Emily Dickinson famously remarked, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Some books, some authors, have that kind of enduring impact on our lives, so deep that we no longer think about the world, or live in the world, the same way after reading them. So for this Monday, I offer a list of books that took the top of my head off. Consider sharing this list and replace the categories with your own nominations.
Western Culture: Edward Said, Orientalism
Reading Orientalism, I learned how much we westerners have defined ourselves by defining ourselves over against what we believe the easterners to be.
The Land: Wendell Berry, What Are People For?
Because you can farm, and write, and writing grounded in the earth can teach us what humans are for.
Family Systems: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve
If you would like to learn how to be yourself in emotional systems, and play to strengths rather than weaknesses, then this.
Theological Ethics: James Cone, God of the Oppressed
There are many other liberation theologians who have had a profound influence on me, but James Cone was the first, and the most continuingly influential.
Reading Scripture: Ellen Davis and Richard Hayes, The Art of Reading Scripture
Ellen Davis the Old Testament theologian, and Richard Hayes the New Testament theologian, have both trained my reading of Scripture in deep ways, Hayes with his concept of metalepsis, Davis with her attention to the confessional dimensions of hermeneutics.
What a book can be: Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
1181 pages about Yugoslavia at the brink of WWII. But you can’t really describe this book. It is an event.
Study: A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
Sertillanges taught me how to engage the intellectual life long-term while also pastoring and parenting.
Parish ministry: Tex Sample, U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches
I disliked this book in seminary. Then in my call to rural ministry, I called up Tex and asked if he would be my coach for a monthly coaching call. He agreed. His way of thinking about class and harsh ministry was enlightening.
Mystery: Dorothy Sayers, The Peter Wimsey Novels
I don’t read a lot of mystery novels. I read all of these, and have done so more than once. I would live in this world if I could.
What a novel can do: George Elliot, Middlemarch
I could have put Moby Dick here, or Bleak House, but this novel, which I read in a British literature class, together with some others, taught me that a novel can truly be a world.
Systematic theology: Robert Jenson
If you want to read a systematic theologian, I still say, read Jensen first. His two volume work is brief and incredible. Once you’re done, then read Colin Gunton.
Media: Marshall McCluhan, The Medium is the Massage
Great story about this book, the printers got the title wrong, but McCluhan loved it, because massaging the message is precisely what media do.
Psychology: Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
When people think of psychotherapy, they think of Freud and sex. But they really ought to think of Becker and death.
The essay: David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Read the one about going on a cruise ship. Or about the state fair. Read any of them. Pure gold.
Education: Ivan Illich
I’m not sure which book to recommend, you kind of have to find your way into Illich for yourself. Look him up.
Math and Science: James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science
I read this in high school, and have never stopped thinking about it.
LGBTQ and Christianity: James Alison, On Being Liked
Alison knows mimetic theory and Girard like nobody, and the dude can write. On Being Liked is still my favorite, but so many great essays are also online.
Promise: My great friend Greg Walter wrote a book about the theology of promise. I’m constantly going back to it, because I think it is a lifelong project for me to learn from Greg.
I am who I am because of these books, these authors. Who are yours?