The first list is of the top five classic books that I think every believer should read. The key here is that you read them, and not merely own them–it is a tragedy that these books often collect more dust than underlining. To qualify, the books must meet one of two requirements: 1) They have to have been a recognized classic for over a hundred years, or, 2) They have to be a recognized classic and the author has to have been a part of an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life.
In no order whatsoever, the top five desert island classics:
1. St. Augustine – The Confessions
Augustine’s Confessions is about as classic as a book can get. Augustine was publishing his existential musings before it was cool to do so, and nearly every spiritual autobiography owes its conception to The Confessions. Meet the man who wanted chastity, but just not yet.
2. Brother Lawrence – Practicing the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence brings us into a reality where God is in everything that we do–and that is good news! I find myself doing a lot of things in which God is hard to find, but if Lawrence can be with God as he is washing dishes, certainly we can be with God wherever we find ourselves. If you do some pretty mundane tasks, spend some time with Lawrence and learn to practice God’s presence.
3. Thomas A’ Kempis – Imitation of Christ
This is one of those books that should be read once a year. You will often feel backslapped by A’ Kempis, but we all need a little of that from time to time! Diving into this book will never be fruitless, and you can boast about reading one of the best selling books of all time (which is sure to impress).
4. Jonathan Edwards – The Religious Affections
It’s never easy getting spiritual advice from the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is it? Leaving the stereotypes aside, Edwards attempted a task that few have attempted since: Helping people to discern the Spirit’s work in their lives compared to their own efforts. We should read this book not just for its content, but for its mission of discernment. I think Edwards would be disappointed that we haven’t used more of modern psychology, sociology and theology to help us understand what it means to walk with God. Read this book and be amazed at how easy it is to assume God is working just because things look religious.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich is the only guy on the list who meets the second requirement. Every good list needs someone who was a part of some kind of assassination attempt; here, Dietrich is our guy. The Cost of Discipleship calls us away from cheap grace and towards the reality of truly costly grace, something we desperately need to hear. Dietrich lived out this costly grace, often underground and in danger of being found by the Gestapo. He ultimately gave his life for the mission of the kingdom.
The next five books are the kinds of books you wish would never end. I don’t hesitate to admit that compared to the first list, these books are a bit more obscure. While the previous list was comprised of mostly ancient classics, I am offering these to you as modern classics. The only requirement for this list is that based on what I think most of us are reading, these are the books I believe we need to pay attention to.
So again, in no order whatsoever, the Top Five books that will go down as modern classics.
1. Jean Vanier – Community and Growth
Jean Vanier is a gold mine of wisdom. If you are sick of people just talking about mission, here is a guy whose life defines it. Father of the L’Arche communities that eventually became famous through Henri Nouwen’s work, Vanier teaches us about what it means to really live in community. If there is any true “expert” in community, it is Vanier.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Life Together
Apparently an assassination attempt gets you two places on the list. This little book is another once-a-year read. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to drop everything, call your friends and all buy this book and read it together–it is that good. In the end you might not buy everything that Bonhoeffer has to say, but his passion for community and discipleship, as well as his stand against evil, gives him a platform that shouldn’t be ignored.
3. Henri Nouwen – In the Name of Jesus / The Way of the Heart
OK, OK, I snuck two books into one spot. But these are so small that together they barely make up one book. As with most of Nouwen’s books, these can be read in one sitting, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a weekend and read them both away from the craziness of everyday life. In our success-obsessed culture, the ones who flee to the wilderness are often the ones whose voices are truly deep and loud, and Nouwen is that kind of a prophet.
4. Karl Barth – Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
This might be a stretch for some, but it is an important stretch. Barth is arguably (or obviously) the most important modern theologian. In this book, written during his only trip to North America, Barth offers us a theology of wonder that is built on prayer. It is not important whether you end up agreeing with Barth, but whether you allow him to open you up to what God-talk can really be. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a theologian or not; take up and read, you won’t regret it.
5. Dostoyevsky – The Idiot
This is the only novel on the list, and the least “modern” of the books. The “idiot” is Jesus. The question you have to ask yourself is whether or not Jesus could be put into fiction in any other way than Dostoyevsky has created. This will be a slow-going book–it is in the line of Russian fiction that can seem to talk about a streetlamp for 45 pages–but it is an important read. You will see grace in a way you never imagined it, and you will enter into an existential struggle that cries out for a redeemer. I have no doubt that in some way you will find yourself in this book, as someone staring at a wall that won’t seem to go away, and in need of a true deliverer. Take the time and work through this classic (which contains a character considered by many to be the greatest Christ figure in literature); you will understand Jesus’ coming to save in a whole new way.
As I was writing this I was reminded of one of my favorite High Fidelity quotes. When talking about his ex-girlfriend, Cusack’s character says something that is very relevant for us as Christians. He says, “I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and … I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open. And that’s suicide. By tiny, tiny increments.” In a sense, these books all call us towards something real, something true and something meaningful. In a world where it is oftentimes easier to commit to nothing, or to commit to God in either thought or activity alone, these books offer a call to committing with all of our beings, because in the end, that is the only thing that truly makes sense. If you feel like your hear is dying by tiny increments, give yourself a literary defibrillation with these 10 life-changing books. The time spent with will be well worth it.