An invitation to an argument: ’25 Books Every Christian Should Read’

Renovaré has a new book out that seems designed to start an argument. It’s called 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, and it’s just what it sounds like — an introduction to 25 classic works of Christian writing, with excerpts from each and short essays arguing for why these selections are worth reading.

As with all such lists — think of those AFI lists, or those lists of “the best novels,” or NPR’s recent list of 100 science fiction books — part of the fun is the inevitable argument over which books should be included.

In this case, that argument ought to be a gentle one, seeing as these books are mostly classics of devotional literature whose most avid partisans ought to reflect the spirit of those books. One assumes that two friends with passionate opinions about, for example, the relative merits of The Practice of the Presence of God versus The Seven Storey Mountain would conduct their dispute in a manner that would make Brother Lawrence and Thomas Merton proud.

The Renovaré folks recognize this aspect of their project, and they see the fun in it, so they’ve structured their book to accommodate and encourage such discussion. Sprinkled throughout 25 Books are dozens of additional recommendations, including additional lists from a variety of interesting people — lists of their five favorites, or the six books they found most inspiring, or “Seven Books Those Idiots at Renovaré Unforgivably Failed to Include.” (No list is titled quite that explicitly, of course, but the editors are smart enough to realize that this is what many readers will inevitably be thinking.)

Patheos is also helping to continue that friendly argument with a book club forum on 25 Books.

The main list is a good one. I’ve read maybe half of these and am at least familiar with the rest, thanks in part to having been introduced to some of them years ago by a similar, earlier Renovaré publication called Devotional Classics. The excerpts, like the titles listed, are well-chosen, and the short essays make a good case for these entries.

The overall sense one gets from 25 Books is that of having an earnest, bookish friend enthusiastically pressing a stack of books into your lap and encouraging you to read them. Such enthusiasm — even from a stranger — is bound to nudge those titles higher in your mental queue of Books to Read Someday. But the weight we give such recommendations depends upon the friend making them. If it’s someone we trust and regard with affection, admiration and affinity, then the book may move to the top of the queue — even to the top of the nightstand.

So how much weight should we give to this stack of recommendations from Renovaré? That answer will depend, largely, on what one thinks of their list.

So let’s take a look at that list, and please let’s do have the friendly argument it’s bound to provoke.

Here is Renovaré’s list, followed by my suggested amendments, additions, etc.

  1. On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius
  2. Confessions, St. Augustine
  3. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
  4. The Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict
  5. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  6. The Cloud of Unknowing
  7. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
  8. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
  9. The Philokalia
  10. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin
  11. The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila
  12. Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross
  13. Pensées, Blaise Pascal
  14. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  15. The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence
  16. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law
  17. The Way of a Pilgrim
  18. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  19. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
  20. The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  21. The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  22. A Testament of Devotion, Thomas R. Kelly
  23. The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
  24. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  25. The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri J.M. Nouwen

These are all worthy books and you won’t be wasting your time with any of them, but I’m not sure all of them belong in a short list of “essential spiritual classics.”

The Divine Comedy, for example, is one of the greatest human achievements in all of literature. You must read this before you die. Everyone should. But it’s not really a spiritual classic.

And if we’re only to have two poets in this list, must the other one be Hopkins? (My list of poets to include in this list would start with Emily Dickinson, Donne, Blake and Auden, and would probably go on for a bit longer before I got to Hopkins.) In general, I prefer poets to the sort of flat earnestness one encounters in a lot of the sort of writing that’s often regarded as “spiritual” or “devotional” — a category into which I’d lump several of the saintly works listed above, as well as some of the more recent entries there. “Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear, / And the rocks melt wi’ the sun!” strikes me as richer than “I really, really, really, really love you, very, very much” and that applies whether the object of love is human or divine.

Calvin’s Institutes is, again, a worthy and vastly influential book that every Christian ought to encounter and engage. It’s also a massive, sprawling book that I don’t think every Christian should or even could read in its entirety. Calvin wrote it in a great rush at a standing desk next to an open window in the winter so that he could work late into the night without falling asleep. I needed a similar arrangement to keep awake while reading it. I’m not saying Calvin doesn’t belong in a list like this one, just that the Institutes is not the best place to start. When you want to introduce readers to Joyce, you give them Dubliners or Portrait — you don’t hand them a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and say, “Good luck.”

If we’re going to include C.S. Lewis here, then let’s go with The Screwtape Letters, which is funnier, more insightful and a better crafted bit of writing than Mere Christianity (which is also a valuable book, but the reader can tell it began as a series of radio lectures that was later cobbled together).

The additional lists in 25 Books and an appendix on contemporary authors mention many of the writers or titles I would want to add to the list above: The Journal of John Woolman, Gustavo Gutiérrez’ A Theology of Liberation, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and the letters of Flannery O’Connor, and various works by N.T. Wright, Anne Lamott and Wendell Berry.

What else to add? The formidably clear-eyed Annie Dillard, for one — Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Holy the Firm (all three — they’re short). And some Graham Greene — The Power and the Glory or Monsignor Quixote. Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, Frederick Buechner’s Alphabet of Grace, and some Kathleen Norris (take your pick) and some Reinhold Niebuhr (who doesn’t seem very “devotional,” unless you’re a sinner — no one writes more clearly about what that means).

And then two more that I think are the most glaring and egregious omissions: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and essays. This is a book published in America and primarily for American Christians, and no one should attempt to understand the current shape of American Christianity without confronting how it came to be shaped that way. At some point, that means encountering Frederick Douglass. And any conversation that includes the phrase “Every Christian Should Read” also needs, somewhere, to include the phrase “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I’m sure I’m also forgetting many things that unquestionably belong in this list. And I’m sure someone will remind me of what those are in comments below. I hope so, anyway, because I can’t enjoy the fun of a friendly argument by myself.

Update: I like the approach Carl Gregg takes to 25 Books — working his way through the list and recommending alternates for each title. Let me follow his example by suggesting a substitute for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

That’s a great book and Bonhoeffer was an exceptional, heroic saint. But that’s also the problem with our cult of esteem for Bonhoeffer. Instead of viewing him as exceptional, we pretend that his exceptional courage in the moral crucible of the Holocaust is how we would have behaved as well. We vicariously congratulate Christianity in general, and ourselves in particular, by imagining that his response was typical of how the church responded to the Holocaust. But his response was far from typical. We turn Bonhoeffer into something like the white protagonists of films like Mississippi Burning or Cry Freedom — it’s a way of reassuring ourselves or absolving ourselves without having to confront the reality of evil and our complicity in it.

As a reminder of that, and as an antidote to the self-congratulatory temptation of pretending we were all Bonhoeffer in a past life, let me recommend We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch. Christian faith plays almost no role in the horrifying story Gourevitch recounts, although many of the figures involved were Christians. Christians were among the victims, among the rescuers, among the resistance, among the genocidaires, among the collaborators. And Christians were among the millions who stood by, frozen, and watched it all unfold without intervening.

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  • Shivasinai

    Forgiveness for sins was a seriously problematic idea for Catholics of the 14th century due to church corruption. Anticlerical (especially antifraternal) writing of the time, even from outside the clerical or even Catholic perspective, struggles with how the church defined and wrong, and how it prescribed to turn wrong to right. See: the Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman, and the Paterik of the Kyivian Monks, part 37.

  • Skiriki

    I’m also going to vouch for Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and Small Gods by Terry Pratchett.

    The former because it is one of those “what if” thoughtgames, plus an object lesson in not taking everything too bloody seriously, and the latter because it really pounds in the lesson of “what, exactly, we’re worshipping here, faith vs structure”.

  • Anonymous

    I tried to read Pilgrim’s Progress once. I got up to the part where Christian’s burden falls away and he has to sit through a half-dozen morality plays on the same subject. The idea may be sound, but the writing lacks something.

  • Anonymous

    I prefer the argument that it ought to make you a better person, and that if it doesn’t, that’s your fault for not paying attention to the central message

  • Anonymous

    Ah, Paradise Lost. Satan rebels, humanity falls, and an angel gives Adam spoilers for the entire Bible.

  • Anonymous

    Making sure I’ve got this right: she wanted to know how you could appreciate an argument of “there, but for the grace of God, go I?” Isnt that a pretty common argument for Loving Thy Neighbor?

  • Heartfout

    That argument is better (although many people seem to confuse `ought` with `does`), but it seems to ignore that other belief systems also have the `Be nice to people` rule. It isn’t unique to Christianity, so just converting to Christianity should de facto make you better.

  • Heartfout

     Shouldn’t defacto make you better I mean.

  • Anonymous

    I think another good christian author christians (well, and non.christians too) should read is Sören Kierkegaard. Probably “The works of love” or “Practice in christianity” (which I haven’t read; only reviews). “Fear and Trembling” is also nice, but not as necesary as the other two. And thanks Fred for including Liberation theology! (as a southamerican I feel flattered for you including Gutierrez here).

    Ps: also some recipes from the “dessert fathers” should be included

  • Cat

    Pagan here, but I would like to see the Celtic Christian immrama on the list.  They’re short little stories–alas, the online library that I used to work from appears to be gone, and all that I can find are my two least favourite, “The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla” ( and “The Voyage of the Ui Chorra” (, but there’s something really raw and creepy and elemental about them.  Raw and creepy and elemental enough to get me through an MA, anyway.  Just barely.

    As an alternative, there’s also Frederick Buechner’s Brendan, a novel retelling the Navigatio of St. Brendan, the most famous of the immrama.  Buechner is a beautiful writer, and his Christianity is not the Christianity of the immrama, but I admire it, and him, muchly. 

  • Making sure I’ve got this right: she wanted to know how you could
    appreciate an argument of “there, but for the grace of God, go I?” Isnt
    that a pretty common argument for Loving Thy Neighbor?

    Well, no.  The question actually boiled down to, “Wait, has anyone actually thought about how cruel this god we’re so joyously worshiping can be?”  Everyone was happy because it was a remembrance of that time god decided to kill the children of the Other while the writer was thinking, “But those were just kids, like me.”

    My companion was freaked out by the fact that anyone would dare ask that question and I would dare think that asking that question was a good thing.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I said it was problematic.  (Perhaps I should have said “problematic for me.”  I apologize.)  That’s one of the things I like about literature: rolling around in the words and the imagery and then standing back and talking about what it’s actually saying.  I concur that “innocent and dim” is a kinder portrayal than “evil and smart(er)” but I don’t really like either of them.  All that said, this is still beautiful:

    underfoot the violet,
    crocus, and hyacinth with rich inlay
    broidered the ground, more colour’d than with stone
    of costliest emblem[.]

  • nanananana

    Good Omens is more of a  “Books Everyone Should Read” sort of deal.Even without the whole theological part it’s just an awesome book to read for fun.Kind of like John Dies at the End and Johnathan Strange and Mr.Norell.It’s on my list of books to always recomend to people regardless of what type of book they’re looking for.that and anything by Ray Bradbury.
    -Aside from annoying,anyone find Dante’s Inferno to be really really boring?
    -Anyone else read Paradise Lost because they thought it was going to be more about Satan and then feel really cheated when we heard about Eve being “the perfect wife” for three pages.
    -Anyone else writing down half of these recomendation in the comments section? Screwtape letters has been listed like 5 times already and I’m starting to think I should read it.

  • Tonio

    Fred’s list may be a good antidote to the kiosks of “inspirational” books that I sometimes see in drugstores and a few restaurants. From my observation, these may be the publishing world’s version of Fox News. One book for parents, titled something like “Wild Boys,” was pushing the idea that boys have been feminized in recent decades and need to be steered back to masculinity. The publisher started with T but I don’t remember the name there, either. Many of the other titles were also geared to men or women specifically, and I suspect they were pushing sexist traditional ideas of gender roles.

  • Anonymous

    nanananana, the Divine Comedy is interesting if you’re interested in a. renaissance Italian Politics or b. the history of concepts of hell. I think it’s good if some people are interested in these things, but I don’t think everybody needs to be.

    But read Screwtape. I’m an atheist and I think you should read it.

  • P J Evans

    There’s a rack of those at my supermarket. (In back, right next to the books, usually. Beats having it right by the checkout lines.)

  • Anonymous

    Well, yes, that’s sort of the point.  If you truly believe in the “be nice to other people” aspect of your religion, it only makes sense that you would act on it.

    Again, I know it’s part of just about every religion out there.  ;)

  • Diona the Lurker

    I think it was William Blake who said, “Milton, doing the Devil’s work and never knowing it…”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’d say that The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius definitely belong on a list of Christian devotional classics, although it’s not so much a book you read as a guide to an experience you have.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    At the risk of being a bit too quippy, I’d like to see the Bible on the list. (Particularly in ancient Greek and Hebrew.) Because, honestly, all too often, people haven’t

    Agreed. My first reponse was “Amos. And Micah” but I didn’t post it cos of similar fear of quippiness :)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I actually found Pilgrim’s Progress to be surprisingly readable, but I read it as an adult, so that may have made a difference. I don’t think I would have been jumping up and down saying, “Goody, Goody” if someone had given it to me as a child.

    I read it as a child (about 12, I think), of my own free will, cos I was quite the nerd. I think it was the oldest book (outside the Bible) that I’d read at the time.

    The subsequent feeling of intellectual superiority at knowing the origin of a number of common phrases, and at people’s surprise when they hear that a living person has actually read it, made it totally worthwhile :)

    Unlike The Mill on the Floss. Nothing made reading that worthwhile.

  • P J Evans

     I agree with you about The Mill on the Floss. Why they think high-school students would be interested in that, or in Moby-Dick, is beyond me.
    (You need to be older and have more experience to appreciate 19th-century writing, I suspect.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I haven’t read Moby Dick. I think it’s one of those essential-to-read-if-American books that doesn’t get pushed much elsewhere. It’s certainly never been on any curriculum in my lifetime. We read quite a few classics by US authors in school, but that wasn’t one of them.

  • Simon

    For twentieth-century American fiction, one could certainly do worse than Morte D’Urban.

  • Johnepattison

    There is a good review of this book in the new edition of “The Englewood Review of Books.”

    I’d also point out that I co-wrote a similar book called “Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture,” which was published by Biblica in 2010 and will be re-released by IVP next year. My co-authors and I wrote seventy of the essays. The other thirty were written by prominent Christian authors, artists, musicians, pastors, and theologians – including Donald Miller, William P. Young, Steve Taylor, Phyllis Tickle, Pete Rollins, etc. :

  • Johnepattison

    “Besides the Bible,” by the way, included books by Annie Dillard and Martin Luther King, Jr., though I think we still tended to skew too white, too male, and too northern hemisphere.