Thursday, May 30, 2013

Books People in the Church Should Read

So, if you know me, you know I like top-10/100/1000 lists. If I accidentally turn on VH1 and they are showing "Top 100 Heavy Metal Songs" or "Top 100 Music Videos" I am instantly hooked. This can be a problem if you come in at #93 and still have 4 1/2 hours of programming left. Yet, I've endured it before, and I'll probably endure it again. You may have noticed that my blogs often take the form of lists of one type or another. Recently came across an article in Relevant magazine about the ten books everyone should read by 25-ish. I whole-heartedly agreed with Gilead and Let Your Life Speak, but more importantly the list got me thinking about what my top 10 list would be for Christian non-fiction (I think I'm going to do a fiction list later) in no particular order. So here are the books I think every Christian should read by 25 or 30 or whenever they get around to it.

10. The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom. For a greater part of my middle school and early high school years, I went through a phase of reading books that focused almost exclusively on the Holocaust (which my brother still points out as being weird). Without a doubt, the book that has impacted me the most during this period was The Hiding Place. In it, Dutch Christian Corrie Ten Boom tells of her family's role in hiding Jews from the Nazis during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When they are discovered the Jews hiding in their house are miraculously able to escape, but Corrie and Betsy, her sister, are taken to a concentration camp. The story is one of courage, perseverance, and an incredible faith that believes in the power of love and reconciliation even in the most evil of places. One quote that has stuck with me throughout the years (I try to keep from quoting it every sermon; so it ends up being in about one of three) is what Betsy says to Corrie as she lay sick in the camp. She looked at both the other inmates and the guards within the camp, and exhorted Corrie, "Tell them there is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still." That, to me, is the pinnacle of good news and should be the message that Christians proclaim to the world.

9. Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller. Yeah, I know this is so cliche to have on my list, but it's true. Donald Miller, like the Anne Lamott memoirs I would later read (Traveling Mercies, Plan B, etc.), was the first person I read that spoke honestly about many of their struggles and doubts about Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity. The story is basically Miller's journey of losing faith and finding faith again, albeit a very different faith. In the process, he reflects on sin, grace, doubt, love, the culture wars, and many of the other things young evangelicals were struggling with but perhaps not getting the straight answers they were looking for in church. One of the highlights is definitely his story about the confessional booth he and his friends set up during a drug-addled festival at a very progressive liberal arts college. Instead of people coming in and confessing their sins (you know, like we think of a confessional booth), the role was reversed and the confessor confessed the sins of the Church and Christianity. While now the story has gotten plenty of airtime almost to the point of being cliche, at the time it was pretty amazing. This was definitely one of those books that first said what many in my generation had been thinking, which is why it was so hugely popular.

8. The Cloister Walk - Kathleen Norris. I mean, I think all of Kathleen Norris is pretty brilliant, but I believe this is the first one I read. The Cloister Walk is another spiritual memoir of sorts describing what Norris learned during her time at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN as a Benedictine oblate (lay monk/nun). Not only is her description of the liturgy of the hours and monastic life beautiful, it helps combat the Protestant stereotype (Norris herself is a Protestant) that characterizes Catholicism and the liturgy as lifeless or mere ritual. As someone who grew up with very little of the historic liturgical traditions of the church, this helped me reevaluate many of the assumptions I had about tradition and liturgy and discover the deep theological and spiritual insights that the liturgical tradition holds. I seem to especially remember her discussion of the difficult Psalms of lament and violence and her defense of the vow of chastity for monks and nuns. If you have never been exposed to the traditions of the Catholic church, this is a great place to start.

7. On Christian Doctrine - St. Augustine. So, everyone always raves about Augustine's Confessions: first spiritual autobiography, blah, blah, blah. I never could understand why he felt so bad about taking a few pears. For my money, On Christian Doctrine (OCD - perfect) is a better book. Basically, Augustine talks about how Christians should interpret scripture, but I love his discussion of love, especially in the first book. He talks about how all the streams of our loves - friends, spouses, neighbors - should be found in the greater river of our love for God. We should love others towards and through our love for God. One of my other favorite images St. Augustine uses is his description of God binding our wounds with "beautiful bandages;" even our wounds can be made beautiful through the work of God. Finally, I absolutely love this quote on the potential misinterpretation of scripture: "Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads." I mean, he's Augustine; you should read him...granted, not for his view on women and original sin.

6. Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church - Laurence Hull Stookey. How can you resist this beautiful cover? I don't know what graphic artist thought that listing the word calendar a thousand times would make for a good cover, but don't judge a book by its cover, right? Stookey's Calendar is a wonderful description of the liturgical year and why we as Christians should follow the liturgical calendar. How we keep time reveals much about our priorities in life. As Christians, Stookey argues, the liturgical calendar helps us keep time in a distinct way that speaks to our particular Christian story - past, present, and future. Stookey also gives a good introduction to each of the Christian seasons (Advent, Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc.), what we are celebrating, why we should celebrate them, and how best to celebrate them in the Church. Over the past five years, the celebration of the Church Year has been one of the most fruitful spiritual practices for me, and I think Stookey gives the best overview of why all Christians should keep the distinct time of the liturgical year. Spoiler alert: Easter's the most important!

5. Anything by Howard Thurman - In my last semester at North Park, I (along with several of my favorite people) took Feminist Practical Theology with the venerable Dr. Phillis Sheppard. The last day of class we (all in our last year, I believe) were discussing the future and what we needed to know as pastors. One of my classmates asked Phillis, "What books do you think all pastors should read?" After naming a couple books I no longer remember, she said, "Oh, and everyone should have Howard Thurman on their shelves." Having never heard of Howard Thurman, I was intrigued and decided to pick up a book the next time I was out. When I did, I quickly found out that he is the man. He was pastor of the first intentionally integrated, multiethnic churches in San Francisco in 1944; he was a prolific writer and educator; and (which I did not know until I got to BU) in 1958 he became the first African-American Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. What I most connect to in his writings are his often short meditations that seem to cut to the heart of faith and life. For instance, one of my favorite quotes (great for Advent): “[Waiting] is to watch a gathering darkness until all light is swallowed up completely without the power to interfere or bring a halt. Then to continue one’s journey in the darkness with one’s footsteps guide by the illumination of remembered radiance is to know courage of a peculiar kind - the courage to demand that light continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness. To walk in the light while darkness invades, envelops, and surrounds is to wait on the Lord. This is to know the renewal of strength. This is to walk and faint not.”

4. Liberation/Black/Feminist/Womanist Theology - I list these groups together not to glibly equate all of these varied movements as one; they are not. Each has its unique voice that is often very different from the other. Rather, I list them together because all the books that I have read from these different areas have worked commonly against many of the preconceived notions I held as a white man in the majority culture and have allowed me a greater vision of the God who sides with the marginalized and calls Christians to do the same. Some of the most important for me have been: Justo Gonzalez's Manana, James Cone's God of the Oppressed, Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror, Renita Weems' Battered Love, Monica Coleman's Making a Way Out of No Way, and Marjorie Procter Smith's In Her Own Rite.

3. The Prophetic Imagination - Walter Brueggemann. Okay, I just finished this book last week after being recommended it many times (most notably by Aaron Johnson and Dominique Gilliard), so after all of my school reading was completed this semester, Bruegge's book (we're on a nickname basis) was first on the list. Boy, was it worth it. Basically, Brueggemann's argument is that most in our world/church have given in to either the numbness or despair of a world that does not allow people to draw on their past or look forward to a hopeful future. What we need, he asserts, its prophets that will confront our numbness by criticizing the dominant culture or empire and allow people go truly grieve/lament. Further, for those who despair, prophets energize people by giving them a vision of hope that the world can be different and our futures are not in the hands of the empire. Thus, the church needs leaders who are not numb or despairing, but those who are energized by the Holy Spirit to name and criticize the powers that numb us and imagine the immense possibilities of the church and world.

2. Improvisation - Sam Wells. This is perhaps the most influential book I read during seminary. In it, Wells discusses how the Christian ethical life is not about following a bunch of rules but about improvising within the story of God. Riffing off of N.T. Wright's concept of God's story as a five act play, Wells argues that we live in Act 4 of God's five act play (Act 1- Creation, Act 2- Israel, Act 3-Jesus, Act 4- the Church, Act 5- the Eschaton). Our role as Christians is to live in continuity with the previous acts in light of the future act we have been promised, improvising in the in-between time we find ourselves in. While he uses more acting metaphors, I find the musical metaphor more helpful. If a jazz musician is going to be successful, he or she must know the chord structure backwards and forwards in order to improvise well (continuity). This is continuity. Yet, a jazz musician cannot simply play the same melody over and over again. Even if this is the safer option, it is not improvisation; it is living in fear of a potential mistake. Thus, we as the church must improvise our present ethical lives together in continuity with our past and in line with our promised eschatological future.

1. The Covenant Hymnal - I can almost hear the collective eye roll with this pick, but I'm not going to back down. Over the past five years, it has been the texts of the hymnal that have spoken to me most and helped shape my spiritual/vocational life. The hymnal is this wonderful repository of God's story in the lives of thousands of people across generations and cultures, singing of God's grace, faithfulness, and love. What better calms the spirit during times of anxiety than the assurance, "Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side" (#455; take the world, but give me the "Assurance in Doubt" and Comfort in Loss" section in the mid-400s)? What better describes our future hope than being "no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home" (#91, st. 3)? What distills the problems of our consumer culture better than the claim that it is "rich in things and poor in soul" (#608, st. 3)? Further, it has the boldness to say things that would probably get many in trouble from the pulpit. For instance, I love the fact that Fred Kaan's "For the Healing of the Nations" can proclaim, "All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned." That's a sermon in a sentence. I think congregations and individual Christians are bereft of a living tradition when they reject the hymns, spirituals, and songs of previous generations.

So, that's my list - at least today. Are there any you would add?


  1. I didn't roll my eyes with your number 1 choice...I simply thought, "Yep, that's so Dave."

    Nice list. I'll be picking up some Thurman soon.

  2. I too, am inspired to pick up some Thurman, as well as the "Bruegge" book you recommend here. Thanks Dave!

  3. I appreciate this list, particularly the Liberation, black, feminist theology thread. The hymnal is a wonderful focal point because of the practical theology alive in the words of these beautiful songs. The books I would add are fairly practical, Brekus "Strangers and Pilgrims," Yoder "Five Body Practices" Volf on forgiveness (pick the book), and N.T. Wright.