This blog post was guest-written by Marion L. Soards.
From time to time someone will ask me what is the best book I’ve ever read? There’s no answer to the question—obviously. What kind of book? A novel? A book in biblical studies? A work in theology? A volume of poetry? A collection of short stories? A chronicle of scientific investigation? A coffee table book of photographs and narrative? A manual of literary style (one of my favorite kinds of books)? A dictionary (another of my favorites)? The Bible (certainly my favorite book)? The list could go on.
Now, while I am truly nonplussed by the query concerning the best book I’ve ever read, still I am often tempted to say, “The works of George Herbert.” I have in mind two specific pieces by Herbert that are often brought together in a collection of his works, namely, The Country Parson and The Temple. The Country Parson is an essay about being a clergyman, particularly in a rural setting—but it is relevant to any situation in ministry (either ordained or lay ministry). Occasionally, I recommend this writing to students, and often they conclude, as I have, that this work from the early seventeenth century is about as good a treatment of pastoral ministry as anything that has been written since then.
The work comprises thirty-seven “chapters” and two prayers (one for before and one for after a sermon). The chapters vary in length, though all are brief, and some are no more than half of a page. The wisdom within the chapters, however, is remarkable. For example, Herbert comments on “The Parson’s Knowledge” (Chapter VI)—which could also easily be entitled “The Christian’s Knowledge.” He recognizes the crucial, fundamental nature of (1) a holy life, (2) prayer, (3) diligent study of Scripture, and (4) the study of “Commenters and Fathers” on the Scriptures—an epistemological tour de force that has not been surpassed in 400 years. All Christians would profit from an encounter with Herbert’s sketch of the life of The Country Parson.
The other work that I have in mind is The Temple, a four-part collection of poems that are meditations on Christian life in the broadest sense, for as Herbert says,
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into sacrifice.
Herbert’s poetry is sublime—so much so that Ralph Vaughan Williams set portions of the poetry to music as Five Mystical Songs. For those who love poetry and music, there is not much that I can more highly recommend. As a sample of Herbert’s poetry consider a portion of The Temple that is named “The Call.” It is a part of Herbert’s text that is set to music by Vaughan Williams as the fourth of the five mystical songs”:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.
Thus, what is “the best” book I’ve ever read? If you love texts and music too, then let me commend George Herbert’s works to you—both for reading and contemplation as prose and poetry and (with Vaughan Williams help) for listening and inspiration as music and song. Little in prose and poetry (and music) is for me so rewarding and so inspiring as these “best” pieces of religious art in words.
Marion (Marty) L. Soards is Professor of New Testament Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1990.