Most of my favorite conversations about literature have been with David Powlison, and most of those conversations have been spontaneous, leaving me to scribble down notes on whatever paper was close. But six years ago, in the spring of 2009, over dinner in a restaurant, I wised up, brought a handheld recorder, got his permission to record, and then asked him about the novels that have most shaped his ministry.
Over at the Sovereign Grace blog, my friend C.J. Mahaney has posted the transcript of his dinnertime conversation with biblical counselor David Powlison. A few weeks back I mentioned this conversation on the blog. C.J.’s posts contain further details.
Dr. Powlison’s literature recommendations included two “pastoral” titles:
And six “dark realism” titles:
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
- The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill
- Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories
- A short story by Raymond Carver
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Plague by Albert Camus
For more background on the pastoral usefulness of these literary works, please read C.J.’s interview posts:
What is the core sin of the human heart? Is it pride? Is it the sin of unbelief? Theologians have debated this topic for centuries. But According to Dr. David Powlison, the sins of pride and unbelief are really “two doors into the same room.” And he adds a third door—the fear of man.
These three core sins are interrelated, and it’s not difficult to see how. Pride is the act of installing myself as the king of my own autonomous kingdom. Unbelief is the act of erasing God from my kingdom (functionally, if not deliberately). Fear of man is the act of installing other sinners as big players in my kingdom (When People are Big and God is Small).
And it’s no surprise that all of the lies and lusts of our hearts are to be found rooted in these three core sins. These lies and lusts are expressions of the three core sins.
This past week I was mostly in downtown Baltimore at the NEXT 2009 conference. The conference seemed to be a success. It was a great opportunity to meet up with friends, many I get to see in person only once a year (or less).
But the previous week we had the pleasure of hosting biblical counseling guru David Powlison in Gaithersburg. As you can imagine, the week was filled with rich biblical wisdom and applicable elucidations of biblical truth. I’ve set aside time over the next couple of days to return to my notes and to meditate further on what I learned. I’ll be posting some of these meditations.
One topic Powlison addressed: How to spark substantive conversation with your spouse?
Powlison suggested three categories of questions to ask your husband or wife. Each of these categories can be asked on a daily basis. And each of these categories are simple and broad, but certainly provide helpful reminders. Here are the three:
1. What are your present burdens? The Bible tells us that we are born for trouble (Job 5:7). So what is the trouble? A sin? A responsibility? An issue at work? A particular conflict? What weighs you down? What was your lowlight of this day? These burdens are the “heat of life.”
2. What are your present joys? What were your highlights from the day? These joys are the “dew of blessing.”
3. What is your calling? This could include the mundane tasks, or broader life-purpose questions. What are your duties for this day? What do you need to do? What are your goals for this day? For example, a parent could say, “Today, I don’t want to lose my temper with the kids.” It could be as simple as this.
These three categories are helpful in getting to substantive conversation with your spouse. And Dr. Powlison alluded to, this list can be useful in talking with your children as well. The answers to these three categories of questions will help us better know how to serve and care for those in our lives.
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.
“The Puritans and [Jonathan] Edwards had the highest view of the mercy of God. In a sense their high view of the mercy of God is what gave them the courage to be self-analytical. But I think people reading them who are not grounded in a high view of the gospel can become depressed and introspective.”
David Powlison, CCEL podcast: “Biblical Counseling and the Puritans.”