[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]
Wesley Hill is a man who clearly loves to read and loves to read all kinds of books. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Bethlehem College and Seminary in the United States as well as Durham University in the United Kingdom. He is a theologian and a teacher, serving as an assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
He not only reads books, but he writes them. He is the author of a number of books and countless articles spanning several interests. The honesty and sensitivity of his writing have helped many, particularly as he works through what it means to be a gay Christian in today’s complicated world. In addition he writes regularly for the magazines “Christianity Today” and “First Things” and he blogs at Spiritual Friendship.
Also, on Sunday, August 13, 2017, the church I pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida, will be blessed to have Dr. Hill preach.
If you gain nothing else from this interview, hear here a voice of grace and passion. Perhaps you will be inclined to pick up one of the books he has written as well as those he recommends. I would encourage that.
Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?
Wes: This is a hard question to answer because my personal and professional interests line up so closely. If I weren’t a seminary professor, I’d be reading all the theology books I read for “work” simply for fun. There’s not a clean or easy separation for me here. As I’ve described in a column for the First Things website, I am a big believer in the importance of “irrelevant reading” for “work”: Often novels and books of poetry end up being important for my “professional life,” and my “professional” reading often worms its way into my daydreams and prayers and personal musings. Here’s how I put it in my column:
“I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign. They’ll be working away on an essay for me on the theme of faith in the Gospel of Mark, and something in an Auden poem will be just the thing that connects the dots for them. Or they’ll be writing about the motif of light in the Fourth Gospel, and something about the way Wallace Stegner described the character Charity by the lake in Crossing to Safety opens a wider vista for their reflections. This is what broad, indiscriminate reading of interesting texts does—it furnishes the raw materials for unexpected correlations and associations to spark. It’s often the irrelevant reading that does this, the reading you’re not supposed to be doing, the reading that’s not related at all to that project you’re meant to be completing.”
I remember that article and was encouraged by that idea that everything relates. I tell those learning to be pastors that in a very real sense EVERYTHING is sermon preparation. So, what else motivates you to read books outside your profession?
Before I discovered what my profession would be, I was already a voracious reader. I grew up reading mostly pulpy detective novels and some pretty bad Christian fiction. But I also started reading people like C. S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen—neither “professional theologians,” as I am—in high school. Those habits have stayed with me. I once heard a theologian on a panel critiquing The Da Vinci Code boasting that it was the first novel he’d read in decades. And I thought, “How sad!” What an impoverished life it would be if I could only read “theology,” narrowly circumscribed.
How do you choose what books you will read?
Basically, I do what my friend Alan Jacobs has advised: I read at whim. I am a woefully undisciplined reader. At any given time, I have five or six books going, and I’m always picking up another based on changing moods or interests. In my professional life, I am a bit more systematic, but even there, I rely on personal impressions and the recommendations of friends just as much as I do on the advice of professional journals.
Several more considerations shape my approach to reading. One is from Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He recommends “reading upstream,” which is to say, once you find a book or an author you love, read what they read and loved.
Another thing I often do: When I find an author I love, I read all their books. (Right now I’m doing this with E. L. Mascall, one of the great Anglican writers of the twentieth century, and Robert Farrar Capon, the late grace-addicted Episcopal priest-cook.) I’ve also been influenced by the theologian Fred Sanders’ advice: If you’re a theologian, as I am, he says you ought to (1) pick a doctrine and read everything you can on it and (2) pick a theologian to ‘make your own’ as a touchstone for all your work. In my case, (1) is the doctrine of the Trinity and (2)… well, I haven’t done it consistently, but the closest person to that for me is probably Karl Barth.
What book or books are you reading now?
I’m just finishing Luther’s 1535 Lectures on Galatians—wonderful! And I’m in the middle of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, which aren’t quite what they’re billed as being (a story of friendship) but they’re immensely insightful and rather harrowing actually.
I’m also reading a collection of essays by younger people of color, edited by Jesmyn Ward, talking about race, called The Fire This Time. The essay on “Walking while Black” by Garnett Cadogan is worth the price of the book.
What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?
I often find myself telling students and friends to read the novels of Chaim Potok. Better than virtually anyone else I’ve read, he understands the growing pains of a childhood religious faith as it moves into adulthood.
In my discipline of New Testament studies, I regularly point people to God Crucified by Richard Bauckham and The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. On a personal, spiritual, emotional level, probably no book has actually helped me more than Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet.
I love Potok. Glad we share that. Thanks for taking part and expanding my vision of what is worth reading. My ‘wish list’ of books to read is now expanded, probably beyond reason.