December 1, 2020

The Liturgical Gangstas Talk about What They Read

Presented by Chaplain Mike

TODAY’S QUESTION: What do you read? What kinds of books do you most frequently read? What do you read for pleasure? What is the best book you’ve read in the past year? In our day, reading habits include blogs and web publications. Which are required reading for you?

Alan Creech, Roman Catholic

I’ll do what I can to answer this one. I assure you, it will be the shortest among the Gangsta gang. “What do you read?” Not much is the short answer. I don’t read a great deal at all. I’ll have a little fit from time to time, go buy something and try to read it. I say “try” because that’s what it ends up being – trying to read something. I’m a slow reader – very slow. I don’t get how some people can barrel through a 400 page book in less than a week! That blows my mind. And it frankly puzzles me a little bit. Why? What’s your hurry? I don’t know – I just don’t get it.

Briefly, I’ll say something about the reading culture in some Christian circles in recent times. It seems a bit on the voracious side to me. I mean, it seems almost like a fetish. Having to have another, then another, then 5 more, then 10 more new books to read, to devour. Now, while I would honor the desire to learn, to grow, etc., I would also say that reading something new is by far not the only way to learn or grow. Spiritual growth more than likely often happens in ways we have no idea about – God working in us when we’re not even acutely aware that He’s doing so, and in ways we don’t even come close to understanding. Clamoring for much knowledge could well be a distraction from the real work that needs to be done in cooperation with our transformation. OK, that’s that.

When I do read, it has historically been, well, Thomas Merton – more his sort of mystical theology stuff than his poetry or anything else. Also, things like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avila, Church Fathers, and the like. Or possibly anything written contemporarily which is in the same vain – on spiritual formation, theology of our union with Christ, etc. Dense I can handle – very long and overly worked out, I cannot. It just wears me out. I’m not advocating overly simplistic, just not the opposite. Many words do not make for anything but, many words.

I do read blogs and some articles on the internet. I have a feed reader set up and skim through several daily. Sometimes I stop and read something all the way through – not too often, but sometimes. Here are a few that come to mind…

And a lot of personal blogs – no, not just Catholic stuff as you might think from the above. I don’t even heavily “read” those – just skim them and read something if I see something that catches my attention.

Read for enjoyment?? What’s that? The only thing I guess I probably “read” for enjoyment are fly fishing magazines – Fly Fisherman, Fly Rod & Reel, and American Angler – 3 good ones. Also some fishing/fly tying related websites here and there. If we’re too flooded to fish, I can at least read about it, right? 🙂  Peace to all in this house.

Rev. Daniel Jepsen, Non-Denominational Evangelical

One of the great joys of the pastorate is the opportunity to read and learn. In the office, I read the following types of books:

First, I read a lot of commentaries and reference works.  These consume the majority of my reading/studying time.  I especially love those few commentaries that marry exegetical detail with spiritual devotion. D. A. Carson is my favorite here.

Secondly, I read books about ministry. Eugene Petersen takes pride of place here, though John Piper is also very helpful

Thirdly, I read books of devotion.  I especially love some of the older writers, including the mystics.  Fenelon, the great mystic and arch-bishop seems to always speak God’s word to me.  Andrew Murray and A. W. Tozer have also shaped me. Dallas Willard is a living godsend.

For pleasure reading , I go to the classics, especially the Russian masters. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are masters of speaking truth through beauty.  I also favor Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin.  Occasionally, I find great joy in old poetry (such as George Herbert).

I don’t read much modern fiction, because the sheer abundance of it makes looking for a good read akin to finding a needle in a haystack.  My exception here is Umberto Eco.  I read everything of his (even though is worldview is almost opposite of mine). Also, P. G. Wodehouse always makes me laugh.

My pleasure reading also includes some history and biographies, and a little bit of philosophy and science (a little goes a long way here).

In terms of the internet, imonk is where I start.  It and Books and Culture are the only Christian blogs I spend a lot of time at.  I must admit I am a big fan of the humor site, Cracked.

I currently subscribe to four magazines: The Atlantic, Wired, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today.  I also have a stack of back issues of First Things I am still wading through.

Finally, the best book I have read in the past year is actually one I am re-reading: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.  After the scriptures, it has meant more to me than any other book.  If you pick it up, be warned: not everybody likes it. It is long and meandering, and somewhat confusing to westerners.  But to me, it not only gives the most profound psychological portraits I have read, it also gives (what seems to me, anyway) the only real answer to the problem of evil.

Two other books that have helped me a lot in the last year are Humility by Andrew Murray, and Works of Love by Kierkegaard (though I have only just started this one).

Angie Gage, United Methodist

I have always been a big believer that to make sure a person’s mind stays sharp is to exercise it.  Mental exercise by reading is something I love to do, but never seem to have as much time to read as I would like.  But in reading this month’s question, I realized that I read much more than I thought.  My reading consists of pleasure reading and professional reading, electronic media and print media.   I guess in my style, I am somewhat eclectic.

I have some required daily readings.  You can be assured that every day I am reading the Bible (in print, online or on my iPhone), one of my devotionals (again, usually it is on my phone), and the news.   To me, the Bible is required daily reading, not just for sermon and study preparation, but for my own personal spiritual growth.  I can’t expect members of my congregation to read the Bible daily if I don’t do it myself.  Part of being a spiritual leader within the church is to set an example.  The best way to show what to do is to actually do it.  I have several translations that I use:  New Revised Standard Version, La Biblia de las Américas (yes, I read the Bible in Spanish), The Message, Contemporary English Version, Common English Bible, and a few others.  I find that by reading from several different translations I get a broader view.  When reading the Bible for anything other than pleasure, I also enjoy consulting modern commentaries and John Wesley’s commentary to get a view of what the scholars have said after extensive study.

Devotionals are great ways of daily structured Bible readings and personal study.  My all time favorite devotional is My Utmost for His Highest.  I have read this devotional many times through.  Each year on every day, it seems as if there is always a new message for me.  I have read it in the classic language and the more modern language.  My favorite is the classic language.  Whether I read it in the morning, middle of the day or at night, it seems as if Oswald Chambers had an insight into what I would be facing that particular day of my life.  I also have a women’s devotional that I use in my office.  It was written for women, by women.  Since I just bought a new iPad2, I am anticipating that I will be reading even more on it than I do on my phone.  I love the convenience of using modern technology for my reading habits.

One thing I love to read is the news.  However, I don’t read the news from a newspaper these days.  I depend on the online newspapers and news websites.  I read what is in our local paper online, realizing that I miss some of the feature articles.  I read news at the various news websites.  The great thing about reading the news online is that I can read the papers from the areas where I have previously served as a pastor as well as my hometown.  It is nice to be able to keep up with what is going on in those areas in this way.  I could sit and watch the news on T V but to me it is much easier to read the news online as I can select the stories I feel are significant for me to read.

I have lots of friends with blogs.  I like to go and read their blogs.  Of course, these blogs are about theology and ministry.  I do have one friend (actually a young lady that I taught at church for the first time when she was in kindergarten) who has a blog that is all about her experiences as a military wife and life.  I do like to read her blog.  I have found that through the blogs that I read, I am able to find quite a few ideas to use within my ministry.  Blogs help me in broadening my view and perspective by opening myself up to the thoughts of others within my field who have varying backgrounds and experiences.

Over the last few years I have not done as much print reading as I did when I was in seminary.  However, I do find it essential to keep myself abreast on the latest of theological research and writings.  Almost a year ago I went from being the solo pastor in a mid sized church to being the associate pastor in a large church.  This past year, I have read the book When Moses Meets Aaron by Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont.  This book has been helpful in figuring out the various roles in a church with multiple ministry staff and where I fit as an associate pastor in relationship with the senior pastor.  For someone who had been the only paid ministry staff in both of my previous churches, this book has been invaluable.  Books on leadership and church growth have become my favorite for my ministry setting.  However, I also have a great love for books on evangelism and outreach.  Another book, which I have read many times over, is Garage Door Evangelism.  This book is now ten years old, but still holds many lessons for me.  I pick it up about once a year just to read through quickly.  Want a list of my favorite books or books I would suggest?  I think that will be the first posting on my new website:

In our day, we have to remember that the generations that lived solely on print media is slowly disappearing.  While I still want to hold my Bible in my hand, read through it, make notes in it, today’s generations don’t find that to be an essential.  I like to make notes in my books, but those younger find it just as easy to make notes in their Kindle or Nook or some other eReader.  I don’t, but acknowledge that others do.  Technology has made it easier to put the Bible into the hands of people in a new way.  It makes it easier for study to happen anyplace.  I am a part of the print generation that appreciates the technology of today’s generation.  I am just waiting for the car that will drive itself so that I can truly sit back and enjoy a good book (print or on an eReader) as I travel down the highways of my life.

Joe Boysel, Anglican (AMiA)

A wise man once said to me, “If anyone ever advises you to read a book because such-and-such is a ‘good book,’ you should tell them you’re sorry, but you only have time for great books.” Dennis Kinlaw (the wise man who gave me that advice) was right, you know. If a person set out to read only the great books of the world, they’d never finish because there are already so many that a lifetime isn’t long enough to read them all. What’s more, new ones are forthcoming every day. So, reading a good book only means you’ll miss out on reading a great book, and that hardly seems like a bargain.

Unfortunately, though, the only way you’ll ever know if a book is a great book is by reading it. Like art and music and film and wine, the difference between a good book and a great one simply depends on the literary palate of the reader. Still, there are the “classics,” and they are so-called for a reason. Consequently, I think everyone should try and read a goodly portion of these works. Likewise, I think everyone should try to make it to the Louvre or London’s National Gallery. I think every soul should give a listen to Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven and The Beatles (especially The White Album!). Furthermore, a person will miss a lot if she never gets to see Ben Hur or Rio Bravo or The Princess Bride. And it would be plain criminal if someone never allowed a perfect Cabernet Sauvignon to glide over their lips chasing a savory bite of fillet mignon into the depths of their digestive system. Criminal, I tell you!

So, naturally, I think everyone should read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (although Shakespeare is better viewed than read), and so on. But don’t stop there, read the poets, too. Read Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer, Maya Angelou, William Wordsworth, Shel Silverstein, and Dr. Seuss. For in the works of the classic novelists and poets you will certainly find the very best stuff of life: science and romance, theology and philosophy, mystery and passion, virtue and vice; it’s all there!

Oftentimes, though, I require a little less subtle forms of cognitive development. On those days, I love to read Eugene Peterson, N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Stanley Hauerwas, and Walter Brueggemann. I have also read all of Jan Karon’s Mitford books – and I loved them, even if they are chick books. I’ve also devoured all the Harry Potter books and thoroughly enjoyed them, too. What I most enjoy, though, is a gritty novel with the flare of an indie film (e.g. Crazy Love by David Martin).

When I’m reading in the field of religion, however, I want someone who embraces the human condition with reckless courage, whilst not abandoning  the requisites of a holy God. I want to read someone who will grapple with the struggle for meaning and who finds the dirty fingernails of people, constantly climbing out of holes, beautiful. Religious literature remains useless to me unless it deals honestly with the messiness of humanity together with the high demands of Scripture.

I should also add that I detest the cheesy hipster books, common in contemporary religious literature, most of all. I loathe Rob Bell’s writings, not because I think he’s a heretic (I don’t) but because he seems intellectually shallow to me. Ditto for John Maxwell, Max Lucado, Joyce Meyer, Zig Ziglar, and just about any popular author you’re likely to find at the local Christian bookstore supercenter. I also don’t read many blogs for exactly the same reason. I do, however, read IM because it’s not cheesy or shallow! (Nice save, huh?)

I know, I know: I’m an elitist snob. It’s true! What’s worse, it’s not even my most abhorrent quality! Trust me, I have more than enough unpleasant qualities to make even me repulsed by me.

In short, when I read books (yes, I prefer books) I want to read someone who blends intellectual rigor, literary interest, and an earthy honesty. Sadly, though, these traits are rare. So I sift through a lot of good books looking for the great ones. And, yet, the world remains filled with great books. So my best advice is for you to click out of this dribble of mine and get on with reading something great. Chop-chop!

Fr. Ernesto Obregon (Orthodox)

Let me start with the blogs and web publications first. I am a regular reader of various news sites. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, BBC (Great Britain) are regular stops for me. I am also fan of humor, so there are two blogs I look at: Pithless Thoughts and OrthoDixie. I will also look at websites with which I do not fully agree, as I think that it is important for me to read different opinions on current subjects. Thus I will look at sites as varied as the Huffington Post and the Glenn Beck websites.

But, it may surprise you to know that my favorite reading is fantasy and science fiction. There are two reasons. One if the more expected one, I simply enjoy science fiction, imagining myself in the situations, the derring-do that is often involved. But, there is a second reason. The great science fiction writers have to create entire worlds that logically hold together in such a way that the reader will not stop reading because of inconsistencies in the story. However, in the midst of creating entire worlds, often with multiple cultures, writers of fantasy and science fiction are often better prognosticators of what certain cultural and political tendencies will lead to than many “sophisticated” analysts.

Think about Christian fantasy and science fiction writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. They most certainly help push you to think in different ways about how God relates to us. But, the non-Christian science fiction writers often force me to think through the implications of various theological, cultural, and political opinions that I may hold. By writing very plausible stories but with perhaps very different assumptions from mine, they challenge me to rethink my assumptions and to ensure that the beliefs I hold are truly accurate and godly, and not merely a reflection of my opinions and my sinfulness. So, often it has been a science fiction or fantasy story that has pushed me to reconsider some of my intellectual infrastructure.

You might wish to read two books of “Christian” science fiction besides the typical C.S. Lewis trilogy that many read. Try reading “Leaps of Faith” and “Infinite Faith, Infinite God.”

I also read the Church Fathers, but I have essentially given up on reading any modern books sold at a modern Christian bookstore. I find them sadly lacking. It is a sad statement to make that fantasy and science fiction writers have stimulated my mind more than modern Christian writers.


  1. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    Fr. Ernesto, what sci-fi and fantasy are you currently reading? I’m a big fan of those genres myself. The Dresden Files series is probably my favorite right now.

    • Kelby Carlson says

      I love Dresden as well. i absolutely cannot wait for Ghost Story (and am upset at its delay.) I read broadly and sometimes feel guilty for it–not that I think reading non-Christian literature is in itself sinful, I more worry about myself when I admire very Non-Christian actions of the heroes. (Yeah, Harry, burn a whole in that thing with fire!)

  2. We all should remember and apply the advice of C. S. Lewis :

    ” We all…need…to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading the old books.”

    Lewis advice was to never allow yourself another new book until you have read an old one.

    • Oh so true! I am currently going through the original Sherlock Holmes series, in the English of that time. I have read the Three Musketeers in the Spanish translation from the French, and so on. I thoroughly agree with C.S. Lewis.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Those recommends should be three books, OrthoCuban. (plug) Infinite Space Infinite God is up to two volumes now.

      • I read my first sci-fi in English class (not required, but as an escape from a boring class/teacher) 1st year of high school. That began a long addiction. Read LOTR 3x before out of high school. Robert Heinlein was one of my forvorites.

        Father E., have you read any of Frank Herbert’s novels? The 5 book Dune series would seem to epitomize what you like in good sci-fi.


  3. No Luther, anyone? I always grab my Luther first. I can hardly be separated from a little devotion book by Concordia: “Through Faith Alone.”

  4. Adrienne says

    “Clamoring for much knowledge could well be a distraction from the real work that needs to be done in cooperation with our transformation.” Alan Creech ~ thank you for saying this. This was ME. I read and read and worked in bookstores and libraries and just lived for information. This was how I thought I would grow spiritually to the fullest. Then, through my health crashing, I lost my ability to read and concentrate and absorb what I was reading. It was then that “I discovered” that God was working in me without my help, thank you very much! And also that pain was part of His necessary work in me. I am a different person today and I think God is probably pleased by that. Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Adrienne. Of course I don’t mean to say that reading is “bad” or anything like that – just that many times it seems we lift it above where it needs to be. Certain kinds of reading can be important at certain times in our development. But slowing down the flow of information can also be extremely important sometimes, as you have personally testified to.

  5. Adrienne says

    But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. Ecclesiastes 12:12 NASB

    • “bring me my books, especially the parchments…” St Paul

    • “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

    • JoanieD says

      Revelation 20:12 (NIV)
      “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”

  6. I’ve made an adult pastime of (re)reading all the books I skipped through, avoided or only read the Cliff Notes version when I was younger such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Vonnegut, etc. At least now I understand why these authors’ works are described as great.

    I read Umberto Eco for the challenge (especially with vocabulary) and find his ability to interweave church history into books like “Name of the Rose” and “Foucault’s Pendulum” fascinating.

    I only read on airplanes, especially on long overseas flights, so I lack the discipline many seem to have in making reading a regular part of their lives, and to be completely honest, I rarely open a Bible.

    • “The Name of the Rose” and “Foucault’s Pendulum” are perhaps my two favorite modern novels. Both books creatively define the question of religious faith (though I answer the question differently that Eco).

    • The “Name of the Rose” was perhaps my favourite novel of all time. @Father Enersto – I read the English translation. Foucault’s Pendulum I found a little harder to get into.

      • I need to try The Name of the Rose again. Couldn’t stay with it the first time . . .

  7. David Cornwell says

    My recent reading includes the Slate & Salon web sites to keep up with my lefty friends. Sometimes I’m a news hound checking for various stories. Other times news and politics becomes so depressing I quit reading it. About a year ago I purchased the Barnes & Noble Nook. I love it! Most of my reading on it is fiction, namely thrillers and police procedurals. The Swiss have some of the most interesting so have consumed a fair share of them. I like classics and read them from time to time, but not regularly. Non–fiction isn’t as good on the Nook because I like to bookmark, underline, mark-up, write in the margins, and find things quickly.

    Now I’m reading “Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics” by David R. Bauer and Robert A. Traina. This is a new version of Traina’s “Methodical Bible Study” written way back mid-20th century. I had Traina in seminary and considered him one of the most learned and gifted teachers I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting under.

    This is not a fast read. To learn from it takes study and an attempt to comprehend. As one gets into it exercises are included on specific passages of scripture (there are no correct answers provided). One of its premises is that commentaries and the works of other persons are toward the very end of any real study of the Bible.

    Busy pastors will have to adapt this method and learn shortcuts.

    One note of personal advise: Beware of charts and studies by others that claim to be from an inductive study. That isn’t a legitimate shortcut.

  8. You assume we read the Bible, right?

    I have eclectic tastes. I’m reading three books simultaneously right now: Expat Women: Confessions to Real Life Questions about Living Abroad by Andrea Martins; The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment by Edward Fudge; The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty by Peter Greer, et al. this year I’ve read Talking Back to God by Lynn Anderson; The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons, Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Evans; Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global by Faith Eidse; A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas by Debra Bryson and Charise Hoge, Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson; The Art of Dying by Rob Moll. I just recently downloaded Faith of Leap by Frost and Hirsch.
    For fun I pick up any short mystery book that is a fast page turner. Blogs I read when I can, are: Audience of One; Confessions of a Former Preacher; Blondebutbright; Empty Oration; Jaime, the Very Worst Missionary; Jesus Creed; I Was an Expat Wife; Preacher Mike; Stoned-Campbell Disciple; Stormented; Michelle; Donald Miller’s blog; Prodigal Kiwi’s Blog and yours. There are others I check in on periodically.
    I love books.

    Keep up your good work.

  9. Richard says

    To quote Skye Jethani “I read dead people.” Most of the books I read are by authors that have been gone for some time.

  10. Good to see Alan back amongst the gangstas.

    • Thanks, dumb ox – OK, that was weird, I seriously just called you a “dumb ox” – ha! Anyway, it was good to both have the time and inner wherewithal to respond this time around. Peace to you.

  11. I a, a reader both by profession (librarian) and choice. I often read two or three books at a time. Right now I am reading Battle Cry of Freedom ,by James McPherson a one volume US Civil War history, and have just finished a short light mystery. I have just down loaded a thriller, the Informatist which I need to read for work.
    I do like reading blogs and magazines online. My most frequent magazine reads are National Catholic Register, and Christianity Today. I am a faithful Interetmonk blog reader along with Amy Welborn’s blog “Charlotte was Both”.
    My serious reading is mainly history, or natural science. I also read science fiction, usually the newer ones. I really liked Justin Cronin’s The Passage. I like the mystery and thriller genres. I tend to read the British police mysteries. But the last mystery I read was American, Just one thought by Verdon.
    I do use devotionals, currently I am using Cameron’s Reading St. Matthew, which goes a paragraph from the Gospel of Matthew a day, along with meditations and a brief prayer.
    I have used many Bible versions over the years, first using the Good News Bible, then the NAB, now I am using the Revised Standard Version, or the NRSV.

  12. I read like mad. I can’t seem to help myself. For escapism, I like fiction. I’ll read anything from John Mortimer to Charlaine Harris (Rumpole to Sookie Stackhouse). I like nonfiction as well. I just finished a new bio of Malcolm X that was really good by Manning Marable. I like the NRSV and ESV for their language. I’m A/G but I like to use a prayer book from time to time such as the Book of Common Prayer. I go off on different theological tangents. I’ll read a few books on history of the canon, then history of the church, then Darwin and God (trying to finish Darwin’s Pious Idea). I dip into Augustine now and then. I listen to a lot of audio books as well. Is there a twelve step group for recovering biblioholics?

  13. FYI, buying a Kindle did not help the addiction.