As a writer, I make the acquaintance of a lot of people who read, some of them more widely than others. Since I'm also a Professional Christian, I meet folks who tell me they only read Christian books—but what they typically mean by that is very different from what I typically mean by that. They're reading the latest Christian bestseller, whether evangelical or progressive, and while as a writer, I applaud that, I also lament the lack of knowledge of earlier writers and ancient Christian wisdom.
That's why I am so pleased to see 25 Books Every Christian Should Read come to press. 25 Books is not a guide to the Christian books everyone will be reading this year and next; it is, rather, an introduction to 25 works stretching back to the first centuries of the Christian tradition, none of them by living authors. The book offers a short introduction to each text, an explanation of its continuing relevance, and a short selection, a taste of the actual book, if you will.
25 Books is, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, an attempt not to elevate the new, but to explore those things that never grow old. For centuries, serious Christians willing to stretch their wings and explore new practices and challenging territory have come to these works by authors ranging from the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) and Augustine to C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen, and while they have been at times puzzled or frustrated, they have also grown from entering into this ongoing conversation about spiritual practice and theology. Thus, this introduction serves a vital function in modern Christian life, which is dominated by the book of the moment, prayer of the moment, and a cloud of unknowing (to badly misappropriate the title of one of these 25 books!) about Christian tradition.
Any such book is only as good as its selections, and these are well-chosen by an ecumenical board that includes Phyllis Tickle, Dallas Willard, Emilie Griffin, and Richard Rohr. It includes works familiar to me (Augustine's Confessions, The Rule of St. Benedict, Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship) and some unfamiliar to me (Thomas Kelly's A Testament to Devotion, St. Teresa's The Interior Castle). It also steps outside the usual bounds of prayer and practice to incorporate great works of literature—Dante's Divine Comedy, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins—all of which illuminate and inspire.
In fact, all these selections seem challenging and worthy of further study, if the introductions and selected readings are to be trusted (and they certainly seem accurate to the works with which I'm familiar), but since my primary focus in this column is our life together, I want to focus particularly on how these 25 books might (or which might) illuminate our life together, whether in faith communities, human families, or the body politic.
Much of the material in the book seems to be about texts related to prayer, mysticism, and individual spirituality, and I do not disparage this. Corinne Ware's fine book Discover Your Spiritual Type suggests that one sort of spiritual person regards God as a mystery to be experienced, and 25 Books is heavy on selections for this spiritual type. But that spiritual grounding in prayer and experience of God is necessary for other spiritual types, and undergirds the attempts to reach out to others in love and service. A deep core of personal faith and practice is necessary to be in relationship with others. You can't offer water from a dry well.
Other texts, however, speak more directly to the experience of our lives in community. Some are classics like the Rule of St. Benedict, one of the first attempts to formulate a practical Christian political ethic. This work, as 25 Books suggests, "offered order, routine, and peace" to those who followed it (and continues to offer those things to us today). Leaders were to be carefully chosen and accountable to all, using their power responsibly and with attention to individual strengths, weaknesses, and needs. The Rule translates the teachings of Christ into concrete actions, and in so doing argues that our thoughts and intentions, while important, are less important than our actions. (Like Aristotle, who argued that "action is character," the Rule has no place for good intentions.)
Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, which I began this past spring, is a brave but necessary choice for 25 Books. It's a hard and demanding book, but one that contains much more than the expected teachings on personal piety or predestination. The Institutes reminds us that holiness consists of sobriety, righteousness, and godliness—all of which may and must be translated into actions related to our neighbors. Calvin, despite contemporary Neo-Calvinists who may seem at odds with Progressive Christian belief and practice, is essential reading. 25 Books summarizes Calvin to say that we can only find happiness in God, not through our own actions, a fine corrective for the Protestant work ethic and American individualism. Independence and autonomy, according to Calvin, are not ultimate values (which may surprise some American neo-Calvinists).