In a couple months I will be posting the obligatory “best reads of the year” list. But as a guy who loves books and reading I thought I’d post a list of the books that have figured particularly large in my life. These are not merely books I love (that list would be too long). These are books that helped to shape my theology, my broader worldview, and made me fall in love with reading.
I know what you’re thinking: “What a good Presbyterian!” But truly this is not just a perfunctory tip of the hat to Calvin. The Institutes is the most beautifully written theological and devotional text I have ever read.
After the Bible, the first book I direct people to is Knowing God. I read this book when I was struggling with my own theology. The chapter on the kindness and severity of God changed everything for me.
I read this book at a time when I very much needed a better grounding in the doctrine of Scripture, particularly its inerrancy. I still consider this a “must read” for Christians.
When I moved away from home to attend university I took my Bible and a copy of a book I had purchased just days before – The Holiness of God. If my memory serves me, it was the first Christian book I ever read cover-to-cover.
The chapter entitled “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” is worth the price of the book.
This book makes the list because of the role it played in helping me stay afloat during the time I was a battered pastor. The chapter on Charles Simeon was a life preserver for me.
While I am now a convinced Presbyterian, it was Nine Marks of a Healthy Church which first introduced me to some categories which I had lacked having been brought up in the broad evangelicalism of the SBC. During my early and formative years in ministry I had been steeped in the categories and methods of the church growth movement. Reading Nine Marks for the first time was like a much-needed detox.
There are a lot of great books on preaching out there which have helped me immensely. But all things considered Goldsworthy’s excellent volume made this list because of the way it helped me make the necessary connections between the Old Testament and Jesus.
Chamber’s account of his journey into and out of communism and his subsequent legal battles with Alger Hiss is one of the most important books of the 20th century. It is also beautifully written. Witness makes my list because it serves as a sort of political Rosetta Stone for understanding the first half of the 20th century. It is also timeless for Chambers sounds the alarm against that system of governance which makes the state the matter of ultimate importance. If nothing else, read Chambers’ introduction which takes the form of a letter to his children. That letter concludes with words that always bring me to tears:
"My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening. In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha – the place of skulls. This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise."
In one volume, Johnson explains the 20th century.
Frederick Buechner helped me to love reading. I discovered him during my first year of seminary. I read Whistling in the Dark and was hooked. The Wizard’s Tide is Buechner’s slightly fictionalized biography of his younger years which included the suicide of his father. It is a book one should read more than once.
This rather slim novel was mandatory reading when I was in high school. Not surprisingly, the story of a New England prep school student during WWII did not exactly resonate with this high school student from Houston, TX. However, something about it stuck with me over the years. I read it again after I was married and working as a pastor. I concluded that A Separate Peace is quite nearly a perfect book. I think the reason it has remained with me is because of the way Knowles writes about evil. He never names it. He doesn’t have to. It is the thing crouching in the heart of a good kid.
Actually I could have listed almost everything by Bradburry. I read Bradburry for the sheer joy of reading beautiful sentences. I think the reason Something Wicked This Way Comes makes my list is because of the way he captures the nostalgia of his own early 20th century Midwestern upbringing without falling into sappy sentimentality. And, as in most of his works, Bradburry shows how even in the most idyllic settings mystery and danger always lurk in the dark corners.
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