Character References

Meeting People through Literature
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit

Good pastors know that reading is a vital part of ministry. After all, we prepare to preach by faithfully and prayerfully reading and studying the Scriptures. We read theological works and Bible commentaries. We monitor events and trends by reading newspapers and magazines. But what about fiction and other literature? Shouldn’t pastors also regularly incorporate that sort of reading into their ministries?

It’s easy for pastors to lead fairly insular lives. After all, we work with administrators, custodians, youth group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and other Christians. Pastors also often visit, counsel, teach, and preach to members of their churches. Many pastors’ family members and friends are also Christians. But God calls us to be ready to minister to everyone. It’s our job to let the Spirit equip us to, among other things, preach and relate to the kinds of people with whom we don’t ordinarily spend much time.

In his 1972 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The sole substitute for an experience which we ourselves have not lived is art and literature.” Paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn, pastors might say, “Reading literature is a way for us to meet people whom we otherwise might not meet.”

In the pages of Richard Russo’s book That Old Cape Magic we meet Griffin, who is grieving the deaths of his father, his mother, and his marriage. While he has little time for organized religion, he has a desperate need for God’s grace as he faces a future that little resembles the one he’d imagined for himself and his family. He’s the kind of person who might wander into our church on any given Sunday morning.

In many ways at the opposite end of the spectrum from Russo’s Griffin is Gilly, the stubborn but brilliant title character of Katherine Patterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly is an eleven-year-old girl who has spent nearly her entire life in foster care. She dreams of returning to her mother, all the while scheming to escape her foster family’s tough but loving care. The book’s poignant ending reminds readers that things are not yet as God wills them to be.

In David Duncan’s The Brothers K we meet a family that is unraveling as it lives through the turbulent era of the Vietnam War. While the father, Hugh Chance, cares more deeply about baseball than organized religion, the mother, Laura, is deeply and sometimes almost pathologically religious. Hugh and Laura’s six children view organized religion in a variety of ways—similar to some of the families that worship in our churches.

Doris Kearns Goodwin introduces readers to Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In its pages readers meet a president who was able to put aside political differences to work with men who’d actively opposed his first run for the presidency. In a society deeply divided by personalities and ideologies, Goodwin’s readers meet a man who was able to work effectively with people who disagreed with him.

Bill Bryson introduces himself in the pages of The Life and Times of Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir. He was a bright, restless boy who grew up in the 1950s in the apparent safety of Des Moines, Iowa. Bill seems to have been the kind of child everyone wanted to know—but few would have wanted to try to parent. Pastors preach not only to children like Bill but also to their parents nearly every Sunday.

The characters in these books are flawed. They show signs of fallenness that we don’t want to imitate. Their words and actions may offend or anger us. Yet those very characteristics underscore the amazing nature of God’s gracious work in those stories.

Sometimes God’s grace is obvious, such as the grace God shows to Will and Katherine Kiehn, missionaries to China, in Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light. At other times God’s redemptive grace is more subtle, as experienced by Detective Dave Robicheaux in James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues. As we read works like these, we need to ask ourselves “How do we proclaim God’s grace not just to the people in our pews, but also to people like the Chances, Gilly Hopkins, and Dave Robicheaux?”

Good literature also challenges us to ask how we might preach to the acquaintances of the people we meet in it. How might we preach, for instance, to the neighbors of a target of prejudice like Lizzie Bright, introduced by Gary Schmidt in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy? How might we preach to those who work for someone like the powerful Lyndon Johnson, with whom Robert Caro acquaints readers in Master of the Senate? How might we proclaim the gospel to victims of oppression and abuse like Purple Hibiscus’s Kambili?

As Cornelius Plantinga has noted, busy preachers may be tempted to read good literature for the sole purpose of mining it for sermon illustrations. The remarkable characters we meet in good books, however, aren’t just fodder for anecdotes. They’re the kinds of people who are created in God’s image, much like those who sit in our pews every Sunday. They’re the kinds of people to whom God calls us to proclaim the gospel on a weekly basis.

Where Do I Find Good Books?

Just as some of us don’t meet many characters like the ones mentioned in this article in our daily lives, we may not always be sure where to find them in the pages of literature. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Peruse the “Book of the Semester” list and other suggested reading lists on the website of Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching ( and the “Recommended Reading” list on the website of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Learning (
  • Read reviews of good books in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as in magazines such as Christian Century and Books & Culture.
  • Ask people you respect what good books they’ve read recently.

Doug Bratt is the pastor of Silver Spring (Md.) Christian Reformed Church.

Reformed Worship 101 © September 2011, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.