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Books: Literary Companion to the Lectionary & Literary Companion to the Festivals

Literary Companion to the Lectionary: Readings Throughout the Year by Mark Pryce. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. xiii+143 pp. (paperback).
Literary Companion to the Festivals by Mark Pryce. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xvii+189 pp. (paperback). $11.90.

Preachers know that thoughtful sermons are nourished by equally thoughtful reading. There is no substitute for the insights and ideas that result from reading excellent biographies, novels, poems, and essays. Those who listen to sermons can usually tell the difference between preachers who draw off their own reading and those who cull illustrations from prepackaged resources in which sermon topics are alphabetized from “Anger” to “Zion.”

Mark Pryce’s twin volumes fall somewhere in between. These books are no substitute for reading widely on one’s own but neither are they as stilted as some quote anthologies. Pryce is clearly an excellent reader himself, well versed in English literature and exceedingly able in providing literary citations “to prompt imaginative engagement in worship and study of the Scriptures through writings which affirm or re-work, or even challenge, themes emerging out of the words of Bible texts and liturgical prayer” (Lectionary, p. xi).

The first volume on the Lectionary provides one poem or extended quote for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year. The second volume uses the same method to illustrate the lives of the saints, with each entry pegged to a specific calendar date on which a saint is honored (as defined by Anglicanism but drawing also from the Lutheran Book of Worship). Because many saints were writers, Pryce often presents a portion of that person’s own literary output. However, this book may not be immediately relevant to some traditions, including the Reformed.

The Lectionary companion is far more useful, focusing on Scripture itself. Although lacking any specific listing of texts for any given Sunday or Holy Day (an unfortunate omission), each entry is prefaced with a few sentences that allude to the gist of that day’s lections from Years A, B, and C.

Ninety percent of the literary snippets are poems representing a broad range of style and era. The poems come from as far back as the fourteenth century and as recently as the late twentieth century. The advantage of poetry is the poem’s power to be evocative of so much in short compass. Many of the poems in this book have the wonderful ability to help the reader see old ideas in a new light. But this concentration on poetry also has drawbacks. One is that in my (admittedly limited) experience, few things are as difficult to convey well from a pulpit as long recitations of poetry. (Actually, long verbatim quotations from any source are a surefire way to kill what could be a good illustration). But there is also the issue of being able to comprehend what can sometimes be the arcane language of poems. Some in this volume, though artistically excellent, left me wanting to ring up an English professor for a little help.

But perhaps that is why Pryce stated that he is trying to fire the homiletical/liturgical imagination. On this level, these books may function well. As with all forms of reading, the preacher need not quote directly from a given source to incorporate the insights gained from having read the work in the first place. As a stoker of the imagination, Mr. Pryce’s volumes can go a long way toward making sermons and worship not only a bit more poetic but also more lively, more engaging, and so ultimately more true to the always-startling, ever-fresh biblical texts on which worship should be based.