Those of us who are pastors, charged with preaching and teaching, should read fiction. At least that is what I am told. I have been a reader most of my adult life, but since seminary, most of my reading has been non-fiction, you know, the standard reading diet of a pastor: theology books, historical books, leadership books, books on church administration, etc. For a long time in pastoral ministry I was committed to reading non-fiction and I deliberately turned up my nose to the idea of reading fiction outside of the occasional John Grisham novel. The life of the pastor is hectic and who has the time to waste reading a bunch of made-up stories? Then out of nowhere, Eugene Peterson shows up and wrecks my reading plan. He tells me that I should read fiction.
For years now, I have considered Eugene Peterson to be one of my pastors. He has challenged me and shaped me through his writings and I have had the privileging of chatting with him on a few occasions. In the fall of 2010, I attended a small pastors’ gathering in the Colorado Rockies where he was the featured guest. He talked about how reading novels shape both our preaching and pastoral ministry. With the passion of a poet, he described how reading good stories forms our imaginations, enabling us to read the Scriptures as a story and thus preach the gospel as a story. According to Peterson, this kind of story-soaked ministry invites people into God’s story. He did not imply that we should give up on reading non-fiction, but he was inviting us to read good stories to allow the Spirit to form in us a Christian imagination.
I left this gathering of pastors with Eugene Peterson ringing in my ears. My head-strong determination to only read non-fiction was giving way to my pastor’s insistence on reading stories. I picked up a few novels since then, but I became resolved to devote myself to read fiction this winter when I started Wendell Berry’s That Distant Land, a collection of short stories surrounding the factious farming community of Port William, Kentucky. I had heard Peterson talk about his love for Wendell Berry and how in reading Berry, he would substitute “congregation” for the word “farm.” Now that I am nearing the completion of Berry’s collection of short stories, I am beginning to understand the wisdom of reading fiction. Here are a few thoughts:
Scripture is a story.
The Bible contains narrative, history, prayers, proverbs, wisdom, poetry (i.e. prophecy), and letters, but it is a story. It does not tell two stories, but one. It is the epic story of God, creation, sin, restoration, and new creation. We need a Christian imagination shaped by story so we can rightly receive and enter into God’s story.
The Gospel is a story.
The central message of the Christian faith is not a set of ideas, principles, or axioms; our message is a story. It is good news and news is told in the form of story where a series of events culminate into one big announcement. Our gospel is the announcement that the God of Israel has become the king of the world through the person of Jesus Christ.
Stories are three-dimensional.
A collection of well-crafted ideas or principles are typically flat and colorless. They are no less true than stories, but within the texture of story we encounter subtlety, motivation, intentionality, perspective, and feeling, the stuff of the soul.
Stories capture and communicate the heart of discipleship.
I see this first hand as I read Wendell Berry. He certainly would not want his readers to over-analyze his works of fiction, but as I read his short stories I am struck by the wonderful way the teachings of Jesus play out in the lives of these characters. He is telling his stories, much like Jesus told stories.
Everyone has a story.
A person’s life is not captured in a list of facts, but in a story. When I meet a person for the first time for coffee or lunch, I very often open with a simple request: “So tell me your story.” Obviously some people have way more dramatic stories, but everyone has a story.
The best way to tell the gospel story is through our own story.
As followers of Jesus we have been called to proclaim the gospel to the whole of creation. I have found no better form of gospel communion than our own story. We do not have to memorize a set of God facts to tell our story. We simply say, “Here is my story. Here is what God has done for me.”