Reading books that support our Bible reading and our life of prayer and faithful discipleship can be a huge catalyst for growth in our walk with God. By having what amount to personal conversations with wise Christians, whether dead or living, through their books, we can find valuable help for ourselves. I’ve been thinking over the last couple of weeks of about a dozen books that I could share with you as a list that you might choose one book, or maybe two, to read in 2023. The goal isn’t to burn through a pile of books, but rather to deepen your understanding of the Bible, enrich your appreciation of the good gift of Jesus, and challenge you to continued faithful obedience. I’ve grouped them in a few broad categories, and listed them alphabetically within those groupings). Most of these should be fairly easy to find:
Books that reflect on the content of the Bible:
- Paul and the Power of Grace by John M.G. Barclay: This is a short version of a very important (and huge) scholarly book on the apostle Paul and the meaning of grace (the bigger book is called Paul and the Gift). If you are looking to learn a lot and have new windows opened up on your reading of Paul’s letters, this would be a very good book to turn to.
- Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: This is a classic book written by a German theologian and pastor during the time of Hitler’s rise. The challenge of radical commitment was high on Bonhoeffer’s radar, and much of this book comes in the form of reflection on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Not a terribly difficult book to read, but very challenging.
- The True Story of the Whole World by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew: I have recommended this in a blog post already. It is a basic overview of the whole Bible’s content, mapping out the various portions of the Bible in a fresh and helpful way.
- The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard: Another book based around the Sermon on the Mount, but written more recently (1999) and fairly relevant to the challenges of our society. Willard writes in a conversational and personal voice that makes this book feel like he really wants what’s best for you. A couple of his interpretations of Jesus’ words are a bit novel, and I’m not sure everyone would follow him, but mostly it’s very reliable.
ADVANCED/CHALLENGING READ: The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge: This book, written by a very thoughtful pastor when she was in her late 70s, is thought by many to be the greatest work on the meaning of the cross written in the past few decades. It is very thorough, deep, and rewarding. It will take you many weeks or even months to read through it, but if you persevere, it will transform your understanding of the work of Christ.
Christian Spirituality—Books that focus on spiritual practices or help us see the way God and the gospel touch everyday life
- The Transforming Power of Prayer by James Houston: Books on prayer are very appealing, because prayer is such a challenge for so many of us. But books on prayer are potentially dangerous because we might substitute reading them for prayer itself. James Houston is a wise guide (who is still alive, and now over 100 years old!) to seeing prayer as a “transforming friendship” with God.
- Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings edited by Robert Ellsberg: This is a selection of writings, including essays, letters, and one short story, by one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century American literature. O’Connor was a Southern Catholic who lived a life of great suffering, dying at 39 of lupus. Flannery’s fiction is not to everyone’s taste, but in her letters and essays she speaks with humour and wisdom about suffering and vocation and friendship, without a touch of sentimentality.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: This is the only novel on this list, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 2004 about an aging pastor in mid-20th century Iowa who married late and now as he faces death he is coming to terms with the knowledge that he will never see his young son grow to adulthood. The novel is written in the form of a long letter he writes for his son to read when he grows up. Its insights into human nature and its wrestling with faith are astonishing. As other pastors have said, I don’t know how Robinson knows what it’s like to be a pastor, but she sure seems to get inside of us.
- For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann: When I first heard of this book, it was recommended as being a sort of Eastern Orthodox version of Mere Christianity. If that means that it focuses on the basics in a language that is understandable but deep, then it’s a perfect description. Schmemann especially focuses on the meaning of the Eucharist/Communion, and manages to teach the whole gospel in what feels like a fresh way in the course of his exposition.
- ADVANCED/CHALLENGING READ: Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson: Eugene Peterson is best known as the man responsible for The Message version of the Bible. But in the course of his career he wrote over thirty books, including a series of books about pastoring and a number of books about everyday Christian life that could be categorized as his “spiritual theology” books. This, however, is his major work, in which he looks at the way “Christ plays” in three categories of life: creation, history, and community. He grounds all of his thinking in the Bible and writes out of a lifetime of reflection. I mark it as challenging not because the language is hard to understand but because it’s a big and carefully structured book. It would pay to read this one slowly.
- Knowing God by J.I. Packer: Another classic, this book from the late British-Canadian evangelical theologian began as a series of short articles on various doctrines. It was thought that it would be helpful to compile the articles into a book, and Knowing God has been helping people ever since. It’s not necessarily an exciting book, but it’s solid and grounded in the Bible and Packer is an engaging writer. I don’t agree with everything that Packer taught, but his basic idea that knowing about God is all meant to lead to joyfully praising God with our whole life is something that we all need to be reminded of.
- Simply Christian by N.T. Wright: Another book by an Englishman, this is a one-stop shop of sorts. The first part of the book is essentially a short piece of apologetics, showing how some basic Christian perspectives resonate with general experience. The second part is a brilliant miniature telling of the Bible story. And the third part walks us through such basic Christian practices as prayer, worship, and reading the Bible. Wright is a very lively writer. I read this book a year after finishing seminary, but I think a lot of things really clicked for me due to Simply Christian.