‘What Language Shall I Borrow?’: Reading for ministry

Picasso - The ReaderThere is a lot in the observation that pastors who read (and there are too few of those) not to be drawn into a deeper place of grappling with realities human and otherwise but who engage in page turning primarily with a view to ‘finding illustrations’, or sponsoring homiletical self-aggrandisement that can be employed for doing something ‘really significant’, only betray themselves as soon as they take up the invitation to speak, whether in a public setting or in a more private one. I recall the words of Michael Dirda, the editor of the Washington Post Book World, who once opined:

A true literary work is one that makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way. Most writers accomplish this through an imaginative and original use of language, which is why literature has been defined as writing that needs to be read (at least) twice. Great books tend to feel strange. They leave us uncomfortable. They make us turn their pages slowly. We are left shaken and stirred. But who now is willing to put in the time or effort to read a real book? Most people expect printed matter to be easy. Too often, we expect the pages to aspire to the condition of television, and to just wash over us. But those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins. The relationship between a book and reader may occasionally be likened to a love affair, but it’s just as often a wrestling match. No pain, no gain. This is why the NEA report shows that poetry is suffering most of all. Poets keep their language charged, they make severe demands on our attention, they cut us no slack. While most prose works the room like a smiling politician at a fundraiser, poetry stands quietly in the dusty street, as cool and self-contained as a lone gunfighter with his serape flapping in the wind. It’s not glad-handing anybody. (Washington Post, July 2004)

Moreover, good writing leaves us humbled and grateful for the privilege of learning from adroit diagnosers and physicians of the soul, the accumulation of whose experiences serve to assist those of us charged with ministering to those who labour with diseases and distempers of spirit beyond our own experience.

Therefore, in order to sponsor such happenings, I’m wanting to compile a list of suggested novels, plays and collections of poetry as assigned reading for theology students and pastors. And to this end I am soliciting the help of readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem. I’m thinking of work by Geraldine Brooks, John Updike, John Steinbeck, J.M. Coetzee, David Malouf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Jim Crace, Thomas Carlyle, Francine Prose, Kenzaburō Ōe, Thomas Lynch, George MacDonald, A.S. Byatt, and Nathaniel Hawthorne; and poets like William Blake, John Donne, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, George Herbert, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, Anna Akhmatova and John Ciardi.

Here’s some additional suggestions to kick us off:



What might you add?


  1. Good post and good suggestions. I would add some Proust, maybe Swann’s Way. Also, as clichéd as it might sound, some Shakespeare.


  2. Love your opening sentence. Years ago, a pastor told me that he had started reading Shakespeare “because it’s great for sermon illustrations”. I nearly died on the spot. I still haven’t quite recovered.

    Anyway, I like your lists. Although everyone’s list will be different, I myself could never live without (in fiction) Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the stories of Borges, Twaine’s Huckleberry Finn, Melville’s Moby-Dick, all of Dickens, all of Kafka, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Beckett’s Molloy

    And for poetry, I couldn’t live without George Herbert, Milton, Blake, Hopkins, R. S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas — and of course Homer’s epics, which are amazing and indispensable… And for contemporary poets, I’d have to include Rowan Williams, Kevin Hart, Geoffrey Hill.

    For drama, I’d also add all of Beckett’s major plays: I reckon it’s impossible to understand the 20th century without Beckett. (Plus, he’s not only one of the greatest playwrights who has ever lived: he’s also the funniest.)

    Okay, sorry to drone on and on — I only meant to add that first comment about pastors and Shakespeare. But I got all carried away…


  3. Can any Joyce make the list? I’d say Ulysses.

    Then Beowulf, the Poetic Edda, and a few volumes of Lang’s Fairy Books.


  4. Good post, Jason, and I agree with your suggestions. But shame on Michael Dirda for suggesting that we mark up books! (I speak as the child of two librarians). I would suggest John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” anything by Thomas Hardy or Saul Bellow. And for poetry try Richard Wilbur. Oh, and how about “The Warden” from Anthony Trollope?


  5. Though almost all Flannery O’Connor novels are quality, try the little book The Violent Bear it Away, a lesser known and not over-quoted O’Connor piece.

    Perhaps such classics as Don Quixote (supposedly Faulkner’s favorite) and Les Miserables.


  6. I would also include under novels: Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘The Idiot’; Alan Patton, ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’; Georges Bernanos, ‘Diary of a Country Priest’; Anonymous, ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’.


  7. Hey Jason. The first book on my list would be whatever book happens to be closest to you. My second, would be the book next to that one. The best way of becoming a lover of great literature, and of coming to recognize what counts as great literature and what doesn’t, is by jumping in. Indiscriminate reading – as both Virginia Woolf and, more recently, Italo Calvino, have suggested – is what is called for here: indiscriminate but critical. In other words, we ought to read everything, but we also ought to think critically about everything we read. (By the way, that’s how Updike wanted to his work to be discovered – by a guy in small town America who just happens to pick up one of his books off the shelf one day.)
    My (third) suggestion would then be Woolf’s diaries, because there you get to see what being a reader really looks like.


  8. Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev, The Book of Lights, In the beginning.
    Gail Godwin, The Good Husband, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and Evensong.
    Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe, Morgan’s Passing, Patchwork Planet.
    Poetry, in addition to all those previously mentioned, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov – and endorsing previous suggestions George Herbert, R S Thomas, and the Four Quartets – which maybe nobody mentioned, but somebody must!
    I’ve grown suspicious of lists that start out being discerningly selective and become promiscuously comprehensive – so maybe there should be a cap on suggestions, each one of us having to decide on a personal canon….or maybe not, that would just reinforce our prejudices.


  9. Thanks for these great suggestions folks, some of which I’ve never heard of, and some of which I’ve since sought out. (I still can’t believe I forgot to list RS Thomas, an oversight rightly picked up by Ben and Jim.)

    I’ve just started re-reading John Updike’s, In the Beauty of the Lilies. Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, every paragraph is exquisite. The next on my list of fiction is Shepherds of the Night by Jorge Amado, a Brazilian writer.

    By the way, can anyone recommend any good fiction by a Scandanavian (in English translation)? Anyone read Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, or The Fish Can Sing, Independent People or Iceland’s Bell by Halldor Laxness?


  10. Yeah, I’ve read all Jostein Gaarder’s novels. Not exactly great literature, but they’re always stimulating and enjoyable. Sophie’s World is his most famous one (it’s a nice read: and a pretty good history of philosophy, even if the narrative is not always fully successful). But my own favourite is The Solitaire Mystery. And I also have a soft spot for Vita Brevis, his absolutely scathing and horrible portrayal of St Augustine: an unforgivable interpretation of Augustine, but a great yarn nonetheless.


  11. Hey Jason. Re: Scandanavian fiction: Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas, Bengt Ohlsson’s Gregorius, Linn Ullman’s Stella Descending, anything by Peter Høeg. Did you read anything by George Mackay Brown while you were in Scotland? Vinland is one of my all time favourite books. Winter Tales is perfect reading right now. Moving a little closer to Aberdeenshire… I’m reading Sunset Song right now, which is the first part of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair. I am convinced that it is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century literature.
    Re: some other fiction that hasn’t appeared on the list yet: William Styon, Lie Down in Darkness, and Sophie’s Choice; Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying; Dostoievsky, Demons; Graham Greene, End of the Affair; Cormac McCarthy, Child of God (as well as everything else – he is, I think, the greatest novelist alive today), Iris Murdoch, Flight from the Enchanter, The Bell; Henry Miller, The Best of Henry Miller (edited by the great Lawrence Durrell). Finally, I’ve just discovered Sally Vickers, who is wonderful.


  12. Thanks Andre. There’s enough there to keep me going to months, maybe years. Much appreciated. Yes I did read some George Mackay Brown while in Scotland. Also heard a lecture on his work.


  13. I want to suggest a few others… Carlo’s Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, all of Maurice Shadbolt’s NZ Ward trilogy (as insight into NZ history and early race relations) and William Horwood’s Skallagrigg.


  14. Albert Camus, “The Plague” and Franz Kafka, “The Trial” should be on there, I reckon, and maybe Elie Wiesel, “The Trial of God”. You can then read these and Dostoyevsky alongside the book of Job.


  15. Sigrid Undset, The Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy. Be sure to use the Tiina Nunnally translation. Huge pastoral issues, sin, scandal, real life – it’s all there. Must include.


  16. By the way, Undset is Norwegian and the novels are set in medieval Norway.


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