I hope everyone is having a great holiday season.
At the end of the year, I suppose it’s good decorum to reflect on that year’s experiences. Yet, sometimes I find myself looking back further – looking at how this year has added to my overall life experience – just one chapter of many. I often look back at some conversations or books that altered my understanding about a topic. But what if I surveyed the most important books I’ve read to this point? Which books have shaped my worldview – which ones do I come back to?
I take particular pride in the fact that I have never read The Purpose Driven Life, Blue Like Jazz, or any Max Lucado book. Indeed, you may say: “Sam, that’s exactly what’s wrong with you.” You may be right. But I have been reading something. The books below have been life-changing for me. Very few of them are well-known. Sorry the list is so long…
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression. As I wrote in the post before, I love the preaching style of “the Doctor.” Many of his sermons were edited for books. People love the Acts or Romans or Semon on the Mount sermons. This series is my favorite. It deals with spiritual burnout. And I was there. This book (along with the two books below it) saved my spiritual life.
Wayne Jacobsen, He Loves Me. I was a perfectionist. A legalist. And very angry. I didn’t understand what the love of God was all about. I didn’t understand the meaning of unconditional love. This book changed that. It’s a great introduction into the grace-oriented freedom that Jesus brought to us.
Malcolm Smith, Power of the Blood Covenant. Using the theme of the blood covenant and the faithfulness of God as its guideline, this is the best summation of the Christian life I have ever read. Hands down.
Jeff VanVonderen, Families Where Grace Is in Place. Within two years of our wedding day, our marriage was on the rocks. This book saved it. VanVonderen talks about how to create a family (as spouses and parents) where biblical notions of grace are at the center. No more controlling, fear-tactics, and shame. The McVeys and Kimmels are more popular but Jeff was the original. We’re still married, by the way.
Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow, Unbounded Love. I’ve read a good many systematic theologies. This one is different. The late (and great) Pinnock was a renown theologian and the late (and great) Brow was an Episcopal priest. The book is an honest attempt to create a systematic theology around the simple premise that God is love. It’s a breath of fresh air. From the conclusion: “God is so radiant that he deserves a beautiful theology, theology done with joy and thankfulness, theology that can dance and sing.”
Morton Kelsey, Encounter with God. A Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest, Kelsey has written extensively on the intersection between the Bible, psychology, and spiritual experience. For me, Encounter with God is the pinnacle of those writings (though not his most well-known). He easily weaves theological, philosophical, and psychological sources together to create an understanding of how people “encounter” God and what they seek experientially from that encounter.
Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God. Several of the books on this list changed my understanding of the Old Testament. But this one changed my understanding of God using the Old Testament. Previously holding God at an emotional distance from his creation, this book helped me understand that God “feels”. The story of God is one of suffering in relation to humanity. Whether you agree with process or panentheistic thought, this book helped me relate to God in an entirely new way.
Abraham Heschel, The Prophets. Raised as an evangelical, the Hebrew prophetic books meant little to me other than a way to “prove” Jesus’ messianic claims. This book changed that for me – I finally understood the importance of the prophets and their lyrical narratives that reflected the heart(break) of God. No surprise that it took a world-renowned rabbi to bring me to those conclusions.
Richard Kyle, The Religious Fringe. This book is solely responsible for directing my academic interests. In it, Kyle (professor of history and religion at Tabor College) doesn’t just recount major religious movements in the Western tradition. He traces all the interconnections and tributaries that make the history of religion interesting. As someone who was deeply intersted in the charismatic lineage of the church and its ancillary movments, this book showed that tracing religious thematic trends through Western history was possible. A remarkable book.
Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon. Second to Kyle’s book, Hutton’s introduced me to the Western pagan and esoteric tradition. I read this book on a church leadership retreat. I don’t remember anything that we talked about on the retreat…but I remember the importance of having a scholar peel back the historical layers of the neopagan movement and expose the “humanness” of religious seekers outside the Christian tradition. I finally stopped seeing heretics or heathens and began to see people reaching out for religious experience. Not sure that’s what I was supposed to be learning….
Anne Punton, The World Jesus Knew. This book is about the contexts of culture and archaeology that surround the stories of Jesus. It’s a wonderful introduction to all the other elements that inform the Gospel narrative that rarely makes it to general Christian readership. Thankfully, books like Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus are changing this, but this book was one of the predecessors.
Watchman Nee, Release of the Spirit. I was a worship leader at several churches for about ten years all together. I read some good articles and books on the technical aspects of leading worship. But this is the book I recommend to beginning worship leaders. It’s about ”breaking” the flesh so that God can release the spirit of each of us for ministry. True worship comes from this state of release. Worship leading is a spiritual event much more than it is a musical excercise. This book explains that event.