Tuesday, December 27, 2011



‘Pray constantly’ (1 Thess. 5:17). The devout Russian peasant-author of The Way of a Pilgrim added: ‘These words made a deep impression on me, and I started thinking of how it could be possible to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention’.

But a busy American professor, Thomas Kelly (A Testament of Devotion) says it can be done: ‘I find that a life of little whispered words of adoration, of praise, of prayer, of worship can be breathed all through the day. One can have a very busy day, outwardly speaking, and yet be steadily in the holy Presence’.

Perhaps C S Lewis (Mere Christianity) offers the best summary of this paradox: ‘Christ sometimes describes the Christian way as very hard (taking up one’s cross), sometimes as very easy (“my yoke is easy and my burden light”).’

25 Books Every Christian Should Read provides some excellent wisdom about both ‘contemplation’ and ‘action’. 

Actually there are three lists here:

(1) The main one, with a chapter devoted to each. The 25 authors of these spiritual classics consist of 20 DWM’s (Dead White Males), two Dead White Females, two of unknown gender and ‘Various’ [1]

(2) Embedded in each chapter is a list of the five-or-so choices of various well-known contemporary (American) authors.

(3) Then we have some good recommendations of the ‘Best Contemporary Authors’ [2]

The spiritual classics missing from all three lists make for an interesting list in itself: Scottish scholar/preacher James Stewart gets one vote (A Man in Christ) but his contemporary English scholar/preacher W E Sangster doesn’t rate a mention: which I’ve found is common on the American side of the Atlantic. (When I commended Sangster to Richard Foster he told me he’d never heard of him!). There are a few books by Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren – two of the most-read progressive authors in the English-speaking world. The best writing preacher (or preaching writer) in the English language – John Claypool – is nowhere at all. Frank Laubach, one of the outstanding modern mystics, is mentioned only once or twice. Buechner, I think, is also listed only once or twice.

Lists of ‘best books’ must always be accompanied by a few caveats: who’s putting the list together? (Here’s it’s a group of university-educated American teachers/writers with a contemplative bent. You’d expect American Quakers among them to commend John Woolman’s Journal; or Methodists to like Wesley’s Journal and/or Sermons; and you’d expect a tertiary-educated person to say C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity is easy to read, despite its plethora of obscure turns of phrase – like ‘asinine fatuity’). Does a list by one person comprise books which impacted her/him throughout their life, or those which they’d recommend to a wide range of readers? Does the list-author read widely, or are they stuck close to their own theological tradition? Fortunately all the lists here are theologically eclectic.

Some of the 25 books in the main list I wouldn’t include at all. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Calvin’s Institutes belong among works of historical theology, but not in a list of books teaching basic spirituality. Dante’s The Divine Comedy may help medieval Christians to pray better – but not moderns.

If you wanted just one substitute, you couldn’t go past a modern edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.   

Other titles certainly do belong here: the one novel among the 25 (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov); the various autobiographical works  - Augustine’s Confessions; Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain - though his anti-Protestant rants are a turn-off: which would lead me to suggest his New Seeds of Contemplation as a better choice; and Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal: though I reckon you can’t understand Nouwen-the-wounded-healer without being aware of his lifelong battle with a homosexual orientation.

Another issue: the lists here presuppose that praying is mostly ‘verbal communication with God’. Surely prayer-as-action is just as important.  

OK: you have a right to ask me for my list. Here’s my ‘top dozen’ for any Christian – tertiary educated or not but who loves to grow through spiritual reading, rank-ordered in terms of both strategic importance and suggested order-to-be-read: The Message (Eugene Peterson) – read it straight through at least once; Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Streams of Living Water – the very best overviews of the main spiritual disciplines; anything by Brian McLaren (except, perhaps, his novels) and Richard Rohr (start with his best book, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 2011); W E Sangster’s The Pure in Heart (his magnum opus - a broad-brush overview of the spiritual life); Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – spirituality is a corporate not just an individualistic matter; any books of sermons by either/both John Claypool and/or Barbara Brown Taylor; yes, C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity and/or John Stott’s Why I Am a Christian; Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation, and finally, the brilliant Confessions of Saint Augustine.

Back to the 25 Books: the layout is easy-to-read: a 2-3 page introduction, then a few paragraphs on why this particular book is essential; some hints in half-a-page or so about how to read it, followed by a few pages of key quotes; and finally a Study Guide for Personal Reflection. Terrific stuff! Now back to reading it a second time…


[1] The males: Athanasius, Augustine, Desert Fathers, Benedict, Dante Alighieri, Thomas a Kempis, John Calvin, John of the Cross, Blaise Pascal, John Bunyan, Brother Lawrence, William Law, Dostoevsky, G K Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Kelly, Thomas Merton, C S Lewis, and Henri Nouwen.

The two women: Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila.

Unknown and ‘various’: the anonymous authors of The Cloud of Unknowing, and The Way of a Pilgrim (the pilgrim was almost certainly male), and the ‘Various’ authors in The Philokalia (those monks were almost certainly all male too).

[2] Wendell Berry, Richard Foster, Anne Lamont, Brian McLaren, Eugene Peterson, John Stott, Walter Wangerin Jr, Dallas Willard, N T Wright. In case you didn’t pick it, two of these are English, the rest American.


Rowland Croucher
December 2011.

Note: watch this article on jmm.aaa.net.au for some added comments by others and myself over the next year or so.