With any new year approaching there’s always a hopeful sense of what the future will bring. Last year, I wrote a piece about fourteen things you could do to care for your soul that would move the spiritual yardsticks, even if slightly. If you haven’t read it here it is (14 Things To Do To Care For Your Soul ) as it’s still relevant to a new year.
This year I thought I would list fifteen books I consider important for every Christian to read (Get it? 2015, Fifteen books?). These are books I have read at some point during the past thirty years that are aimed primarily at spiritual growth. You might think about taking one book at a time without rushing to get through them all in 2015. Linger a bit with them as you would a conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee! The books are not ranked in order.
1. Devotional Classics by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith. The purpose of this book is to expose the reader to different spiritual writers through history, moving from the early church fathers (Gregory of Nyssa) to modern writers (C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard). The writings are short and edited a bit to make the readings more readable. You might take one reading per week, maybe with a few other people, to discuss and work through the questions, exercises, and reflections at the end of each selection.
2. Radical by David Platt. While I have a few concerns about how sustainable the radical life is (as Platt describes it) over the entirety of one’s life, that does not take away from the jarring impact his words have on my own tendency to choose comfort over discipleship to Christ. Bottom line: it’s hard to read this book and feel ambivalent. One of my favorite memories is going through Platt’s book with eighty young adults talking and dreaming about giving our lives to something bigger than ourselves.
3. The Great Omission by Dallas Willard. I have been asked, “Which Dallas Willard book should I start with?” I’ve had students in seminary class who have gotten lost reading The Divine Conspiracy and even Renovation of the Heart. Willard was a philosophy professor at USC and his writing style is not light so it takes a certain commitment to actually sit, read, and reflect. I would suggest reading The Great Omission, a series of short, straightforward chapters about recapturing discipleship in the church today as a way to introduce yourself to his writings and then from there move on to Renovation of the Heart.
4. The Pensees by Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a mathematician and theologian in the 1600’s. Following a dramatic conversion experience with God, he wrote the phrase, “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, certainly, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, oceans of joy!” on a piece of paper and sewed it into his jacket lining where it remained until he died. The book is a collection of “pensees” (pronounced pon-seas), translated “thoughts”. There is no real order to them but others have tried to organized them systematically (see Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft) to help frame moving from the problem to the solution. This, I believe, puts Pascal’s famous Wager in a better context, allowing us to understand it’s evangelistic value better.
5 & 6. The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller. There is no modern writer that I know of that is both as brilliant or as “down to earth” as Tim Keller. You can sense as you read the book that his goal is much like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s aim which was to “smuggle Christianity back into Christendom” (we could also say this about C.S. Lewis and Pascal as well). The contrast between the younger and older brother in the familiar “Parable of the Prodigal Son” should deeply convict us our waywardness either by rebelling or by being morally good. Counterfeit Gods, likewise, points us to the incessant desire toward idolatry as we take people and things and make them ultimate in our lives in an attempt to fill an infinite hole in our hearts with the gospel as the solution.
7. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (translated by William Creasy). The great value of Creasy’s translation is it updates the language making it much more readable than earlier translations. The book is generally thought of as the second most read Christian book behind the Bible. While there are a few chapters where his “Catholicity” comes out, the vast majority of the book can (and should) be read devotionally by Protestants.
8 & 9. Formed For the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel and Beloved Dust by Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin. I include Kyle Strobel in my list because of his work studying Jonathan Edwards. What I appreciate deeply is the connection he makes between Edwards’ theology and his practice (much like Edwards himself). This is important because we want to connect good thinking with good practice, good theology with good application. Strobel’s focus on Edwards’ understanding of the “means of grace”, those practices that are essential to spiritual growth, re-captures a robust understanding of both mind and heart. This is also true of his and Goggin’s newest offering Beloved Dust, which focuses on the practice of prayer.
10. Reflection on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. This is one of Lewis’ lesser known writings penned in 1958. At the urging of one of his friends, Austin Ferrer, Lewis’ writing is much more devotional in nature than apologetical. It’s a great book to supplement reading through the Psalms devotionally each morning.
11. Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin. Maybe this has meaning because of my time in the very poor parts of Calcutta and seeing the Mother Teresa’s ongoing work in the city. A friend, Bob Alexander, introduced me to the book a few years ago and I’m so glad he did! Poplin’s spiritual journey from agnosticism to faith in Christ put in the context of Mother Teresa’s life and work is soul stirring. What you will find is the simplicity of Mother Teresa’s lived out theology as she gave her life away to the poor of Calcutta even when her spiritual life was struggling.
12. Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a Catholic monk who was part of, what’s known as a Cistercian abbey. His influence was extensive not only as a Catholic reformer of sorts, but also an “abbey planter”. By the end of life his he had planted either directly or indirectly seventy abbeys. What throws evangelicals for a loop is that he is considered a Catholic “mystic”. That is, Bernard held to, “I believe that I may experience” with a focus on the love of God and union with God as stirring the heart. Yet because of his commitment to Scripture and a robust theology, John Calvin quoted Bernard numerous times in his devotional tome, The Institutes. Imagine a Protestant reformer referring to a Catholic! This is his most well known book on the “stages of love” as one grows in love for God over the course of their life. Here’s an edited translation that reads quite well – (Loving God)
13. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Put in the historical context of World War Two, Bonhoeffer’s classic still rouses the lukewarm heart to the great cost of following Christ. Dallas Willard referenced Bonhoeffer as it relates to the cost to following Christ in The Spirit of the Disciplines: If one is not willing to belly up to the bar (my paraphrase of paying the cost) to follow Him then one should wonder where they even stand with God. Man, that will preach….
14. Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace. Lovelace is Professor Emeritus of church history at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. The book provides a unified vision of the individual’s spiritual growth and periods in history when it erupted into corporate spiritual revival. Ok, so the book is a bit academic! However, Lovelace’s thoughts on the modern confusion on justification and sanctification and the “sanctification gap” are money. Deeply convicting and, even though it’s a bit academic, devotional.
15. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. No, he’s not the guy who had a giant blue ox named Babe. The book is considered one of the best examples of religious English literature by using an allegory of the Christian’s journey toward heaven. If the old English weighs you down there are more accessible modern translations. By the way, I’m not opposed to these “translations” at all. If the “translation” retains the thrust of what the author is trying to get at yet makes it more accessible to the modern reader, then I’m all for suggesting them as a way to get people to read the classics. Here’s an example: (Pilgrim’s Progress).
I’m sure you have thought of classics that I haven’t listed. I wish I had more space to include some of the Puritan works (John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation is on deck waiting to be read) as well as men like A.W. Tower and more of the Christian mystics (Teresa of Avila). Space would only allow so much, but please feel free to add any books that have not only challenged your thinking but led to a more devoted walk with Christ. Enjoy and here’s to 2015 being a year where our hearts are knit more closely to His (Ps. 86:11)!