The following transcript comes from a classroom on “applied theology,” or “pastoral theology.” The lecture that day went to the matter of how to incorporate reading and art into the ministry, and why. I welcome you to “audit the class” as you read on.
rothers and sisters, I want to tell you something at this point. I want to talk to you this morning, at this very point about the necessity to move from seminary and advance to a life of reading. To accomplish this lifelong pursuit, you need a useful method. I want to submit, for your consideration, an approach that I refer to as “reading stations.” Let me say there is going to come a time in your life when you walk across the platform of the chancel, and I shake your hand, and you get your Master of Divinity, or perhaps some of you here will receive your Master of Arts or doctorate. You depart, with your family, in blissful exhilaration; liberated, at last, from the tyranny of your professors’ oppressive syllabi. “Read this, read that” will be ordinal commands that recede into the past like a dream. At long last, you will be able to read what you want to, not what I’m telling you to read! Not what you’re having to sign off saying ‘I have read the following.’ You’ll get to read whatever you want to read – that’s going to be a wonderful time of joy and freedom. One thing you need to do is remember to read. You are a pastor and are filling your reservoir with reading. Now you need to be reading all kinds of things – how do you do that? One way to do that is to consider a reading station in which you have different books at different stations in one day, and you’re going through those books because you are going to have to be reading a wide variety of things. You may be, for instance, in the morning reading a devotional with your family of a preacher – last year I went through Matthew Henry, this year I’m going through George Whitfield. This morning we read a hymn of George Whitfield as we reflected on a particular scripture. You are also going to have to read preachers: sermons biographies, controversies, and devotions. There are theologians that we could not cover in the curriculum of this seminary that you should consider. There are artists, poets, novelists, essayists, physicians, and philosophers to meet. There are works of art to view. There is a life of learning awaiting you. Reading stations might more nearly aid you in consuming a healthy intellectual diet of various, delightful, and helpful literary nutrients.
So, morning reading is one station. Perhaps, that station is at your bedside, or on your patio, or in a coffee shop, or with your family, at the breakfast table. Another reading station could be your briefcase which ends up being your lunch-reading. I think that is a good time for systematic theology or other parts of the theological encyclopedia, particularly systematics, religious issues, hot topics, and so forth. Lunchtime is a good time in the day to read such works. I spent some time having lunch with a given Swiss theologian.
I graduated from a Christian college and then I went to seminary. I went through five years of postgraduate study in Theology for a Ph.D. at the University of Wales. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for post-doctoral research that led to a Master of Public Administration. In all of my education in the humanities and the social sciences, I read very little of Karl Barth. I should have. Barth is undoubtedly the most influential and prominent theologian of the twentieth century. I didn’t say the best theologian or the most useful. In my estimation, he is neither. But he was unquestionably the most prominent (that, of course, is disputable, but I didn’t read enough of Barth to know). So I dedicated myself to learning, for a year, about Barth, Barth’s ideas, and then I began reading Barth. Some do the opposite—read the author and then read books about him—but I am glad that I sequenced my approach as I did. It was right for my learning style. Incidentally, I may have said this before, but Dr. Douglas Kelly ) now, retired professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary) probably knows more about Karl Barth than many Bartian scholars even at the Bartian Institute. Kelly knows Barth so well because of Dr. T.F. Torrance, his mentor, and supervisor from the University of Edinburgh. But I didn’t know enough about Barth. I learned about Barth, read about Barth and finally stuffed volumes of his church dogmatic into my bulging briefcase. Why am I reading him at lunch, my other reading station? Well, to be forthright, devouring portions of Nicholas Wolterstorff while managing an egg-salad and swiss on toasted sesame-seed bagel goes down easy for me. I don’t read systematic theology before bed. Why? The concepts stimulate, rather than sedate. I read a biography or other narratives at bedtime. Martin Lloyd-Jones gave similar advice about bedtime reading in his lectures to his students in his Westminster Pastors’ Conferences at Westminster Chapel, London. Use the “bedside” reading station to help you hum ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ as you go to sleep. I remember very peaceful moments with the Lord as I read Amy Carmichael’s biography. As I read of her trials, her faithfulness, and God’s presence, I was comforted: “If the Lord did this for Miss Amy, He would also rescue me.”
There are also other stations such as your favorite chair and having magazines and journals and other sorts of literature there. Also, your study is an excellent place to be able to go through and quickly survey journals and focus in on things you want to study. Then, of course, there is your bedside, and there I would advocate biography as I said. There are other stations you can create but in doing this you see how the pastor can follow the instruction of the Word of God and that is to continue “training in the words of the Faith and the good doctrine that you have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6). There is nothing more important in your ministry that continuing your training. I want you to consider your Master of Divinity “a license to learn.” Don’t think of it as a terminal degree in your professional preparation for the Gospel Ministry. I want you to consider it a license to learn. You’ve gone through a time of development, but now you’re being catapulted out into the parish ministry, a missionary ministry or a college ministry, whatever it may be, the chaplaincy and now you have a license to learn. Now you’ve been given the ticket that says ‘Read what you want to read – just read good things, things that help you.’
Question: We are going to be reading a lot of theologians, do you have a specific time that you would include current events or biographies about people who are influential but aren’t necessarily Christian?
Answer: Absolutely, for me and of course this is personal; it’s about how it works for you. For me, I use this time for history also – I want to see how God has worked in the lives of others. For instance, right now I’m reading a book called ‘The Envoy’ which deals with a Swiss diplomat who hid and helped saved Jews during World War II. Along with that, I am reading a companion volume (I like to “couple,” for example, books of opposing ideas; books, and art; or history and poetry) a commentary on “The Barman Declaration.” So, a historical narrative about a man, his faith is not the centerpiece of the story, who leveraged his position (and endangered both reputation and life) by saving other human beings. This book and a declaration influenced by Barth and Bonhoeffer seemed to fit together for a fuller understanding of the era. But I do like to read “true crime,” for instance. One learns a great deal about the depth of depravity in the human heart by studying the lifelines of a housewife turned murderess. Also here there are journals –the Intercollegiate Studies Institute produces some outstanding journals by people like Robert George from Princeton, Paul Kengor from Grove City College and old articles by William F. Buckley Jr. and so forth. First Things is another one, even though it has a particularly Lutheran and sometimes even conservative Roman Catholic views. I tend to devour that one in a single “meal.” Whenever I was president and chancellor of a seminary, I racked up some merciless airline miles. I found that travel time on the jet was another reading station. I liked history there. Reading history has now has moved, to another station: the brown leather chair in my study. Sometimes I enjoy reading with older friends around me. And that is why I pursue history in my home library. Books become like old friends. It is good to look up from a page, place your finger between the leaves, to mark your place, and then peer across the landscape of paper and color, souvenirs and old postcards, to look for a book that you read, e.g., years ago. My wife will often find me staring at books and not just reading them. I don’t think it is eccentric, although eccentricity is indiscernible by the unconventional. Getting back to the point: Reading stations change as seasons of life come and go.
Pastors should read English literature. I was reading last night for instance, at the table, with my family Last of the Mohicans. Recently, I enjoyed Auden, who is a favorite poet of mine, during this Lenten season. Poetry is an elegant way to help the minister of the Gospel in elocution. St. Paul’s admonition to Pastor Timothy remains an oft-neglected discipline requiring constant attention: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13).
There are also younger poets to consider. I was recently reading William Wright’s collection of poems called, Tree Heresies (2015). Wright is a promising writer whose lines evoke the smell of the Georgia earth in spring, soured moss after too much rain, and a careful, even loving, caretaker of the illuminated wonders that hide with gray banality. I think preachers should read more poetry. But poetry is expensive. Perhaps, we have left poetry behind because cultivated verse demands something of us. Poetry digested well requires us to slow down, to think about words, and to submit our senses to the gardener before us. Poetry can remove weeds, clear debris, and make room for clearer thinking.
I believe that literature is increasingly important because of the power of story. Technology has changed the way we consume ideas, but it cannot change the longing for stories. We find ourselves in stories of others, even when we aren’t looking. Western literature is our heritage. The books, plays, poems, and chronicles relate an epic tale of who we are and how we got here. Because so much of our literature is replete with Biblical imagery or reference, it is ready-made for sermons. In a day when the Great Books are absent from our public life and home life, and much of that loss is due to Biblical illiteracy in the culture, preachers would do well to introduce parishioners to the heirlooms of our civilization. Indeed, the preacher may well be the primary living repository of English literature in our world today. Popular culture does not, usually (there are happy exceptions) help people think about great works of art that, in turn, drive us to consider our forebearers’ answers to our great existential questions.
“Where is a good list of books that I should be reading,” you might ask? I would commend Eugene Peterson’s Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List by Eugene Peterson. If you read through Peterson’s list, you will fill your quiver with many finely chiseled arrows.
Any other thoughts, reflections?
Question: I was reading about ….who is an artist. He mentioned how as a Christian we need to take time to be creative as well. How does that play out in the life of a pastor? I mean you just mentioned a typical day which is full enough.
Answer: This is what I hope you take away from Craig Barnes’ book The Pastor as Minor Poet. The poet is creative, and the pastor is the poet in the sense that the Christian shepherd is weekly conducting theological reflection on every event, person, and thing in his life. Theological reflection is our chief work. We must find God in the common things of life. Pick the flowers, like a little boy does for his mother, and run to our congregations on Sunday and say, “Look, what I found for you!” This search, this theological reflection, is aided by painting and poetry, symphony and novel, plot and plainsong. For instance, I remember spending time focusing on John Constable and his Clouds (this happened after a trip to England and Wales). Constable helped me to see the majesty of clouds. I thought quite a great deal about them as I watched them over the high cliffs of south Wales. JMW Turner’s remarkably beautiful golden paintings of storms at sea, or an angel standing in brilliant light have helped me to think more deeply about the elements around us. I recall watching Lust for Life with Kurt Douglass and thinking about the life of Vincent Van Gogh even as I begin to reexamine the Dutchman’s great brush strokes. All of this helps in theological reflection. The question is, “How does one taste so many delicacies at once?” Well, one can’t. There are seasons in life. However, there are ways to consume books and art with some planning that can yield to habit. That is where reading stations come in. There should be a reflective, creative process within the act of, say, preparing sermons, conducting worship, or counseling parishioners. Why is this good? Because it expands your reservoir of what God is doing in the world, of the beauty of God’s creation, which is going to give you balance and health, mental health, spiritual health as you are dealing with such a diversity of issues as I said. It also expands your understanding of humanity which is one thing that art does. I think art reflects God’s creative beauty when it’s at it’s best, and I believe that we can take the aesthetic value and critical analysis to art and music and to ask ourselves ‘is this properly reflecting the beauty of God’s creation?
By all means, read and consider the ideas and lives of those who followed not the Savior. A waste of time? Hardly so. For you will meet many like them. Perhaps, the subjects of biographies or journals will have attained greater notoriety. But the human soul is infinitely the same and forever different. Work in the non-Christian literature and even art into your reading stations. Make a particular station for them. You will find that your insights on the human condition will grow. One doesn’t have to imbibe of the poison to learn the lessons of drinking it. And that is the purpose of consuming unbelieving essays, poetry, and literature. At times, while the faith will be lacking, the artistry may be superior.
For instance, I don’t like some of the Christian paintings that look too idealistic and don’t have shadows in them. Some of the most famous works of Christian artists have quaint and beautiful fairytale images, but lack shadows. Well, life has shadows. Christianity is not a fairytale. The ruling motif of the Gospel comprises glory and betrayal, laughter and lament, brutal death on a Roman cross, God laid out on a cold stone in a borrowed grave, a “Black Saturday,” and, then, resurrection morning. As I read Auden, I read shadows in his poetry; or in TS Eliot’s works. As I look at the artwork of Van Gogh, a washed-up missionary from the Dutch Reformed Church; I cannot help but witness the dashes of luminous angst and the swirling thoughts of primary colors that move faster than orderly amber wheat fields of rationality. These artists expand my understanding of humanity; of the depth of sin; and of the silent pain of despair. Receiving gifts of art is not only a deeply spiritual event, as a human being, but is also a professional necessity. Pastors are always assessing, diagnosing, and treating people with the word of God, the right words of sound doctrine. Art can become pastoral research to aid in the discovery of fissures in the human soul.
The public worship of the living God is the fullest expression of our ministry and the highest honor of our lives. There is no more significant work in the Gospel ministry. To conduct worship that is dependent upon the Spirit of God, you must discipline yourself in Christ’s righteousness. So, yes, art helps expand the reservoir of knowledge from which we understand self, others, and, sometimes, even God. When art imitates the Creator’s handiwork, art becomes a mirror reflecting God’s glory: in painting, sculpture, music, dance, and literature.
I commend Dr. Craig Barnes’ The Pastor as Minor Poet. Barnes teaches pastors that our work is to be looking underneath the presenting issues to think biblically and creatively about diagnoses and treatment through narrative. “Where is the story here? Who are the players? What is the text and subtext of Scripture at play in their narrative?” Barnes is of enormous help to the physician of the soul. His insights guide us away from the self-centered, pastoral phobias, to the harder, but more vocationally satisfying, work of spiritual care. Barnes teaches us to listen, look, and locate the real issue causing the gangrenous symptoms of a person’s soul. I came away from the book with a higher sensitivity to pastoral assessment and diagnosis. Recognizing stories, chapters, plots, and subplots helps me to know the flow of the story. I see where a section begins. I might even see where it must end. Sometimes, I can help a person understand and pray for the Lord to write a new chapter. Such moments are epiphanies of the Spirit in our midst. Sometimes I have wept with brokenhearted brothers because their “wandering” chapter ate up the whole book. Other time I can remember seated in a chair. I listened, and I tried to find the heroine on her journey. I have allowed my eyes to fix upon a leafless tree or the back of a parked car, just outside of my office window, waiting for the next work to be spoken. I would stare outside, in paralyzing pain, letting the heaviness of her sorrow settle, as a Christian sister related a childhood stolen by trusted thieves. But the Gospel promises that we have a Redeemer to restore the lost years (Joel 2:25). I have fallen on my face, with a struggling couple, to seek the creative God of our stories. I remember falling face-down on the floor of my office, with a young husband and wife. We were each crying to God for His help. I laid my hands on the young couple and asked God to do what we could not do, to write the story that needed to be written. I have seen His hand begin to move. I have witnessed gold-gilded chapters of glory out of old tattered paperbacks of sorrow.
A pastoral counselor is to assess, diagnose, and treat spiritual sickness. As Christian counselors, our treatment comes from the medicine cabinet of sixty-six books of the Bible, rich with all of the theological medication, biblical healing available and through the power of the Holy Spirit that’s coming upon you in prayer and your study of the Word of God. We must not farm out our work as pastors to other professionals when we the disease is spiritual. When the spiritual malignancy has been left to decay and spread, it invariably infects the body. Do not be hesitant to differentiate between the spirit and the physical. Quickly refer a suffering person to a medical doctor for the healing of the body. Sometimes the spiritual disease migrates through that metaphysical membrane into the human body. In other cases, physical illness can affect the spirit. There are times when you refer to a medical doctor. Undoubtedly, there are also instances when a medical doctor should send a person to you, the pastor.
I return to the talk about art. Precocious artists, like John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, Vincent Van Gogh, John Donne, Wystan Hugh Auden, T.S. Eliot, Lewis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walker Percy (even a profligate searcher like Dylan Thomas), Mary Flannery O’Connor, and Gerald Finzi are also part of the cloud of witnesses (not only to Elysian fields, but to realms of defeat as well as victory, stubborn ignorance instead of wisdom). But these do encourage me so. They might even be powerful allies in the cultivation of the rare art and science of pastoral assessment, diagnoses, and Biblical treatment of the human soul. Their work, after all, was dealing with the very essence of humanity. A messy business that. But when artists approach the open wound and resplendent wonder of the human condition, reflectively and creatively, with skillful pen and quill, imaginative palette and brush, lyrical ballad, or piano and score, insights may come to us intuitively, and new ideas can arrive in our minds by the serene voice of the muse. In like manner, novelists can sound the depths of the human spirit. If you can make your way through William Faulkner, for instance, which work can be similar to a mini-series that lasts for two years, you will find the task well worth it. Walker Percy (on whose front porch I sat as a child, as we brought him strawberries) wrote about the enigmatic quirks of the American Southerner’s complicated relationship with modernity (and postmodernity) as if he were a psychiatrist (he was, of course). All of these figures, closer now, after all of these years, have voices that guide me, not like Scripture, but like men and women, helping me to sketch the picture that I am struggling to draw. Now, Scripture completes the painting. I consume art so that I become a better person. I reflect on art so that I can understand myself and others. If artistic expression fails to pass muster on those two points it may be interesting to me but not necessarily useful. That is how I judge art. That is not an equation that is unalterable dogma, but one that works for me. I commend it to you for your consideration in your ministry and life. Art helps to ask the question that Scripture invariably answers.
So there is a place, an essential position, in the pastoral ministry, for reading good literature, aspiring to high theology, meditating upon fine art, and ruminating on the wonder of God and the vicissitudes of human experience in verse and lyric, brass and string. Each lesson of good art constitutes an unceasing, hoped-for expansion of the pastor’s heart and mind. Such effusive spirits are indispensable in treating the human soul in crisis. Consider using reading stations to ingest the various spiritual nutrients from a life of good books and inspiring art. At the end of your days, you will not regret having paused in the morning to contemplate a verse of Donne; to feel the rising orchestra in Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings, Opus 10; or looking intently into the fermenting seas of Turner. But you will regret missing it.