Monday, August 29, 2011
THE BEST BOOKS I'VE EVER READ
My journey as a Christian, lover/husband, father, and pastor/teacher/ evangelist has covered different terrains during threescore and ten-plus years. Here's a rough chronological journey listing books that influenced me at the time. Remember, I'm not back there, stuck where-I-was. I was brought up in a 'gentle fundamentalist' church (Open or Plymouth Brethren) and I'm still 'evangelical' but now also somewhat 'progressive' and 'catholic'; conservative about a few things but also radical; encouraging individual initiative but also committed to social justice, compassion and community. As Richard Rohr says in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality we must incorporate – not reject – Torah/tradition, Prophetic/dissenting perspectives and Wisdom/mysticism - all of these – into a full and complete life of faith, hope and love…
Another caveat: My calling is to minister mainly to practising pastors and to ex-pastors, so this list is slanted towards pastoral theology, rather than, say, academic theology, or missiology etc. Other gaps in this list include social issues like homosexuality, corporate worship, counselling, pastoral leadership/management, general literature (novels, poetry) – important areas but which would require many more words/titles. I've also majored on recommending authors who were pastors for a substantial period of their lives as well as being well-read scholars (Sangster, Claypool, Peterson, Rohr, McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor etc.). A longer list compiled half a decade ago can be found here: http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8073.htm .
1. THE BIBLE. As a youngster I was captivated by the wonderful stories of God's grace in the Bible (KJV), and also its magnificent poetry (eg. Isaiah 40, which as a teenager I learned off by heart). I knew more about 'dispensational prophecy' than the apostles did, and read the Bible through several times. (The most readable recent translation: Eugene Peterson's The Message. The best for study and corporate worship: the NRSV.)
2. ADVENTURE STORIES - especially R M Ballantyne's; and the William, Biggles and Deerfoot books – gave me as a child a love of reading for pleasure.
3. THE KNEELING CHRISTIAN (by 'An Unknown Christian') instilled in me the conviction that genuine Christian commitment is nothing if not fervent. BIOGRAPHIES - of people like George Muller, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, C H Spurgeon and the Ecuador Martyrs - inspired me in my formative years to 'be the best I can be' for God and others.
4. C S LEWIS (especially Mere Christianity) and JOHN STOTT (Basic Christianity) were helpful in my accepting orthodox Christian tenets as 'believable'.
5. MILLAR'S SCM COMMENTARY ON LUKE and (later) WALTER BRUEGGEMANN'S ON THE PSALMS (among others, eg, Abraham Joshua Heschel) encouraged me to believe that expounding the Scriptures can be instructive, interesting and challenging.
6. W E SANGSTER'S sermons, books on homiletics, and magnum opus The Pure in Heart (on spirituality) were wonderful integrative elements in my formation as a young pastor. Two decades later Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and later again his Streams of Living Water helped in the quest for an overview of historical/ecumenical spirituality.
7. I got JOHN CLAYPOOL'S sermons once a month by mail for many years, and stopped everything to read them: he's still the best 'writing preacher' in the English language, I reckon. His Tracks of a Fellow Struggler - sermons on Job while his 9 year old daughter Laura Lue was dying of leukemia - have comforted many in their grief. Following Claypool, I think Barbara Brown Taylor's sermons delight me the most.
8. Three Catholic authors who have enriched/inspired: THOMAS MERTON (his best – New Seeds of Contemplation), DOM HELDER CAMARA (especially A Thousand Reasons for Living), and HENRI NOUWEN (start with either The Wounded Healer or Creative Ministry).
9. My favourite contemporary author is RICHARD ROHR. Start (slowly) with Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, then Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer. And, for a brilliant analysis of the 'two halves of life' Falling Upward. Use my website's search facility for reviews of these and other titles.
10. For young/new Christians no one beats BRIAN McLAREN. His best, I think, is A Generous Orthodoxy. For those enquiring about Christianity give them Finding Faith: A Search for What is Real.
11. Interfaith? Remember the dictum ascribed to Zwi Werblowsky: 'There are some things about a given religion which can only be understood from inside and some things about the same religion which can only be understood from outside.' Now here's a surprise choice perhaps: begin with KHALED HOSSEINI'S The Kite Runner. It gives us brilliant insights into the lives of Muslim families in Afghanistan (and should help soften some of our bigotry about Islam).
12. The number one issue in western theology is the current Jesus Quest. Conservatives will like CRAIG EVANS' Fabricating Jesus (2007) or BEN WITHERINGTON'S What Have they done With Jesus? (2006), but I would suggest that a wider stance should be explored - most easily with the dialogues TOM WRIGHT had with MARCUS BORG on The Meaning of Jesus(2000) and with JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN on The Resurrection of Jesus (2006).
13. Christianity and Social Justice? Start with JIM WALLIS'S Seven Ways to Change the World(2008).
14. Finally, anything by EUGENE PETERSON is excellent (though there's quite a bit of repetition in his various writings). His Take and Read: Spiritual Reading, an Annotated Listis a good guide, and his books on Spiritual Theology - Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places(2005) and The Jesus Way (2007) - are an excellent summary/miscellany of his ideas.
Ponder: 'Beware of the man of one book' (Thomas Aquinas). 'The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is.' (Allan Bloom ).
April 2008 (Updated August 2011)