On My Shelf: Life and Books with Peter Leithart – Ivan Mesa

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Peter Leithart—president of the Theopolis Institute, author of Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death, and many others—about what’s on his nightstand table, favorite fiction, his best piece of reading advice, and more.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

My nightstand has a stack of novels, since evening is reserved for fiction. I’ve got a couple of books by George Saunders, two novels of Alison Lurie, Crash by J. G. Ballard, and Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, which I want to re-read since I don’t think I gave it enough attention the first time round. I’m working down the stack, not reading them all at once.

My daytime, worktime reading is very much determined by writing projects. I’m currently writing a book on the theology of creation, so I’m working through a collection of Augustine’s writings on Genesis, Simon Oliver’s Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed, and Richard Sorabji’s fascinating Time, Creation, and the Continuum. I’ve also been reading through the translated works of Sergius Bulgakov, currently on The Comforter. Of recently published work, I dipped into Bruno Maçães’s History Has Begun.

What is your favorite fiction?

I have a hard time answering questions about favorites, but I can name a few novels that have stuck with me over the years: Walker Percy, especially The Thanatos Syndrome; Dostoevsky, especially Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov; I think Housekeeping is Marilynne Robinson’s best work; Jane Austen is a perennial favorite, partly because she provides a stylistic standard of uncluttered clarity. Over the past year, I especially enjoyed Suzanne Clarke’s Piranesi, though it’s too early to tell whether it has staying power.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

I confess—is it a confession?—that I don’t read a lot of biographies or autobiographies. I used Joseph Frank’s incomparable biography of Dostoevsky when I was writing my little biography, and I used some excellent biographies of Constantine when writing my own book. I enjoy dipping into letter collections, but biographies and autobiographies aren’t a large part of my diet.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

At the risk of sounding overly pious, the Bible is the book I’ve re-read most often. Nothing else is even close. I’ve read the Bible through at least once a year since 1990, marking down the date and location of completion on a faded blue 4×6 notecard I keep in the front flap of my Bible. I was taught long ago that there’s no substitute for re-reading and re-re-reading Scripture. Each year, I come across things I’m sure I’ve never read before.

I re-read sections of some theology books on a fairly regular basis: James Jordan’s Through New Eyes; John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory; N. T. Wright, especially Jesus and the Victory of God; Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World; Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism, Corpus Mysticum, and his volumes on medieval exegesis. Since my reading is so strongly determined by writing, I’m usually consulting those books again for a current book project.

You’ve not only written numerous commentaries on the Bible and works of theology, but also on Constantine, Athanasius, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and . . . gratitude. What has animated your wide-ranging (verging on polymathic) engagement with these topics and more?

A lot of it is circumstantial. I have had jobs where I’m paid to read and write. Further, throughout my adult life, I’ve been rather free to follow my interests. I spent 15 years at New St. Andrews College, which was small and flexible enough to allow me to reach outside my specialty. Nearly every book I published during my time there started out in the classroom. Since I moved to Theopolis in 2013, I still have the same freedom to dabble. Part of it is illusion: I’m always writing theology, though I preach from different sorts of texts. Part of it is crassly commercial: I wrote all the books you listed because someone invited me to and offered a check if I agreed.

What’s your best piece of reading advice?

Read books. There are so many distractions and temptations to read headlines and snippets. We need to resist the temptation, because something happens to your mind and heart when you read books that can’t happen any other way. When we read novels, we spend time with characters and situations, keeping intimate company with heroes and villains. We learn to love and hate. When we read complex nonfiction narratives or subtle arguments, our minds are made more supple, as we not only learn data but learn the intricate ways things, events, and people are interconnected.

Something happens to your mind and heart when you read books that can’t happen [by reading anything else].

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

James Jordan, Through New Eyes. Jordan’s book is simply the best introduction to Scripture you’ll ever read, a book that not only teaches about Scripture but sends you back to Scripture with renewed excitement and attentiveness.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

2020 slowed everyone down. Frustrating as it was to cancel everything, it also gave me a chance to slow down, read and write more deliberately, putter around the yard. I’m grateful for the gear shift. But 2020 also revealed some disturbing trends in American politics and culture. Christians need to prepare ourselves for a rocky time in the coming decade.

Sometime last spring, I came across the suggestion to begin each day with thanksgiving for the coming. It should have been obvious to me, since I wrote a book on gratitude, but I initially found it difficult to give thanks for undetermined future things. I wanted more control over how I distributed my gratitude! Over the past year, I’ve been able sincerely to thank God for what he hasn’t done yet, to thank him for things that may not turn out the way I’d prefer. It’s been a good discipline, and has taught me to greet the day with a sense that, whatever happens, the day will present opportunities to serve him.

Early in the lockdown last spring, I walked to the neighbor’s to invite him to pray with me every morning. I figured we need to pray, and also wanted to use the lockdown to get closer to my neighbors, rather than more distant. We were soon joined by another neighbor, and the three of us recently passed our one-year anniversary. I’ve never been part of a daily prayer group before, and it’s been wonderful.

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