Rachel Bomberger (who has put on a few pounds since this picture was taken)
Rachel Bomberger is EerdWord editor for Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and hanging out with off-duty pastors.
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First, a short vignette.*
Mr. Pastor: So, what did you think of the sermon this morning?
Mrs. English Major: It was . . . good. Sound theology. Solid exegesis. No real heresy to speak of. That’s what you were going for, right?
Mr. Pastor: You didn’t care for it.
Mrs. English Major: I think you’re a fantastic preacher, Sweetie.
Mr. Pastor: Just not today.
Mrs. English Major (frantically changing the subject): Hey, so . . . I don’t know whether you’d go for it or not, but I am loving this new YA novel from Elizabeth Wein. Code Name Verity. It it so well written. There are these two young British women who get shot down in occupied France in WWII. One’s a pilot; the other’s a spy. They’re best friends.
Mr. Pastor: Sounds implausible.
Mrs. English Major: It’s fiction. It doesn’t have to be plausible. What’re you reading, then?
Mr. Pastor: Gieschen’s Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. I’m getting an early jump on next week.
Mrs. English Major: Sounds riveting. Or not.
Mr. Pastor: . . .
Mrs. English Major: You know, Dear, “All work and no play . . . “
Mr. Pastor: . . .
Mrs. English Major: I’m sorry. That was snarky.
Mr. Pastor: I love you. Read your book.
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Reading for Preaching
It is a truth universally acknowledged (by English majors, at least) that good reading begets good writing.
This is our Pythagorean Theorem, our Newton’s Third Law: if you want to become a good writer, read.
Read broadly. Read deeply. Look for good literature wherever you can find it — in Shakespeare and Dickens, yes, but in the funny papers and the National Geographic, too. Soak it up eagerly.
A person couldn’t very well learn to speak French if he never set foot in a French-speaking country or attempted a single conversation with a native speaker. The same is true for the written word (or so we English majors would argue). If you want to become a fluent writer, first find some folks who seem to have a knack for the lingo. Listen to them. Engage with them. Learn from them.
Everlasting English major that I am, I’ve always assumed that this principle was self-evident. I assumed, too (perhaps naively), that other language-heavy disciplines — say, pastoral studies, for example —also held and taught it, at least on occasion.
But . . . (alas) . . .
After accompanying my husband through four years of seminary and five years of pastoral ministry —years brimming with writing projects ranging from straightforward church website copy to soaring Easter Sunday sermons — I can pretty confidently say it ain’t so.
Don’t get me wrong: pastors and seminarians are some of the most avid readers I know. Their personal libraries groan under the weight of their books, and they’re constantly consuming the printed word in great tomes and thick stacks.
But — and I hope it’s not a stretch to say this — in my experience, too many of them only rarely seem to enjoy books for their own sakes. Their limited free reading time is so chock full of commentaries, devotionals, books of theology, and the Bible itself (hooray for that!) that they don’t often manage to “indulge” in “recreational” reading.
If only they would.
Thank heaven, then, for Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s splendid new book Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists.
In it (to borrow the wordsmithery of our worthy copywriter), “Plantinga makes a striking claim: preachers who read widely will most likely become better preachers.”
I’ve now read this page-turner of a book through twice, cover to cover, and Plantinga has me thoroughly convinced that his claim is a sound one.
Not only, Plantinga argues, does reading widely give pastors a wealth of illustrative material to use in their sermons (Yay! Stories!) and teach them to craft more compelling sentences and paragraphs, it also — perhaps more importantly — helps them gain wisdom.
Broad reading helps preachers learn empathy, as they imaginatively encounter worlds and perspectives far beyond their own. It helps them grapple in new ways with the big life and death issues they regularly confront both in the Bible and in the often-messy lives of their parishioners. Really good writers, as Plantinga points out, tend to see and think about the cosmos a little more profoundly than the rest of us do, and preachers can benefit vastly when they take time to learn about the human condition from the world’s William Shakespeares and Jane Austins, its C. S. Lewises and Fyodor Dostoevskys and Bill Wattersons.
Plantinga’s case is so convincing — so utterly winsome — that I can only think of one little bitty piece of evidence that perhaps deserves greater emphasis: how purely enjoyable recreational reading can be.
It’s plainly obvious from the many, many books Plantinga references fondly (not to mention his own skill at turning phrase after savory phrase) that he loves reading and derives great pleasure from it. This Clergy Appreciation Month, I think it’s worth stressing that our hardworking pastors deserve that kind of enjoyment — that pleasant escape into the pages of an engrossing book — whenever they can get it.
After all, despite the many edifying points I took away from it, I also really enjoyed Reading for Preaching. It is my firm hope that many, many of my pastor friends (including my own personal pastoral BFF) will soon have the opportunity to enjoy it, too.
Click to watch my interview with Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (warning: I get a little giddy), to view the book trailer, or to order Reading for Preaching.
*For the sake of my own marital happiness, let me offer the following disclaimer: this vignette is intended to be read as (almost) pure fiction and definitely NOT as the transcript of an actual conversation between any real persons, living or dead. Thank you.