Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finding depth in the details

The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life by M. Craig Barnes

This is a hard book to review. I thought it was great while I was reading it, but now that I've finished it, it's hard to express what it was really all about.

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be explained is the title of this book. In what way is the Christian pastor a "minor poet". It means that the pastor seeks to find depth, complexity and meaning in conversations, in the details of everyday life, and, of course, in the text of Scripture.

The book picks up on the distinction between major poets (who "provide enduring expressions of the deep truths of life") and minor poets (who "have the more modest goal of inculcating that truth to particular people in particular places"). For the pastor, the major poets, says Barnes, are the writers of Scripture, and thus we have a robust metaphor for the pastoral ministry: communicating the deep truth of Scripture to a particular set of people.

But it goes further than this - being a minor poet involves being sensitive to the subtexts in Scripture, in the congregation and in himself. In other words, the pastor needs to be able to discern what's really going on.

The only time Barnes launches into an extended biblical exposition is in looking at John 4. Here he argues that a preacher can assist people identifying with the woman at the well: even if people have not been married five time, they may have "tried five weight-reduction plans, five moves, five jobs, five degree programs, or five churches - and the system isn't working for them either" (p. 84).

Barnes helpfully takes us through a day in his life to demonstrate how these ideas come out in the everyday life of the minister. My favourite quote from the book comes from this sort of interaction: "Mr Jefferson's life was not going to be reduced by a pathology report any more than it had been amplified by a prestigious job description" (p. 61).