Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review The Novel As Church

Books are like a meal, there are those which one consumes like candy or dessert at the beach, those page turning mystery novels which are big on action and romance but light on their literary quality generally. Then there are those more philosophical type books which one consumes slowly, like sipping a full bodied Bordeaux.

I must say that David Dickinson's new book, The Novel As Church: Preaching to Readers in Contemporary Fiction (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2013) is an entire meal! If you want to learn more about the rhetorical and homiletical nature of key works of fiction and you are interested in theology and ecclesial life then this book is for you. It is certainly not a quick beach read but it does inspire, entertain, and make one want to re-read it again, like a second trip to the dinner buffet.

Dickinson is the Director of the St. Albans Centre for Christian  Studies and the minister at the Marlborough Road Methodist Church in St. Albans, UK. This book is the fourth book in the Making of the Christian Imagination Series published by Baylor University Press.

The Novel as Church is intriguing. There are books that focus on the religious and spiritual nature of fiction and there are books which focus on preaching and homiletics and modern culture but to my knowledge there are very few, perhaps none so far which highlight the various and detailed nuances of the interplay between sermons and homilies that are imbedded within works of fiction and the many questions that arise from that such as the interplay between "authorial authority" vis a vis the sermon and the narrative as well as the reasons why the author chose to have the clergy character preach in the first place, the messages derived from the sermons, as well as the other questions that arise from that.

While reading The Novel as Church I was simply amazed at the vast material covered and the analysis that Dickinson provides. This book is not merely a synthesis of modern works of fiction and the role that clergy/pastors/priests play, but Dickinson really attempts to get at the many layers involved in having sermons in fiction in the first place and what role this plays in the spiritual life, in the relationship between Church and culture, as well as what the clergy characters reveal about spirituality today.

Ever since reading Douglas Alan Walrath's book Displacing the Divine: The Minister As Mirror in American Fiction  I have been keenly interested in clergy characters in fiction, especially modern fiction, of which there are many. Walrath's thesis is that across the centuries the "clergy character" reflects or serves as a foil or mirror of the society at large and how society envisions the Church. Yet Dickinson goes further because not only does he look at the roles of the clergy characters but in particular what role and function the sermon plays. He looks at some key works of fiction such as Geraldine Brooks' novel The Year of Wonder, Michael Addritti's saga Easter as well as others such as Jeanette Winterson's book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, as well as the many books by John Updike.  I found myself taking notes here and there highlighting works of fiction that I certainly have to read, and read soon!

I could easily write more about this book, but I hope that the reader find out on their own. If you are a pastor who enjoys fiction and culture then this book is for you. If you are a faculty member who teaches preaching and homiletics and want to learn more about the rhetorical and homiletical value of fiction then this book is for you. If you are just interested in the spirituality of modern fiction then this book is for you.

For more information about The Novel as Church: Preaching to Readers in Contemporary Fiction click here