You Are What You Read

by Joel Hess


If you survey of my home and even office library you will not find any books with numbers in their titles.  Titles like 7 signs of… or 3 steps to… or 9 characteristics of….  Watch out for the number books unless you work for an accounting agency. Many pastors have shelves of them. I despise them. Not numbers mind you. I love Pythagoras.  But I abhor pop Christian authors who write cliché riddled “I have a brand new idea about how to…” books.   Also I have no books that mention – healthy – in their titles; Healthy churches, Healthy pastors, healthy relationships (oh yeah, I have no books that have the word ‘relationship’ in their title either.)


Here’s a title that makes me vomit in my mouth – How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems.  This book may change my life and I may be missing out on being a more “effective” pastor but I seriously cannot read it and will not.  What sort of oppressed Frankenstein would compose such a monster? I would add more to my life by staring at a blank wall for a day.

Books like this demonstrate yet again that far too many people have Ph.Ds.

Beware of “busy” people. They are the truly dangerous ones.

Frequently I find myself at pastor’s conferences and the speaker encourages us to read such artless literature.  “Have you read this….?” A friend asks.  I proudly respond (or drunkenly), “no, I do not know what the &%$! you are talking about!”  “Have you read Wuthering Heights?”  “Oh, is that C.S. Lewis?” –cue spilling of drink.  Can a Lutheran pastor quote anyone besides C.S. Lewis and his painfully transparent fantasy series?

I suppose as a person who appreciates words and carefully reckless artistic expression I am repulsed by such a banal use of language and waste of timber. It’s not that their conclusions might be right, but far better authors have already said it!

So maybe I’m not healthy and my church isn’t turned inside out and I am totally out of touch with the emotional systems in my congregation (vomit up – vomit down).  Whatevs.


I love to read good literature and until I finish the Western Canon, I simply do not have time to study graphs and charts and help feed the kids of a dork with a soul patch who wants to return the church to her “roots.”  Every generation likes to think we’ve done it all wrong and finally let’s do it right, you know like the sub mergent movement.  I think VH1 is airing a “where are they now” special on them.

Now that does not mean I do not like to learn about leadership, the nature of society, psychological paradigms, healthy marriages, etc – in other words – practical concerns.  I love it.  But I would rather study psychology and sociology reading Dickens, Joyce, Tolstoy and O’Connor. I have gained far more wisdom about leadership from a biography on MacArthur or the various heroes of Plutarch’s lives. I have learned more about human behavior from Kierkegaard and Millay.  You do not know the crash that takes place when the Gospel hits humanity if you have not read Flannery O’Connor.


You are what you read.  Sorry, whether you like it or not you have been brainwashed and are being brainwashed (and your brainwashing others.) The question is really -who is brainwashing you?  Of course we should read Scripture- and be brainwashed by scripture, letting God’s ideas, God’s vocabulary, God’s vision become ours.  But Christians and especially pastors should be reading great literature and historical works as well – and not just for practical purposes.  O Lord, I hate the word practical (especially practical education – the goal of education should not be to get a job).

I strive to be as impractical as possible in my daily life.

I love to read good literature because it is good, not because it will help me.

And ultimately this is the most practical thing I could do with my time.