25 Books Every Christian Should Read

(Renovaré, 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, 2011, 390 pages.)

Renovaré is from the Latin word for “renew” or “restore.” It is also a non-profit organization focused on spiritual formation. Their latest project is a list of the top 25 books every Christians should read.

On one hand, I have deep respect for many of those who selected this list (Richard Foster, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, and Dallas Willard). On the other hand, if I were empowered with the opportunity to assign 25 books that every Christian should read, I would construct a significantly different list.

The book’s editorial board qualifies that,

This book is not the list of the best Christian books ever written or a list of the top twenty-five devotional books; it isn’t even the list of the top twenty-five classics, although we believe all of the books on the list are or will be considered classics of their respective genres. The books we have chosen to include are, instead, the books that the board judges served as the best guides for living life with God. Cumulatively, these books embody a rich treasure of wisdom and counsel for how to live the Christian life. (x)

I would recommend this book as valuable because, for each of their selections, the editors have included a historical context, summary of why this book is “essential,” recommendations for “how to read” this particular classic, excerpts, and a study guide.

I also understand why the board has “excluded all books from living authors” (xi). However, if I were asked to recommend “25 books every Christian should read,” (at least for our current time and place), I would recommend, for the most part, precisely living authors:

(Before reading my alternative list below, it may be helpful to read the Renovaré list, which is available here.)

  1. Choosing Athanasius’ Incarnation (c. 318) — as important as the Incarnation is to Franciscan and Creation Spirituality – is, nevertheless, in many ways, a capitulation to the Constantinian Turn in which the church sold its soul to the Roman Empire. Instead, I would recommend John Dominic Crossan’s book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.
  2. I have given a best-faith effort at engaging Augustine’s Confessions on multiple occasions, but I continue to find it overrated (albeit historically significant) for the twenty-first century. We’re already narcissistic enough; instead, we need to move from ‘me’ (personal confession) to ‘we’ (systemic problems). Accordingly, Sallie McFague has written the immensely important book A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming.
  3. Without belaboring the sexism and patriarchy of the Renovaré list, there are some easy substitutes that could have been made. In place of the The Desert Fathers, we now have access to The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.
  4. From the hospitality I have experienced at Benedictine monasteries, I am fully convinced that Benedict of Nursia’s sixth-century Rule is a classic, but more challenging for today is School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism.
  5. We need less Dante’s fourteenth-century meditation on the afterlife, and more a theology that grapples with twenty-first-century pluralism such as Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian.
  6. The anonymous author of the fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing is undoubtably a spiritual genius, but Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening does not require the same level of translation and takes the Cloud’s teaching to the next level.
  7. Surely Dame Julian is presciently and profoundly right that, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.” But Marcella Althaus-Reid charts an even more vital and challenging course for today in her Indecent Theology.
  8. There is not space in this post to detail the problems with Thomas a Kempis’ unhealthy asceticism. We should much more readily look to Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
  9. The Philokalia (literally, “love of the beautiful”) is one of three places in which I find myself in direct agreement with the Renovaré editors. However, for those not already immersed in Eastern Orthodox theology, I would recommend beginning with the Skylight Illuminations edition.
  10. Long before I would point a student toward Calvin’s Institutes, I would recommend Rita Nakashima Brock’s and Rebecca Parker’s book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (2002), or (if you’re up for it!) the more recent, more historical, and much longer Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.
  11. Teresa of Avila’s sixteenth-century Interior Castle is an important guide for the interior journey, but Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality has the benefit of more than four centuries of insight to which Teresa did not have access. However, because I am reticent to substitute a male for a female in a list that is so heavily weighted against female authors, Caroline Myss has written the important updating of Teresa’s classic titled, Entering the Castle: Finding the Inner Path to God and Your Soul’s Purpose.
  12. Gerald May has similarly updated St. John of the Cross in his The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth.
  13. Pascal’s Pensees is also a classic, but as a guide to our contemporary situation, I look first to Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.
  14. Similarly, long before Pilgrim’s Progress, twenty-first-century Christians could benefit from Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.
  15. The Practice of Presence of God is the second of the three books in which I wholeheartedly agree with the Renovaré editors.
  16. Law’s Serious Call is important, but the work of Eugene Peterson, such as Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, is much more comprehensible today.
  17. The Way of a Pilgrim is the third and final of the three books in which I find myself in complete agreement with the Renovaré editors.
  18. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov, but instead of this classic fictional take on the “problem of evil,” Christians today could benefit much more from wrestling with Philip Jenikins’ Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.
  19. Apologetics such as Chesterton’s Orthodoxy are not what Christians need to be reading. We could find ourselves more appropriately chastened from Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.
  20. I will confess that I am a fan of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poetry, but in a list in which less than ten percent of the writers are female, Mary Oliver’s poems would be more appropriate.
  21. Dietrich Bonhoffer’s Discipleship (also known as “Cost of Discipleship”) was pivotal in my own rejection of “cheap grace,” but for forming disciples in the United States in the twenty-first century, I look first to A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr..
  22. Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion remains immensely moving, but I look first to perhaps Western Christianity’s greatest living wisdom teacher Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, or, more recently, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.
  23. I have benefited immensely from Thomas Merton’s writings, but instead of Seven Storey Mountain, see one of the primary texts of the East-West dialogue toward which Merton was moving at the end of his tragically short life: Tao de Ching.
  24. C.S. Lewis is perhaps the most out of place author included on the Renovaré list. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is overrated much more than Augustine’s Confessions. If I were an evangelical, I would look much more readily to John Stott’s Basic Christianity. However, given the state of the religion-science debate at the beginning of the third millenium, I would recommend, instead, John Haught’s Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life.
  25. Finally, although everything Henri Nouwen wrote is worth reading, in my top 25 list, I would consider first dreamwork, one of the major modalities (along with paying attention to synchronicities), that Jungians focus on for an adult spirituality: Jeremy Taylor, The Wisdom of Your Dreams: Using Dreams to Tap into Your Unconscious and Transform Your Life.

Christians should, by all means, read the classics, but I recommend starting with the best of what is available right now.

Bonus: Top Five Books Most Essential to My Spiritual Formation

1. Tony Campolo, 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid To Touch (1993). The summer before my senior year in high school, Campolo’s book gave me permission to ask some hard questions about the Southern Baptist Christianity of my childhood. Chapter titles include, “Can a Christian Own a BMW?” and “Can Christians Kill?”

2. John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998). As a sophomore religion major, I stumbled across Spong’s latest release on the bestseller rack of a large bookstore. I felt liberated to find an Episcopal bishop exploring many of the same questions I was asking.

3. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). This classic book helped me notice the difference between first-hand religious experience (“truth I had experienced directly for myself”) and second-hand religious experience (“what others claimed was true about religion, God, or reality”).

4. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). I also majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and Rorty’s postmodern perspective shook the foundations of my religious assumptions more than any other philosopher. However, if I could go back, I would read less Rorty and more Caputo.

5. Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (1990). Berry’s essays, poems, and novels invited me to see that neither “progress” nor “technology” are unalloyed goods; further, he refocused my attention on the importance of living simply, locally, and sustainably. More recent collections of his essays are Citizenship Papers (2003) and The Way of Ignorance (2006). I also cannot recommend highly enough his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Consider reading this poem through the lens of the Occupy protests.

This book review is a part of the Roundtable at the Patheos Book Club.
Visit the Book Club for more free resources related to this book.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • Tim Zebo

    A fascinating list – esp. when compared with Renovare’s! – thanks for creating it. I had two (probably unrelated) reactions. First, if you love Berry’s “Manifesto…” you’ll likely love the latest PBS Nature film, “My Life as a Turkey”. It’s a priceless recreation of experiencing “being in the moment.” see: http://www.shoppbs.org/product/index.jsp?productId=12151922.
    Second, as I read your list, and sampled Peterson’s “Practice Resurrection” and then Campolo’s “20 Hot Pototatoes” I was suddenly struck with the idea that “something’s missing”. And I think what’s missing may be big. Just brainstorming now but it seems the books are all about “how to think in new ways” (about what it means to be a Christian), right? But there aren’t any books about (a) how humans actually go about the process of thinking, and (b) how humans are born with very different brains that are used for thinking. For (a) I’d add the book, “What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought” by Stanovich, http://www.amazon.com/dp/030012385X. For (b), I don’t have a great reference yet, but I’d ask the question, If 2% of males and 1% of females are born with brains that lack the “empathy module”, isn’t proposing that they “grow in Christ” a little like proposing that an amputee grow a new leg? Thanks again for creating & posting the list.

    • jcarlgregg

      Thanks, Tim. I’ll try to check out the documentary, a genre of which I’m a big fan. I’ll also look into the book to which you linked.

      • http://www.kairossouthernafrica.wordpress.com Edwin Arrison

        I am never sure why South African writers are never mentioned in these lists. One of the best books on Christian faith and spirituality is Albert Nolan’s JESUS TODAY, and then of course Desmond Tutu’s GOD IS NOT A CHRISTIAN, MADE FOR GOODNESS, etc.

        • jcarlgregg

          Thanks for your suggestions, Edwin. I haven’t read Nolan, but I have read Tutu’s books; they are indeed excellent.

  • Pastor Cherie

    Have you read Gerald May’s Wisdom of Wilderness written toward the end of his life? Amazing, life changing stuff. Thanks for your list. Some I’ve read and the others I plan to.

    • jcarlgregg

      Cherie, glad you appreciate the list. I have read May’s “Wisdom of the Wilderness.” I agree that it is incredible. I first starting reading May when his “The Awakened Heart” was one of three books that San Francisco Theological Seminary recommended to be read as discerning whether potential applicants were called to their Spiritual Direction program. (Just FYI, the other two were “Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life” and Guenther’s “Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction.”) May’s “Addiction and Grace” and “Zen for Christians” are also good.

  • http://subrosa09.wordpress.com SubRosa09

    A warning to your readers on “Proverbs of Ashes”: It’s very important book. However, if you have any abuse issues, you may want to put this book on the shelf for a while, or read it while engaging in some industrial-strength therapy. Rebecca Parker’s accounts of her own childhood abuse are harrowing. While it’s very important to bring these issues to light (and how bad theology makes them even worse), the book is very “triggering” for people suffering from PTSD. Read, but give yourself lots of self-care and breaks in between.

  • http://fpclex.org mark davis

    I will greatly benefit from reading the books you have suggested and have read some of them although many of them are new to me. However, the value of such work bears the mark of some correspondance with the original list. I have read all but one of the original list. Wendell Berry, as an example, becomes a different read if one has read Calvin. Because I have read Dante I receive a double measure of blessing from Mary Oliver. I have a concern that many of my contemporaries have read far too little from centuries prior to the previous one hundred years and thus are ill equipped to critically benefit from, an illustration, John Spong who seems to me to say the same thing over and over and over again. Likewise my friends who relish Ehrman have too little time with long dead authors or the scriptures themselves to be able to reconstruct after deconstruction. Great material. Many thanks.

  • Shelly Matthews

    Add Laurel Schneider’s lovely, deep-thinking,and occasionally whimsical *Beyond Monotheism*.

    I am somewhat sad also that Crossan, Borg and Ehrmann are now the progressive Trinity in biblical studies; why not Elisabeth Fiorenza’s *In Memory of Her* and Jane Schaberg on Mary Magdalene (or on the Illigetimacy of Jesus); Karen King and/or Elaine Pagels on gnostic Christians. . .

    • jcarlgregg

      Shelly, thanks for your additions. Schneider’s book is on my “to read” list. I did recently enjoy the similarly-themed “Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation” which Schneider helped edit (and contribute to) along with Catherine Keller (http://amzn.to/sfvBN4). You are also right to name that it is sad for three white men to be the “progressive Trinity” in biblical studies. You’ve been encouraging me to read Schaberg’s book for a while now, so I need to get to it soon! It sounds great. I’ve read some of King, but not enough. In her Gospel of Mary Magdala, I really like the quote that, “The beginning is often portrayed as the ideal to which Christianity should aspire and conform. Here Jesus spoke to his disciples and the gospel was preached in truth. Here the churches were formed in the power of the Spirit and Christians lived in unity and love with one another…. But what happens if we tell the story differently? What if the beginning was a time of grappling and experimentation? What if the meaning of the gospel was not clear and Christians struggled to understand who Jesus was…?” (158). And I’ve read quite a bit of Pagels. She is great. Fiorenza is obviously a powerhouse as well, but not the easiest reading for the uninitiated — not that easy reading necessarily equals worthwhile.