By Cole Hartin
One of my fears as a pastor is to have my preaching considered “too academic.” I know there is a place for eloquent, learned preaching, but it’s not in most of our cities or towns. On the university campus, probably, and a few other select pulpits, to be sure. As St. Paul said, it is appropriate “among the mature” to speak wisdom, even if it is a wisdom “not of this age” (1 Cor. 2:6). But for most priests, we should be aiming to preach the way Paul preached to the Corinthians, not “proclaiming the mystery of God… in lofty words or wisdom,” but presenting to our hearers nothing but “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor, 2:2–3). We should strive to simply hold up the Gospel unadorned, and trust that God will respond with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
When it comes to the craft of preaching, our goal should be first and foremost to steward the words of God. And yet, we also want to season our preaching with rich image and allusions that captivate the minds of our congregations. If we’ve been formed properly, we won’t need to namedrop Augustine or Macrina, or Luther, but their influence will ooze out. Our congregations will include people from various ages, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds, so instead of parading as theological specialists, pastors should lean into their vocation as generalists.
Last year, I completed a Ph.D. program in theological studies. As the time for my dissertation drew nigh, I had to focus on an increasingly narrow subject, and read anything I could get my hands on that related to it, while pushing almost everything else aside. For me, it was 19th-century Anglican biblical interpretation, but even when one is doing a more general program like an M.Div., with a general introduction to history, pastoral theology, and so on, for most parishioners this will seem very specialized. The funneling of our time and mental energy into a narrow field will pay off, and we ought to lean into it. We should take the time we’ve been given to be formed by our tradition. But when the formal preparation is done, we should recalibrate and expand the scope of our reading. The summer after I completed my course, for instance, I felt as if I was emerging from an underground bunker with a vast world of literature in view. I had put aside the desires I had to read much fiction for so long that I didn’t know where to start.
A friend and former parishioner mentioned a list of the 100 best-loved books, compiled by the BBC in 2003. They range from serious literature to close-to-trash fiction. But it’s been a delight to work my way through the list. Not just because some of the books have been fun, but because they provide points of contact with my congregation that references to Augustine, or Thomas, or Newman don’t.
This raises questions more broadly about the purpose of vocational training, too.
We might think of college or university as means to becoming trained for a particular vocation, whether one becomes a police officer or a carpenter. In reality, though, they are not meant to be trade schools, which train one for a particular job, but rather function to form the character and unveil new horizons. This is especially true in the humanities, for instance, in which one does not study for a degree in English or philosophy with the expectation that the degree is a qualification to a job. It may be a stepping-stone, but it is purposely a broadening, rather than a specialization.
Seminary combines job-training with the goal of opening horizons. Further study, whether a D.Min. or Ph.D., usually begins broad with coursework and exams — at least in the North American system — and then funnels to very specific ends.
Becoming a specialist has its uses, especially in the academy, but also in congregations that are large enough to employ a pastoral team. The combination of generalists and specialists can be fruitful. In most parishes, however, the priest will be flying solo, and thus needs to acknowledge the necessity of being a generalist.
Since I finished my theological studies I’ve had the privilege to work as a parish priest. I found that in academic study I was becoming increasingly siloed off from others because of the nature of my work. As a priest, I’ve been able to step far outside of my specialization and read what I like. I’ve found both the deep work, as well as the breadth of my reading now, has played well into making me a better human being, and thus, a better pastor.
This goes beyond preaching in a way that is broadly accessible, because even in conversation, having various points of contact with diverse parishioners serves as an entry point to deeper relationship. Reading Arundhati Roy opened up conversations with folks in the Indian community, and Batman comics proved a way to connect with a new young man in our parish.
Over the past months during the ravages of COVID-19, I sought solace in Martin Luther’s letters during plague time and finished Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. I re-read The Shepherd of Hermas. I read A Winter’s Tale over the course of a few weekends, and some comics (a more recent hobby). I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Home aloud with my wife and am midway through The Vicar of Wakefield. I finished a slow plod through de Lubac’s Catholicism (a rich, significant book), and have been taking in poems from Wordsworth on Saturdays, mostly. On my commute I listened to Paul Zahl’s new book Peace in the Last Third of Life and in the evenings Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel, Dune. All of this is supplemented with my daily round of lectionary readings from the Bible, online magazines (I’m really enjoying Quillette right now), and children’s books with my sons. I like the Berenstain Bears and Arthur stories with my four-year old, but my oldest son and I have been reading through Mary Pope Osborne’s series The Magic Treehouse, as well as The Fellowship of the Ring (The Hobbit was a big hit earlier this spring).
I am sure I will literally never talk about some of these books, but others have opened relationships that I would have missed otherwise. The generative power of Scripture remains the single most significant part of my reading life. The theological formation of the Christian tradition remains essential. But beyond this, as a priest, keeping my reading horizons open has proved extremely valuable.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.