Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A Poet and Didn't Know It...

Frustratingly I can't remember where I saw M. Craig Barnes's, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life reviewed, but I'm glad I saw the review and read this 136 page gem of a book. As pastor in a Pittsburgh Presbyterian church, Barnes is dedicated to both preaching to his assembly and to teaching seminary students. His latest book encourages pastors to reclaim their identity as minor poets and not primarily as CEOs, community organizers, social workers, or amateur psychologists!

Isaiah, Jeremiah, St. Paul, St. Matthew, St. John - these are the Major Poets and pastors are to be the minor poets who are able to convey to their congregations not what scripture says, but what scripture means. "Poets are devoted more to truth than to reality; they are not unaware of reality, but they never accept it at face value. The value of reality is only found by peeling back its appearance to discover the underlying truth" (pg 19).

Barnes has a clear style of writing that packs a lot into one line without simultaneously bogging down the flow. He may call pastors and preachers to a high ideal, but does so without forgetting the sort of "stuff" of daily life - cords surrounding a patient's hospital bed, over-cooked lasagna at a parish dinner, pile of messages handed by the parish secretary.

Refreshingly Barnes doesn't hesitate to admit the imperfections of his life - faults and struggles that are common among anyone who strives to preach well and see the subtext of life. He writes, "When the time has come to actually write the sermon, I always begin by fidgeting with my chair. I think about other things I have to get done in the course of the day, fight back the demons that tempt me to call an elder about an upcoming committee meeting, and experiment with fonts on the computer. Sheer fear. And the fear comes not because the work is hard but because it requires that I leave the safety of a private life" (pg 124).

I only disagreed with the author on two points which were written one soon after the other. The first is his use of the words "checked himself into" when referring to Henri Nouwen's stay at Genesee Abbey (pg 55). Such a phrase sounds like Nouwen was voluntarily admitting himself to a mental health ward. The second point of disagreement stems from the author's statement, "There is no ontological shift that occurs in the lives of those who kneel for the rite of ordination" (pg 61). Clearly this represents a theological difference that divides Presbyterians and Catholics. Also, the late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, OSB would have perhaps had a problem with Barnes stating "theology is "first order" reflection" (pg 18). The liturgical act is first order, theological reflection is second order, no?

Great book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is charged with preaching or helping others see the subtext of their lives in Christ.

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