Wednesday 10 June 2009

What to read? Literature and ecclesiology

Nate Kerr will be well known to most of you, both for his regular interactions here at F&T and for his stunning recent book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Cascade 2009). Well, Nate is currently in the throes of writing his next book, a series of essays on the nature and task of the church. And he has asked, learned readers, for your assistance.

Nate likes to read novels and literature while he’s engaged in intensive writing. So he’s wondering what y’all (as they say in Nashville) think are the best works of literature relating to “ecclesiology” – novels, short stories, poems, or whatever. In Nate’s own words: “I wonder if you would be kind enough to do a post entreating readers to help me in writing my next book, by suggesting the best [fictional/literary] works on the church for me to read as I’m currently writing.”

So what do you think? Come and have your say – that way, if Nate’s next book turns out to be an ecclesiological masterpiece, you’ll be able to claim full credit…


John Rasmussen said...

Diary of a Country Priest - Georges Bernanos

Ben Myers said...

And I can't resist jumping in already: the Australian novel Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey, is a superb reflection on the attempt to transplant the Church of England out to the far-flung colonies in the 19th century. I've read it several times, and it's one of the funniest, saddest and most utterly delightful books I've ever read about vocation to ministry, and about the way a bad childhood theology can poison one's entire life.

Also, one of our greatest poets, Les Murray, has spoken of Australia's "weatherboard cathedrals" — an image that similarly evokes the failed attempt at exporting the English church to Australian conditions.

Adam Kotsko said...

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Nathan Brown said...

Both "Gilead" and "Home" by Marilynne Robinson have to be near the top of the list.

For something much more light-hearted, try "The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher" by Rob Stennett.

Doug Harink said...


Was Oscar and Lucinda made into a film? I have a vague recollection of coming across a DVD by that name, but I could be wrong. In any case, thanks for the suggestion about the novel, which I hope to read this summer.


Ben Myers said...

Hi Doug: yes, it was made into a film) starring Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes. I like the film very much — the two main characters are portrayed beautifully. But it's better to read the novel first, since some of the main plot developments are changed completely in the film.

The novel also won the Booker Prize: it's really a wonderful read, you won't regret it!

Erin said...

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene
Saint Maybe by Ann Tyler

Anonymous said...

John Berger, To the Wedding

It's quite short, and a gorgeous read.

Patrik said...

They're not the most profound books in the world, but Susan Howatch books on the Church of England are entertaining and interesting, at least for the non-anglican, and probably one of the largest (if that is a criterion) fiction projects on the church in recent history (five or six books!)

kim fabricius said...

Click on July 2008 in Ben's Archives and go to July 10th for a list I did on "Twenty Great Clergymen in Novels". Along with the ensuing comments, Nate, you'll find plenty of novels with at least implied ecclesiologies, covering both different historical eras as well as countries and regions. I'm sure you'll do a cracking job on your project; if I could, I'd already put in a pre-order with Amazon!

::aaron g:: said...

Three Cheers for the Paraclete by Thomas Keneally.

CJW said...

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene for sure!
Also, Catch-22.
Finally (for now), the movie Gran Torino.

Andrew said...

'Silence' and 'The Samurai' by Shusako Endo, about the difficulty of early Catholic mission to Japan. Apparently Endo would always read something by Graham Greene before he started writing (but they're very different).

Anonymous said...

Great to see Peter Carey's name mentioned on F and T. Australia's greatest living novelist. (Just my opinion of course)

Ben Myers said...

No, Anthony, it's not just your opinion: it's a solid fact.

Anonymous said...

For capturing the poisonous quality of cultural self righteousness I'd have to suggest The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, the fate of the missionary is a fitting exposition of Romans 1:21

Anonymous said...

Sarum by Edward Rutherford - not strictly "ecclesiology", but nevertheless a fascinating insight into the significance of the life of a church and its surroundings.

roger flyer said...

On the poetry side...

The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations by Mr. George Herbert, 1633.

(No snickering, please)

especially Love III

Unknown said...

The Time of the Angels and The Bell by Iris Murdoch. Canan by Geoffrey Hill (poetry), and for a some plays (i know it wasn't asked) Racing Demon by David Hare. The Murdoch and the Hill aren't to be read for their own advocated theology but for the pressure to reflect which they incite.

The Updike story The Christian Roommates articulates clashing ecclesiologies and evolving understandings of the Church quite well (it is in the Early Stories)

Andy Rowell said...

I really like Eugene Peterson's list of recommended books. Here are his list of "novelists" but a number of fiction books are in other categories as well.

Eugene H. Peterson, Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List by (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 48-53.

Google Books link to "Novelists" chapter

1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (1879-80).
2. Walter M. Miller, CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (1959).
3. George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH (1871-72).
4.George Bernanos, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, translated by Pamela Morris (1937).
5. James Joyce, ULYSSES (1922).
6. Herman Melville, MOBY DICK (1851).
7. Graham Greene, THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1940).
8. C. S. Lewis, TILL WE HAVE EACES (1956).
9. J. R. R. Tolkien, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (1965).
10. Anne Tyler, SAINT MAYBE (1991).
11. Walker Percy, LOST IN THE COSMOS (1983).
12. Sigrid Undset, KRISTEN LAVRANSDATTER (1929).
13. Walter Wangerin, Jr., THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW (1978) and THE BOOK OF SORROWS (1989).
14. Rudy Wiebe, THE BLUE MOUNTAINS OF CHINA (1970).
15. Robertson Davies, THE DEPTFORD TRILOGY (1985).
16. Wallace Stegner, THE BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN (1945).

Brad East said...

Any of the Port William stories and novels by Wendell Berry, but especially Fidelity and Jayber Crow.

This may sound odd, but when I think of ecclesiology in novels, I think of Cormac McCarthy, because he paints a world before whose chaos and violence the church must find a way to be faithful. In that spirit, his Border Trilogy, No Country, and The Road.

And one more, less recent and in the realm of sci-fi: C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, as deeply flawed as it is (especially the "solution" in Perelandra!), offers fascinating insights into notions of discovery, evangelism, peoplehood, agency, etc.

Good luck with the writing!

Andrew Krinks said...

The Collected Stories of Flannery O'Connor...please read them. Another vote for "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene. (Though it's biography): "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Paul Elie (interwoven biographies of F. O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton).

As for poetry, Mark Jarman, "Questions for Ecclesiastes" and "Epistles" (you may know him, Nate? Vanderbilt). Mary Karr, "Sinners Welcome" (check out the essay/epilogue, too), William Stafford, Andrew Hudgins, Czeslaw Milosz, Franz Wright, Scott Cairns, John Berryman, "11 Addresses to the Lord", Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, "Four Quartets" and "Ash Wednesday".

Brian Lugioyo said...

I agree with Brad, Wendell Berry's Port William novels are great, especially Jayber Crow.

I would also highly recommend Annie Dillard's short essay "An Expedition to the Pole" in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I cannot avoid giving you a snippet here: "On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

Sports Dave said...

It touches the ecclesiological elements obliquely, but The Brothers K by David James Duncan is a wonderful story about a family in the Pacific Northwest, their experience with Christian fundamentalism (Adventism, specifically) and the political turmoil of the 60's. It's also about baseball, which is a double-bonus for me.

Unknown said...

This is great stuff! Thank you all and keep it coming! I am particularly grateful for the suggestions of those books I would not have otherwise been inclined to pick up and read.

An example of this is a couple of years ago Adam Kotsko making the bold suggestion that The Crying of Lot 49 was the "best ecclesiology written in the twentieth century." His statement prompted me to read Pynchon immediately; and it was recollecting that statement that prompted me to ask Ben to write this post. How could a novel -- by Pynchon, no less! -- be "the best ecclesiology" of any century?!

Also, Andy, it is interesting that Peterson lists Lost in the Cosmos as the thing to read by Walker Percy. For me, it is Love in the Ruins (perhaps tellingly so). Though Lost in the Cosmos is brilliant.

Brad: Your suggestion of McCarthy seems right on to me. My friend Josh Davis has been telling me I need to read McCarthy for quite some time. I only just started the Border Trilogy this Spring.

And Roger: I snickered. Herbert's poems are on order! Ben insisted upon them immediately when I first asked him to do the post for me.

Anonymous said...

I'd also suggest Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. Both are about a post-apocalyptic RCC monastery in the US; and the first, I believe, has never been out of print.

Neil Stephenson's Anathem, in contrast, is about a post-apocalyptic monastery of mathematics and technology. It's secular, and rather difficult, but interesting.

Unknown said...


What a great quote! It reminds me of Kim Fabricius' suggestion that all church pews should come equipped with seat belts.

Sports Dave:

I've been meaning to pick up The Brothers K for some time. And touching ecclesiology only obliquely, or parabolically, is just fine. Witness Adam's Pynchon suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Jose Saramago, 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ'

kim fabricius said...

For the contemporary C of E, Easter (2006) by Michael Arditti got rave reviews. I'm skipping it and, for summer reading, going straight to his just-published, The Enemy of the Good. Anyone read either?

Glen Soderholm said...

How about Willa Cather's 'Death Comes for the Archbishop' on desert ecclesiology, and William Golding's 'The Spire' on church and ego?

Anonymous said...

You could do worse that read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - Voted one of "Britain's best loved books"!

Anonymous said...

The Poisonwood Bible must be seconded and thirded! It is phenomenal.

Erin said...

I love The crying of lot 49!
Run Rabbit Run?
Ulysses takes a lot of work, maybe Portrait of the Artist.. as a stand in?
2 wildcards not directly related but have merit to be mined:
Life After God - religion without church, kind of exposes christian / churchless assumptions.
Fr. Lenar Hoyt in Simmons' Hyperion cantos might have some oblique implications.
How about Browning's Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister - at least you can establish those french novels are outside the pale..

Churchgoer said...

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies

G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories and especially The Man Who Was Thursday.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

All have ample doses of wit and theological nuance.

Curious Presbyterian said...

'Father Elijah: An Apocalypse' by Michael D. O'Brien for the church and eschatology.

Anonymous said...

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (maybe also Parable of the Talents)

paul said...

The film In Bruges, for love, betrayal, death, judgement, despair, redemption, conversion, confession, forgiveness, friendship, self-sacrifice, and much else, but not in church.

And St Augustine: Many in the church are not in God, and many in God are not in the church. And again: The church is at once a virgin, a mother, and a whore. (Two novels in a sentence each?)

Bruce said...

The stories and novels of J.F. Powers - even funnier than Walker Percy.

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LSB said...

Morte D'Urban by Powers

Patrick McManus said...


if you haven't read R.S. Thomas' poetry, it's shot through with a profound ecclesiology.

On the novel front, Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away. Also, Flannery's short "Revelation" with Mary Grace throwing her textbook across the waiting room at Mrs. Ruby Turpin is about as close to Barth's theology of preaching (and so to the heart of his supposed non-existent ecclesiology) as one can get in fiction.

I'm just getting started with Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 right now and I'm anxious to see what Adam's on about.

Sean Gallagher said...

Totally agree with the Endo recommendations. Brothers K is brilliant, and i think Hauerwas wrote something using the Duncan novel.
Andre Dubus, the father, who was more about short stories Dancing After Hours, etc.
And you'd have to ponder Pilgrim's Progress through the Narnia stuff, where there really doesn't seem to be much of a church, just Christians. They're interesting that way, where the church seems so secondary to the individual's relationship with God.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nate / Ben
Im late into this - but I would add my two cents worth for Robinson (obviously) but also for Flannery O'Connor - accompanied by the exposition in Greg Jones' On Forgiveness; and for Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe, accompanied by the essay by Hauerwas on that novel (he also writes on Trollope who may not be mentioned above.)

Kim, I have read Easter, and it is profoundly moving and shocking - Arditti is a great stylist and isnt afraid to take on the big issues - it is a brave novel above all, I think.

There is also Nick Hornby's How to be Good - more populist, but with a shapr contrast between the godawful CofE service that one of the characters attends, and the wonderfully named DJ Goodnews!

Anonymous said...

A N Wilson 'The Vicar of Sorrows' a lacerating read but worth the effort.

rasselas said...

The Spire - Golding (give that to your local Mega-Church pastor...eeeek!)
Quo Vadis - Sienkiewicz
Name of the Rose - Eco
Harry Potter - Rowling (evryone in relation to Hogwarts)

roger flyer said...

I noticed Eugene Peterson's list was pre-Shack!

A. Bookbinder said...

Might I commend the brilliant church scene in Kafka's The Trial?

Jody said...

Terrific suggestions! Everything I'd think to mention first (Gilead, Diary of a Country Priest, The Power and the Glory, Silence, Wheat that Springeth Green, Saint Maybe, Wise Blood, O'Connor's and Powers' short stories) has already been mentioned. I heartily second Sean the Baptist's mention of How to be Good by Nick Hornby. When I think of Updike and ecclesiology, I think of A Month of Sundays and Roger's Version, but Rabbit, Run is another good mention. Although I can't explain why, Jack Eccles is one of my favorite fictional clergy. From Updike's short stories, I'd also recommend "Pigeon Feathers" and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car."

Because I think it's one of the best images of Eucharist and the celestial banquet in fiction, I'd add Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesen- I believe it's in the book Anecdotes of Destiny.

I do have one complaint with the comments- you've made me expand a summer reading list that was already too long.

mel said...

Check out Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio -- great character explorations all within the same town, including that of a reverend. Beautiful, impressionistic writing that captures something visceral of humanity and community.

Father Anonymous said...

"The Cardinal," by Henry Morton Robinson, isn't exactly "Literature with a capital L," but it is full of details about life in the midcentury Roman hierarchy, and has a few memorable set-pieces.

"Elmer Gantry," for a brutalization of the other team. ("denominational colleges ... [with] a standard of scholarship equal to the best high-schools

And yes, the two precious novels by JF Powers, especially "Morte D'Urban." They really are indispensable, and too little known.

gad said...

These two have already been mentioned, but I had to add my enthusiastic echo.

_Gilead_, by Robinson
_Jayber Crow_, by Berry

_Jayber Crow_ has influenced my vision of the church more than any other text.


Adam Kotsko said...

No one's mentioned Fight Club? (I'll confess I haven't read the book, but the movie seems relevant.)

Brad said...

Movies: Seven Samurai; Rashomon; & On the Waterfront.

Books: Russell Hoban's Kleinzeit; McCarthy's The Road (Blood Meridian for the ecclesiology of the Black Mass); & Kafka's "In the Penal Colony". Also much forgotten these days is Frederick Buechner's Godric.

Anonymous said...

Boris Vian - Heartsnatcher

AnGabreel said...

I'll recommend several Atlantic Canadian novels, two of which are in line with the Pyncheonesque ethos - Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Fall on Your Knees" and Lynn Coady's "Strange Heaven." For At-Can novels that celebrate the analogy of being see David Adams Richards' "The Bay of Love and Sorrows," Patrick Kavanagh's "Gaff Topsails" (a rewriting of Ulysses and Homer in Catholic Newfoundland), Michael Crummey's "The Wreckage," and Wayne Johnston's "Baltimore's Mansion."

I'd begin with Kavanagh for ecclesiology, and move to MacDonalds or Richards next.

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