Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: "Pastors in the Classics"

Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature Leland Ryken, Philip Graham Ryken, Todd A. Wilson Baker Books, 2012-01-01 - 192 pages

I am sure that many a pastor or author wished that someone had taken the time to look into all the novels, plays, morality tales, and poetry where pastors played a prominent role and provide "a road map to literary masterpieces in which the pastor's experience is a major part of the story" (p.11).  The authors are amazingly explicit in their aims and goals: "first to facilitate the reading of some great works of literature", show "ways in which the works portray and clarify issues in the minister's life and vocation",  finally to place "the minister's life within the broader Christian context" (p.12). These are in essence the differences between telling and showing what to do and not do in ministry.

There are four uses that the authors foresee for this collection: to enhance a reader's enjoyment and understanding of the works that are discussed, group discussion, improve the ability to make right moral choices and finally to be a readers' guide to the works that they cover (p.13). Two of these are excellently achieved, one is weak and another is woefully inadequate. Pastor's in the Classics will help with the enjoyment and understanding the work covered. I would have preferred Ryken to have more input on the moral choice objective by providing more of a biblical framework. Finally, the group questions are so brief, that any group would really need to take extensive notes of the primary sources to discuss the themes. The four "Portraits of Ministers" questions (p.14) really need to be kept in mind in examining any of the works in question.

From the author's description, part 1 is a reader's guide to twelve important classics written over four centuries and covering seven different nationalities. Each chapter not only describes and interprets the work in question, it also highlights a specific feature of pastoral ministry explored in the work. One of the most helpful features are the scriptural passages that begin each chapter. I would have appreciated an index of these texts that would have enabled an expositor to refer to the work in question as a sermon/lesson illustration. The topics vary from sexual sin, to slander, love, and suffering. Although the reviews are of classic sources, they read like everyday issues: challenges of ministry, complaints about church meetings, how hard it is to love the sheep, the relentless approach of next week's sermon, opportunities for personal ministry, candid revelations from the congregation and asking the lord to help moment by moment (p.106). Like the scriptural references, a thematic index would be helpful for future reference. Most of the topic headings are clear, but a few (eg. Witch Wood) can be a bit cryptic at times.

The authors describe Part 2 as a handbook on fifty-eight entries on works of literature that include significant discussion of ministry and illuminate issues in ministry (p.113). They see these of works that define the canon of literary masterpieces that deal with the pastor's experience, offering reading suggestions for both ministers and lovers of literature. From the familiar (The Canterbury Tales; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Scarlet Letter) to the lesser-known (Silence, Witch Wood) to the surprising (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). They describe this as a collection that uncovers the good, the bad, and the ugly ways in which pastors have been presented to the reading public for the past half millennium. They are much briefer than the first section and are presented in a helpful alphabetical order.

Pastors in the Classics is a very useful resource to summarizing this and it's almost amazing that this work has not been written earlier. With few explicit biblical references and with some scriptural quotations at the beginning of the chapters more applicable than others, I hope a second edition will expand to include more contemporary works and add the most needed scriptural and thematic indexes. The most disappointing lack is of a conclusion on how literature had tended to portray pastoral ministry or how this had changed over time. It could include some helpful tips for future authors or perhaps how literary portrayals of pastors tend to be more accurate than the more common portrayal in other media forms.

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Product Details
Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Books (January 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801071976
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801071973
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces

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