My spouse owns a T-shirt that sparks jealousy. Procured from the New York Public Library, it asks in bold, block letters: “What are you reading today?”
I love that question. It speaks to commitment and investment: If you are not reading, why not? It speaks to taste and selection: If you are reading, then why have you chosen to read it? Whenever an acquaintance or friend starts praising authorship, point of view, theological insight or prose, I pay attention. My reading wish list is four times longer than my to-do list. Without boring you with details about my vocational particulars, let’s just say that anything rivaling my to-do list in size is near miraculous.
In my 20 years of ministry, reading has been both necessary and joyful. Local church ministry is myopic. Concerns about the length of worship, the accuracy of the bulletin, the color of the sanctuary carpet, the frequency of visits and the unceasing Sunday morning preaching deadline can limit vision beyond the walls of the pastor’s study.
Deep theological reading serves as a phoropter to the myopia of church life. A phoropter is the amazing piece of medical equipment your eye-care professional uses while switching lenses back and forth to assess vision (“Which one is clearer, A or B?”) Phoropters determine which prescriptive lenses correct faulty eyes. Just as bifocals are necessary for the nearsighted or reading-glasses required for the farsighted, theological reading is necessary for both the sharpening of pastoral perspective and the maintaining of theological insight.
New reading challenges long-held assumptions. It can also reinforce sacred beliefs in the healthiest of ways. Discovery of new thinkers and new writers can be manna for pastoral stagnation. Nothing is so satisfying or necessary than diving into a text with notepads and pens at the ready. Preaching series, church reorganizations and leadership skills are inspired with every page turn of well-written texts.
If reading were only a necessity, though, it could become a chore. Chores are not joyful. Thankfully, reading good writing is not a chore. Reading good writing inspires joy.
In the summer months, I read more fiction. It is the deep storytelling and the artistry of phrasing that make fiction lyrically delicious. Fiction is freer than biography or history. The more fiction I read, the more fluid my preaching and writing become. Ecclesiological writing is the base beneath the work I do. Fiction helps maintain the beauty of language in work of this preacher because fiction describes both the pain and the wonder of the human condition in ways no other genre of writing does. Fiction is the razor’s edge of storytelling.
After 20 years of ministry, I believe that pastors are best described as story aggregators. We hear the stories of our people. We learn the story of the church in the histories of the church. We read theologians and commentaries to unlock the secrets of the confessions and the biblical story. From this myriad of stories – those we hear, read and tell – the pastoral life finds its purpose and meaning. In order to share great stories, we story aggregators have to fill our lives with great writing.
In this light, the original question – “what are you reading today?” – becomes transformative. Thank goodness there is so much to read. We are living in the golden age of memoir. New writers from perspectives heretofore rarely encountered are offering stories of deep meaning. Younger theologians are reaching new audiences. New books, essays and blogs reveal the broad spectrum of the soul and catalog the persistent work of the Holy Spirit.
What am I reading today? The list is too long for the space I am allowed. My wish list is bursting. If my vision is to be continually corrected, this is exactly as it should be.
Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.