“Put the oil where the squeak is” can guide adult Christian education programs. What’s squeaking in 2023? In my view it is theological anthropology, the Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. That’s admittedly a broad area. It extends from the Christian meta-narrative with its four significant moments (creation, fall, redemption, ultimate destiny) down to rather granular issues of such matters as gender or economics. Theological anthropology addresses the questions of who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we should live now. And in all these questions, for our contemporaries today (both in and out of the pew), there is ignorance, confusion, and desire to know better.
I am no expert on pedagogy, but I do have one particular competence, honed over many years of practice in churches large and small. That competence is in organizing and leading parish book discussion groups. When I was rector of a middle-sized church in the Hudson Valley, I had “The Rector’s Book Club.” Then later, in my post-rector life, I had opportunity to shape a Christian education program at Saint Thomas in New York and now in Dallas. I was convinced of the need to develop critical competence amongst lay people to identify cultural assumptions about being human and to consider what might be Christian alternatives. And so was born the seminar we have styled “Good Books & Good Talk.”
How can a book group develop theological anthropology? Start by leveraging the fact that most people prefer fiction to non-fiction. Fortuitously, an effective, accessible way to look at and ask questions about human beings is through good novels and short stories.
Each of the monthly meetings of “Good Books & Good Talk” is on a short novel or similar work: one whole book per seminar. Our 90-minute sessions begin with people introducing themselves and saying if they had ever read this book before. And then I ask a question. I do not give a lecture. I do not try to summarize the book. I do not say what I think is important about the book. My goal is to increase the ability of everyone there to see and ponder for themselves important human questions—and a lecture or anything else from me would short-circuit the process. So I ask a question.
What makes a good opening question? It needs to be open-ended. It should try to get at something implicit but not actually stated in the book. If a character gives up her life to care for a dying father-in-law—who is father of her husband who has left her for another woman—who (this father-in-law) is an obnoxious, scornful, ungrateful, verbally abusive man who despises her Christian beliefs and just wants her to kill him and end it all—well, any sort of question can get you deep pretty quickly. What does the text tell us about her motivations? Why did (or didn’t) she put him out of his misery? Will God send her to hell for doing what she did? Does she think God will? And so on. (These questions arose out of Christopher Beha’s first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder.)
Fiction is an amazingly easy way to get into these questions and to train a group of people to get their minds inside other people. It is an easy entrance into theological anthropology. But of course it won’t just happen.
Our monthly seminar currently meets about eight times a year. Anyone can come who is interested, but I say, “You have to be quiet unless you have read the book.” In my mind I have three to five questions, so that if the conversation bogs down, I have something new to interject. I choose my questions to draw us into the meaning of being human. (See my questions a couple of paragraphs above.) A good book, for my purposes, is one that is short enough (under 200 pages is ideal) and has situations, actions, or views that are worth probing. Is this true? Good? Christian?
The ground rules are simple. Listen to one another. Only one person speaks at a time. Most important of all, the text is our final authority on the text. I discourage reading Wikipedia or any other secondary source. If someone says, “I read online that Walker Percy wrote this book to . . .” or “The characters in this novel are people in the author’s own life”—I just say, that might be true or it might be false, but it makes no difference. Authors themselves can fail to understand what their own books are about! (I speak as an author who has been surprised many times by how other people see things in my books that I was not previously aware of and could not previously have said.) I don’t want a seminar where we learn what others (even the author) have said about the book. I want a seminar where we, as Christians, probe what the book would teach us and ask whether we think it is right.
The selection of books is important, but it doesn’t have to be perfect, nor do the books need to be perfect. I am constantly looking for interesting fiction that clocks in around 200 pages. Doing a different book each time allows people to come to any session that interests them and obviates the problems of travel interruptions. (About half the attendees come every month.) The authors need not be Christian, and the books need not themselves be “Christian” (in whatever sense). Here are the books we did in the last year:
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit
Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas
Walker Percy: The Moviegoer
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange
James Matthew Wilson: The Strangeness of the Good
Dorothy L. Sayers: Whose Body?
Charles Williams: War in Heaven
Wilson’s book is poetry, and it includes his Covid diary which prompted theological reflection on our recent past. Poetry can work as an occasional change, and one might have a seminar on a single poem. For the Wilson seminar, I had to limit our discussion to just a few poems—a whole book was too much. Yet people liked it.
People wondered about discussing A Clockwork Orange in church, but I explained we were not discussing the film. And although Burgess is, on balance, probably not an exponent of Christian theological anthropology (some might consider him an opponent), still he is vitally interested in what it is to be human. The novel is about a mechanistic view (a “clockwork”) of human fleshiness (juicy like an orange)—a view that doesn’t work out well, does it?
I have done seminars also on plays: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral remains viable, as do many by Thornton Wilder, not only Our Town but The Skin of Our Teeth which puts Adam, Eve, and Cain as a suburban New Jersey family during the coming Ice Age. Another novelist who is worth reading is Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize winner who is highly perceptive about being human today. We had a great seminar a few years ago on Never Let Me Go (on clones), and someday we will do Klara and the Sun (on robots who are AFs—artificial friends). His Remains of the Day also is beautiful and haunting.
In sum, a book seminar has the potential of speaking to a profound need in our congregations today. It is a low-risk enterprise, and it is fun. It is also, I find, a way for me to keep reading books that I otherwise would put aside. I hope this article encourages readers to give it a try—and if you live in Dallas, to consider joining us (see below).
Out & About. My next preachment will be at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas on Sunday, August 13, at 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.
The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Sunday, September 10, at 5 p.m. We will discuss Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.
Future book seminars: October 8: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. And November 26: King Lear by Wm. Shakespeare. All seminars are Sundays from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at St. Matthew’s in Dallas.
On the Web. My reflections on book seminars were first published online in the Covenant blog of The Living Church. May I recommend the blog in general? https://covenant.livingchurch.org/