The Pastor’s Bookshelf, Why Reading Matters for Ministry

I have a passion for reading and when I discovered that this book had received Christianity Today’s 2022 Book of Merit award in the pastoral leadership category, I was immediately drawn to it. Austin Carty shares my love for reading, and reading The Pastor’s Bookshelf, as I was reading heavier works at the same time, was like dessert after a big meal.

Carty believes reading for the pastor is a part of his vocation (pp 65, 101, 107, and the goal of the second section of the book) and is absolutely essential not just for information but for formation (pp 15, 22-28). As a matter of fact, since most readers only retain about 10% of what they read (p 26), many pastors dismiss its value (p 23). But if we realize that reading slowly changes who we are and builds a reservoir of wisdom deep inside our minds, we will begin to recognize how important it is (pp 70-71). With these thoughts in mind, Carty sets out to convince pastors to be readers, and instruct them on how to do so. The book is broken into three sections: explaining what a pastor-reader is, explaining why a pastor ought to become one, and explaining how a pastor can go about doing it (p 4).

He interweaves throughout the book his journey toward becoming a reader, which began when he read Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s award winning fiction about a dying pastor, looking back on his life (pp 11, 21, 93-95). As he immersed himself in a wide range of books and many thinkers (p 32), his horizons expanded, and so did his ability to think. Carty warns of the danger of digital (internet) reading, which damages the reader’s ability to think linearly (pp 134-137), and calls for us to read books. Scientific research, as documented in the writings of Maryanne Wolf, Alan Jacobs, and Nicholas Carr, are used to support this thesis (pp 17-19, 122). Surprisingly, while Carty reads much nonfiction, as well as the Bible, he believes it is fiction that most stretches and expands us (p 130). He recommends when reading nonfiction that more than one book at a time be studied, as that gives intellectual breaks necessary for slowly comprehending each of the different concepts and ideas we are digesting (p 132). The central thesis of The Pastor’s Bookshelf is to “read as widely and curiously as one can” (p 33). If readers turn exclusively to the same genre of books or topics or perspectives, they become clones of a small subject of thinkers and influencers instead of balanced thinkers (p 33). He adds:

If we will commit ourselves to a balanced reading diet that includes writers of different periods and perspectives – and if we will approach such reading with the aim of being slowly but gradually formed rather than immediately and usefully informed – then we will more fully and naturally grow into the original model of pastor. That model sees us as loving shepherds, caretakers tasked with guiding our flocks through besetting dangers on both the left and the right, less concerned with adding more sheep to our number than with keeping the ones entrusted to our care healthy and safe (p 39).

In section three “How to Become a Pastor-Reader,” Carty offers several takeaways, devoting a chapter to each:

  1. Block off time by setting a daily appointment to read.
  2. Don’t start by trying to read too much at once.
  3. Read with receptivity.
  4. Recognize beauty in all sorts of books.
  5. Read offline.
  6. Develop a marking and notation system.

The Pastor’s Bookshelf is an inspiring book that I believe many pastors need to read and apply. I would encourage most to add a retrieval system to their markings. While Carty dismisses the need and believes useful thoughts will spring automatically from the growing reservoirs of many books, I think his memory must be better than most. A retrieval system will greatly enhance the insights gleaned from our reading and enable us to put them to use when needed.

I also believe a chapter on discernment in reading is deeply needed. Carty is big on receptivity, but no mention of critical discernment is found. One can read humbly, widely, and with openness, even from those with whom we disagree, but we must carefully analyze what is read as well. Carty lacks this dimension; at least it is not in his book. And as a result, in this reviewer’s opinion, he has drifted into numerous errors. Examples include his promotion of Donald Miller’s awful book Blue Like Jazz. Just because Miller reads widely does not mean he comes to biblical conclusions (which he does not) (p 35). The same goes for the mystical spiritual formation authors Carty likes such as Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and Dallas Willard (pp 113-114, 116, 120, 137). Because he lacks biblical discernment, and draws his clues from fiction, he led his church into social programs that at least partially defined its mission in ways not found in the Bible (pp 82-89). One other observation; although he correctly encourages reading broadly, he seems to restrict his reading to non-conservative authors. This lack of conservative references is evident throughout the book. In particular, when at one point Carty recommends a string of authors, he suggested everyone from Hemingway to Chesterton to MLK, but lists not one conservative theologian or Bible teacher, while again touting Donald Miller and Blue Like Jazz (p 36). The closest he comes to a biblically sound pastor or author is Tim Keller, N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson (who he considers the pastor-reader par excellence) (pp 45, 73). There is no evidence in The Pastor’s Bookshelf that Carty has interacted with more biblically-grounded authors.

All this to say, follow Carty’s advice on reading, but not his directions on theology. Read humbly and widely, but read with biblical discernment.

by Austin Carty (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022), 168 pp., paper $24.00

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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