As a young man, reading has exercised a formative influence over my own spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth. As a pastor and teacher, recommending books has been a consistent privilege. Here, I seek to recommend my current list of ten books for those who are eager to grow in their faith. An ideal book recommendation, in my experience, carries two marks; it introduces us to kinds of books and it fosters a community in which they can be read.
First, an ideal recommendation invites us into kinds of reading. By this I mean something more, though not less, than the genre of the work. I mean what the book is trying to do, as well as the way it sets about trying to do it.
For example, if I include a Wendell Berry novel, I have a value in view beyond simply the genre of narrative fiction. I am suggesting a winsome apology for a love of place, for creation care, and for the eyes to see the very real people God has placed around us as our neighbors. That is what the book is trying to do. If you do not care for Berry as an author, you still might be able to benefit from this recommendation by finding different authors whose work is up to the same sort of thing; a Leif Enger or a Grace Olmstead maybe.
Second, an ideal recommendation encourages us to read in community. By this I mean that books yield their richest treasures when we invite them into a circle of flesh and blood conversation partners.
“Books yield their richest treasures when we invite them into a circle of flesh and blood conversation partners.”
The goal of Christian reading, if it is to serve our discipleship, is more than the transfer of information. It is the transformation of the way that we see the world, and the way that we live within it. A community of friends and fellow readers serves this goal well by providing additional insight, accountability, and joy on the journey. We are meant to read together because we are meant to walk together after the Lord, the living Word.
Ten Books to Read Together
By God’s grace, and in no particular order, the following recommendations lend themselves to fostering the community of Christian conversation so vital for our spiritual growth. It is not a definitive list, nor a static list. I might recommend different titles next year. Each of these books, however, has proven especially fruitful for reading groups in our church.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Enger’s first novel is a story of redemption told in a compulsively readable style. Woven throughout the storyline, moving it along as the means of that redemption, is a winsome study of family, a cherished community, and a vibrant faith flourishing in the pedestrian events of everyday life.
Why Study the Past by Rowan Williams
Evangelicals often struggle with ambivalence toward history, and church history in particular. For some, to say that something is historical marks it as irrelevant. For others, history is a stock of anecdotes that support our current practice. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, urges us to engage church history in a more distinctly theological way. As we do so, we gain eyes to see God’s work in history, as well as ways in which we can (and should) be shaped by the heritage of our forebears in the faith.
Heidelberg Disputation by Martin Luther
The theological engagement of church history noted above is best carried out through the reading of primary sources. One significant, and extremely poignant primary source is the twenty-eight theses Luther prepared for the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. It is here, more than in his better known ninety-five theses in October 1517, that we tap into the theological heart of the Reformation; good works flowing from rather than striving for a believer’s gracious acceptance before God. I have benefited from engaging the text of the disputation alongside the commentary provided by Gerhard Forde in On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield
In Romans 15:7, Paul instructs believers to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” The welcome of Christ in the Gospels was as warm as people were willing to acknowledge their need of salvation. It was a way of grace and truth; a wide-open, cross-shaped welcome. Butterfield’s book is a beautiful testimony to this cross-pitality as it first embraced her and now extends to others through her North Carolina home.
Echoes of Exodus by Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson
We believe the Bible to be God’s word, the self-revelation of the inexhaustibly interesting God. A corollary of this conviction is that we can expect always to be seeing new beauties, new depths, in Scripture. By tracing the theme of the exodus across the canon, Roberts and Wilson demonstrate that the Bible’s richness is often disclosed by noting how its smaller narratives fit into the grand sweep of the larger story.
Global Evangelicalism by Donald Lewis and Richard Pierard.
People often lament that “evangelicalism” has become so elastic as a term that all meaningful content has fallen out. But Lewis and Pierard have assembled a collection of essays arguing that reports of evangelicalism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, especially if we are willing to look beyond the borders of North America. The first part of the book traces the historical development of the global gospel movement while the (larger) second part provides regional case studies inviting Western readers into the vibrant gospel work taking place around the world, a work as distinctly evangelical in content as it is un-American in culture.
The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders
Growth in our knowledge of God produces the worshipful fruit of humility and wonder. This is because the true God is far greater, and far better, than our creaturely minds can fully comprehend. No doctrine is more fundamental to the knowledge of God, or better positioned to cultivate in us a humble awe, than the doctrine of the Trinity. Fred Sanders’ book is a wonderful blend of just this kind of theology and doxology.
Many of us endure a tortured relationship with spiritual disciplines. We know we should be about them. We also often find them dull, unapproachable, or remote from our daily life. As a result, we give lip service to their significance, feel shame for not sticking with them, and then start the cycle over again. David Mathis’ book invites us into these means of God’s grace by opening our eyes to their approachability, relevance and, best of all, their promise of spiritual joy. This book is best read, and practiced, with a band of fellow believers.
Good and Angry by David Powlison
It takes a wise and winsome guide to help us consider what lessons we might learn from our anger. Anger, as we experience it, is often accompanied by a rush of self-righteousness that short-circuits any meaningful reflection on why we become angry and the negative impact our anger carries. David Powlison is such a guide; patiently and firmly pressing us to consider not only what is corrosive but, surprisingly, what can be constructive about our anger. He directs us ultimately to God’s own anger, reflecting on how we might die to the idols that provoke selfish anger and so increasingly imitate our Father who sacrificially works to make wrong things right.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
The mores of our modern world have been described as “liquid.” The idea is that the rules we use to navigate our life together are in a constant state of flux. This moral flux is perhaps most visible in our shifting search for personal identity as expressed through our sexuality. Trueman’s book is a fascinating analysis of where this moral liquidity comes from. In putting our fingers on the historical pulse of our culture’s identity crisis, Trueman’s book resources believers to engage our neighbors with the winsome, stable, reasoned hope of the gospel.
Christian discipleship is a community project. So perhaps this new year, part of your maturity in Christ includes gathering a group, or simply another brother or sister in Christ, and reading one or more of these suggestions together, asking what is true, good, and beautiful, and holding each other accountable to following it in obedience to Christ.