Pastoral Ministry and Literature

This week Dr. David Powlison (Harvard, Westminster Seminary, U. of Penn) is in town teaching biblical counseling at the Pastors College. As many of you already know, Powlison is a gifted biblical counselor who through his speaking, teaching, and writing has really shaped biblical counseling into its present form (ie CCEF). He would be in my list of top 5 most unique, gifted, and valuable teachers in the church today.

As time allows, I have poked my head in on the classes to learn from his 30+ years of biblical counseling wisdom. If you follow me on Twitter, you know the classes have been rich. I’ll be back in class today.

Last night C.J. and I enjoyed dinner with Dr. Powlison. And for about 20 minutes I had an opportunity to ask him more about something he mentioned in class today, the value of literature for pastors as they seek to discover and better understand the chaos and messiness of the human experience. Theology, Powlison says, is the compass that points to true north as the storm of life swirls around us. Studying theology is essential, but we cannot neglect studying the realities of human experience of this world. You can tell Powlison has a burden for pastors to become familiar with the storm of everyday life for the purpose of informing pastoral labors and helping connect biblical promises to the contours of life. Scripture makes sense of the chaos.

To this end, he recommends pastors become familiar with the arts. Over coffee and crème brûlée, Powlison recommended a number of books, drawn from required reading he assigned in his class on ministry and literature. Powlison recommended psychological novels like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a book that details many sides of human experience—anger, shame, fear, passion, guilt, shamelessness, suffering, child abuse, adultery, reconciliation, etc. He also recommended two titles that illuminate life reality but also feature simple pastors as their heroes—Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

In his class, to encourage pastors better understand the messiness of life, Powlison also assigned readings from a number of dark and despairing, but thoughtful, books. He categorizes them as “dark realism”—Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Conrad, he said, can see straight into the pit of human darkness, and writes with an unalleviated cynicism. Checkov is equally pessimistic but with a degree of common grace and palpable love and respect in the way he presents the characters. Each of these authors value honesty, an honesty pastors can learn from.

I hope to elaborate on our conversation and these recommendations soon. But I am aware that this week is the time to record and document. I can elaborate later.

See you later today on Twitter for more updates from the classroom.

7 thoughts on “Pastoral Ministry and Literature

  1. I knew a pastor who resigned from the ministry and entered the world of selling life insurance. He experienced culture shock, big time. He said that people do not talk to insurance salesmen the same way they talk to pastors.

    This is an interesting post. Does Powlison also advise pastors to get into the messiness of our world? Not as easy as it might seem!

  2. Great post, by the way. As you can see from my trackback above, I enjoyed it. Powlison’s great. His advice here through you is great as well. Thanks for posting.

  3. What a good tool to use great authors who cut right in and write so well about human depravity and some write as well about our Remedy! I was jolted back to some lines from Amazing Grace (the movie, not a book) after reading your thoughts. I’m almost certain you’re not advocating “just reading about” human messiness as opposed to getting our hands, heart, schedule and life dirty with real life messiness required not just of pastors, but of ALL believers in the realities of counseling and ministering to one another!

    I know Wilberforce wasn’t ministering to the saints specifically and these words from Amazing Grace don’t fit perfectly with your thoughts, or mine, but they seem to capture the passion that is often lacking in ministry between saints. (I incriminate myself here.)

    The words between Wilberforce and Newton when W.W. comes to ask J.N. to help him:
    W.W. “Will you help me, John?”
    J.N. “…I can’t help you. But do it Wilber. Do it. Take them on.
    Blow their dirty filthy ships out of the water… all their streets running with blood, dysentery, puke!
    You won’t come away from those streets clean, Wilber. You’ll get filthy with it, you’ll dream it, see it in broad daylight- but do it…
    For God’s sake!”

    It seems that humans are masters of chaos and as you said, “Scripture makes sense of chaos.”
    Praise Him!

  4. That’s sage advice Tony. I couldn’t agree more.

    Camus’ *The Stranger* is a stunning little novel. It’s been about 10 years since I read it, and it still stands out.

    Have you read Dostoevky’s *Notes from the Underground*? The opening lines are unforgettable: “I am a sick man…I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.”

    I think Flannery O’ Connor aught also be named. Her short stories are superb as investigations into the human condition. Read *Revelation* or *Good Country People* and you’ll see why.


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