“Pastors should read deeply and widely,” I say to my students. So, as I surveyed my stack of recently read books I noticed a glaring omission: no fiction. My son, an English Major, had recently scolded me half-jokingly over some blind-spotted personality quirk, “Dad, you need more novels in your life.” So, I turned to Percy—Walker Percy. I find emotional and intellectual comfort in both Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. I do read other fiction through the year, of course, but when pressed I readily admit that I return to the familiar old places at Milledgeville, Georgia or Covington, Louisiana.
It has done my spirit good to read Dr. Percy’s words again. I am not sure, though, when reading, whether I am the patient stretched out on Dr. Percy’s psychoanalytical couch or he is. I guess we both are and that is his point. I came across a line of Walker Percy in The Last Gentleman, Percy’s second novel, after The Moviegoer. It was very instructive for my ministry to read how Percy set up his main character, Will Barrett:
” It was not the prospect of the Last Day which depressed him but rather the prospect of living through an ordinary Wednesday morning.”
This single line made me put the book down. I considered and reconsidered the validity of his observation. I restated this as a premise for a fuller qualitative analysis (in my gray matter). I remembered why it takes me so long to read Percy (and why I default to his buddy Foote to read historical prose). After chewing on this cud for a while I began to see how very instructive Percy’s insight is for a Christian shepherd. When we preach and follow our Lord (and St. Paul) in His preaching we apply the theological truth to the existential. If we fail to make that necessary turn, if we turn too quickly, or if we swerve too abruptly, we lose the pastoral opportunity.
We remember, as Peal said in his Winning Friends that a man’s toothache is of inestimable more importance to him than the reality of thousands of starving people in another land. And for many in our new Secular Age, as Charles Taylor labels it, making sense of living on “an ordinary Wednesday morning” becomes an enormous psychological undertaking, which is to say an immense spiritual trial. These are the days that we face. These are our lambs needing shepherding in this season of the journey. Reading Walker Percy has reminded me of this truth that the Psalms make so clear. But sometimes the wisdom and insight of another is necessary to help us see the obvious. So, yes, Son, you were right: I did need some more fiction in my reading to see reality clearer, and to diagnose the human condition better. For only then are we prepared to apply the appropriate Scriptural treatment.
Percy, Walker, The Last Gentleman. New York: Random, the Modern Library edition, 1997, 24.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.