Having completed three semesters of seminary, I think it is now safe to say I’ve got a fairly firm grasp on seminary culture—or, at least, my seminary’s culture. Divinity school is an intensely narrowly-focused endeavor. Those of us who for the longest time wished we could only study what we actually wanted to study have finally been given what we asked for; our days and nights are filled to the brim with Greek, Hebrew, theology, exegesis, and church history. We study flashcards and argue the merits of different theological schools, and it seems like this is all we have room for in our lives.
But this is a dangerously impoverished way to live, and especially so for those of us who want to go on to pastor, minister in the church in other capacities, or work with people in any field at all. In foregoing fiction (and poetry) and limiting ourselves to theology and exegetical commentaries, we are missing out in a major way—and not only because reading other types of literature helps us be better pastors and theologians, as Kevin Vanhoozer has described in his article for The Gospel Coalition.
Fiction is invaluable reading material in its own right. It helps us understand people, creates empathy for those different from us, and can help us navigate relationships more skillfully. It helps us develop a better vocabulary and become better writers. It teaches us the value and power of stories, and how to tell them well. It shows us that language has the ability to do so much more than communicate bare facts and arguments. And in many cases it is capable of communicating the truth better than theologians and pastors could ever hope to.
I know it is difficult to add yet another book to the ceiling-high stack on your bedside table. I know we seminarians have more reading to do in a semester than we ever thought could be completed in a lifetime. But this is really important for our future ministries, our intellectual development, and personal growth. One chapter from a novel or a short story before bed every night is a good way to get some fiction in every day, and will, I think, prove to be an invaluable practice for us as we try to stay afloat in the sea of theology books we currently find ourselves in.
The following is a selection of books I’ve recently found interesting, moving, or just plain enjoyable. Many of them have theological undertones, but some of them don’t. If, like me, you are a seminarian, I think it would be good for your soul to read one or two of these before your classes start up again. But even if you don’t think any of these sound good, there’s surely something out there you would like!
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Conner
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy