Book Review: The Pastor’s Bookshelf

I read a lot, and not everything I read is obviously applicable to my work as a pastor. I recently finished First to a Million: A Teenager’s Guide to Achieving Early Financial Independence and The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear. I’m not sure how these books will shape me to be a better pastor, but I am confident that they will. Austin Carty’s book The Pastor’s Bookshelf has only increased my confidence in this regard.

Austin Carty writes an apologetic for reading. He says, “I submit that this capacity to remain anchored and poised in the face of an increasingly complicated and anxious world is one of the most vital things a pastor can offer his or her congregation today. And if we want to cultivate such a capacity in ourselves—that is, if we want to become pastors with this kind of gravitas—one of the most proven and effective ways to do it is by committing ourselves to a program of wide, regular reading.” (16).

As a voracious reader himself, Austin Carty has heard all the tired reasons for not reading. (1) I don’t remember what I read (2) I don’t have the luxury (3) I don’t have time. He addresses each of these head on.

In the first section of his book, he cautions against an approach to reading that is merely interested in the uploading of information. This approach is entirely empirically based, and we are an empirically calibrated society. But, as Christians, we are a people who walk by faith, not by sight. At the risk of trivializing that phrase from the apostle Paul, that attitude should extend to our reading. “And that’s the hardest and most crucial part of the case I am making. I have to somehow demonstrate that all the reading we don’t remember is still somehow part of—and still somehow informs—the person we bring to the pulpit and to the hospital bed” (27) [emphasis original]. Thus, if you don’t well-remember what you read (and I place myself firmly in that camp, that’s why I write reviews—to help me remember what I’ve read), don’t let that dissuade you from the healthy practice. Just because you can’t empirically show its value, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.

In the second section of his book, Austin Carty argues that “we need to stop conceiving of reading as a personal luxury and begin conceiving of reading as a vocational responsibility” (64). This section is straightforward as Carty shows the value that wide reading brings to the pastoral tasks of preaching, pastoral care, vision casting, and leadership. Austin Carty laments that “far too often we, as pastors, neglect to continue to read challenging works . . . once we have finished our formal education” (97). This lament echoes that of the late Dr. Ron Feuerhahn. I never had Dr. Feuerhahn, but I’ve heard a story about him from seemingly a dozen different people. It’s the story where he would tell his students that he can tell within thirty seconds of visiting a former student’s personal library whether that student had ever read another book after graduating the seminary. Dr. Feuerhahn wouldn’t have mentioned this if he didn’t think it was a problem (i.e., the failure of pastors to continue to read after graduation). 

In the third and final section of his book, Austin Carty addresses the issue of “when.” Simply put, like any discipline, you need to make the time to read. Carty advocates, “The best way to do it is to begin conceiving of reading as a regular pastoral duty” (107). As one who does a fair amount of reading (but far less, let the reader be assured, than Austin Carty), I can confess that this is how I do it. When I have a to-do list for the day in front of me, one of the items that is ALWAYS on the list, next to “pray” is “read.” 

In this final section, Carty also takes up the issue of “What should I read?” and “How should I read?” and “How should I mark and file what I read?” This is all helpful information you’ll need to glean for yourself when you read his book yourself.

Perhaps the chapter I was most appreciative of in the whole book was Chapter 12: Reading with a Proper Spirit. Carty advocates for a charitable reading of every book, even books you don’t agree with. As one who has spent some time teaching at the seminary level (albeit briefly), there were generally two types of readers: (1) the reader who was reading to understand, and (2) the reader who was reading to react. I was not at all impressed by reader #2 who, upon reading a book by N.T. Wright, comes to the rather self-righteous and braggadocious conclusion that N.T. Wright is not a Lutheran. Of course N.T. Wright is not a Lutheran, you literally don’t even need to open the book to learn that information. Show some humility and approach the book with a proper spirit. Assume that N.T. Wright has something of value to share with his Lutheran brothers and sisters in the faith, and that as Lutherans, we can keep the baby while tossing out the bathwater.

All in all, the book was a delight. Any criticisms I have would amount to nothing more than the picking of nits and would distract from this review. If you need an excuse to justify your book budget or if you need a reason to get into more reading, Austin Carty’s book will help.

THE PASTOR’S BOOKSHELF: Why Reading Matters for Ministry. By Austin Carty. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022. 168 pages. $19.99.