One of the unfortunate failures in contemporary evangelicalism is its neglect of language, literature, and story. The failure is part of a larger crisis—our evangelical illiteracy in beauty, paradox, and mystery. Fortunately for you, you’ve come across the Fidelity Essays, the most balanced, nuanced and perfectly holistic contemporary perspective on faith and formation in God’s world. Ok, that may be a stretch. But still, we at least appreciate books that fall outside the category of “required” theological reading for seminarians and pastors.
Is it the job of theological seminaries to train its students in poetry, literature and cultural history? Maybe not. But most of us can agree that our pastors and students should be reading widely in order to think deeply, feel rightly, and communicate compellingly. So what do we consider Essential Non-Required Reading for Pastors? I’m glad you asked. And I’m going to need a multi-part series. First, essay collections. Second, full-length creative non-fiction. Third, fiction. And fourth, biography. Y’all poetry lovers will have to forgive me for (probably) omitting this category—I’ll freely admit its my weakest area of interest and reading.
Let’s start with the most critical and under-appreciated genre for pastors, theologians and other Christian leaders. I’m talking, of course, about the essay.
This is my favorite of Mr Berry’s essay collections, which also include Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community; Our Only World; What Are People For?; The Art of the Commonplace; Standing by Words; The Gift of Good Land; Citizenship Papers; Home Economics; The Way of Ignorance; Another Turn of the Crank; and Life is a Miracle. Berry is most well-known for his novels, especially the amazing Port Wiliam Series, and is a poet by training. But if you’ve never read Wendell Berry, who lives within an hour’s drive of me here in Kentucky, start with It All Turns On Affection.
In 2012, Berry was awarded The Jefferson Lecture, the highest intellectual sort of “lifetime achievement award”—by President Obama, and was invited to deliver a paper that represented his life’s work on meaning, family, work, and place. The result: a majestic 30-page essay that introduces two fundamental ways of being and living, “boomers and stickers,” a history of farming in American, and the sort of argument for content living that reminds me of a cross between Jonathan Edwards, Walter Brueggemann, and the only actual farmer I know. Mr Berry is my all-time favorite author, and this is just a great read.
I’ve just come across Buechner’s books, after hearing his name tossed around as “the Christian Wendell Berry” for a while. And I have not been disappointed. My goodness, this collection is beautiful. The opening essay, “The Face in the Sky,” might be my new favorite five pages of writing in all literature. Here’s a quick sampling.
“Once you have seen him in a stable, you can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no time or place so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.”
Buechner, like Berry, is still alive today. Any day now, I plan to get together with both of them (Buechner is a retired Presbyterian minister and Pulitzer-nominated novelist) for a spot of tea and a lively discussion. I’ll let you know when that’s happening.
Gladwell is probably the most popular non-fiction author of our generation. His four full-length books, including The Tipping Point and Blink, have sold something like a billion copies and all made the New York Times Bestseller list. But my favorite is his this essay collection. The most famous essays included here are “The Ketchup Conondrum,” on why mustard has many varieties but ketchup has remained mostly unchanged, “John Rock’s Error,” on the inventor of birth control’s mistakes, and the title essay, on Cesar Millian and the mastery of movement. But my personal favorites are “Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information,” “The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic,” and “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?” Pick this mug up.
Continuing with our last two decades’ most popular authors, David Foster Wallace. DFW is most well-known for his 2006 novel Infinite Jest, an 1100-page, 400-footnote, bizzaro story I have yet to tackle. But in Consider the Lobster, he is at his most readable and compelling. DFW is a rare combination of literary genius and vulgar hippie, while also being surprisingly kind-hearted. Sadly, DFW died shortly after the publication of these essays.
Sullivan is another semi-local author—he grew up in nearby southern Indiana and his dad was a sports journalist with Louisville’s local paper. Sullivan is an incredible writer, and his first book Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, will no doubt make my Essential (full-length) Non-Fiction list. Here in Pulphead, he takes on a number of oddities in American Culture, and writes with a style between Gladwell and David Foster Wallace. Sullivan’s opening essay, “Upon This Rock,” describes the author’s hilarious experience at a major Christian rock festival and his own views on Christ and religion. He covers a number of cultural icons and events—Michael Jackson, Hurricane Katrina, the college experience, Axl Rose, etc—in a way that keeps you reading. There’s a good bit of vulgarity in Sullivan, just FYI. But the book is so well-written, that I will pick up anything new he writes from here on out.
Again, there is some vulgarity here. But for pastors who want a lively book to understand contemporary American culture, Klosterman is your man, and this “low culture manifesto” is the best place to begin. This was the second book by CK, who has now written a dozen or so books, almost all ridiculous bestsellers. Klosterman continues to write for Grantland, The NYT Magazine, Esquire, Spin, and other publications. He also gets bonus points in my book for his great commentary on the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “You Don’t Know Bo,” on my hero Bo Jackson.
My favorite sports book of all-time. Gay Talese was a prolific NY Times journalist and author, and only wrote sporadically on sports. But when he did, it was pure gold. Talese’s genius was looking for untold stories—interviewing the boxers who had just lost a critical fight and tracking down sports heroes decades after their retirement. He gives an intimate view of sport as a window into shared humanity, and his articles can make you laugh and cry on the same page. In this collection, you must read the essays…
“Portrait of a Young Prize Fighter”
“Troupe of Midget Wrestlers Won’t Work for Small Change”
“Timekeeper as Quiet as a Clock”
“Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man”
“Silent Season of a Hero” (on Joe DiMaggio)
“Ali in Havana” (an amazing interview with Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro)
OK, folks, there are seven great essay collections to get you started—or more than 40 books if you count these authors’ entire works of essays. Up next, full-length Creative Non-Fiction books. And by “up next,” I mean, I should have something posted in the next six months. Stay on the edge of your seat, people!!!