Through the years, as I have been stuck in finding the next good read, I’ve resorted to googling “top 10 lists” for a given year or genre. In a related vein, in various settings, I (Jim) have posed the question of favorite books: “If stuck on a desert isle,” the question might go, “what 10 books (besides the Bible) would you want to have with you… or recommend to another?”
Yes, I am aware of G.K. Chesterton’s response to the question. “If I were stranded on a desert island with only one book,” he is reported as saying, “I would choose Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.” In that vein, I can think of other very practical entries – as, e.g., SEAL Survival Guide : A Navy SEAL’s Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster.
Maybe we need to make provision for such books and move on.
Or, perhaps we should re-frame the scenario
-– something along the lines of…
suppose you were thrust into a situation of isolation and social distancing and the regular media was getting too stressful or boring to provide any real support…
what meaningful reads would you recommend to your friends and family?
Over time, a stack of responses has grown–many yielding some fruitful and enjoyable engagements!
I’ve even taken a stab or two of my own through the years. (Problem [or perhaps the joy] is that the list is ever being amended in the wake of new experience.)
Even so, I offer the following list of books that have served me well through the course of my ministry and living—with some indication of ‘why.” At one point, I wanted to confine it to a “top ten” (as that seems popular). But, that notion was and is just too exhausting. So, I’ll leave it at “Twenty Most Instrumental Authors (and Reads) in My Life… At Least for Now.” Incomplete and evolving as it is, I offer it here—in the hopes that it might stimulate your own ponderings of the question… and, maybe, your [covid + winter-time] reading pleasure and/or edification.
P.S. I sure do welcome your own lists and additions –
via the comment section, below!
Twenty Most Instrumental Authors
(and Reads) in My Life…
[At Least for Now]
(in alpha order per section)
There are a couple focused on the Bible and its Interpretation…
I was introduced to Ken Bailey by my mentor in Holy Land studies, Dr. Jim Fleming. Bailey, a Middle Eastern scholar, provides the best example of Biblical scholarship that I have encountered—engaging Biblical texts from both the standpoint of linguistics (especially with an eye to Semitic languages) and historical-cultural considerations. For all that ways that that might sound dry and boring, it is all brought alive and down to earth by his sensitivities and gifts as a Presbyterian pastor. His treatments of the Parable of the Prodigal Son are renown. I’d recommend them highly. I have chosen, though, to highlight his broader treatment of the teachings and acts of Jesus in what might be his magnum opus (written near the end of this life), Jesus Through Middle Easter Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospel.
If Bailey has been a key to my entering the first-century culture and context of Jesus and the Gospels, then Sanford (an Anglican priest and Jungian analyst) has been instrumental in helping me bridge that Gospel with the insights of contemporary psychology. (His other works on dreams and relationships are worthwhile reads.) In regards to his engagement of the Scriptures, I’d recommend The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings. But, here I’d spotlight Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John for the ways he brings that Gospel to light for me… and in me.
There are a few engaging Christianity (in a general manner)…
Etheridge, John and Brent Curtis
Perhaps the most influential book in the first half of my life and ministry, The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God continues to fuel my appreciation of how all “loves” and “love stories” in this world are, at best, shadows of the ultimate Lover which is Christ and the ultimate Love story which is the Gospel! Among other things, here was and is a portal into cinema and literature – and the ways they provide a contemplative approach to the Scriptures.
Mom introduced me to “Jack” (we’re on a first name basis… at least in my head)… Mom introduced me to Jack in the early days of my Christian walk – gifting me a slip case of his books for Christmas. (As Mom passed away when I was only 28, the gift became even more cherished as Lewis has never lost his ability to challenge and stimulate. Here is such a creative and gifted communicator and apologist for the Faith–transposing ancient themes and doctrines of the Christianity for our “modern” minds and world. Tough to make a real definitive call here: take your pick from Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, The Space Trilogy, Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,… (Given this dilemma in choosing, I decided to spotlight an updated version of the slipcase gift Mom gave me years ago.)
If Lewis was the great transposer of the Faith to generations of the last Century, McLaren (and Yancey, below) are filling that role (at least for me) here in the 21st Century. A pioneer in the “Emergent Movement,” McLaren heralds and defends an “ancient-future” Faith – one which is true and faithful to its ancient roots but also relevant to our contemporary situation. (Here’s how he defines himself in the subtitle of his book, A Generous Orthodoxy: “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.” For some reason, I am drawn to a series of “novels” he’s written. (He calls them “philosophical dialogues”: A New Kind of Christian, The Story We Find Oursleves In, and The Last Word and The Word After That.) They aren’t that noteworthy from a stylistic standpoint but they did have a way of speaking to my mind and heart – especially as a pastor trying to find my own feet to stand on. For the ways that I could recommend these books and Orthdoxy, I’ve chosen to spotlight A New Kind of Christianity for the ways that it represents one of his first, comprehensive attempts to pull his position and aruguments together.
As McLaren seeks a revitalized faith for a new day and age, Yancey addresses some of the age-old questions against the Faith—questions about pain and suffering in a world supposedly loved by God, about the incongruity between the Jesus of the Gospels and too many Christians and Churches across time. (Here, Yancey seems to spin a saying of Gandhi on its head: “I am a Christian in spite of the Christians I have seen!”) In many ways, Yancey is what Henri Nouwen would call a “wounded healer” – taking his real questions about God and his real abuse at the hands of the Church… and turning them into entry points for us to engage our beliefs, to lament our fallenness, and to celebrate Amazing Grace. As with others, it is hard for me to single in on one title. Where is God When it Hurts?, Soul Survivor, The Jesus I Never Knew: these are others have been most meaningful reads for me. I’ll admit, though, that his Church: Why Bother? had a most profound impact on my mind and mostly my heart. Among his earliest works, he humbly invites us into the “Deep South Fundamentalism” of his youth [so ensconced in segregation and the persecution of Blacks] and gives us hope that the Gospel can still convict and convert and consecrate broken souls and communities.
There are a couple that have provided important handles in pastoring…
In some ways, I have outgrown Covey – and his “first half of life” call to make our lives more effective and productive. There is no doubting, though, the impact it had on me in that first half of life – driving a whole of my personal and pastoral work in visioning and management and “sharpening the saw.” Come to think of it, it can still be a powerful and meaningful read for this second half of life. Here, though, we will probably need to admit that the “end in sight” for this second half of life is radically different than it was in the first half!
Writing is not Peter Scazzero’s big gift. He is “saved” to some degree by his co-author, Warren Bird. His story, though, was and is compelling [to this Pastor]. And his message was and is meaningful: that congregations need to get beyond just baptizing the surface of individual’s lives – promoting a deeper life of spiritual and emotional maturity. Here was and is a detailing of so many essential concepts –clearly explained and affirmed: acknowledging our brokenness, admitting wounds from our family of origins, acknowledging limits and the need for boundaries. And every bit as important was Scazzero’s emphasis on the contemplative life, the stages of faith (including our encountering “Walls”), and the importance of our having “rules” for faithful living. I had explored and have since explored each of these things more deeply in other books, but the attraction and power here was having them all gathering in a user friendly way in one place – prefect for taking it to the congregation!
There are a few focused on spiritual formation…
The importance of allegory in my life is the ways it bridges head and heart. This highly left-brained soul needs a good dose of right-brain imagery and poetry every now and then! Yes, there’s Pilgrim’s Progress and, more dear to me, Dante’s Divine Comedy. But, for it’s simplicity and ease (and the fact that it was the first allegory of the Christian life which I engaged), I spotlight Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Yes, I am “Much Afraid”– ever questioning the detours into the wilderness! But, hold on, it’s all a part of the Shepherd preparing me for and leading me to the heights and a new identity!
Read the fuller list here and you will note the ways that the integration of psychology and faith is important to me. Dimensions of this integration include addiction and wholeness/healing and “dark nights.” With one foot in medicine and one foot in the Faith and a writing style that is friendly, May is a perfect integrator and bridge-builder. All of his books are worthy reads. I have spotlighted Dark Night of the Soul here for the ways he summarizes and simplifies the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but also for the ways he defines the “Dark Night(s)” and their role in fostering contemplation [as direct communion with God] in our lives.
There are plenty of writers on spiritual formation these days. And there are a lot of voices I’d commend on the important notion within spiritual formation which is the “true self.” (In regard to this “true self” and it’s restoration, I’d emphasize the writings of Buecnher [Telling Secrets], Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Albert Haase.) Mulholland stands out for his clarity and depth and simplicity on the subjects – leaving little doubt in my mind to why so many will point to him as the first “go to” in spiritual formation studies. I’d highly recommend The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self. I spotlight Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, though, for that it has been most instrumental in shaping my understanding and discussions about this essential but easily displaced work of (and in) the Church.
He’s certainly worth listening to – with that deep bass voice. Palmer brings the contemplative posture of his Quaker background to discussions of true self, listening, the promise of paradox, and the power and process of group discernment. His Hidden Wholeness could be a primer in group spiritual direction. I spotlight his Let Your Life Speak for the ways it was one of my first introductions to the notion of finding and recovering my true self.
When it comes to a variety of spiritual discussions, Rohr has a Midas touch – to the end that whatever he touches, turns to Gold. Whether it’s the Enneagram or the journey of males to their wholeness in Christ or reflections on the mystics or 12-Step Spirituality, his reach is broad and deep. I spotlight his Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life for the meaningful ways it weaves together meaningful insights from the “Hero’s Journey,” the wisdom of Christianity and a variety of Faiths, and the quest unto human fullness and maturity.
View from the Monastery came as a refreshing and delightful commentary about life in Christian community–with a view to its challenges, its humorous sides, and its joys. In the process, if was one of the first affirmations in my life of the relevance and value of the Rule of St. Benedict — spurring me into deeper explorations and encounters of that way of ordering life and living.
And maybe a few spiritual biographies…
Taylor, Barbara Brown
Taylor’s Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith was both a goad and a salve when I, too, was struggling with my role as a pastor and my place in the Church. As much as it provided any answers, it gave me a companion and permission to hold the questions that were strirring within. Since then, other works (like Altar in the Woods) have furthered my appreciation for the art of contemplation… and taking the risk (find the courage) to give voice to one’s soul.
Ten Boom, Corrie
From the beginning of my Christian journey, biographies have been important. Early copies of Joni, Man in Black (about Johnny Cash), and Home Where I Belong (B.J Thomas), among others, formed a contemporary “Book of Martyrs [or at least Believers]” — to encourage and inspire my soul. But none of these compares with the heroic witness of Corrie Ten Boom conveyed in The Hiding Place. Here’s a story of boldly resisting the evils that best us in this world, of risking one’s life to love others, of miracles, of forgiveness and persevering in faith – emanating from a pure and simple heart and soul. Corrie enjoys an intimacy with God that I find most remarkable and compelling.
Van Auken, Sheldon
An interesting conversion from atheism to belief and the navigation of real grief and pain are two prominent features of A Severe Mercy – features of life which Van Auken would share with his real-life mentor, C.S. Lewis. Here is a more personal apologetic for the Faith – including an engagement of the sensitive topic of pain and suffering. A follow-up volume, entitled Under the Mercy, tracks an equally compelling notion (for me, at least): Van Auken’s ultimate migration from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholisicm.
There’s one who dances between spiritual formation and spiritual biography…
He is definitely in the “top five” of authors/mentors—he who forsook Yale and Harvard to pursue a ministry of love and caring to the handicapped of L’Arche. Deep reflections and a vulnerability/transparency has this “wounded hearler” coming to life — ministering to me in very deep ways. As with some others in this list, it so hard to define one work. There are any one of his very poignant journals, The Way of the Heart, Adam: God’s Beloved, The Inner Voice of Love, Letters to Marc,… I’ve spotlighted The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, though, for the ways it brings together so much of what Henri offers: a regard for the Scriptures, a love of art (here, with a most profound engagement of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal), a contemplative flair, a capacity to drop his guard and allow others passage into his heart.
And why not a few selections from the fiction section…
Chasing Francis met me in my love of the saints – and especially Francis. But, like Taylor’s Leaving Church (above), it met me at a point of vocational crisis – wondering where I fit in a Church that seemed to have a case of megachurch-itis. Cron (an Anglican priest) is probably better known for his work with Suzanne Stabile on the Enneagram. But, for me, Chasing Francis is a powerful engagement of the inherent tension between the ideal of the Church as a movement of God vs the reality of the Church as a human institution. Along the way, it breathes hope – strongly suggesting that God has always had the final and ultimate Word over that Church.
Next to the Gospel itself, Les Miserables may be one of the most powerful stories of redemption ever penned. It overflows with Gospel themes of forgiveness, fundamental legalism (vs Grace and mercy), the power of sacrifice,… It’s only drawback? It’s excruciating length. (Best to listen to it on audible… on a very long drive!)
Howatch’s Starbridge series (6 novels in all) is a masterful tapestry of storytelling –weaving meaningful theology into equally profound psychology. The result is an epic historical novel of sorts (focused on the Church of England through the course of the middle decades of the last century) — where highly complex and credible characters are caught between the high call of God as well as their inner “demons.” I spotlight Glittering Images here: 1) because it was my first exposure to the series and 2) because of the ways it engaged my most biggest demon in ministry.
Isn’t historical fiction such a marvelous and creative gift to the literary enterprise. Done right, we get to engage in a history lesson and character analysis all at once. Here, I am mindful of a variety of worthwhile offerings: Follet’s Pillars of the Earth or Leon Uris’ Exodus: A Novel of Israel or The Haj. Still, though, the granddaddy of all such novelists was James Michener. Here, especially I commend The Source – an epic which has us engaging the history of the land which is modern day Israel and pondering the evolution of religions in that region. I strongly recommend this read to any and all who are preparing for a Holy Land tour… or wishing they could.