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.

9. The Age of Reform, by Richard Hofstadter.  What I thought would be a comprehensive sweep of political and cultural history of the Progressive Era turned out to be a too-deep-in-the-weeds critique of the economic patterns associated with the Populist and Progressive movement roughly at the turn of the century.  Although the subtitle states that it is a history (and a Pulitzer prize winner at that!) from W. J. Bryan to F.D.R., only the last part of the last chapter covered the New Deal.

The most compelling part of this book was Hofstadter’s insistence on busting the myths surrounding the Progressive Era.  While we look at the Era ideally, (and have certainly inherited that high-minded view from our forebears because this book was published in 1955), Hofstadter proves that much of the politics of the time were merely pragmatic.  Even the New Deal was a “legislation of experimentation”, and much of the reforms that took place between 1890 and 1948 were the result of people trying to muddle through industrialism, conflicting theories of economics, and vastly shifting currency rates.  Sounds boring?  It was.

I am grateful, regardless of the content, of having a better view of Progressivism, my own particular heritage of choice.  I would have preferred more time on T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but–as mentioned–this was more economic portrait than political history.

10. St. Patrick: His Confessio and Other Writings.  For a guy who prides himself on knowing the saints, I sure fall short when it comes to having read primary sources of the saints.  I knew that St. Patrick had prayers out there–his shield prayer and several others–but I had no idea that he wrote of his history and theology in a confession.  Certainly, St. Patrick is not one of the more prolific of saints; in fact, at least one of his letters is questionable as to its source, but the language and theology are just as meaningful.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of St. Patrick’s writing was his heart for the lost “pagans” of Ireland.  Many of us Protestants think that Catholics do not emphasize evangelism.  Read St. Patrick, and you will be proven wrong!  He was concerned for souls as well as justice, as many of his writings advocated for those who were enslaved or exploited at the hands of growing Roman conquest in the British isles.

11. Trauma-Sensitive Theology, by Jennifer Baldwin. A recently published book by an old seminary colleague on the significance of trauma in the lives of Christians, churches, and community.  Although Baldwin’s prescription for trauma-sensitive theology is better suited for clinicians and pastoral counselors, her call to put it on the radar of every church is a breath of fresh air.

Consider our current culture, which is often shaped by fear, agitation, and grief.  We fear losing our identity (political or otherwise); we fear of the other, and we grieve that things in our society will never be the same.  When we go to church, we expect a normalcy that reminds us of yesteryear; but, even in church, times are a’changin’.  New models of leadership, reduced budgets and attendance, and a shift in church ministry hasn’t helped in our current milieu.

Baldwin’s call to a new theological paradigm is a response to the trauma that these changes bring, and it would do well for clergy to pay attention to how trauma, including PTSD, shapes community and church.  We are called to recognize it, and also to bring about healing and reconciliation that embodies shalom (wholeness, holiness, and peace).  Her take on the work of ministry is clear:

The role of religious care…is not to adjudicate the ‘facts’ of trauma; it is to advocate for safety, to support and facilitate the repair of traumatic injury, and to promote recovery and resiliency” (p. 9).

Christ sits squarely in this realm of trauma and grief, a Risen Savior who knows the suffering of the cross, who confronts change in the future, and comes to his people not as a strong lion but as a “lamb as though slaughtered” (Rev. 5)–one who prizes empathy in a world in which empathy is becoming a limited resource.  Baldwin’s work on trauma is a wake-up call to churches in the throes of monumental change.

12.  The Nature and Mission of the Church, by Donald Miller. There is nothing better to read while you’re in bed with strep throat for a week than something simple, encouraging, and thoughtful.  Miller’s short treatise on the church, published in 1957, is just that.  It is a good reminder what the church is, as well as what the church is not.  The church, of course, can be a building or an institution.  But, ultimately, it is a people of God, commissioned by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.

Each chapter moves to a different aspect of church, beginning with a theology of humanity in which Miller places people in direct relationship with God: We are created for fellowship, and God’s call to be a people is about fellowshipping with God and neighbor, of joining God at work in the world, and fulfilling the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ.

I particularly like how Miller examines the Bible’s emphasis on ministry in the Body–we have created a hierarchy with the pastor or priest on top; but in the New Testament, everyone is a part of the ministry, and not such hierarchy exists.  Rather,

The office of priesthood, therefore, is shared by all Christians.  Consequently, the official ministry of the church has no different status from that of the layman.  The difference is one of function only” (p. 89).

As we seek to do church, we need to remember that Christ is head and we are family.  There is no such thing as “just a layman” or “just a Christian,” according to Miller (p. 89).

13.  The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. It has been nearly a decade since I graduated with my doctorate in the field of spiritual formation, and I finally got around to reading Merton’s classic spiritual autobiography.  I believe that God dictates things according to his timing, so perhaps I wasn’t ready to read it before now–regretting not reading it sooner is futile and a waste of time: But, that said, it is one of the best spiritual autobiographies I have read.

Merton follows his journey of faith from childhood, which includes his travels across Europe with his artist father, to his career as perpetual student and English professor.  His writing provides a good snapshot of that kind of collegiate life in the 1930s, as well as a fresh, contemporary take on the Spirit’s leadership in drawing him to the monastic life.

Merton has been a mainstay in my ministry.  Minutes away from a Cistercian monastery in Conyers, I did much of my doctoral writing–and contemplating–at that monastery in my spare time when not working.  Merton popularized the idea of monasteries in general and the contemplative life in particular.  I stumbled upon Henri Nouwen first, however, and so much of my influence draws from him.  I have heard all about Merton through the years, however.

One of the biggest things that impressed me about Merton’s writing was his ability to weave prayer and gratitude in his memoir.  He mentions grace often, noting where God gifted him with direction, insight, and discernment.  His prayers that erupt every few chapters is a great wonderment to behold.  His writing is rich; his prayers divine.

14. “Essays on the American Revolution”, ed. by Stephen Kurtz and James Hutson.  I purchased this book at the used bookstore for one reason only: An essay in it entitled “Violence and the American Revolution,” by Richard Maxwell Brown, caught my attention, and for a dollar it was hard to let go.

Brown’s essay did not disappoint as it argued that the undercurrent of violence in the Revolution neither began during the revolution nor ceased after it.  In fact, violence was not merely a force for liberation, but a part of our national history that continues to haunt us:

American violence owes much to the dead weight of unsolved problems hanging over from the past.  The negative features of American history — abysmal relations between whites and people of other color and the brutal and brutalizing processes by which the frontier was extended and our economic industrialized — have long been known to us as violent chapters in the story of our development, but it has been difficult for us to accept that the most noble event in our history, the Revolution, was entwined with a civil violence that was often ignoble.”

The Revolution not only added to our national inheritance of violence, it “sanctified it”, giving rise to the self-righteous application of just war, vigilantism, and (at one point) the oppression of other people and nations (Jim Crow, and the like).  Throughout the history of the United States, violence is encapsulated in our literature and legislation, be it in the extreme defense of the Second Amendment to the massive spending in our Defense budget, and all this in the name of “freedom” or “liberty”.  Brown contends in the last quarter of the essay that,

Long after 1776 the symbols of the Revolution continued to be used with frequency and sincerity by violent movements  to enfold themselves in its sanctifying mantle” (emphasis mine).

Brown’s essay was worth the price of a dollar and, for me, framed a new look into the narrative of our national gun debate.  We need to divorce our Second Amendment rights and legislation away from the lofty ideals of “freedom” that costs us our national souls.  There is nothing sanctifying about making the amendment mean what it never intended to mean, and to protect the very weapons of mass destruction that it never intended to protect–all in the name of liberty at the cost of the lives of our school children.

I did go on to read another essay in this book entitled, “The Role of Religion in the Revolution,” by William McLoughlin.  It was nowhere near as well written as the essay on violence, but it was a good snapshot into the complexity of debates surrounding religious liberty in the formation of our country.  It was an interesting read, especially for this Baptist so concerned about the separation of church and state.

15.  Introducing the Bible, by William Barclay.  Barclay is a household name for most pastors.  His commentary on the New Testament is legend, and you can find them in most church basements.  They are informative and, actually, still very relevant.  I still use them because they are among the most practical commentaries and they are very well-written.  Barclay has something to teach every preacher about information and pithy writing.

I came across this book somewhere–perhaps inherited from one of our late senior saints who donated books before she passed.  Although it is an introduction, I figured Barclay’s writing will go quick and it will be interesting.  And it did, and it was!  The book is recommended for anyone who is interested in the Bible, from seasoned minister to lay reader.  His information on the formation of scripture is compelling, and some of his anecdotes are moving.  It is a fun 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.