Serious Fiction and Good Preaching

quoteA friend of mine teaches an entire class on reading for the sake of preaching. Reading great literature has always been a way to help foundering preachers find their footing with words. Recently a set of controlled studies intimated that people who read “serious fiction” have a higher emotional intelligence than the average population. People who read fluff fiction, popular fiction, have no statistical difference. People who read significant amounts of nonfiction at any level of difficulty, also show no sign in increase in emotional intelligence. I can attest to that. I work in the academy with a lot of professors who read high level books, and have low levels of EQ.

Of course this begs the chicken and the egg question: which caused which?  It is possible that emotionally intelligent people simply enjoy reading great literature because they “get it,” while others do not. It is also possible that simply reading great books is the way to get a high EQ, the new success path for your future. It is more likely a mix of the two. A budding EQ when combined with reading of serious fiction gives rise to an ability to understand character, to empathize with wider suffering, to celebrate the accomplishments of the human spirit, and to recognize the kinds of activities that offend others without having to be told.

When was the last time you read a good piece of serious fiction? Hemmingway would count. Harry Potter would not. The Orphan Master’s Son would count. Hunger games would not. Gilead would count. The Shack would not. All of the “would not count” novels are fine in their own way. They simply are not the kind of novel that studies demonstrate having a correlation with EQ.

Why does Emotional Intelligence matter for preaching? Do we have to answer? Does it need asked? Preaching peers into the person of God through the lens of scripture. Then when the eyes of faith refocus, the preacher perceives the human spirit in the mirror that was once a lens for God. In other words, is there anything to preaching that is not deeply touched by Emotional Intelligence? Emotional Intelligence helps us discern the divine and offer help to the human.

There are some challenges for the preacher who wants to become more emotionally intelligent and thinks reading might help her along the way. First, there is NetFlix and the smart TV. They call our names and asks us to sink into the soft pillow of intellectual numbness. TV is wonderful for moving our emotions, for pulling us out of the here and now, for getting “our minds off of” whatever ails us. Second, serious fiction is serious effort. It does get you out of anxious focus on your church, your projects, or your conflicts. However, it isn’t an easy page turner like a Tom Clancy. It takes effort. Serious novels are often thicker books…with less pictures.

Here are two pieces of serious fiction you might consider:

invis1. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison. You will have to brace yourself for some content that is mature in nature, even offensive at times. Yet this novel about racism and the experience of the African American male in particular remains a classic for a reason. If you can set aside pharisaical judgment of the content, and face the world as it is, you will come out of reading this book with new insights into the race problem in America you would not have had otherwise.

the-winter-of-our-discontent-by-john-steinbeck2. The Winter of Our Discontent Steinbeck’s smaller and lighter hearted work than some, this novel is shaped around Lent headed toward Easter. The main character however, does not repent from evil, he repents from good. He turns his soul over to greed and power and watches the “light go out” in his personhood.

If those don’t grab you, head over to the Pulitzer Prize novels list. Look up some novels from the recent past. (Teaser: one recent winner is a novel written in first person from a dying pastor written to his son. Interested?) These are works the literary world finds to be some of the best of the serious.

When you find yourself frustrated by the world view presented in the book, remember this one thing. You are now reminded of how the lost you seek to love think, believe, and dream. You are now entering into the world darkened by the fallenness of humanity. And, in case you are tempted to think that world does not come into your church, your people might think more like the characters in these novels than you care to admit.

One more unexpected surprise: you learn how to use words well. As preachers know, words help shape the soul. Words are the tools the master sculptor has chosen to use. Learn them well.

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