Great books (for lack of a better title)

24 Dec

I recently purchased a book, 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Christian Classics as a holiday gift.  This got me thinking about making a list of some of my top books relating to Christianity and the Christian life.
The book’s top 25 list is as follows:

1. On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius
2. Confessions by St. Augustine
3. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
4. The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
6. The Cloud of Unknowing by Unknown
7. Revelations of Divine Love (Showings) by Julian of Norwich
8. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
9. The Philokalia
10. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
11. The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila
12. Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
13. Pensees by Blaine Pascal
14. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
15. The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
16. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law
17. The Way of a Pilgrim by Unknown
18. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
19. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
20. The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
21. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
22. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly
23. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
24. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
25. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen

In preparing my list I have realized some things.  First of all, I have read and been influence by more newer books than old.  While many of the authors I read are drawing on a deeper tradition and interacting with older works many times, this still has shown me that my reading needs to not just be wider, but also deeper (in history.)  Also, it reminded me of something I already knew, that I am much more drawn to books of a theological/intellectual bent rather than the spiritual/formative types.  This comes naturally as I tend to be more analytic and less emotional, but it also reminds me that I need to keep both sides in balance, loving God with both my mind and heart.  Also as a reminder, this is not a list of the greatest Christian books, it’s a list of books that have been influential and important for me.  The books are rated both on the quality of the message and the importance and scope of the subject, as well as how influential it has been for me (This means that some of the books will not be widely influential in Christianity at all, but just for me, while others are recognized “Christian classics”).  I realize that these are muddled criteria, and may seem arbitrary, but that’s because the choices kinda are, but that’s what you get.  And without further ado, my list (which in the interest of shortness is my top 12, not 25):


  1. .
    Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
     by N.T. Wright.
    .
    I can think of few books I’ve read that have been as influential and paradigm shifting for me as this book has.  Wright, an impressive New Testament scholar, discusses explains the Christian message in terms of God redeeming and restoring all of His creation and explains the Christian mission in this context.  A great book that gives a theological paradigm that has full room for issues such as social justice, ecology, war and peace, etc.  A very healthy (and biblical) corrective to the shallow “personal salvation”-focused version of the Gospel.
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  2. .
    The Cost of Discipleship
     by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    .
    One of the greatest books of the 20th century, Bonhoeffer begins this book by expounding on the difference between what he calls “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.  He says “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. ” (underlines added) It is one of the most convicting and inspiring books I have ever read.
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  3. .
    The Irrisistable Revolution: Living Life as an Ordinary Radical
     by Shane Claiborne
    .
    In my sophomore year of college, this book was (to steal the term) revolutionary.  I discovered it in a time of revolution in my faith, and when I was discovering some of the implications of the Christian faith in terms of social justice and other issues.  It is written by Shane Claiborne who is a part of the “New Monastic” movement, which appropriates monastic practices while being active in mission and living in community in inner cities (Shane lives in the inner city of Philadelphia).  Very radical stuff for someone raised on the Evangelical salvation gospel.
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  4. .
    The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
     by Christian Smith
    .
    A very impressive and sharp critique of the primary way the Scriptures are handled within the Evangelical tradition, a way known as “biblicism”.  He shows how because of what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, the Scriptures do not functionally serve as an authority for Evangelicals.  This is because one can simply choose whatever interpretation one likes the best (because there is no higher authority to appeal to).  Smith, who has become a Catholic since writing the book, explains precisely what he means by “biblicism” and then shows its many problems.  To finish the book he offers a few suggestions for better approaches to the Scriptures, but the best part of this book is how he reveals, explains, and then shows the impossibility of the biblicist approach.
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  5.  
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    Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
     by Peter Enns
    .
    A great book that provides a paradigm for understanding Scripture in which discoveries of OT studies in the last century fit.  It discusses the similarities of the OT to other ancient Near Eastern mythographies, literature and culture, the theological diversity (read: contradictions or apparent contradictions) in the OT, and the NT authors’ seemingly cavalier usage of OT passages in their writings.  In all of this his central message is simple, just as Jesus was and is both fully divine and fully human, so the Scriptures are both fully human (fully bearing the marks of the cultures and time periods from which they came), and also fully divine (inspired by the One God).  This understanding of Scripture makes sense of issues brought up by biblical scholarship that would be problems in a simple “biblical inerrancy” framework of thought.
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  6.  
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    The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann
    .
    In this book, Brueggemann provides a framework for understanding what prophetic ministry is all about.  It is critiquing the present reality (of whatever kind) and energizing (providing hope) for an alternative reality.  He sees the current conservative tendency to be good at energizing for an alternative reality, but poor at critique, and the liberal tendency as good at present critique, but poor at energizing for an alternative reality.  In the context of the OT prophets it was the theological as well as sociopolitical situation, in Moses’ context it was the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But he explains this in a way that is practical for understanding how prophetic imagination and ministry might work today (without giving any concrete applications).
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  7. .
    Evil and the Justice of God 
    by N.T. Wright
    .
    A great work of theology that looks at the problem in the scriptural narrative.  The basic answer that Wright gives is that the Bible doesn’t so much explain why evil exists as it shows what God is doing about this problem in creation.  What God is doing is first calling Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12 and following) to both be blessed and bless the whole world, and after this to send His Son to fulfill everything Israel was called to do (the idea of Messiahship, of representing God’s people).  This book is incredibly biblical and yet seems revolutionary at the same time.  Well worth the read.
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  8. .
    The Politics of Jesus
     by John Howard Yoder
    .
    Yoder, a Mennonite, and one of the great 20th century theologians (who studied under Karl Barth), begins this work by arguing that the Gospel cannot be understood as being apolitical because it proclaims an alternative politic or social ethic.  The book expounds on this alternative, pacifist ethic.  It is a thorough and theologically impressive book that all would do well to read.
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  9. .
    The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster
    .
    This classic on Christian spiritual disciplines contains something within it that eludes so many books that are filled with intelligent arguments, logic, wit, and humor; and that factor is wisdom.  This book reads like words of instruction from a wise soul to another.  Practical, yet profound, it reintroduces a variety of disciplines to a generation of Christians who have grown up without these practices
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  10. .
    Mere Christianity
     by C.S. Lewis
    .
    The first book of serious or theological nature I ever read, in fact the only book of such sort I read while in high school.  I convinced by dad to buy it for me while we were in a book store one time on the condition that I read the whole thing.  He agreed.  I thought it was the greatest thing since the closing of the canon.  While in retrospect I would now see Lewis as being overly influenced by Greek (esp. Platonic) philosophy (to the book’s detriment), it is still impossible to deny Lewis’ genius in writing and thought, and this book has reintroduced the Christian faith to generations of both believers and non-believers.
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  11.  
    Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K.A. Smith
    .
    Smith shows in this book the many ways in which postmodern philosophy, which is most often understood as being in opposition to Christianity, can be incorporated into Christian thought in a healthy, orthodox way.  This book played a huge part in my life in beginning to question my own antipathies towards such things as authority, ritual, and tradition (especially authority), and realize that those attitudes may well be a product of influence by modernist philosophy (a philosophy that is at least as anti-Christian, if not more, than postmodern philosophy).  By accepting postmodernism’s critique of modernism’s idea of objective, universal knowledge, the Christian is freed to embrace the whole of Christian tradition, realizing that all knowledge is in some way a product of culture and tradition.  Without oversimplifying, this book is accessible enough for a wide audience.
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  12.  
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    Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals 
     by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw
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    Written in order to “provoke the Christian political imagination”, this book is impressive both in content and (especially) in its creative design (flip through a copy of the book to see what I mean).  It is a stroll through the Old Testament, the life of Jesus, the early Church, and a look at the future, all through the lens of the idea that the people of God are called to live as an alternative community with an alternative social ethic as a witness to the outside world.  It is heavily influenced by Anabaptist theology/politics.  Whether you agree or disagree, it is worth the read.  Very thought-provoking.
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Just missing the cut: Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation, Pope Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, a whole bunch of other books by N.T. Wright (most of which I own), Richard Hays’ The Conversion of the Imagination, John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, Brevard Childs’ Old Testament Theology in Canonical Context, John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics, and, When War is Unjust, Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Community, and Freedom, Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and many more.

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25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essentil Christian Classics on Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Books-Every-Christian-Should-Read/dp/0060841435/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1324590026&sr=1-1

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4 Responses to “Great books (for lack of a better title)”

  1. Joel December 24, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    Good list! I agree about surprised by hope’s impact and the challenge it poses to most american christians. I was dissapointd by Evil and the justice of God, his theodicy is much stronger than modern reformed proposals (like the puke-on-paper that tim keller writes) but it still seems to me that his view of Gods sovereignty is too rigid and blind to nuance to free god from being responsible (even if in a permissive sense) for the presence of natural and interpersonal evil. I recommend The doors of the sea by david bentley hart.

    Also, I can not believe that the faith once and for all is not in your top 5, how did you pass systematic theology???

    • danielericcummings December 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

      Also, this list may look a bit different a year or two from now once I’ve been able to reflect upon how books I’m now reading or have recently read have influenced me and can look back on them with some perspective.
      And the Faith Once For All is doing a great job holding up my couch as I am missing a leg on it. Also I told Patty recently about the time Jack Cottrell called you on your cell phone and left you a voice mail.

  2. Joel December 24, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Oh and you need to read more dead people

    • danielericcummings December 24, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

      Joel, remember when you wanted to start the “Dead Thought Society” where we talk about the writings and thought of people who are no longer living, and you chased people around the dorms with flashlights to “initiate” them into the society? And we looked for Shawn forever, and he was hiding in the bed in our dorm the whole time.
      Or is that all still top secret, in which case (for every one else’s sake), I made that whole previous paragraph up just now.

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