Recently we hosted my friend David Powlison for a week as he taught biblical counseling at the Pastors College. We were honored that he would make time in his schedule to come and teach us.
As you can imagine, for the students in the classroom and for me in my interactions with David, the week was rich and rewarding. And from that week with him I ended up with a bundle of counsel, including what has become a few blog posts and five audio interviews. Over the next couple weeks we plan to share a little of what I learned with you.
On one evening, over dinner at a favorite Gaithersburg restaurant, I asked David a number of questions on various topics. Not surprising, we began with a lengthy conversation on sports and athletics. I gained a new appreciation for David’s athletic heritage, his personal gifting, and incredible knowledge of baseball. Some of this will emerge in the audio interviews segment I’ll soon share.
But part of our dinnertime conversation included David sharing on the topic of why pastors should read literature. And by “interview” I mean that I sat back in my seat and listened to a 17-minute monologue from David on books. The time was rewarding, and I think other pastors will benefit from David’s recommendations.
He began talking about literature by recommending two novels that feature pastors—Cry, the Beloved Country and Gilead. You can read about these titles in today’s post. Next time David will introduce us to six books he calls “dark realism,” and how these books can help pastors learn about real life vicariously.
Both of these excerpts were transcribed from the audio recording. Makes me wish I could have dinner with David more frequently! Enjoy.
PART 1: DAVID POWLISON ON PASTORAL LITERATURE
Of course, we are not all wired the same, but there are an awful lot of pastors who only read objective expositional things. Human life has poetry; it has drama. Much of the Bible is much more understandable from a more literary standpoint.
In fact, two of the great novels have pastors as their hero. And both show the inner workings of real life.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
This is one of the books that undid apartheid in South Africa. There are characters in that book that I will not be able to talk about without tears. It’s a story of tragedy, focused on a black, rural pastor, Stephen Kumalo, who is a poor, simple man from the dirt country. His son [Absalom Kumalo] goes to the big city and commits a murder, gets caught, and gets caught up in the gears of the criminal justice system. Stephen goes to the big city to find his son.
Three people help him. One is a fellow pastor named Theophilus Msimangu who befriends him and goes to bat for him in a thousand ways. Stephen is a country guy, he doesn’t know how the city works. And Msimangu helps him. And every time the protagonist expresses his deep appreciation for all that he has done and commends the man's Christian character, Msimangu stops him and says, "I am only a poor wicked sinful man, but God put his hand on me." And there are about three variations on this theme; this profound sense of the real scale of value and why it is that one does this. It's not that he is some great hero, he is a weak sinful man, “But God put his hand on me.”
There is another character, an elderly widow, who rents a room to this man. She is from the church and her name is Mrs. Lithebe. And every time he thanks her for all her very basic kindnesses to him—like a roof over his head, a simple meal, and little aid—this woman of no education and no standing responds along the lines of: "For what else are we born, why else do we live?" She is a woman who wears charity. It is what life is. Why else are we here? You needed help, I have a room—it's your room. Absolute simplicity of faith.
The other thing that I found profoundly moving was the spiritual dynamic. At the end Stephen tries to come to terms with what is happening to his son and he goes to a mountaintop to "vigil," in which he is in a sense composing and “ordering his soul” in their classic Christian sense of the inner discipline of Christian truth and faith—confession of sin, profession of faith, giving of thanksgiving, intercession. He is an Anglican, so in one sense he is walking through what are familiar forms of the Anglican liturgy, and yet they are not rote, they are the living and thoughtful fiber of Christian life and faith. And it is such a wonderful portrayal of faith in action that’s not plastic, not sentimental, not hyper-emotional, not overly intellectual, it's simply real life being brought to the real God.
Cry, the Beloved Country was written in 1947. I read it in high school and had read it again in college.
[Later] I taught an advanced methods course. And one of the things I was concerned about with our students is that people obviously have to get hands-on knowledge of working with people. But it's also possible to get vicarious knowledge of people through reading. So I began thinking about novels. We read three different novels and this was one I picked. I had gone back and read it a few years ago and was again struck with the richness of the portrayal of human life—the fear, anger, love, betrayal, guilt, repentance, ambivalence, the fact that real life is never tidy. Our theology can be tidy, but life is never tidy. That does not invalidate the theology, it just means that theology is knowing what direction north is in a chaotic storm. There is a storm (life) and there is north (good theology). Good theology is critical, but life doesn’t actually play in the same terms as something neat and tidy.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. The hero is John Ames, a 76-year-old pastor who is dying. He married late in life and has a 7-year-old boy, his only child. He had another child die in childbirth 50 years before. But he is dying of heart disease and he is leaving a legacy for his son and you wonder how it even works as a book. It’s a 250-page novel that is essentially his letter to his son, a son who will be unable to read it now, but perhaps in 10 or 15 years, when his father is long in the grave. This will be his legacy for his son.
It's written by a woman, Marilynne Robinson, and she is a Calvinist. I heard her speak in the Philadelphia public library. Here you have this crowd of 400 people in the audience to see this famous Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and she gets up. I kid you not, one questioner from the audience says, "Now how on earth did you as a woman get into the mind of an aging, dying pastor, and with all this theological stuff?" Her answer was, "Well I'm a Calvinist and I think about these things all the time."
Cry, the Beloved Country, you can read straight through. Gilead, I find, you cannot read more than 10 pages, it's just too rich. It's like eating cheesecake, you cannot eat a whole pie at once, a couple bites and you need to sleep on it, and read more tomorrow. It is so provocative.
[Next time David Powlison shares six more recommended titles for pastors.]