A Pastor’s Reading List for 2019

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev

By Joe LaGuardia

I have made it a habit, as other pastors have, of publishing an annual reading list. It is made up of books that we long to read, hope to read, want to read, need to read. I have fun reading the lists of others, and I hope that people have fun reading mine.

This year I want to do it differently. In years past, I viewed my list as a challenge–if it is listed, then I should read it. Here I am four years writing a list, and I still haven’t read Moby Dick. So, this year I am going to take the fun out of the list and only add books that I read. This serves my readers in two ways: First, it lets readers know what I am reading for real. Second, it holds a modicum of suspense. You’ll just need to wait and see what I am going to read next!

So here are the books I am reading–as I read them!–in 2019:

1. God Underneath, by Edward Brock. I found this memoir by a Catholic priest in the shadowy (not seedy!) corner of my local used book store. When I visit the store, I don’t spend much time in the religion section; just enough to see what Bibles are in stock. This one particular day, a worker a who knows me and is in charge of the religion section told me that a large donation of Catholic books came in. Brock’s moving book, of his upbringing to his discernment in the priesthood and eventual ministry, was among them. His contention is that whatever comes our way, we can find God underneath it all if we only have the spiritual awareness to see the Spirit at work! As one who loves memoirs, I really enjoyed this book.

2. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson. This book by the famed (and now late) Message Bible translator is said to be a classic. I thought it was a memoir. It is a classic to many pastors, but it certainly isn’t a memoir. It is, instead, a book on the Psalms of Ascent. Peterson’s writing is concise and spiritually uplifting; his exegesis and care in interpreting the text more so, but I would not call it a classic. I have to admit, I ran out of gas before I finished the book. Its not that it isn’t good; its just not what I expected.

3. Philosophy of History, by William Dray. This was yet another find at the used book store. I have gotten into the habit of picking up quirky books that are easy or slim reads, and Dray’s concise introduction to the philosophy of history is no different. This subject is not a first for me; I took a philosophy of history course in college as part of my history major (I remember well: the great, late Dr. Hembree was an amazing teacher, gone to be with the Lord at too young an age). The book was wordy and not very well-written, but helped me remember some of those hold history philosophy debates we had back in the day.

One thing I did learn: Arnold Toynbee, who wrote a mutlivolume work called A Study of History, concluded perhaps naively, that the one unifying factor in the downfall of civilizations was the eventual decline of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit–kind of like the first step towards an “idiocracy.” Toynbee is on to something. Might there be something for the church to learn–that once a church ceases to be creative, missional, and entrepreneurial, death is imminent?

4. A Preface to Scripture, by Solomon Freehof. Yet another used-book store find, but a treasure if there ever was one. This is among one of my favorites so far in the past year (I started this book last year and have been slowly, deliciously making my way through it). It is an introduction to the Old Testament written from a Jewish, rabbinic point of view (Freeman is a reputable Reformed rabbi of rabbis), written specifically for Christians.

His historical portraits and commentary on all the books of the First Testament are traditionally rabbinic, but provide fresh and creative readings along the way. I am learning (1) where some of our own (Christian) interpretations of scripture come from and their Jewish roots; and (2) how rabbis have read scripture–and can contribute to our reading of scripture–before we, as a religious tradition, were even using the word “scripture” to begin with. Every page is a learning experience–and I’m learning things new about the Bible along the way, not something that can be said often from a bookish nerd like me.

5. I will Lift up Mine Eyes, by Glenn Clark. Our church inherited a small theological library from one of our missions-minded powerhouses. The deceased, Ms. Ouida, was an amazing person–one time school principal and active in the church. Her passing has created a vacuum in our congregation, and particularly my life– every Sunday Ouida and I would greet parishioners to our worship service at the front door. Everyone who passed Ouida received a warm handshake and an “I’m glad you’re here this morning!”

Her library included several books by Glenn Clark, also a teacher, who turned writer of all things prayer and spirituality. His book, I Will Lift up Mine Eyes, came on the heels of his bestselling book A Man’s Reach. It is a moving devotional on prayer, although I believe it to be a forerunner to the Prosperity Gospel movement of recent decades. Nevertheless, it is one of the best books on prayer because of its specificity in instructing readers on prayer and also admonishing us to remember that, as a believer, we are Christ’s very own, God’s children–and that truth should shape our courage and conviction in our conversations with God.

Published in 1937, its language is beautifully written and anecdotes timeless. I really do enjoy reading these older books; there is something about their syntax and wealth of words that moves the spirit. A great read!

6. The Gentleman in the Parlor, by W. Somerset Maugham. I am half-way through this memoir of prolific author Maugham’s travels through Thailand and Burma. His story is not as detailed as most travel narratives, but rather embodies short collections of his experiences along the way. Nor is the writing born of research into local lore and history, but a tale told from the position of one who “sits idly” with time to let the mind wander.

I found this book in the classics section of our used book store. I don’t know what attracted me to it other than the back cover mentioned it was a travel memoir, and the picture on the front looked captivating. The year of publication was in that window I adore so much–around 1930–and the language was rich upon first glance.

I have come to enjoy Maugham’s writing, although it is a bit arrogant at times and wistful at others (I read somewhere along the way that he wasn’t the most pleasant man, quite infamous in fact– his self-identification of a “gentleman” not withstanding). But you can’t blame him–his parents passed when he was 10 years old and he had several rocky romances along the way. I discovered too that he wrote a memoir on his writing, A Writer’s Notebook, which I hope to purchase and read sometime over the summer.

7. The Prophets, by Abraham Heschel. I am on a roll this past season with the First (Old) Testament. I have published my own book of essays on it, and I have read two textbooks–one by James West and another by Solomon Freehof (see above). Now, not three months into the new year, I picked up a classic by Jewish mystic and scholar Abraham Heschel, The Prophets.

This would not have been my first choice as my first Heschel book, but I made a commitment to get whatever I find at the local used book store. The edition is a good one, from 1969, a revision about 7 years after its original publication date; but the writing and notes are remarkably timeless.

This is an introduction, however, so it is not as spiritually intuitive as I would have hoped; but it does not disappoint, for Heschel stands as a forefather to contemporary First Testament studies, not just for Jewish folks but for us Protestants too. Have doubts? Just ask Walter Brueggemann!

8. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, by Andrew Krivak. I’m getting used to writing, “I found this treasure in our used bookstore,” so just assume that if there is a book on this list not published in the last year, it is from the used bookstore.  Recently, however, I discovered some gems in the Catholic section of the store, including this book signed by the author, Krivak’s memoir of his discernment process for entering the Society of Jesus (AKA the Jesuits).

The set of values for which Jesuits are known — poverty, chastity, and obedience — (and of Krivak’s spiritual wrestling match with each), plays an interesting subtext throughout the memoir.  It is not so much a spiritual memoir, therefore, as a secular memoir with sacred themes.

What is the difference?  A spiritual memoir, I would argue, is one in which the author searches for God and writes with the Holy Spirit in mind–a sort of extended prayer to which readers are privy.  This memoir, on the other hand, focuses on Krivak’s movement through his vocation and career not so much in search of God as it is a search for the true self — a self torn ultimately between the priesthood and the challenges of wanting a family.

Anyone with a family knows that poverty, chastity, and obedience shifts in these two poles — so this makes the drama of Krivak’s story, and the writing which is excellent, all the more…dramatic.  I am finding that I have to pray after reading so many pages because while these values confront Krivak, so too do they confront readers.  I am not called the priesthood, but how are poverty (the need of letting go of things that gets in God’s way), chastity (moral purity and single-minded devotion to Christ), and obedience (following Christ even when it costs something) playing out in my own life as a Christ-follower?  That’s the question to ponder in this fascinating read.

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A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?

A Reading Life (prt 11): The Bible, from a different point of view

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  

I attended a pastor’s Bible study recently and did not learn anything new.  If you are going to bring pastors together, then have something new up your sleeve: a new insight into reading the text, an esoteric resource that garners a cutting-edge interpretation of scripture, a new twist on an old tale.  But don’t spout lessons we have likely taught for years in Sunday school.

One of the greatest compliments I get as a preacher is not that a sermon was interesting or exciting, but that something new was learned.  “I never heard that before,” or “I’ve never read the passage like that,” is music to my ears.  It is impossible to hit a sermon out of the park every Sunday morning, but not to have at least one thing unique to each sermon–a new reading, an insight that is not cliché, a way to enliven the imagination.

I came into seminary with a formidable religion degree from college.  Classes were basic, therefore, and getting at something new was difficult.  But when I got into a New Testament course with a professor by the name of Dr. Carson, I got hooked on his methodology of reading the text.  I’ve never read the Bible that way!

Dr. Carson was from Union Theological Seminary and Southern Seminary, so he was able to bring a reading from two very different points-of-view.  As a way of protest, he threw out many tried and true historical-critical interpretations of scripture because of faulty foundations of reading, and relied on the purity of reading a text for what it says and how it is said, not from a translation.

Dr. Carson emphasized socio-rhetorical criticism, which was new to me.  Socio-rhetorical criticism explores how authors write what they write, why they write, how they write, and what they exclude.  The critic reads the Bible, noting that the order, shape, and context of the original language says something about the intent of the writing.

Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion,” and it asks questions of persuasion in the text.  Socio-historical criticism looks at the world of the text and how culture shapes literature, speech, and language.  It is a fairly recent criticism, only some forty years old.

This was a life-giving methodology for me.  I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Carson after that first course, and his recommendations went to the top of my reading list.  He recommended Vernon Robbins’ The Texture of Texts; socio-historical criticism by the likes of Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and others from the “the Context Group”; and a pithy book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, by Columbia University professor Kathy Eden.

Since I love words and writing, a focus on the function and dynamics of rhetoric opened a new world of joy and wonder.  It added depth to the biblical story, and it provided applications that made sense and applied to real life.  It brought Jesus to life, too, and painted a picture in both testaments that sit squarely in a mysterious culture foreign — and yet similar — to our own.

As a Baptist, I like how that type of reading pushed against the powers of interpretation and the privileges of the academy.  It exposed assumptions of historical biblical criticism and up-ended mistaken interpretations–often perpetuated by those in power and the academic establishment–that failed to take the ancient world seriously.  It also has a global leaning, allowing other voices to shape how the text–and the persuasion and arguments therein–apply to a variety of cultures in our own day and age.

I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carson because he opened a new window of biblical exploration, and that interpretation plays heavily on my preaching and teaching.  If you ever visit my church there’s a good chance that you may not always agree with the content, but you will learn something new.