This article, featuring our own Russ Ramsey, was recently published on 12/26/17 by The Gospel Coalition.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Russ Ramsey—pastor and author of several books, including Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (read TGC’s review) and Behold the King of Glory—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction and biographies, the books he wishes every pastor would read about the arts, and more. (Each Wednesday, Russ curates a story about art on his social media feed. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to get a weekly dose of beauty in your social media feed.)
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I imagine my nightstand is like most folks’—filled with books I plan to read, gave up on, or am actively working through. Some others stay there because I’m always in the process of reading them and like to be near them.
I always keep Scripture in reach. Also, I have a rotation of art books nearby—collections of Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and Rembrandt are in the rotation right now. It calms my sometimes anxious heart to look at something beautiful at the end of the day.
I also love survival stories, so I’m usually reading books about people getting lost in the mountains or at sea. A few years back I suffered a life-threatening affliction, and I found that survival stories brought me a lot of comfort. I still love them because they lend gravity to the story of salvation when I begin to take it for granted.
Also, there are books from friends who also write. I love the creative community that forms among writers, and I love how technology has made it possible to have friendships across long distances. Some books from friends I’ve recently read or am working through now include Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place. She is a true artist, a fantastic writer, and a clear thinker who has a bead on the human experience. Seth Haines is also like that. His beautifully written book Coming Clean is important for its honesty and humility. I’m also reading Scott Sauls’s From Weakness to Strength. Scott’s pastoral voice is so timely and accessible. I just finished Winn Collier’s Love Big, Be Well. It ministered to this pastor’s heart. And lastly, John Blase’s new collection of poems, Jubilee. Poetry is hard work. John reads deep and easy.
What are your favorite fiction books?
Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River and his follow-up So Brave, Young, and Handsome rank near the top of all the fiction I’ve read. As a writer, I marvel at his narrative voice. His stories move me; they’re adventures with high stakes and divine providence. Leif joins together lost innocence and eternal hope in ways that ring so true to me.
I just finished Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling. What a powerful book—a slow burn with the best last five pages I can ever remember reading in a work of fiction. They’re meaningless if you don’t read the first 350 pages, but if you do, man, they will knock you over. They pull the story of the end of boyhood into a tight, focused prayer for the renewal of all things.
Wendell Berry is great. Ever heard of him? I kid. I’m especially fond of his short novella Remembering, which tells the story about what happens when one of his Port William characters, Andy Catlett, loses his right hand in a farming accident. It’s a powerful metaphor about what happens when someone loses their hold on the world they thought they knew.
Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. His prose slips into poetry without notice. He’s a joy to read. This book helped me make sense of my own family in ways that really helped me love them more deeply and lay aside some of my self-righteousness.
Also, I love Cormac McCarthy’s work—especially The Road. I love his writing. It’s so sparse—an exercise in restraint.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I love memoirs. William Zinsser, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, distinguishes autobiography from memoir like this: “Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it.”
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard is great too. I’m currently doing some writing on the subject of remembering childhood. I love the way Dillard writes about that subject. Both Dillard and Vance avoid sanitizing their own pasts while still maintaining a respect for the dignity of the broken people in their lives.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life because it is a great book about writing, but it’s also an incredible piece of literature. It inspires my own writing.
Also, I try to always be reading something from Eugene Peterson on the pastoral vocation. I revisit his short book The Contemplative Pastor quite a bit.
The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis. That collection of essays has such rich theological ideas about the majesty of God, told with a sense of wonder and reverence.
Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and Making Sense of God [read TGC’s review]. I love how Keller helps put me in the shoes of non-Christian people. These two books really help me better understand people who don’t believe as I do, and they keep me from making cartoon characters out of God’s image bearers.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read on or about the arts/imagination?
Can I name three? First, On Writing Well by William Zinsser [read TGC’s piece on Zinsser]. This is a wonderful, helpful, and clear book about how to write well. He talks about the importance of stripping our writing down to its bare essentials, and I think every preacher could benefit from working on the fundamentals of clear communication. This book will help any writer or speaker think about how to say what to say and what habits to avoid for the sake of clarity. If we make our living working with words, it’s always good to hone our skill with them.
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orlund. This is a fantastic book about the psychosis that often happens in the minds and hearts of people who create content for the purpose of presenting it to others. Pastoral work is art as much as it is administration. Actually, more so. Preachers and teachers deal with the same sorts of thoughts, fears, and creative struggles as painters and musicians. By talking about the relationship between art and fear, this book names and helps with a lot of the struggles pastors wrestle with before, during, and after they preach.
Finally, this isn’t a book per se, but more of a habit. I had an art teacher who encouraged us to pick an artist or two and pay attention to them for the rest of our lives. I think this is a great habit—and one we can begin at any time. I chose van Gogh and Rembrandt, but since then I’ve added many others. Following an artist (living or dead) over time is a good way to keep art in play in our lives, to better understand the artists we serve, and to keep ourselves exposed to beauty.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
Looking at the books I’ve listed above, one thing I see them reflecting back is a hunger for beauty to be part of my daily life. Also, good literature and good art—both in the pages of Scripture and beyond—remind me that no one has a simple story, and as a pastor and Christian person, I need to have humility and compassion with others. We’re complicated people with complex longings and wounds.
When I was in my 20s I was so confident that my grasp of theology was watertight. I believed I saw and understood things as they were in the sight of God. In more recent years, largely by way of the crucible of affliction, I don’t trust my own perspective as much. One by-product of this is a deep hunger for Scripture. I trust God’s Word to be fully reliable, fully inerrant, fully sufficient. But I’m less self-assured of my ability to casually discern what it’s saying. Story and art invite and cultivate patient thinking and curiosity. I’ll take as much of that as I can get if it means I can love God and love neighbors better.