A Radical Shift

I’m making a radical shift in my reading, but I’m announcing it because I have my doubts that I can sustain the shift. I may need some help. You may need to sit down. This is big.

Readers of the Jesus Creed blog know by now that I’m horrible at reading novels. I try to read two a year — during the summer, E. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and in December, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I try to read both; sometimes I even do.

Two years back I decided it was time to read some Kafka, and if my memory serves me right I hadn’t read Kafka since high school German class when we read the altogether weird, weird, Das Metamorphose. The fella turned into a beetle. So over a Spring Break two years back I read Kafka’s altogether weird The Trial. What a journey into the twisted mind of humans, or at least Kafka. Over Christmas 2011 I wanted to read another novel, but I needed to prepare for a paper at the BioLogos event so I didn’t get one read. (At least I don’t remember reading one then.)

So I’m trying to read more novels, including a recent one:

During our trip to Iceland and Denmark I read Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, a book that explores the “options” in life for an African American man in the middle of the 20th Century. It was a brilliant story; I was over and over disestablished by not knowing the experience of the black man; I was routinely shocked and embarrassed by the narrative’s options and openings; and I watched a man — he gets no name, which points out that the African American is just not seen — but seen through by the establishment — grow and get betrayed and sort out options, including a major focus on entering into and then rejecting Communism/socialism (The Brotherhood).

I read Ellison’s book because I’ve seen it quoted so often, I saw that President Obama values this book, and I thought it would be good to experience the reality — depicted reality — of the African American in white, American culture. Even if outdated, there are striking realities still at work in our culture today. As a high schooler I read Black Like Me and that book stunned me, and made me far more sensitive to the plight of American blacks. I’ve never been out from under the spell of that book. I don’t know if I will read Robert Wright’s book or some James Baldwin, but I suspect I will read one of them. Ellison tells me that African Americans are invisible; a friend told me that some African American scholars now say they are shadows. Perhaps so; in the churches I suspect the African American is still invisible. In the Body that says we are all “one.”

What’s next? I’m a few pages into Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a book that looks at American culture through the lens of violence. A good time to ponder violence.

My plan is to have a novel always near at hand to read. We’ll see.

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  • Novels have some good things to say, often truths that are hard to express. They’re not all doom and gloom or weird like Kafka. They can express some really deep aspects of human nature without being morbid or odd.

    A friend once gave me a copy of Wendell Berry’s ‘Jayber Crow’. It was a wonderful read, full of gentleness and caring without being in the least mushy. It has a great deal to say about human nature, society, social change, and love.

    Anyone else here read it? Do you agree? Disagree? Can you tell us why?

    If you’re looking for a novel to add to your reading list – consider taking Jayber Crow for a spin.

  • gingoro

    I love to read good novels and can consume one per day if I get cranked up. Also autobiographies are very satisfying.

  • RJS

    Welcome to the light … there is much to learn from both “deep” novels and light fiction. Fiction provides a window into human existence that nonfiction cannot touch. It doesn’t replace, it augments and complements. We need both.

  • Bob

    Thanks Scot, for giving me the permission not to read fiction. One can be a thinker, theologian and pastor without reading fiction. I guess proponents of fiction reading say fiction is supposed to expand the imagination and cultivate the virtues. I’ve always viewed reading fiction like going to the dentist.

  • Ahh, Scot – Blood Meridian is magnificent. Troubling, hard, and magnificent. Press on!

  • My favorite professor in college (English literature) said: history teaches us what did happen; fiction teaches us what does happen.

  • Myles

    As a former English major turned theology prof, I always keep fiction on the bedside table, and only fiction. Right now, it’s a volume of Kafka and Stephen King. Great habit to keep, IMO.

  • Do you ever just read for fun? By that I mean something that just grabs your imagination? Fantasy, Science Fiction? I have read much of what you have mentioned here, but I read it more as spiritual growth.

    I have more creative fun with theology and the harder stuff when I allow my mind the pleasure of reading something that is pure imagination. I come at the heavy stuff more relaxed and I would say at times more creatively.

    As always your reading lists are appreciated. I have, more than once, gone to Amazon and picked up a book you suggested in a review and been the wiser for it.

  • Meri

    I love a good novel interspersed between nonfiction reads. I need the figurative language to ponder. It helps me loosen my mind from fact to embrace and imagine something different.

    If you are looking for something modern and different, try Ender’s Game. I have been forever changed by the way Ender learned to view his enemies.

  • Scot, I also read Black Like Me in high school. Coming from affluent Dallas, it had profound effect on me. It still comes back to haunt me sometimes, especially in conversation with some of my African American friends. One of the most important skills for us to learn is to try to walk in the life of another–especially one different from me.

  • JoeyS

    Novels are hard for me to read, too. I picked up East of Eden in January and finished it in June. It was always, “at hand” but I didn’t pick it up too often.

    If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. There are sections that are loathsome (like the first 30 pages). But it deals with some pretty strong themes of grace and sin in a semi-Kierkegaardian sort of way.

  • Rob Dunbar

    I’ve always preferred fiction to non-fiction; still do. If you’ve not read it, may I recommend C.S. Lewis’ last novel, “Till We Have Faces”? Best, and most moving, of all his works and really a classic on its own.

  • I suggest you read some stuff by Twain. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are an easy choice, but his Innocents Abroad is also very good. Welcome to the world of fiction!

  • I recommend ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ by Willa Cather. It could have just as easily been titled ‘Life Comes for the Archbishop’. A truly beautiful novel.

  • In addition to my pastoral work, I also have a background in Language Arts Education and I highly recommend “The Last Convertible” by Anton Myrer. I’ve read hundreds of novels and it is the best coming of age story by far.


  • MatthewS

    I’ve been trying to read some novels recently as well. No joke, I really enjoyed “Eyes of the Dragon” by Stephen King.

  • As a college student who wanted to be a pastor, I was encouraged to become a literature major by a wide variety of people. It was good advice. Fiction particularly unearths great truths about humanity and life that cannot be expressed even through the best of writing about a topic. We need to live into certain aspects of life and humanity and God through entering a story. In the end, that’s not very different from our everyday lives.

    I’d recommend anything by Walker Percy or Fyodor Dostoevsky.

  • MatthewS

    Meri, good suggestion about Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card writes intelligently. I was glad to see my son enjoying Ender’s Game recently.

  • Rodney Reeves

    @ Chris, “They’re not all doom and gloom or weird like Kafka. They can express some really deep aspects of human nature without being morbid or odd.”

    Odd is in the eye of the beholder? I love Kafka. “The Trial” continues to help me explore “deep aspects of human nature”–fears that continue to challenge and haunt me.

  • Luke Allison

    Read the short story “The Dead” by James Joyce. It’s only about 30 or so pages.

    Blood Meridian is crushing, stunning, all those other hyperbolic words…but seriously, an amazing achievement for a human being. The Road and Suttree are my two other favorites from McCarthy.

    Also, read Marilynne Robinson….so good she makes your heart ache.

  • Jeremy

    I’m trying to do something similar. I read quite a bit of non-fiction, but I’d like to change that. I recently picked up George MacDonald’s Lilith and I’ll soon be giving that a go…

  • John W Frye

    Scot, I agree with JoeyS (#11) that you give Steinbeck’s *East of Eden* a chance to impress you. I’ve read it twice now and it’s fascinating both in story and writing style.

    For sheer delicious fiction writing (on tough subjects) try Pat Conroy’s *Beach Music.*

  • The goodness of Wendell Berry’s novels can’t be overstated. Graham Greene, John Steinbeck, Susan Howatch, Marilynne Robinson, and Alice McDermott are all fantastic as well. Happy reading, my friend.


  • I love your choice of novels. I believe we don’t learn much of anything in depth apart from fiction. The greatest story ever told was a story of fiction by Jesus called “The Prodigal Son.” Or better titled “The Prodigal Father.”

    Cormac McCarthy is my favorite fiction writer.

    Good on ya!

  • Thanks for sharing this, Scot. I need this, too. I tend to want to read only nonfiction, in fact that is nearly all I’ve done, one of the things I would hope to do differently if I could do it over, or hopefully will do better the rest of the way.

  • Phillip

    What, you haven’t put “50 Shades of Grey” on your list?

  • Liz K.

    As a NT prof you might enjoy the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. It’s a series of young adult fiction books with the premise that the Greek gods are still around, they just follow whatever is the most powerful nation in the Western world. So right now Mt. Olympus is over the Empire State Building and Hades is under L.A. They do a wonderful job of getting the conceptual world of the Greek gods into your imagination. I loaned my books to one of the college students at my church and when he returned them he said, “I just realized, the Exodus plagues were against the Egyptian gods weren’t they!?” because the Percy Jackson books had helped them understand what it was like to live in a polytheistic culture. They’re kids books but they got them genuinely excited about NT backgrounds. The first book in the series is “The Lightening Thief.” (Don’t watch the movie, it’s terrible.)

  • D. Foster

    I’d like to second Ron #12. “Till We Have Faces” has been my favorite C.S. Lewis book for a long time. I recently discovered, in perusing his letters, that he mentioned to several friends/readers that he considered it “far and away the best book I’ve ever written.”

    I agree. Highly, highly recommended.


  • Please tell me you haven’t missed out on Chaim Potok’s great stories! Asher Lev, The Promise, The Chosen, all have insights into the orthodox Jewish mind that are utterly fascinating.

  • Scot, if you are reading for fun and also to be aware of what your students might have been reading, don’t forget the Harry Potter series. Not brilliant literature, but great stories with significant insights to the human condition and the redemptive power of love. And they don’t take Kafkaesque struggles to read.

  • Leland Vickers

    I have found that fiction works quite well as audio books, particularly in the car or while traveling. Non-fiction has to be a printed copy so that it is easier to go back to previous paragraphs and pages. Recent audio has included 2 Wendell Berry novels and The Brothers Karamazov.

  • Steph

    Chaim Potok is brilliant (echoing Bev in 29). Also Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. You also get a third vote for CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.

    Examining human violence, there is Life of Pi. Weird also, but I loved it, and I don’t go for the “absurd” usually.

  • Percival

    Sci-fi — Connie Willis, especially Doomsday Book
    Historical fiction — Stephen Lawhead, especially Byzantium

    Before someone asked about novels that would explain America to foreigners. Lake Wobegone by Garrison Keillor is great for showing the ‘heartland.’

    Kafka? If you need a French writer, start with Francois Mauriac.
    Favorite 20th cent Brit — Evelyn Waugh
    Best Arab novels — Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy.

  • Steph

    What about an anthology of short stories? Works of art in their own right and you get a taste of many of the authors best known as novelists as well as of others that excel in the short story art form. Poignant. Memorable.

    Hmm, and my own book “wish list” just grew a little as I went looking for good anthologies.

  • Percival

    Embarrassing. Kafka was from Prague.

  • You might enjoy “Watership Down,” by Richard Adams. Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay (something about “A Story-Formed Community” or some such thing) entirely devoted to making connections between that story and the church’s use of Scripture to shape her community life. Also it’s one of the most delightfully complete and satisfying stories I’ve ever read, and I reread it every year.

  • John Bonnett

    One of my favorite novels is Mikhail Bulgakov’s _The Master and the Margarita_. The novel opens with the Devil visiting Stalin’s Moscow, and the havoc he causes in a culture that is predisposed not to believe in his existence. It also surveys — as a novel within a novel — what happens to Pontius Pilate after Christ’s crucifixion. It’s an amazing, amazing novel and one of the best items of literature to come out of Soviet Russia.

  • As a former engineer that did basic scientific research, I always felt my education was one-sided, and the courses in literature allowed my mind some mental space to roam that most of my days did not have the leisure for.

    So, good for you, Scot. I would say “Amen” to all of the recommendations you were given. And the kind of captivation you experienced reading Ellison can and will be repeated. 🙂