Recommending Christian books is always a challenge because tastes vary so widely. The writing that changes one person’s life might bore someone else to death. Another problem is the shallowness of so many books that carry the “Christian” label. A prime example is Joel Osteen’s bestseller a few years ago, “Your Best Life Now,” which managed to combine America’s obsession with personal success with the gospel promises of the Bible at a 4th-grade reading level. That’s no small accomplishment.
But there are authentic, thoughtful and challenging books out there for Christians who want to dive into the deep waters of the faith. So, here are ten books that have impacted my thinking and, more importantly, my connection with God and his Kingdom. I hope you enjoy them. It’s a diverse group, with two Catholic writers, two women (one a lapsed Presbyterian poet and the other a charismatic Episcopal professor), an Anglican theologian, a psychologist, an Orthodox journalist, a Jewish rabbi and a Baptist farmer. These books have fed my soul; I hope over the next twelve months they’ll do the same for you.
The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry (2002). Berry, a devout Baptist who lives on a farm in rural Kentucky, is arguably our greatest living essayist. His love for the land and communities of rural America is shared in such luminous prose and spiritual depth that you can’t get his words out of your mind. “The Art of the Commonplace” is a journey into the local and small things that make life worthwhile.
The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher (2017). Dreher believes that the church has lost its battle with modernity and shouldn’t spend any more time, energy or resources working to contest it. We should instead withdraw to ourselves in order to preserve our beliefs, institutions and children so that when western civilization collapses (as he believes it will) we can remerge with the gospel message. The template for Dreher’s strategy is the sixth century Saint Benedict, who fled Rome under circumstances similar to our own and began the monastic movement that bears his name. Even though lots of people—especially evangelicals—disagree with Dreher, I find his arguments compelling and agree with many of his conclusions. You can read my full review of “The Benedict Option” here. This is an important book for every church leader to read.
The Broken Image: Restoring Personal Wholeness through Healing Prayer by Leanne Payne (1993). Payne was a professor at Wheaton College, pastoral counselor and—most important—a teacher of the healing power of prayer. Her supernatural experience with prayer is a counterpoint to the more familiar approach of those who view prayer as a religious exercise that may help people better tolerate their circumstances but can’t actually change those circumstances. Not so with Payne. Her teaching on prayer is full, rich and life-giving. I related my experience with the miraculous healing power of prayer in an earlier post.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1997). This is one of two Catholic books on this list, not because I’m a closet Catholic (I’m not) nor because I endorse all of Catholic theology (I don’t) but because Catholic writers often have a voice that is thoroughly biblical, beautifully spoken and willing to explore dimensions of the faith that most Protestant authors shy away from. Norris was a Presbyterian poet living in New York City when she and her husband moved to South Dakota where she connected with a Catholic monastery. “The Cloister Walk” is the record of how that experience changed her. The book is a radical shift the run of the mill Christian books you see on Amazon and views faith from an altogether different–although biblical and historical–perspective. I love this book.
Confessions by St. Augustine (Fifth Century). As the Roman Empire crumbled, this seminal Christian theologian (all theology, Catholic and Protestant, Western and Eastern, tracks back to Augustine for good reason) charted the path forward for the church. We’re going through a remarkably similar historical moment in our own time, with the crumbling of the Christian west and the rise of a post-Christian society. The first half of “Confessions” is the autobiography of the young Augustine’s conversion . The second half dives into deep theological waters. Along the way, the book contains some of the most beautiful spiritual language found anywhere.
The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright (2016). Not for the faint of heart. This is theology at its most important–a soul-searching and mind-expanding study of the Atonement. I don’t agree with all of Wright’s conclusions, but his thoughts are challenging and his writing style (compared by many to CS Lewis) is the best on the modern Christian scene. I read this book over the course of eight months, taking it slowly as part of my daily devotion. The experience was amazing.
A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman (2007). The best book on leadership, period, and there’s no close second. Friedman–a Jewish rabbi–identifies leadership not as technique or position but as the capacity of the leader to step out of the systemic anxiety of whatever group he leads in order to find his own vision. Whether you’re dealing with a business, organization, family or even church, leadership is less about what you do than about who you are. Reading Friedman (his book on family systems, “Generation to Generation,” should be required reading for everyone in ministry) is like having cold water splashed on your face. It suddenly wakes you up to truths you won’t find anywhere else. With leadership books and consultant gurus hawking their wares on every corner of the American landscape, A Failure of Nerve” stands alone.
How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher (2015). Dreher’s second book on the list is maybe the most interesting. Dante was the fourteenth century Italian author of “The Divine Comedy,” the epic poem that every student of world literature has heard of but probably hasn’t read. And for good reason—the thing is long, convoluted and based on a medieval model of the cosmos that modern life rejects. Still, in Dreher’s retelling of his personal spiritual journey in light of the Divine Comedy, it becomes a template of renewal and the restoration of hope. I tell everyone that “Dante” is the most powerful devotional book I’ve read in a long time. It’s that good. Even Joel Osteen could benefit from it.
Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud (2010). Cloud–a Christian psychologist–gives a bracing challenge to all of us who get stuck in situations, jobs, relationships or patterns of behavior that are sucking the life out of us. What do we do? We’re usually too nice, too spiritual or too scared to end those situations. Instead, we just keep on doing the same old thing, sometimes year after year or even decade after decade. Cloud lays all this out then goes on to give a profoundly spiritual and even biblical (although he never quotes Scripture, his reasoning throughout is consistent with biblical teaching) way of ending things that need ending so that we can move in the directions our hearts long for.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1942). Everybody should read this short book every year or so. The premise is wacky: a junior demon named Wormwood corresponds with his boss, Screwtape, about the best way to tempt a new Christian. The book manages to unravel the tangled ways the devil tempts us and the final victory that all of us are promised in Jesus. It’s also just plain fun to read.
I hope 2018 is year where you find a deeper joy as you walk more intentionally with Jesus. These ten books may help you along that way.