Why Pastors Should Read Novels

Some of the sharpest pastors I know read novels. They are sharper for having read those books.

And, some of the sharpest ones do not. They could be sharper if they would.

A pastor friend told me this week, “I just don’t care for them. I love to read spiritual books and articles, the kind that make me think and draw me closer to the Lord.”

I’m all for his reading uplifting books and articles. It’s just that I think he  needs to add an occasional novel to his reading diet. Not to replace anything he’s enjoying presently, but to supplement it.

By no means am I suggesting that he fritter away his time on the sex-oriented, profanity-saturated trash which is so available today.

A few minutes ago, I asked an interesting assortment of people  known as my Facebook friends to help me think of reasons pastors would benefit from reading the occasional novel. See below at the end of this piece for their insights..

Here is my own rationale for loving and recommending novels to my preacher friends.

A good western novel is like a three-hour vacation.

Perhaps it’s the farm boy in me. But I love to delve into a great western novel and live vicariously through these cowhands who roamed the plains a century and a half ago. They sit around the campfire and chat over tin cups of steaming coffee, and fling a craving on me. I have been known to get up and brew a cup as a result.

My favorite western novel of all is “Open Range” by Lauran Paine, which was turned into a great, great movie starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. It captures a “feel” of a west which I love, at least in my imagination.  The movie was filmed near Calgary, Alberta, and gives us magnificent views of that breath-taking land. I have read the book three times and every time the movie comes on television, I breath it in like a great aroma of something or other which I dearly love.

In 1977, I traveled to Singapore to draw an evangelistic comic book for our SBC missionaries, and was hosted by Bob and Marge Wakefield. In the hostel, I saw their teenage sons were reading Louis L’Amour westerns. Since I had brought along a few to read on the plane, we got into a conversation about these stories. Bob and Marge told me they were from Oklahoma, and the only way their sons would ever know what life was like there in the late 1800’s was through reading L’Amour’s great westerns.

On returning home, I wrote Mr. L’Amour about this conversation. A few days later, I was thrilled to receive a full-page, hand-typed letter from this distinguished and well-beloved western author, in which he talked of his various visits to Singapore as a young man working on ships.

I recommend mysteries for sheer diversion.

Some of the smartest people on the planet have loved crime novels. I suppose it has something to do with challenging their minds to solve the mystery, perhaps not unlike working a crossword or sudoku puzzle (which I also enjoy).

The best such stories for me personally have always been the Sherlock Holmes series. I love their 1890s setting, the interplay between Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the pleasure of seeing how the great detective solved this one. After reading all the Arthur Conan Doyle orginals, over the years I confess to having bought several Sherlockian books written by modern authors.

A great mystery is the ideal bedtime reading.

Just before drifting off to sleep, I prefer to read something soft and pleasant, a storyline completely unrelated to anything I am involved in during the  day. A crime novel is perfect for this.(But not all of them. Some are dreadful depictions of the worst kinds of cruelty. That’s why, if I’ve never heard of the author, before purchasing a book, I’ll read the first few pages. You can generally tell by then if this is safe to read.)

Forty years ago, my mentor in the ministry, Dr. James Richardson, put Margaret and me onto reading the John D. MacDonald novels.  In time, we read every one he ever wrote.

James left us before Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels came along, but he would have loved them. The latest–the 16th in this series, I understand–hit the bookstores this week. I bought it, “A Wanted Man,” Thursday and read it Friday (yesterday). My wife is on it now, and my sons and their wives are itching to get their hands on it. We get our money’s worth from a book.

I need to say here that there are plenty of writers in this category whose stuff I do not recommend. Many will drop in the occasional sex scene for no reason other than to titillate readers in order to sell more books. And others lace conversations with the worst obscenities imaginable.  Such writers will get none of my hard-earned cash, thank you.

Historical novels have a benefit all their own.

Sometimes a novel about historical figures is able to put the reader in a distant period far better than a the non-fiction writer ever could.  This was my experience in reading Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” a generation ago.

For most of my young adult life, I resisted learning the timeline of the Second World War, feeling it was too big and too complex to get my mind around. That book made all the difference. Wouk’s followup, “War and Remembrance,” was also a delight.

As a seminary student, my wife and I saw the movie “A Man For All Seasons,” a fictional account of Thomas More’s resistance of Henry VIII’s shenanigans and his subsequent beheading. The movie is based on Robert Bolt’s play (which I bought in paperback and read periodically) . The thing about this story is that it is filled with great morals and memorable lines, many of which have graced my sermons these many years.

After visiting the  Shiloh Civil War battlefield in Tennessee 30 years ago, I came home and read everything I could find. Same with Gettysburg three years ago. In both cases, after reading the histories, I was helped immeasurably by novels about these battles.

Many years ago, I read McKinley Kantor’s “Andersonville,” about the Confederate prison in South Georgia, and was shaken to the core. Through the years, I continued reading about that prison in journals, novels, and histories, and on one occasion, our family visited that site and walked those grounds. It was Kantor’s novel, however, that made it live for me.

I am a lover of history and read all I can find on Lincoln and Churchill. However…

The problem in reading history is that historians who sit down to pen a novel will feel they should start at the beginning and lay the foundation for what is to come. You end up being bored through the first hundred pages, reading stuff you already know, before getting to the good part. A novelist launches into the story and abides by an entirely different set of standards and guidelines to convey the message to readers.

In short, a novel is far more enjoyable than the history, and yet can be every bit as informative and life-changing.

Now, as promised, here–straight from my Facebook friends–are the  insights and suggestions for pastors to become readers of novels.

1. Several people said pastors should read novels for the sheer enjoyment of it. It’s great relaxation.

2. A novel can tell you about the real world.

3. You as a pastor are a storyteller. A novelist is a storyteller and many can teach you how to improve your abilities.

4. It will give you another viewpoint, often one far different from anything you expected or have ever experienced.  It can put you in another age, another country, another situation.

One suggested “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Solzhenitsen (I’ll get the right spelling and come back!).  I’ve read it and agree.

5. Novels can teach us. They convey parables and stories. One pastor recommended “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Les Miserables.”

6. Two or three people said a novel can keep you from television. Evidently they think that’s a good thing.

7. For escape. Sometimes you need to get away, and if you can’t do it bodily, let your mind escape for a couple of hours.

8. To help you become a better writer yourself. Study the techniques of the good writers.

9. To enjoy (and learn) the beauty of words and structure of sentences and paragraphs.

10. Discovery. There are entire worlds out there you can explore only in novels.

11. To find out what the people in your church are reading.

12. To increase your vocabulary.

13. To help you to think more clearly and deeply on some issues.

14. For your health.  A good novel can lower your blood pressure. (The friend said, “Watching a football game raises it; reading a novel lowers it.”)

15. You’ll find sermons there. The writer said “The Ring Trilogy” is loaded.

16. To reset my hard drive.

17. To spur my imagination. What was life like in former times? One writer said Francine Rivers’ series “A Voice in the Wind” taught her so much about life in the New Testament period.

18. The Holy Spirit can speak to you in this way.

19. In order to answer an author who is way off base. The writer, a seminary professor, said he read “The DaVinci Code” in order to know what Dan Brown had said that was getting so much attention. He ended up with great material for his classes, as they explored the subject of the book and the spurious methodology of the author.

Two Facebook friends were against pastors reading novels.

One said simply, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

The other wrote, “Reading novels is a waste of time. It gives a twisted view of reality. Our ‘ignorant’ ancestors read the Bible and built a great nation. Look what we have done.”

I thought about answering him, but my wife was clamoring for me to finish the Jack Reacher novel, so I never did.


7 thoughts on “Why Pastors Should Read Novels

  1. Joe, while I tend to favor non-fiction – history, patristics, psychology, etc, I would have to say that most of the Bible reading we do winds up falling under two of three categories – either collecting support for our own tradition’s positions on this or that, or research for Sunday’s chat (call it sermon, homily, discussion…). Honest reading, of course, is the third category – an unconditional, “Speak Lord, thy servant heareth.”

    Whether we have become jaded from years of cat. 1 & 2 reading, or inwardly convinced we have already “heard,” a good read of Flannery O’Connor or Terry Pratchitt for that matter, can stimulate us to ask questions we have overlooked reading Jeremiah or Paul, and drive us back to the Scriptures (better yet, the prayer corner!) and so save us, and our hearers, from a multitude of sins.

  2. I don’t know if anyone else likes Science fiction but I love a good science fiction novel. Edgar Rice Burroughs was my favoite as a kid. On the flip side I am a girl’s girl and I love Anne of Green Gables and all the Little House on the Prairie books. The humor in Anne of Green Gables would often cause me to laugh out loud. Francine Rivers’ historical novels are first class.
    I do read my Bible daily like one would eats healthy to live healthy but for me a novel is dark chocolate (sweet and-surpirse, surprise- healthy too). With all the reviews on Amazon it’s easy to avoid the junk and stick with up lifting books that focus on redeeming themes.

  3. Joe I have really enjoyed discovering your blog. I love novels particularly historical fiction. I highly recommend anything Bernard Cornwell.


  4. Joe, Thanks for this article. I love to read. Since I retired in March of 2008 I have read over 150 books fiction and non-fiction. I know you like Monk. Lee Goldberg has written 13 books about Monk. Steve Berry has written at least 10 books that are very good and you can travel to several locations around the world and never have to leave your easy chair. John Jakes, Eugenia Price, David Baldacci are other favorites. There are to many great authors out there. I will have to check out Louis L’Amour.

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