My friend Sonia challenged me to make this list, and because we all like to talk about ourselves and because hopefully a few people will find it interesting, here’s it is. Only two caveats.
1. The Bible, while it would top the list, is not included. I needed space for ten other books and thus the Bible should just be assumed.
2. These ten are not in any order of importance. As you’ll see, these books range from novels to academic monographs. I have included such a wide diversity because all of these books have affected me tremendously, yet in different ways. Some have simply delighted me, others have shaped the way I think, and others have shaped me more as a Christian or as a minister.
Here we go.
1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I simply love this book, which is not to be confused with loving the very different movie (which is not a personal favorite). I love this book for several reasons. First, I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Second, and more importantly, I’m a sucker for the main character, Edmond Dantes, and the moral ambiguity that pervades his character. Is Dantes good or bad? It’s hard to say. He is an innocent hero, betrayed, cast into exile, and he returns to exact vengeance on his enemies, all the while being portrayed in near demi-god like fashion where the reader suspects that if they judge his actions they are judging more than a mere mortal. The moral complexity coupled with romance, adventure, and history which pervade this work get me again and again.
2. Holiness by J.C. Ryle
J.C. Ryle (“Bishop Ryle”), is one of my favorite churchmen and this is the first work of his that I ever read. A classic on the nature of sanctification, this book portrays Ryle at his best, as he hits the reader again and again with short, punchy sentences that leave you thinking and praying.
3. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull and William Russell
This collection of writings spans Luther’s career and was my first introduction to the man. After reading it I felt like it was my first true introduction to Protestantism. Luther makes me wince, he makes me laugh, he makes me ponder, and he makes me worship. This work is an excellent collection from his vast corpus and I suspect most people who have not read Luther would be surprised at his accessibility and his continued relevance.
4. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
This book deserves a place on my list because it dominated my high school years. I literally used to be able to recite large portions of chapter 2, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” from memory almost verbatim. While I now find much of Thoreau’s philosophy on life to be almost silly, I still love his writing for its mastery of the English language and I remain gripped by the sense of moral earnestness that pervades his work. In fact, I love Thoreau’s writing so much that I think he deserves a quote (where he slyly insults the Westminster Confession).
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
5. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics by Stephen Westerholm
Apologies for the more technical works that are on this list, but they remain the works that have shaped me. This book helped solidify me in a “Reformational” understanding of Paul vis a vis some current debates. Westerholm exemplifies the best of biblical scholarship in this book as he writes with flair, with exegetical sensitivity, and with firsthand historical awareness of the tradition that precedes him.
6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
I read this trilogy more times than I can remember while I was growing up and I still love it and reread it to this day. Tolkien gave me my love for fantasy and transported me into another world that I have never stopped finding fascinating.
7. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe by Steven Ozment
If the title didn’t already put you to sleep, the reason I love this book is because of how very fascinating it ended up being. Ozment’s book was probably the single most influential factor in pushing me to do a second masters degree in Church History. His 50 or so odd pages on scholastic theology opened up new worlds of thought to me and transformed the middle ages from a regrettable “dark age” to a vibrant world filled with intellectual sophistication, imagination, and deep wrestling with questions that we still ponder today.
8. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
This is Twain’s last completed novel; decried by critics and yet believed by the author to be his finest work. I personally love Twain and this book, while very different from almost everything else he ever wrote, won me over with its romanticized vision of Joan and of her world, with its charming and disarming mentions of fairies and dragons, and with the sheer force of personality with which Joan is portrayed. Read this book and you will want to be Joan of Arc.
I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none. -Twain
9. The Harvest of Medieval Theology by Heiko Oberman
My last (and most) academic work on this list. I include it because Oberman has become the most influential historian for how I conceive of history as a discipline and because this book opened up new thought worlds to me. This is one of the most technically difficult books I have ever read, but it challenged me intellectually at a time when I needed that and showed me how historical persons should be studied on their own terms, not on the terms and values of a later era imposed upon them. This in turn opened up the history of the pre-Reformation church to me, as it taught me how to appreciate historical persons even though I might strongly disagree with them.
10. Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper
This book was huge for me as a new believer, simply in the message of its title. While I haven’t read it since then, God used Piper’s intensity to challenge me to not live a halfhearted Christian life.
So there are my 10! I have no one else to challenge (perhaps a sign that I’m a self-centered blogger?), but I hope you found that interesting!