Reading fiction and poetry for fun is one of the most important things a theologian can do. It expands our worlds and our imaginations, which can lead to deep and creative preaching, deep and creative messages in church newsletters, deep and creative pastoral care. Theology is about describing invisible realities, and an imagination is what enables us to see the invisible. When we use our imaginations, we practice seeing invisible things. So in using our imaginations, we practice for theology. The more time we spend in stories, the more the story of Scripture comes alive as a story, and the better we can read and preach it. Beyond all of this, though, reading fiction and poetry can remind us that we’re human. We have souls. Sometimes those souls need touching. We need to remember the depth and breadth of our humanity. We need to remember that we are alive. Fiction and poetry do this.
So let me offer some recommendations for summer reading.
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
Told from the perspective of the most normal son, the novel follows a most unusual family from the 1950s to the present. Dad is a washed-up minor league pitcher, Mom is a cantankerous Seventh Day Adventist. Son #1 grows up to become a hippie, son #2 to be a Buddhist, son #3 to be a crazy-for-Jesus young man sent to the Vietnam War. It’s a story of family, faith, and baseball.
Gilead by Marilyn Robinson
Written as a letter from the fictional, 76-year-old Presbyterian pastor John Ames to his 6-year-old son, Gilead is a story about life in rural Iowa. Robinson explores themes of faith, community, friendship, and love through these reflections on a life.
A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Bakman
All of Backman’s novels are stunning explorations of what communities are and can be. Ove is the story of a principled widower whose intended suicide is interrupted by the family next door backing over his mailbox. What follows is a beautiful picture of a community drawing the old man back into itself and being the best of what a community can be. My Grandmother begins, “Every seven-year-old needs a superhero, and anyone who doesn’t agree needs their head examined. That’s what Granny says.” Seven-year-old Elsa’s grandmother dies and sends her on a secret quest in her neighborhood and in their land of make-believe that shows her how beautiful and complicated and important community can be, all in the most amazing prose.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Thirteen-year-old Milo is bored by everything until he receives a toy tollbooth kit in his bedroom. He puts it together, goes through in his toy car, and finds himself in the lands of Dictionopolis, Digitopolis, and everywhere in between. Milo embarks on a quest with the Watchdog to save the world and learn that nothing is truly impossible.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Jayber Crow is the fictional autobiography of the barber of Berry’s fictional Port William, Kentucky. Berry is unsurpassed in his description of community with the world he created in Port William. It’s a calm, deliberately paced story of Jayber’s struggle with faith and what it means to belong to a place and a people.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The classic story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It is Austen’s commentary on gender expectations and high society in 19th-century Britain told through a strong-willed protagonist not afraid to get mud on the hem of her dress and a proud but truly decent man who loves her just that way. Witty, clever, incisive, funny, and hard to put down.
Once upon a River by Diane Setterfield
This story begins in a pub on the river known for its storytelling in 17th-century England. During one storytelling evening, a nearly drowned man stumbles in holding a dead four-year-old child. The child comes to life again, and three different couples claim her as their daughter, each lost two years prior. The story is masterfully told, the reading equivalent of eating a rich piece of chocolate cake.
Happy reading! And please, send me recommendations of your own if you have them!