You have so many books to read, who can afford to read any more? That’s an excellent question, and a justification I used for burying my head in theology text after theology text. But I’ve starting asking a different question: “I have so many theology texts to read, can I afford to focus so single-mindedly on them?” I’d like to recommend that you supplement your education with good novels for four very practical reasons.
1. No one’s making you read them. One of my theology professors in undergrad told us that if we didn’t cultivate the habit of reading for pleasure in school, we wouldn’t read for pleasure once we’d graduated. He rightly understood our studies as “work,” and helped us distinguish between work-reading and pleasure-reading.
2. They bring theological questions into conversation with everyday life. Sure you can address theology in every day life outside of novels — isn’t that what church does?! — but there’s something different about reading it at your own pace in a book. It’s like low-stakes practice for real life conversations. When I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I get to watch a very old, small town pastor reflect on his life and ministry, apologize to his son that he’s dying, and wrestle with the skeptical son of his best friend. I can read 40 pages before bed if I want to, but if I don’t want to, I don’t have to read it. Novels provide great, low-stakes practice grounds for theological reflection.
3. They continue the spirit of Philippians 2. I’m a Bible guy, committed to the sufficiency of Scripture for training in godliness. But I’m also no fool. Believers have been going about life different ways for thousands of years, contextualizing the Christian life to their circumstances in wildly different ways. I’m not going to ignore the creativity, experience, and thoughtfulness spent by some of the world’s greatest thinkers! As humans, we all have the same basic life questions, and good authors have been applying them to every day life for a very long time. Think about Timothy and Epaphroditus in Philippians 2. Paul goes beyond quoting Scripture to the church and tells them to apply what they see in the examples of other people.
4. There are some really good books out there! Here are a few of my top recommendations. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is a brilliant story that follows the lives of three brothers and their father. Their family, like many of ours, is crazy. You can follow Alyosha Karamazov as he processes the death of a spiritual mentor, wrestles with his brother, Ivan, over the problem of evil, and slowly learns lessons about guilt and forgiveness over the course of the story. I’ve already recommended Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, follows the story of one woman’s affair from beginning to end with brilliant psychological insight throughout, forcing the reader to think hard about humanity and why we do the things we do.
By Jack Franicevich Jack is an MDiv student at Denver Seminary. His interests range from the doctrine of the church, theologies of friendship and work, preaching, hymn-writing, and grassroots ecumenism to competitive table tennis, cooking for large groups, classical literature, and organizational development.