The Pastor’s 2018 Reading List

By Joe LaGuardia

There seems to be something arrogant about entitling a blog “The Pastor’s Reading List.”  I don’t know if it sounds haughty or elitist or what, but something does not seem right.  Yet, in the spirit of years gone by, I feel compelled to publish my reading list for this upcoming year.

It is not that I think more highly of myself for reading; nor is it that I feel a need to publish the list.  Rather, the list is a result of what I like to read about others.  Like so many others who read “reading lists” around the New Year’s season, I love reading…reading lists…too.  Besides, instructors on writing tell us to write what we love, so here goes.

1.  Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich and translated by Fr. John-Julian, OJN.  As a spiritual formation doctoral student some years ago, I made it my life’s work to dabble in mystics and spiritual fathers and mothers of old.  But, as so many other doctoral candidates know, it is hard to read primary sources when so much tertiary research is needed to get through the slog of writing.

One such source lost to me included the writings of the fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich.  Julian’s Revelations (the first English book written by a woman) record her visions and experiences as she served God in her commune in Norwich, England.

More poetic than prose, this book requires a slow reading–more of a prayerful meandering through the mind and heart of one of the most beloved women in all church history.  I started reading this book when I purchased it on a recent trip to Georgia three weeks, and it is proving to be more devotional than anything else.  Nevertheless, the Abbess abides.

2.  Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew.  There are books I want to read and books I have to read.  This falls in the “have to” column, but for a great reason: My alma mater, Palm Beach Atlantic University, finally picked me up as an adjunct instructor for an abbreviated Spring season. My class is Christian Values and Biblical Faith, a required course for all graduating students.  This is our primary textbook.  It does not look so bad, and I look forward to gleaning new things about worldviews since the book I used for the class over 15 years ago (which I did not assign to my upcoming class!) was terrible.

3.  Dragon Teeth, by Michael Crighton. People familiar with my reading habits know that I always throw in what I call “junk novels”– those escapist books that get me out of the religion bubble, ranging from horror to science fiction.  Last year it was Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This year, it is Michael Crighton’s posthumous published book from the Jurassic Park universe.

The truth is that I cut my teeth (no pun intended) on Crighton’s books in high school.  I watched Jurassic Park on the big screen, read the novel, loved the novel, and then checked out every Crighton book available through my high school library.  I thoroughly enjoy his books (I re-read Jurassic Park two years ago, and Boy! was it good!), and I am glad for this gift from Crighton’s file cabinets and family estate from whence the manuscript came.

4.  Men at Work, by George Will.  Yes, the George Will–conservative columnist, economist, and hero for Republicans who can’t stand Trump–wrote one of the classic books on the history and business of baseball.  Many who read Will (myself included) know not only of his politics, but of his genius related to the sport that he and I love.

I am looking forward to joining him on this “behind the scenes” journey of America’s national pastime.  I also hope that it will prepare me for my family vacation (and first visit) to Cooperstown, New York, and the baseball hall of fame this summer.  (Last year, to get started, I read Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, which was pretty good too.)

5.  Incarnational Ministry: Being With the Church, by Samuel Wells.  I enjoy the writings of Samuel Wells as I am an avid reader of his columns published in The Christian Century.  This book, advertised in said magazine, caught my attention because I have been praying about some annual goals for my ministry at First Baptist Church.

One goal is to help the church be the church to others–in the neighborhood, in the community, across the globe.  Many in the congregation do not have to do anything differently, as if being busier will do the trick, and there is a culture of service and missions in the church already.  It is just that we need to help the congregation see their work and service as a particularly sacred vocation in which service is more than lending a helping hand, but being the very face and presence of Christ for those who need the marriage of love and justice in their midst: disciples tasked with making disciples.  I hope this book will provide the grammar and biblical infrastructure for this goal in my ministry.

6.  Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.  Another junk novel that I hope will provide some light “summer” reading.  A novel set during the First World War by one of my favorite authors, I hope this novel will bring me to new destinations that provide a backdrop of one of my favorite historical eras in American history.  Also, it is helpful to freshen up on my Hemingway-esque prose, since I have sought so very hard to model my writing style after his own.  (It is near impossible, mind you, but I try.)

7.  Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, by Merle Miller.  My mother purchased this book for me at a yard sale some years back, and it has been sitting on the bottom of my “to read” pile for far too long.  Since I take on a lengthy history, often surrounding presidents, every year (last year it was Florida history with The Everglades by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas), I figured, “Hey, its 2018, why not?”  I figure that it will be good to get back to some good ole’ days when presidents presided and the nation worked a little more harmoniously than now anyway.

8.  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan.  I remember the first time I saw Dr. Crossan speak in person. I was with my beloved New Testament professor, the late Dr. Daniel Goodman, at a Society for Biblical Literature conference.  Dr. Crossan came out of some back room and walked towards the dais when Dr. Goodman, like a giddy child, slapped me on the shoulder, smiled that huge smile of his, and said, “Hot dog, LaGuardia!  Look at that! It’s John Dominic Crossan!” (And, yes, he did say, “Hot dog, LaGuardia!”)

Although I don’t agree with all of Crossan’s assessments on the historical Jesus, his writing and lectures have provided endless, fresh insights into the cultural world of Christ.  His acute attention to the literary aspects of Jesus’ ministry mirrors my own, and his knowledge of primitive sociology highlights context that other scholars fail to engage.

Jesus is actually a classic, published some years ago, but I never got around to reading it– I was too busy reading his In Parables over and over again.  But now I finally have the book in hand thanks to a local used book store and, I hope, the time.

9.  To Dance with the White Dog, by Terry Kay.  Terry Kay was an author that a parishioner from my last church recommended.  Kay, a local Georgia author, lectured throughout the state and was a common visitor to the writer’s guild thereabouts in east Atlanta.

My parishioner let me borrow one of his books, The Year the Lights Came On, and I was sold.  The book was amazing, and Kay’s whimsical writing and southern humor captivated my imagination and my heart.  To Dance with the White Dog is actually the book for which Kay is best known, and I look forward to reading it with delight and anticipation.

10.  Forebearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, by James Calvin Davis.  To be honest, I am not quite sure what this book is about other than what the title and the summary on the back says.  Davis argues that his contribution is a “theological ethic” whereby churches and Christians from various backgrounds are called to “bear with each other” as a way to build community.  It is an “antidote to the pervasive divisiveness present in contemporary culture.”  That’s a high and lofty calling; we will see if Davis can match those expectations.

11.  Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  I learned of this forthcoming book only this evening when I stumbled upon a colleague’s 2018 reading list.  I am usually up on all and anything that Brown writes, as she is my favorite author. Of. All. Time.  So when I learned of this book hitting bookshelves in August of 2018, I knew that I have to get it.

I can’t wait, but perhaps the book’s release date is divine timing: God knows that if it were to be published now, I would neglect my preparation for that adjunct class at PBAU.  God knows how to handle these things in God’s time, so I plan to keep my entire month of August free from all reading commitments until I obtain and read through Brown’s next treasure.

12. and 13.  Rounding out my list are two memoirs that I picked up along the way, one old and one new.  The first is Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, by Maya Angelou and the second is Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism, by David Gushee.  Maya Angelou is among my favorite authors, and her words–very much like Barbara Brown Taylor’s– drips with intimacy and elegance.  This memoir is a collection of wisdom that she passes down to readers, complete with her unique whit and ability to weave words into deep wells of insight.

Still Christian is a memoir not for the faint of heart.  This book, which recalls Gushee’s long journey from Southern Baptist pastor to marginalized ethicist, rings true for far too many of us who are in the throes of ministry and Baptist life.  Reading his early conversion experience and call to ministry (I’m up to page 26 already) is like reading my own, and I feel that Gushee is writing for many of us who fear losing our voice in a fractured, partisan society.

Yet, there is a relationship here.  I had David Gushee for several doctoral classes, and I have come to admire and respect him as author, ethicist, and deeply committed Christian father and husband.  His book on marriage helped me save my own, and his humble and penetrating openness to the Spirit of God has inspired so many students and ministers who work in the public square.  I feel as if reading this book is not so much reading a book as it is reading a personal letter from a friend.  Along with Angelou’s writing, its good stuff, ya’ll.

There you have it: the lucky thirteen books I hope to tackle this year. Based on my efforts in the last two years, however, I will probably get through seven or eight before I buy and read a dozen more.  Then there are the books–as yet unknown–that will be assigned to me by my Baptist peer learning group each month.  But that’s how these things work. There is the hope; then there is the reality.

Nevertheless, what do you hope to read this year?  And what “reading list” catches your attention?

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The Pastor’s Study: Building blocks for effective ministry

writers-blockBy Joe LaGuardia

The other day, my six-year old son visited the church office and asked, “Daddy, why do you have so many books?”

My first answer was practical: “Because I like to read.”

My second answer was theological: “And pastors have to learn in order to serve a church.”

It was another way of saying that we pastors (most are avid readers anyway) require some old-fashioned odds and ends that many professions no longer need.  In this case, books.  Good, hardy paper-and-glue bound books.

A pastor’s library needs to be robust and diverse because it contributes to a minister’s professional development in ministry.  Without some basic building blocks in that library, a pastor will not be able to “gain in learning” and “discern wisdom with acquired skill” (Proverbs 1:5).

There are about four building blocks in a pastor’s study.  The first block includes a variety of study Bibles and translations.  Without God’s Word, all else is entertainment.

I know that some pastors are adamant about a translation, but I’ve come to learn that no, single English translation is perfect.  Nor are any study Bibles.

Last Sunday, for example, we discussed 2 Kings 2:23-25, about the prophet Elisha divinely influencing two bears to maul over 40 boys because they dishonored him.

All of us in the class were stumped by this unsettling story, so we turned to various translations and study Bibles for help.

Some study Bibles said some things, while some said another.  All agreed, however, that the story emphasized Elisha’s power in bringing about God’s judgment as an heir to Elijah’s power.

The study Bibles didn’t provide us with any concrete answers, but it inspired lively discussion.

A second building block includes books that encourage deeper faith, primarily devotional literature.  Since many of us received our call to ministry after our salvation experience, there is a good chance our oldest books are related to the Christian life and prayer.

I still have copies of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis and My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers that I’ve used since high school.  These books continue to challenge my faith and bring great conviction.

The next part of a pastor’s library involves a good set of Bible commentaries.  It doesn’t matter how many books a pastor reads, nothing can replace commentaries in preparing for the preaching of God’s Word.  Every pastor has a favorite series.

I always enjoy William Barclay’s The Daily Bible Study series and the older, regal Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.  There are some new commentaries series from a diverse set of authors also, such as the Catholic-leaning Sacra Pagina New Testament series.

For novice pupils of the Bible who want to build a good home library, one-volume commentaries work just as well.  I have found The Bible Reader’s Companion by Lawrence Richards and Our Daily Homily by F. B. Meyer to be particularly useful.  A one-commentary volume on the New Testament by Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s Commentary is insightful and fun to read.

Rounding out the pastor’s library are two types of books: One type helps interpret the Bible more deeply; and a second helps the pastor interpret culture more deeply.

The first type range from homiletics (the study of the art of preaching) to hermeneutics (the art of Bible interpretation).

The second type is broad, with books related to current events, culture or ethics, church history, and theology.  Two books I read recently are The Urban Pulpit by Matthew Bowman, a history of mainline churches in Manhattan; and The Social Media Gospel by Meredith Gould, which discusses the necessity and uses of social media for evangelism and outreach.

I’m currently reading God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, by Phyllis Tribble, a classical work in feminist theology pertaining to the Old Testament.  I’m finding the book’s insights on Genesis 1-2 invaluable.

Aside from all of the visits, crises, events, committee meetings, and errands to which pastors attend, there must still be time to read, study, and prepare each week for that next presentation, sermon, or Bible study.  It never ends, and without a study to call home, such struggles would be all the more difficult.

Review of Jonathan Merritt’s “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined”

Merritt_JesusBetterThanYouImaginedJust hot off the press, the latest book by Religion News Service senior writer, Jonathon Merritt, entitled Jesus is Better than You Imagined is worth a read because it is a profound take on one young person’s journey through the trials and triumphs that make for a vibrant Christian life.

Unlike what the title implies, the book is not so much about Jesus as it is about Merritt’s personal, spiritual experiences as it pertains to his relationship with Jesus.

All of the chapters contain the subtitle of “encountering Jesus” in some aspect of Merritt’s spiritual life.

He encounters Jesus, for instance, in the solitude of a monastery. He encounters Jesus in creation. He encounters Jesus in the midst of the grace and forgiveness after confessing to having an illicit sexual encounter with another author.

He encounters Jesus outside of the church.  The son of a one-time Southern Baptist Convention president, Merritt admits that he had become, in his words, “tired of the mundane business of professional Christianity.”

So Merritt grasps for what faith means to him after facing the hardships of breaking away from the fishbowl that was his church life, sexual identity crises, and depression.

Jesus, he claims, is to be found in Haiti, the streets of New York, and bars.

Ultimately, he finds Jesus in a renewed faith that carries him through the hardship of uncertainty:

“Faith calls me to welcome the mysterious to rest in the uncomfortable tension of a God who is both known and unknown. This kind of faith doesn’t require an explanation for why I’m wandering in the wilderness; rather, it trusts in the God of the wilderness despite the absence of answers.”

Merritt’s book adds to the tapestry of a booming Christian memoir publishing industry in an information age that prizes the self and the discovery of how that self relates to a God whom one no longer finds in the womb of the church.

It makes for profound, honest, and moving reading although it threatens to let the self–the “I”–distract readers from the very Jesus we are supposed to imagine in a new way.

Another author, the late Henri Nouwen, may have advice here. Often confronted with the wrestling match between being a popular author and simply telling others where God is at work in the world, Nouwen surmised that all of us must be aware of how our own stories have the potential of getting in the way of God’s story.

Our very personhood threatens to hinder or, at worst, tarnish, our experience of Jesus because Jesus ends up looking more like we do rather than the first-century Jew who called all people to God’s reign on earth, a reign that is both beyond our experiences of it as well as personally intimate in our relationship to it.

Merritt’s personal story is no different.

If a memoir is to be anything, however, it is to liberate us from the preconceived notion that we have everything figured out, that we have all of the answers.

Merritt is on the right track most of the time, and I consider him to be one of the leading spokespersons for my generation. But he still walks that fine line between being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son who speaks the familiar language of evangelical conservatism, while searching for a pseudo-progressive theology that seeks to let the marginalized “Other” define God in new ways.

Merritt’s balancing act places him squarely in that classic Christian “identity crisis”, what St. John the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” We may not be in the same place as Merritt, but we will go along with him for the ride.

Original or not, Jesus is Better than You Imagined inspires growth by giving us the opportunity to live vicariously through the trials and triumphs of the author.

And, in some strange way, we read because we hope to find that transformative, life-giving Word that all of us long for, that all of us hope will help us experience–and imagine–God anew.