Thinking Strategically About Book Choices; An Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence
I’m an avid reader, always having at least one and sometimes several books on my nightstand. But I choose books based on friends’ recommendations. Perhaps in reading this you’ll be challenged, as I was, to rethink your choices before selecting your next book. Joy Hunter, Editor
Bishop, I sense you’re a voracious reader. Would you use that term to describe yourself?
I would say as a parish priest I was, but as a Bishop less so, because the schedule and demands – which are voracious – have truncated that.
How many books do you read a month?
Far less than I wish, unfortunately. About two a month.
What are you reading right now?
This summer I’m rereading Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth. I’m also listening to two lecture series on the tragedies of Shakespeare and looking for opportunities to attend performances of those plays. Remarkably, we’ll be at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in August, and they’re performing Hamlet and Macbeth. There’s also a haunting performance of Lear by Anthony Hopkins in a movie version.
I’m also reading Landscape and Inscape: Vision and Inspiration in Hopkins’s Poetry by Peter Milward and The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers. (Thomas was a Welsh Poet and Anglican Priest). So I’ll reread his poems along with this recent biography.
How do you go about deciding what to read?
Often I will choose a reading project. When I was in parish ministry, I did this all the time. I’d read books in three areas: preaching and teaching, leadership, and pastoral ministry.
For preaching and teaching I would read 8 to12 books per year in theology, commentaries on the scriptures, homiletics or preaching. For leadership I’d read books from the secular world whether it be a book by Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, James Burns, John Maxwell, etc., as well as in the Christian world and certainly biographies of leaders in various walks of life. The other arena was books on pastoral care, what’s known as pastoralia. That was for many years what I did in terms of my calling or vocational reading.
You’re very strategic in your reading.
I just don’t always read the latest thing. I make a reading plan for the year.
One year I did a study of the artist Winslow Homer. That summer I was asked to do the wedding of the son of a parishioner. It was on Long Island. While there, I went to the Met and of all things, they had a temporary exhibit on Winslow Homer. His paintings were brought from all over the world. And, serendipitously, there I was. It was astonishing!
The year I did Grant Wood we were traveling cross-country and our route took us through Cedar Rapids, Iowa where Wood lived. There’s a whole museum dedicated to the work of Grant Wood, Marvin Cone and other Midwestern painters of that school. I could go on with many other such “coincidences,” such as the year I did Frank Lloyd Wright. Another year I listened to symphonies of Tchaikovsky and read a biography on Tchaikovsky. I won’t bore you with more.
What made you decide on Shakespeare this year?
One reason is that I had lectures on audio books by the renowned critic Harold Bloom and by Prof. Clare Kinney, so I could listen to the lectures. And what good is listening to lectures on the Tragedies of Shakespeare if you’re not going to re-read the plays?
I also remembered something Loren Eiseley wrote years ago about Charles Darwin. He said that later in life Darwin picked up a Shakespeare play, began to read it, and discovered he’d lost the capacity to read and appreciate it. He’d been studying in such a focused way for so long, he had lost something. Imagine not being able to appreciate the breadth of the human condition. I don’t want to get to that place. So let’s delve back in.
I hadn’t read Shakespeare seriously since I was in college, and he has a lot to say to someone my age. It’s a shame when one only reads great literature in college and then only gives oneself to read the latest novel that’s been published and talked about on the New York Times best seller list. Should Brothers’ Karamazov or Crime and Punishment only be read by someone in college?
Have your children picked up your reading style?
Well, Chad’s the headmaster of a classical Christian school. We had a family gathering last Tuesday, and his daughter, who’s between her junior and senior year in high school, was reading on her own Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. Joe was reading a recent translation of The Odyssey. All our daughters are certainly lifelong learners. Chelsea and her husband, Jason, are always reading something, listening to audio books. So—yes, I guess they have.
One difficulty is we have lost the Western tradition that flows from the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans that helped shape who we are as a people. It is systematically being rooted out of our culture, out of our educational system. It’s most unfortunate!
What book has stuck with you recently?
I read Michael Hyatt’s Your Best Year Ever at the beginning of the year. It’s a book about thinking strategically about the year ahead and the arenas of your life. I’d say it’s a book most Christians would benefit by.
If we’re talking spiritual books, what are the top ones you’d recommend to others?
That would depend on with whom I was talking. I have never read – what was the big book for so many years? Purpose Driven Life? I’ve never read The Purpose Driven Life because when it came out, I was trying to step away from the driven life. Gordon MacDonald wrote a book years ago in which he had a chapter that described the difference between the called life and the driven life. I was trying not to be driven. But that book has been very helpful to many people. I’m not trying to knock it.
I do delve into books that may be popular at the time, like What’s so Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey. I’ve read books by Dallas Willard and Lewis Smedes. I guess on that level, I do read books that would be called semi-popular—Soul Keeping, for instance, by John Ortberg.
Do you get books from the library or buy? Print/Kindle?
I don’t get books from the library, though I used to check out audio books there. But I don’t have a cassette or CD player in my car anymore. It’s all digital. Sometimes I’ll get the book, and I’ll also have it on audio as I spend so much time on the road. I like to listen to books while I’m in the car. I recently read/listened to Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright. That would be a good book, published recently, that someone might want to get.
Do you have a certain time of day you set aside for reading?
The difficulty with my life is no week is the same. The one normal thing is it’s abnormal. There’s very little rhythm to the week, to the month. One of the things I miss the most as a bishop is the rhythm of the church year. It’s often discarded for the Bishop’s visit. I like the church year, appreciate it, live in it. I still do, to some degree, but it’s not as easy to do now nor is it as fulsome as it was in parish life.
What advice would you give someone who says, “I’ve got no time to read… after work I’ve got personal email, Instagram, Facebook, TV…and I’m bushed by the end of the day. Reading takes too much energy.”
With modern technology one is not relegated to the programming of the networks. For instance, recently Allison and I watched the old Monk series. Have you ever watched those? They’re wonderfully entertaining. We watched all eight seasons. No commercials. We just had fun. One of our daughters said, “You guys need to have more fun!” I was kind of sad when we finished it.
There’s a great BBC Series on Dickens’ Bleak House—it’s outstanding. If you’re going to spend an hour watching television, make sure it’s good. Something lighthearted like Monk, which is wholesome, or educational, gripping, and soul broadening such as the Bleak House series or Sense and Sensibility; all those kinds of things are out there.
If you could have everyone in the Diocese reading one book this year (other than the Bible), what would it be?
I can’t imagine having one book everyone in the Diocese would read or should read. It depends on the person, but I would like to have most of our priests read a book like Your Best Year Ever—something to get them to think more strategically about how they live their lives, how they do their ministry, how they balance things, how they grow. Many Christians would benefit from reading Dr. Henry Cloud’s Nine Things You Simply Must Do.
I’m surprised to discover how many people just kind of drift through their life, the month, the year, whatever, without any strategic thinking about intellectual, emotional, or spiritual growth. This spring I listened to a lecture series on the Biblical Wisdom Literature and read again through this great tradition found in Job, Proverbs, wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, as well as the Psalms and Jesus. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out.” And the Psalmist says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” (Ps 90:12)