At the end of 2019 everyone had a books of the decade list.
A few friends of mine shared theirs with each other, which gave me a good list of reading material, and a book group span out of that discussion. It’s more recently morphed into a group that reads old Christian works that we wouldn’t read without each other’s encouragement. So far, lots of the church fathers.
I came up with my list of books of the decade with my criteria being books that I talked about a lot afterwards. I was thinking about this again more recently and thought a better question would be: what books changed me?
I would agree with John Piper’s famous aphorism that “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” But I’m going to ignore it. Honestly, highlighting the sentences that changed me was too hard!
So, in no particular order, and with the common bias towards the recent (what’s happened recently often feels more important than it was because it looms largest in your memory), are nine books that changed me:
Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
This is Lewis’ autobiographical account of his journey to faith. What struck me and changed me was the way he spoke about stories and the way he thought about myth. There’s something wonderfully mythic about the way of Jesus, and Lewis was the first to give me language to begin to think about it. We desperately need better stories, Lewis showed me that.
This thinking is shot through all of his work, though especially his fiction. My favourite is the strange and beautiful Till We Have Faces. You’ve got to die before you die. Sadly, to explain that would be to give the story away; but it was Surprised by Joy that woke me up.
The Good God, Mike Reeves
This is wonderful little introduction to orthodox trinitarian theology that’s actually aimed at ordinary Christians. There was some helpful thinking here, but the thing that changed me was realising two things: Christian books can be well written. Most Christian books aren’t.
It pushed me to improve my communication, which is a journey I’m still on.
Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund
A contestant for the best book I’ve ever read. Nothing in this book was new to me, and everything in this book was new to me. Ever had that experience? It was gently smacked in the face with the gospel chapter after chapter. I can name the sentence here: ‘Jesus’ posture towards you is not a pointed finger but open arms.’
It was a timely book for me, which often makes all the difference, but I’ve been emboldened in my presenting of the unadulterated gospel by reading it.
The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt
A helpful book to think through some things we might notice in our culture. I work at a University and was working at a different one when I read this. It was recommended by a friend for that reason, Universities are his main target for a good portion of the book. That wasn’t what really lived with me though. It was the first time I’d encountered an attempt to describe Generation Z. It explained much of what I’d noticed with students I knew and launched my own research project on the subject (which those of you who know me personally will have read or heard, but it’ll turn up here eventually).
Influential as a launchpad as much as anything.
Desiring God, John Piper
This was my first introduction to Calvinism and to the idea that God is joyous in himself, brimming with delight. This isn’t my favourite Piper book, and I don’t find he and I agree on as much as we used to, but it shaped and changed me in important ways that I’m grateful for.
I remember reading it as an explicitly painful experience as I wrestled with what he was saying. I’m glad I did.
A Son to Me, Peter Leithart
This sublime, and ridiculous, commentary on Samuel was my first real exposure to what the exegetical movement called ‘interpretive maximalism’ feels like. I was aware it existed but hadn’t really read anything from that school before this.
I’d now refer to it as ‘reading the Bible’ or ‘how everyone read the Bible before modernity’ which probably shows you where I stand.
Preaching, Tim Keller
Less for me because of Keller’s advice, though its good, and more as an exercise in thinking through what preaching is and what influence that has on how you approach the task. Previously everything I’d read on preaching was “how to” advice and didn’t give me enough grist to get my hands around why they thought the way they do.
I take ideas apart for fun (sometimes I remember how to put them back together again, too) so when told ‘how’ I find it easier to get accept when it comes with a healthy does of ‘why’ and ‘where’ and ideally ’what’s the 1000 year genealogy of your thinking’. Keller isn’t foolish enough to do the latter, but he gave me a good sparring partner.
Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith
Smith’s book was my introduction to the idea that habit is an incredibly important part of formation. That we are what we love, not what we think. This has affected my own life, how I teach, how I lead, how I expect change to happen in others—it’s a different way of looking at life and church to the typical evangelical mould, but it’s very helpful.
Caveat Emptor, this is a more difficult and philosophical work than the others listed here. It may be easier to read the popularised version of these ideas in You Are What You Love.
Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson
The most recent of these books that I read, so the most likely for me to be overstating the impact. It’s a strange book, I would struggle to tell you what it’s about, but I loved it. It gave me a frame to think about our house renovation (which is a saga worth telling when I have some emotional distance) as a theological act of bringing order from chaos. Of making like the Maker; of adorning the dark.
It’s also part of the impetus behind building a writing habit, and so this blog you’re reading too. The other impetus came from Derek Tidball looking me in the eye and saying “you need to write”, so blame Andrew and Derek (don’t do that).
Nine books that changed me
I would heartily recommend any of these as good conversation partners. Agree with them all? I’m sure you wouldn’t. Be stimulated and gain something in your reading? I would be certain of it.
Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash