which I have read, others which are now on my reading list. Her blog post, What I'm Reading provides a delightful  annotated list of 10 good book worth reading.

Upon her suggestion I've also compiled a similar (albeit work-in-progress) type of list. With more or less commentary, here are a few good books every Christian, pastor or laymen, should consider reading.

  1. Crime and Punishment. Whether or not you've read any of the Russian novelists, Dostoevsky's work gives great insight into the nature of temptation, desire, death, and (yes) resurrection. From the description of sin echoing in the head Raskolnikov's (main character) head like a newborn chicken waiting to be hatched to the sublime Gospel in the use of Lazarus, this book is more than just an examination into the mind of a killer. It is a microcosm of daily dying and rising.
  2. Lord of the Flies. While we're talking about sin and it's consequences, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this brief novel by William Golding. Some books illustrate the Gospel rather well. This one illustrates the Law and the twisted reality of human depravity in all its infamy. This is what life looks like East of Eden, beyond Genesis 3. It's a good reminder that when you take a cruise, we're all just one engine failure short of the same thing. Left to our own devices (like those boys on the island), we are savages according to Old Adam.
  3. Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And now for something completely different. This is one of my favorites of the Chronicles of Narnia, although a close second to Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. But it remains one of my favorites because it oozes. drips, and is saturated with baptismal imagery. Lewis said this was all about the Christian, or spiritual life. I like to refine that by saying it's about our baptismal life in Christ. And the best quote is at the end..."I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” 
  4. Paradise Lost. I chose this one for the obvious reasons. But it's a good read nonetheless. And bonus if you can find a copy with C.S. Lewis' superb preface. That's almost better than the book itself.
  5. Fahrenheit 451. Although many skeptics have used this book against Christianity, it just as easily can be turned on those who would repress critical thinking, objective truth, and free speech / freedom of reading and writing. I first listened to this on audio book on a drive to Vegas and need to get a hard copy since there was more than one occasion where I wished I had a highlighter nearby.
  6. The Fall. If you want to understand different worldviews. And worldviews are marvelously portrayed in stories, such as The Fall. In fact, worldviews are stories. The question is which story (or worldview) best fits the facts. Reading this book will give you a good idea why Camus's philosophy is rarely adhered to in its entirety and, moreover, what a contrast the Christian worldview brings to life.
  7. Les Miserable. Now, I've read some great reviews that suggest that the movie is even more Lutheran than the original book, written by a Roman Catholic and replete with Roman Catholic teaching. That being said, there is still a rich treasure trove of Gospel patterns (a term coined by Francis Rossow in a book by the same title) in this book. It may be a long book but it's better than listening to Russel Crowe sing for two and half hours.
  8. Aesop's Fables. Luther recommended reading these. He even wrote prefaces to German editions of the Fables and used them repeatedly as illustrations in his writings and sermons. Their quick wit, wisdom, and pithy style lend themselves well for illustrating a particular point in a variety of contexts. Not to mention, stories with talking animals always have an appeal to me.
  9. The Tale of Desperaux. Kate DiCamillo's other book Because of Winn-Dixie is also worthwhile. Yes, it's a story about a mouse. But this also a story about an unlikely hero, a theologian of the cross type of hero. One who appears to be utterly weak and incapable, the most insignificant of creatures. And yet from this weakness comes great strength and heroism. Forgiveness, Rescue, and Redemption are also apparent themes throughout the book, making it more than just a good children's story (though there's nothing wrong with that).
  10. Biblo's Last Song. You can find this at the end of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings when Bilbo leaves the Grey Havens for the West. But you can also find it as a stand alone book, in verse form with vivid artwork from one of the best Tolkien illustrators around, Pauline Baynes. It's a pilgrimage song. It beckons the reader to a new world, one of peace, rest, and blessedness. Whenever I read this I think of John's words of consolation in Revelation with the Lamb, the city of New Jerusalem, and the faithful finally at rest, but restless in their praise. 
Tomorrow I may have another ten or more. But for today, that's a good start. Keep reading, my friends.


  1. Fantastic list. Reading this post is way, way better than listening to Russell Crowe sing for two and a half hours.

    1. Crowe didn't sing for the "whole" two and a half hours. ;)

  2. Here is another:

    East of Eden. John Steinbeck writes his own very American and even Californian version of Genesis, where one line of men is contrasted with another. While his conclusions are often contrary to Scripture, his choice of imagery and storytelling conventions shows a rootedness in Biblical thought that is rare. If, as William Blake said, "The Bible is the great code of art," Steinbeck is a modern who learned the code.

    1. East of Eden was on my short list too, but when I looked at my shelf, Bilbo's song won out. Great quote from Blake there too. I've noticed that same biblical imagery and thought at work in many of Steinbeck's other works too. Thanks for the great comments and for reading!

  3. Now I only need to find the time to read all these great books. Great blog.

  4. Speaking of Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov is well worth it just for the Grand Inquisitor chapter.

    And another good Russian, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn