One of the questions that is always asked of me when interviewing for a ministry position is, “What are you currently reading?” This is, by far, one of my favorite questions. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her bookshelf. My answers currently have been either “Pride & Prejudice,” or “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” This answer has been met with the following responses, “Oh…,” “What’s that?,” “Interesting choice,” “How about ministry books?,” “Anything else?,” and my personal favorite, “Why?” I love these responses. Churches do not know how to handle an answer to that question unless the answer is some ministry-related book. I find this interesting.
Within the evangelical churches, there seems to be a trend to read the latest ministerial book. I have read those. In fact, I have read so many of them that most of them blur together. Most of them tend to have the same basic premise: How to do ministry more effectively. If you are not reading a book on how to do ministry, reading a theological self-help book is quite alright as well. I have read these as well and have come to find that most of them say the same things. Many religious nonfiction books would be better if they were blogs. I would much rather read a few pages of a blog compared to a few hundred pages of a book. Christians are incredible at writing books-that-should-have-been-blogs. I am sure you have read some of these books. You know it when you begin to realize that the author is saying nothing new.
I’m going to pick on a book as an example. Many will hate me for this because it seemed to be the trendy reading for a long time. “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan. Don’t get me wrong, I like Chan. I love to listen to him speak. He has a tremendous gift. His writing, however, is like someone taking a sentence (and albeit a good sentence) and stretching it out for 200 pages. I remember the trend of “Crazy Love.” It was on everyone’s “Must Read” list. When I was a student at Johnson, every single small group was studying it (including mine…). After I read it (and by reading it, I mean dissecting it and really looking at it for what it said and not the emotions it could cause), I found that Chan had taken a statement that could have been a powerful blog post and made it into a full-length book.
If I was interviewing for positions back then and said that “Crazy Love” was the my current read, churches would have resonated with that and probably would have asked me questions about how it had been challenging me. If, however, I had said that I was reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” I would have been met with the blank stares.
I made a New Year’s Resolution this year (something I haven’t done before) to read three classical pieces of literature for every nonfiction religious work I read. What I have found by doing this, is this: I miss the depth of characters that I find in classical pieces of literature. These works have characters so rich and real that it has me yearning to meet them. It has me desiring to question them. I am intrigued by the novel because I am intrigued by what the character is going to do next. Now, most Christian nonfiction will not have characters like that because most Christian nonfiction is solely about ideas or practices. Nonetheless, there is a certain perception I gain from reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray” compared to “Crazy Love.”
I have always argued that the reason I enjoy good films or good books is because of the characters. Give me a well-developed character and I will watch him or her in any situation. This is the reason I enjoy reading plays or watching stage productions. And I will say this: I have learned more about ministering to people from the plays and classical pieces of literature I have read than any ministerial book I have read. The problem with most contemporary religious works are that they deal with shallow ideas and undeveloped examples. However, they are packed with emotion. And of course, they are supported with: “I felt God telling me to write this book,” which is the bulletproof argument. How are you supposed to argue with God? If you do, you sound like a horrible person. I am pleased to say, I have sounded like a horrible person numerous times because I have questioned if they really felt like God was telling them to do something or they just had a surge of emotions and landed upon this illogical thought.
This is not to say that I hate Christian authors. I enjoy them. I read them. However, be careful what you read because there is no way you can read every single book written. Choose wisely (yes, I’m talking to you “Twilight” fans). I have learned far more about how deceitful pride can be from reading “Pride & Prejudice.” I have learned about the ugliness of pursuing pleasure from “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” And I have learned these things because of the characters. The characters are so wonderfully crafted that I find myself wanting to learn from their mistakes. I find myself connecting with them because of their depth. I find myself learning from them because of that connection. Learning from characters is far more beneficial than learning from ideas or concepts. It is a Scriptural concept. “Remember Abraham,” “Be like Christ,” “Just like Paul…,” “Just as David,” etc. We pull out characters and use them to connect with people because character connection is better than connecting to an idea or concept on a page.
Connect to a character. Read something with depth this week.
**All this being said, I am not negating the fact that there are some modern authors out there with the same writing ability.**