Summer Class- Pastoral Ministry in Novels

This summer (June-July) I will get to teach a class I’ve been dreaming of for years- Portraits of Pastoral Ministry in Modern Novels.

I already teach our regular Pastoral Ministry class where we walk through key biblical texts while reading seminal texts on pastoral ministry from the 6th century to today. We seek to understand what pastoral ministry is by studying the Scriptures along with the church through the ages.

This new class is a follow up on my standard class. Having examined the biblical teaching, how might well-written novels help us better envision what this biblical model looks like in practice? Good literature has a way of helping us flesh out ideas, to see what ti looks like to put something into practice. One of the reasons God has given us literature, I believe, is to help stir our souls to love more deeply the truth and to move us with disgust at its perversion. This is what we will seek in this class.

As is typical for me, I have more books I’d like to include in this class than we have time for :). So, to keep it manageable, I have settled on these four books (you can see the full syllabus here):

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country
Lars Walker, Year of the Warrior
John Buchan, Witch Wood

I’ll mention at the end other books I had in mind. Gilead is a portrait of a faithful pastor in a small town in Iowa that no one would have heard about our much cared about. It is a beautifully written portrayal of ministry, wrestling with guilt, loss, forgiveness and care for souls without concern for the recognition of the world.

In Cry the Beloved Country, a Zulu pastor who must deal with a prodigal son in the midst of the racial tensions of South Africa in the mid-20th century. It is a moving story of love, loss and the challenge of faith with powerful pictures of ministry.

Probably the surprise book in the list is The Year of the Warrior, a work which combines historical fiction with fantasy. The story follows a portion of the career of the historical figure Erling Skjalgsson (975-1028), a viking leader who brought Christianity to his people. The main character is a captured Irishman who is required to become Erling’s priest- even though he is not a believer! The fantasy portion comes in as this priest encounters the spirits and old gods who are now being run out by this new “crucified God.” This story raises questions of faith and doubt, the power of the gospel, and the clash with principalities and powers.

Lastly, Witch Wood was a well-known book in days past but probably unknown to most of my readers today. Buchan was a prolific author and Scottish statesman who ended up as Governor General of Canada (1935-1940). Witch Wood is a story of pastoral ministry during the days of the Scottish Covenanters. The main character takes a pastorate in a sleepy little village where all seems well. However, while the people are faithful to the services of the church they are even more deeply embedded in dark practices and trouble begins when the pastor challenges this. This is more directly relevant to pastoral ministry today than we often want to admit.

This is already longer than I planned, so I will conclude by saying we’ll read these novels, have four Zoom meetings to discuss them and in between have mini-lectures on video that introduce the books further and layout biblical and theological framework of the vision of pastoral ministry we are discussing. I’d love to have you join us, and we have a special deal for those who’d like to audit the class. Write me for more details (rvanneste at uu dot edu).

[I had various other books in mind, but the other 2 that almost made the list were Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry and The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill, the American one not the British one. Jayber Crow is great but speaks more about the church, the community, than pastoral ministry. Churchill’s book is a powerful story about the allure of watering down the gospel, which the author sees as a good thing, but it is long and I wondered if students would appreciate the style as much as I did.]

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