Writing a blog is an exercise in vanity. It presumes that other people take interest in your thoughts or your life. Writing a biographical blog is the height of vanity because it’s “all about me.” I try to avoid the all about me aspect of blogging and concentrate instead on my ideas about following Jesus. But this week I’m on vacation (Perdido Key, Florida) and I left all profundity at home. It’s Thursday evening, though, and time to post so here comes the vain part:
Sometimes people ask me which books have shaped my views on following Jesus in general or discipleship in particular. So from the beach, here’s a list of the most formative books in my life (since you asked!):
The Canon within the Canon: Every follower of Jesus reads the Scripture, but each one of us has a canon within the canon, those books that speak to us consistently. All of the Bible is Spirit-breathed, but the Holy Spirit regularly speaks to me through these books:
- Genesis – for me, every major theme of scripture is introduced in this book. It contains no fewer than six life stories: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. No systematic theology here, just a personal God in relationship with real people.
- Isaiah – Sometimes called the fifth gospel because Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other prophet. Scholars argue over whether this book had one author, two, or even three. When I read Isaiah I hear one voice, majestic and earth-shaking, the voice of Yahweh.
- The Gospels – of course, I’m cheating by lumping them all together, but God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Whenever I don’t know what to read, I choose a gospel. I understand that some people consider the gospels to be the work of the first generation of Jesus’ followers—how they interpreted his life and teaching—but for me the gospels are the divinely preserved record of his teaching.
- I & II Peter – authorship aside (again!), I simply find myself quoting these verses again and again.
God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis—I had been a high-school evangelical for three years when someone handed me this collection of essays. They changed my life, and Lewis became my first teacher. If you have never read C.S. Lewis, you have missed one of God’s great gifts to the church in the last hundred years. God in the Dock is the most formative work of Lewis because it captured my heart and my attention. Thirty-plus years later, Lewis is my constant companion.
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard—This book put into words things which I knew, but didn’t know that I knew! A Southern Baptist with a PhD in Philosophy who teaches at USC: that ought to catch your attention. Willard cracks open our narrow ideas of “the gospel” and re-introduces evangelicals to “the gospel of the Kingdom of God.” It was the message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul. That ought to be good enough for any disciple.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen—This book taught me what it meant to reflect upon the scripture. Nouwen is an exegete of the soul. Return of the Prodigal was not the first of his books I read, but it moved me more than any other. It taught me by example how to meditate on the scriptures, and how to place myself into the Biblical narrative.
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence—This little collection of letters and thoughts from a centuries-gone Carmelite brother is disarmingly and dangerously simple. Far from retreating from the world, Brother Lawrence opened up for me the possibility of being with God every moment. It is sacramental in the most universal sense. I discovered the secret of not just a daily life with Him, but life that is available moment-by-moment. All we need to do is “turn.”
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro—The only work of fiction on this vain list. I would be dishonest if I left it off, but no amount of explaining will convey the impact this book had on me. It taught me that a life of selfless service is not enough. We are responsible for who and what we serve. I wept for weeks after reading it, and it changed my life with God for the better. You may read it and think, “that’s it?” but if I ever meet Mr. Ishiguro, I will buy him lunch!
There are plenty of other good authors. Francis Schaeffer, St. Augustine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, John Milton, Thomas a Kempis, Bill Johnson, A.W. Tozer, William Blake, but time fails any comprehensive list. But this is my list. They have made me who I am.
These books, more than any others, formed my life with God. May I include one observation before we part? Years ago I helped teach a Spiritual Formation class at a nearby university. Our class read Willard’s Renovation of the Heart during the semester. One student, a junior in college, told me that he had never read an entire book, cover-to-cover, before in his life. How could this be? Perhaps it was just this one guy, but I cannot see how one can claim to be a follower of Jesus apart from drinking deep at the well of other believers, and that includes reading books. Not quantity. But may I suggest that you invite the Holy Spirit to be your tutor while you learn at the feet of past masters?
What are your life-changing books? I'll read your comments with great interest.