Whenever an editor or a group of people (like the editorial board of Renovaré) makes the effort to identify a list of books that must be read, there are inevitable risks and easy criticisms that can be made:
In the case of this essential guide to spiritual classics, one might ask, just 25?
One could differ with the judgment that these books are “the best guides” to the spiritual life.
One could argue that being dead and the test of time is a tough case to make if C. S. Lewis (dead 48 years) makes the cut and John Wesley (dead 220 years) doesn’t. (Wesley, by the way, had his own list.)
One could also quibble endlessly with the choices made. As much as I value his work, why the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins before Gregory of Nyssa? Or, for that matter, before John Cassian, Maximus the Confessor, Ignatius of Loyola, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Francis of Assisi, Desiderius Erasmus (who is too often characterized as the patron saint of skeptics), George Herbert (whose work warms the heart of every Anglican), Jeremy Taylor, Jeanne Guyon, John and Charles Wesley (sure to please every true Methodist) —- I should stop. You get the point.
The editors know this and, for that reason, it might have been wise to call this compendium, 25 Books to Get Every Christian Started Reading. When you finish here, compare what remains, for example, in John Tyson’s Invitation to Christian Spirituality, whose list includes 76 spiritual masters. You’ve got a lot more to do — and with great benefit. In spite of all that, I am grateful for what Renovaré offers here and what is worth noting is that the editors have 25 books that they want people to read.
As one who was reared in a mainline congregation and grazed the evangelical world for a time before settling down among Episcopalians, it is interesting to look back on attitudes toward reading spiritual masters. It would be hard to document, but my general impression is that, on balance, mainline Protestants discovered these masterpieces through circuitous eastern routes — often arguing that Buddhism had meditative and spiritual resources that are completely missing in the Christian tradition. Evangelicals, by contrast, showed almost no interest in finding those treasures, arguing that the Bible was all that they needed (all the while reading C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, Oswald Chambers, and E. Stanley Jones).
Over the last three decades all of that has changed and this volume, like Tyson’s, signals a recovery of spiritual reading that is both more public and more publicly catholic (read, universal). The Holy Spirit, it seems, knows better than we do, what we should be reading. And one can only hope that having drawn these treasures together, we won’t mislay them quite so easily, ever again.
The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. An Episcopal priest, he also serves as the director of the Episcopal studies program. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).
Schmidt’s column, “The Spiritual Landscape,” is published every Monday on the Progressive Christian portal.