“Novelists work the same field in which Christians pray, believe and obey, plowing and sowing and harvesting all the interconnections of ordinary lives. This statement by John Updike supports my conviction that the novel is an essential component in spiritual reading: ‘Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented yet. Psychology and X-rays bring up some portentous shadows, and demographics and stroboscopic photography do some fine breakdowns, but for the full parfum and effluvia of being human, for feathery ambiguity and rank facticity, for the air and the iron, fire and spirit of our daily moral adventure there is nothing like fiction: it makes sociology look priggish, history problematical, the film media two-dimensional, and the National Enquirer as silly as last week’s cereal box….In fiction, everything that searchers for the important tend to leave out is left in.” (Take & Read: Spiritual Reading, An Annotated List by Eugene Peterson, pp. 48)
Honestly, I’m pretty tired of all the ministry and self-help books (and by self-help I mean pastoral care, therapy stuff) that seem to be saying the same thing over and over again. It’s hard to tell them apart at times. It’s almost as if people are just rushing the books out to get published before the material becomes irrelevant. Before you think I’m being too harsh, let me say that I probably buy more ministry and self-help books than a lot of people. And many of them are super helpful.
But what I find missing in a lot of these books is a sense of imagination and narrative. Something that pulls me into what is being said, and isn’t simply reliant upon 7 steps to this, or 3 steps to this.
I have always loved novels, but I have been going back to them more and more frequently. I try to average about 2-3 novels a month, and I find myself re-reading some of them 5, 6 and 7 times over. And I’m going back and reading and re-reading the classics (and there are lots of lists).
The problem with steps is that we don’t know what to do when the formula doesn’t work. Steps don’t take into account the nuances of life and the dynamics of human interaction.
One of the things that I have found very fascinating is that I am about to complete my second reading of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Series — 6 novels, over 2,500 pages of small print. Some of the novels I have read 7 times. And what is fascinating is that no reading is the same. Characters are constantly changing as I pick up different nuances, and as I enter into the various perspectives of the multiple narrators.
They are teaching me more about human nature. More about ministry. More about therapy. More about redemption. More about grace. Than any ministry or self-help books I have read.
So you don’t have to give up on your ministry and self-help books, but put them down for a season, and pick up a novel. Let a novel transform your thinking, your life, your relationships, and watch the power that will have on your ministry and therapeutic work.