Top Ten Books Every Pastor Should Read
ERB Playlist #3
Compiled by Todd Edmondson
This is the third in an on-going series of “playlists,” in which we recommend books around a particular theme.
“Making a mixtape (or playlist) is the opposite of indifferent. It’s heartfelt, purposeful — often a subtle form of flirtation. … [The playlist] is a way of making yourself known, an interpersonal form of show business, of making news, of replicating sounds and words you find important. It’s like poetry, because poetry is what you can’t say in any other way.”
– David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
(Our 2009 Book of the Year. Read our Review…)
*** A Recent essay by ERB editor Chris Smith on a theology of the playlist…
[ Previous Playlist – #2 Best Agrarian Books ]
*** Watch for more ERB playlists in the coming weeks and months…
( With Christmas right around the corner,
these books would make great gifts for pastors in your church/family!)
This list is ordered alphabetically by title…
1. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle – FREE! ] Writing in an era in which novelists could afford to be both earnest and clever, Trollope crafted, in his Chronicles of Barsetshire a brilliant, satirical portrait of English society in all its beautiful and frustrating complexity. But the character who will likely make the greatest impression on the lucky reader who picks up this second novel in the series for the first time will be Mr. Slope, the ambitious clergyman invariably described–by Trollope, by his contemporaries, and by readers in the decades hence–as oily. This chaplain, who is all too willing to enter into the ecclesiastical power struggles that provide one of the major storylines of the novel, is the kind of character that will be (lamentably) recognizable to any pastor, or to anyone who has spent much time in the church at all. As an added bonus, in the excellent film version of the series, Alan Rickman plays Mr. Slope, as only Alan Rickman could.
2. Darkness Visible by William Styron [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle ] In a completely different vein, this slim “memoir of madness” by the acclaimed novelist provides one of the most intense, revelatory depictions of what it feels like to wrestle with depression that I have ever read. It is not a pleasant read. It’s certainly not fun. But it draws readers into an experience that every pastor should seek to understand.
3. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle ] In the interest of doing something unexpected, I really wanted to select a less obvious choice from Robinson here–Housekeeping is one of the finest novels of the twentieth century–but I simply can’t avoid this one, the theologically rich, elegantly crafted, Pulitzer-prize-winning novel about John Ames, an Iowa pastor in the final years of his life. Last year, at a book signing for Home, which functions as a companion piece to Gilead, I stood in line and wondered what I was going to say to this author whose novels just completely floor me each time I read them. When I got my chance, all that came out was “Thank you for making the life of a pastor seem beautiful.” That’s really all I can say about this work.
4. Glittering Images by Susan Howatch [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle ] I’ll confess: Howatch’s Starbridge series, a collection about the Church of England in the twentieth century, has a bit of a soap-opera feel to it at times. The covers, which resemble romance novels, lend a guilty-pleasure feel to the experience of reading them. But these are page-turning books that explore the struggles and failures of clergy, their wrestling matches with sin and their need for forgiveness. I chose the first of the series for two reasons. First, it is in this novel that readers encounter one of the heroes of the series–Father Jon Darrow, the abbot of the Fordite monks at Granchester, who serves as a spiritual director not only for Charles Ashworth, the protagonist, but also for readers who are willing to listen to the wisdom that Howatch conveys through him. Second, I chose this one, because it will hook you, and within a couple of months (or weeks) you’ll be finishing up book number six and wondering where the time went.
5. Letter to a Priest by Simone Weil [ Buy now: Amazon ] Along with the work by Styron, this is the second work of nonfiction. The first time I read it, I told myself that if I ever became a minister, I would reread it each year. That resolution (predictably) hasn’t been fulfilled, but I stand by this work as one that pastors should read at least once, if only to see articulated–in a clear, penetrating, and unflinching manner–what the honest doubts of a brilliant and conflicted believer look like.
6. A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle ] It won’t come as a surprise that, as with Robinson, I wrestled with which of Berry’s works to include–in this case, Jayber Crow is probably the more obvious choice. I chose this one because it, more than any of his other novels, focuses on the Port William Membership as a whole, and thus gives readers the fullest picture of what a community engaged in caring for one another might look like. I also chose this novel because of the beautifully awkward juxtaposition of Brother Preston’s feeble attempts at pastoral care with Jack Beechum’s more genuine and more robust embodiment of priestly compassion.
7. Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle ] This was a novel that I had always wanted to read, but never got around to it until it was suggested for a class on ecclesiology that I was teaching. I am so glad it was. The novel is primarily a picture of what a life of faithfulness looks like, as it unfolds within the context of a (somewhat unorthodox) church community. Pastors will recognize in Ian Bedloe, the novel’s protagonist, the kind of member that helps to bring health and joy to any congregation.
8. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle – FREE! ] You probably read this one in High School. Maybe you hated it. Reread it. It’s about Puritans, sure, but it’s also about sin and hypocrisy and the public faces that pastors feel compelled to wear.
9. Silence by Shusaku Endo [ Buy now: Amazon ] This novel by one of Japan’s finest writers tells the story of a group of persecuted Christians in 17th century Japan, and the Jesuit missionaries who wrestle on a daily basis with what it means to love their flock in the context of suffering, betrayal, and death.
10. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle ] O’Connor once said that “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” Hazel Motes, the protagonist of O’Connor’s first novel, is an atheist prophet who desires to spread the gospel of anti-religion, but can’t manage to escape the apocalyptic, surprising, and sometimes terrifying visitations of grace that he encounters along the way.
… and if a top ten books list isn’t enough, I offer:
10a. Moby Dick by Herman Melville [ Buy now: Amazon // Kindle – FREE! ] Not the whole novel. That would be crazy! Unless you’ve got the time, because the novel is pretty incredibly awesome. If you don’t have the time, at least read Chapter 9, entitled “The Sermon.” Enjoy!
What do you think…
What other books should be on this list?
Discuss in the comments below…
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
I would add to this list Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays v.s. Christians Debate by Justin Lee. Pastors need to know what to do when a child/youth or parent comes to them and says that they or a loved one is gay. This is the book that goes beyond unhelpful theological arguments and talks about a real journey.
Where is “Lamb?”
I’d add Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. The new translation. Mothers I know say it’s the only novel they ever read that reflects the experience of raising a houseful of kids. Also an historically accurate examination of mediaeval spirituality and social mores. Author won a Nobel.
YES — Kristin Lavransdatter is the most fantastic trilogy ever (especially the new Tiina Nunnally translation). Also I’d recommend Cry the Beloved Country — a great portrayal of a pastor and father in the turmoil of South African apartheid.
The Karamazov Brothers…
Thanks for the suggestions. The Brothers Karamazov was this close to making my list, as it’s one of the top ten books that everyone should read, as many times as possible. As for the other suggestions, you’re helping me put together a Christmas list of my own. Kristin Lavransdatter looks amazing.
I would suggest reading Christian Mythmakers by Rolland Hein first then reading C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia books”, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Time Trilogy”, JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings”, George MacDonald’s “Gifts of the Child Christ”,etc. Even if they were childhood favorites these works reveal different truths about God when we read them as adults.
How about John Updike’s A Month of Sundays?
Silence is perhaps my favorite book. I also really like the book Deep River by Endo as well
Life of Pi is by Yann Martel is really good, too
Have just begun ‘Quiet: in a world that can’t stop talking’ by Susan Cain. Her study on introverts; 30% or more of the population; people the ‘churched’ folks have entirely neglected…