October 19, 2015 / Praxis
The unlikely route to joy involves entering the stories of suffering that have marked our lives.
March 7, 2011
When strangers at a party or on an airplane find out you’re in divinity school, they’ll want to tell you everything they think about God. You’re supposed to listen and nod profoundly, and you’d better not correct anything they say. You’ve signed up to be a pastoral counselor, whether you meant to or not. Perhaps you just wanted to study the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum or to reconstruct the community of proto-Q, but suddenly people will call you up when a loved one dies. You’ve also signed up to be a saint—people will watch how you live, looking for inspiration, hypocrisy, or whatever their own issues cause them to want to see. And most surprising of all, you’ve signed up to be a writer, perhaps not the chain-smoking types who bounce words around their parents’ basements, but a writer nonetheless.
I remember when I was first willing to call myself a “writer.” I already had been for four years, working as an editor and writer for Christian Century magazine. I was interviewing a marvelous pastor on the Westside of Chicago named Nanette Sawyer. She’s the leader of Wicker Park Grace, an emerging church community. She’d worked with several other artists in the church to make these beautiful sculptures of the stations of the cross that the church had displayed at an open gallery show in their neighborhood during holy week. And she’d made them by hand, in a studio, with paint and papier-mâché and wire and all the rest. And she said she still had trouble calling herself an artist. Well, she obviously makes art. It serves a function, proclaiming Christ in one neighborhood and through that neighborhood to all the world, for his pleasure, her delight, and her neighbors’ contemplation. So we made a deal, I the interviewer and she the interviewee: I’d call myself a writer if she’d call herself an artist.
That’s all to say it’s hard to call yourself a writer. But think of all the places that a pastor writes. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the elderly preacher John Ames estimates he’s preached 2,250 sermons over his decades in ministry—fifty years, forty-five sermons a year—and this puts him up there, in terms of quantity, with Augustine and Calvin! Think of all the newsletters that pastors write—these are often, shall we say, not very artfully done or written with much care. But more people read such newsletters than hear sermons. The sloppy pastoral newsletter is a wasted chance to preach the gospel. With new media, the opportunities to write only grow. I’ve known more than one pastor who made her life unnecessarily difficult with an e-mail that said too much or too little or forgot the fact that however difficult that parishioner is, he is a child of grace, an image of God, someone for whom Christ died. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter—one could get overwhelmed with all the places you have to write well. A pastor friend called me once to say he was chatting with five parishioners at once on Facebook. He had to be careful. He was juggling souls out there.
The pastoral task of writing means that we ministers are all like the sower in Jesus’s parable. You go out, you fling seed everywhere, even on ground that looks unpromising—preaching, teaching, sharing the gospel not only from the pulpit, but in newspapers, magazines, books, blogs. Who knows where the seed will take root? I teach a course on writing in the spring semester, and last semester, a student ran up and gave me a high five when he’d posted his first comment on a blog—that’s progress! Proclaiming the truth in public, even if just on a weblog.
There’s still no shortcut in theological education past the hard work of reading, but I want to say that you almost haven’t read a book until you’ve written about it. If you write without reading fresh things you’ll end up foisting your psychological stuff on your poor readers. If you read without writing it’s almost gratuitous—as a seminary student, it’s not just about the assignment in front of you, it’s about the parishioners who’ll be in front of you in fifty years.
Seminary is largely about learning how to read. Dr. Willie Jennings taught me this: reading and writing exist in a virtuous circle. If you read something, really read it, you almost have to write about it. Reading has sparked new things in you that demand to come out, like a fire in the bones, so you write. And if you write something, as you all will do week after week for decade after decade, you constantly realize there are gaps in your knowledge, so back you go to your study to read more. The best readers I know are writers. And if you write without reading, you’ll just bombard your readers and parishioners with the latest theological teaching that you heard when you graduated from seminary—it’s often said you can look in a pastor’s study and if there are no books after a certain date, you can tell when that pastor’s intellect died. The most fulfilled and faithful and successful ministers I know are those who read voraciously and who write prodigiously. They’re constantly discovering new things about God and constantly sharing these new things with others.
When I was a seminary student, American Methodist Episcopal Bishop John Hurst Adams told my seminary class we were to become wordsmiths, people who love words with their life. If we learn a new word, we need to pick it up, look it over, turn it around, shine it up, and put it in our pocket to use later. Not to show off vocabulary, but to learn to love language, slowly, bit by bit, like a poet, whose ears perk up when she hears something new and doesn’t know what it means.
You all will be slogging your way through your reading often enough these next years, and for the rest of your life. But the goal isn’t to memorize it all. It’s to introduce you to the life of the mind of Christ, to draw you by the hand into new habits of learning to love God with your mind. And it will work best if, occasionally, you stop and notice how beautiful something you read was. Read it twice. Memorize parts of it. Put it on your wall. It won’t improve your grade or make you read faster. But learning to love language is the ultimate goal.
And even that might not be enough. For we’re putting words to the God who is so ultimately beyond words that his Word took flesh. The best way to get at this is to show both how much and how little words can show. For example, Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk describes the experience of a full eclipse of the sun in apocalyptic tones—nine lines of really weird:
The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages. I was standing in it, by some mistake. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
When I read this passage recently, it rolled over me like an eclipse. “All those things for which we have no words are lost,” Dillard writes. “The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives.” I put the book down and found myself rapt, in awe, weeping. I’d even read it before, and it never hit me like this.
I wept because I thought of this painting of Mary, Mother of God. The painting is from West Jefferson, North Carolina, in the mountains at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. In the painting, Mary is a good nine months pregnant, feet swollen, ready to bust. And she’s pointing up to—you guessed it—an eclipse of the sun.
Why? Why is Mary shown with an eclipse? She’s often compared to the moon in artwork, drawing on the book of Revelation. But what is more important is this: Mary is the flesh through whom the unbearable God became bearable. If we can’t stand the sight or presence of the physical sun without being consumed, Mary can stand the presence of the Son of God, and she does, and God becomes a howling baby.
Dillard’s description of an eclipse is right on—it’s a terrible sight, the landscape is transformed, everyone screams (the wall of darkness comes on at some 1,800 miles per hour), and nothing can ever be the same. But then everything is the same, and Dillard and her husband are on the same hillside in the Yakima Valley in Washington State. The Incarnation is like that—we claim the whole world is different, yet it looks much the same. Now go and explain that.
That’s the task of ministry: using words, frail things really, to make sense of the incarnate God who’s beyond our sense.
Seminaries, at their best, are strong ecologies of reading and writing. They’re about setting students on a course for a ministry of abundant life for the sake of the church’s flourishing. They’re about helping students and their future flocks inch slightly higher in love of God and neighbor. Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century situated this mission in the context of reading and writing, and he put it really well. In Basil’s day, people were arguing over how exactly to describe the relationship between Jesus and the One who sent him, between the Father and the Son—are they the same, different, or sort of both? And there were of course the naysayers, the people who said it didn’t matter, who argued that we should be out there helping the poor instead of poring over this esoteric academic nonsense. Basil had an answer:
Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary, together with attempts to search out the hidden meaning in this phrase or that syllable, but those conscious of the goal of our calling realize that we are to become like God, as far as this is possible for human nature. But we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of God, and without lessons there will be no knowledge. Instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are the elements of speech. Therefore to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task.
Sure, Basil says, those who don’t care about holiness don’t care about language. But those who want to love God know that our only way to do that is to love language—as theologians, future pastors, and educators, as writers, all we have is words from God to give out to other people. And words are enough.
There’s a story that a candidate for ministry before her ordination board footnoted only historical theologians: Augustine, Julian, Wesley. A board member grilled her: why only old sources? Don’t you read any theologians who aren’t dead? Well, she explained, at Duke Divinity School, where I teach, we’re steeped in the thought and practice of the saints, and at Duke, those theologians aren’t dead. A citation is a tip of the hat to the communion of the saints, and to our borrowing from wisdom outside the church. It’s an act of discipleship to point out where we’ve learned from those before us—so others can go and learn as well.
But the communion of the saints is not a closed club. It’s always looking for new members. As much as the church treasures tradition, that treasure is a living thing, and you and I have the terrifying and delightful task of adding to it. Herbert McCabe, the great Dominican theologian, used to say “We don’t know what Christians will believe in the twenty-fourth century, but we know they won’t be Arians or Nestorians.” Tradition has shown us that those roads are closed off. But the roads we still might take are almost infinite in number. This is the joy of reading and writing: to glean wisdom that is incomplete yet on the way to envisioning God face to face and then to add that wisdom to ourselves and invite others to share in the vision.
 This essay is adapted from a lecture I delivered at an orientation for incoming seminary students during my time as Director of Duke Divinity School’s writing center.
 Robinson, Gilead (New York, NY: Picador, 2004).
 Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1982), 16 and 24.
 Ben Long, Mary, Full of Grace, http://www.benlongfrescotrail.org/stmarys1.html.
 St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1980), 16.
Jason Byassee is the senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.