Like most pastors, I read a lot. I consider the books in my library my teachers, conversation partners, mentors and friends.
In the pages of this blog, I have a section called “What I’m Reading,” which I try to keep current with what I’m reading right now. Here, though, is a list of ten books I’ve gone back to again and again, and which I’ve recommended to others on many occasions.
- Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis. Arguably the most important book on Christianity written in the 20th century. It was originally delivered by Lewis as a series of talks on BBC radio during World War II. It is clear, compelling, and intellectually rigorous. The truth is I could fill this entire list with works by Lewis, including essays like “The Weight of Glory” or “Membership” or “Fern-Seed and Elephants,” or volumes like The Great Divorce or The Screwtape Letters. His concept of “chronological snobbery” – the erroneous presumption that we are smarter and more sophisticated than those who have gone before us simply because we live after them, which he addresses in his autobiography Surprised by Joy – is a particularly helpful corrective to the uncritical, unreflective assumptions we carry around about the world and ourselves.
- Freedom for Ministry, Richard John Neuhaus. One of the best volumes written on the work of ministry. While Neuhaus wrote it primarily for ordained ministers, it has much to say to all baptized Christian, since, as he writes, “the vocation of the Church is to sustain many vocations.” His discussion of ministers as “premature ambassadors, having arrived at court before the sovereignty of our king has been recognized,” is one of the most helpful ways of thinking about the ministry I have ever read. He also has a wonderful passage which reminds all of us as baptized Christians that we are each called to be the unique, one-of-a-kind person that God has made us to be: “when we are afraid to act upon the difference to which we are called, we inhibit others from acting upon the difference to which they are called.”
- The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The classic book on writing clearly, effectively and well. In Freedom for Ministry, Richard John Neuhaus notes that “a major contribution of the Church, and of the pulpit in particular, would be to rescue the English language from the sorrows of cruel and unusual punishment.” Elements of Style goes a long way toward helping writers do just that. In one of the most famous passages from this book — including the line which gives this blog its title — Strunk and White remind the writer that “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”
- Orthodoxy: The Classic Account of a Remarkable Christian Experience, G.K. Chesterton. As Lyle Dorsett says it, plainly and simply: “A stunningly brilliant book written by one of the literary giants of the early twentieth century.” Every page contains a quotable passage, like this: “As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist . . . and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.” Anything by Chesterton is worth reading, but other obvious classics that come immediately to mind are his Everlasting Man and his biographies of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas.
- Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner. Buechner is one of my all-time favorite authors, and above my desk I have a framed note of blessing from him which reads: “May God bless you in your life and ministry. And may the Archangel Raphael be with you on your way as he was with Tobias and his faithful dog.” The reference to Raphael is from the Biblical book of Tobit, a story he retold in his On the Road with the Archangel. Telling the Truth explores how the Gospel is finally “a speaking of the truth about the ways things are.” If you are new to Buecher, I would also highly recommend his trilogy of Wishful Thinking, Whistling in the Dark and Peculiar Treasures.
- The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Marilynne Robinson. This collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead addresses topics related to “religion, history, [and] the state of contemporary society.” The essays are “contrarian in method and spirit,” and throughout these pages Robinson undertakes to demonstrate not only that “the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong,” but also that “its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong.” By carefully pointing out that “there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made,” Robinson succeeds in presenting some of the most thoughtful and intellectually rigorous writing that I have anywhere in my library.
- The God that Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, Robert Royal. Conventional wisdom suggests that faith, and Christian faith in particular, is and always has been an opponent and drag on progress and development and intellectual rigor. Not to put too fine a point on it, conventional wisdom is mistaken. This book helps to set the record straight, providing a sweeping overview of the relationship between Christianity and western civilization. Royal reminds us that “Religion – specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West – is quite good at” supporting “institutions that provide checks and balances over power” while also creating “a vision of human life that will be able to give a credible account of the democratic belief in human dignity.”
- Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor. This collection of “occasional prose” by the Southern writer was published post-humously, and contains essays, articles, papers and speeches which she never revised for publication. Along with The Habit of Being – a collection of her letters – these pieces reveal not only O’Connor’s depth of faith, but also her brilliant understanding of the art and craft of writing. They are often also piercingly funny. O’Connor died from complications related to lupus at the age of 39. What she left behind in those 39 brief years is astonishing.
- Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, Stephen M. Barr. Barr, a nuclear particle physicist at the University of Delaware’s Bartol Institute, is one of those rare people who is not only an expert in an arcane field, but also someone who can write about it clearly. The fact that he is also widely read in theology makes him one of the best writers around on the intersection of faith and science. Barr, like Robert Royal in The God that Did not Fail, exposes in this volume the ways that conventional wisdom is mistaken when it comes to the story of faith and science in our culture’s history. He makes clear that the real conflict has never been between faith and science, but rather has been between faith and materialism, a philosophical viewpoint which often masquerades as science.
- The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst. I love typography. I believe well-designed typefaces are some of the most beautiful inventions of human beings, and their careful arrangement on the printed page one of the delights of reading. In fact, one of my first acts as Executive Pastor here at St. Philip was to standardize most of our printed material using the Myriad and Arno typefaces, both designed by a well-known type designer named Robert Slimbach. In this “simple list of working principles” about typography, Robert Bringhurst discusses typefaces and how best to put them to use in typographic design. First published in 1992, the book is already considered a classic. As the title suggests, he used the volume by Strunk and White as a benchmark for this treatise on typography.