Top Ten Theological Books that Shaped My Life

I love to make top ten lists.  Neurotically so.  I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.

But it’s been a while, and the other day I took a notion to tweet the ten theological books that have most shaped my life.  I’ve included the list here below.  If you are interested in purchasing any of them, I have posted an wishlist here for easy access.

Be warned: top ten fever has regained its hold on my life, so far more random/arbitrary lists are yet to come!

Without further ado:

10.  Simply Christian by NT Wright

I love many of Wright’s books.  For hardcore enthusiasts, perhaps Simply Christianwould be a surprising choice over some of his other more academic works.  But Simply Christian hit me right between the eyes a few years before starting Renovatus, and I never got past it.  I have never before nor since seen such a beautiful, accessible, elegant articulation of the basics of Christian faith.  And for all of Wright’s many gifts to the Church, I think perhaps his greatest is re-framing the big picture story of the gospel–as he does relentlessly in all of his work, forcing us to read the little stories in context of the big one of salvation history.  I don’t think any book of its kind (including CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity) gets it done quite the way Wright does here.

9.  Richard J. Foster, The Celebration of Discipline

I read Celebration in my early 2o’s, and no other book has shaped the practical dimensions of my life with God like this book.  It’s a classic for a reason.  While Foster would write more directly about how to integrate the best of different strands of Christian tradition in Streams of Living Water, he actually demonstrates the principle effortlessly here in a way that challenged me to do the same early in my ministry.

8.  Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

I grew up in church all my life, and yet never heard a sermon about the kingdom of God.  Hence this book blew my head open, also in my early 20′s.  Nobody captures the heart and soul of Jesus’ foundational kingdom message quite like Willard does.  His chapter on the beatitudes alone is worth the price of admission.

7.  C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity get more press, but I think this is Lewis’ most enduring, truthful and haunting work.  I refer back to it over and over again.

6. Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader

It feels like cheating to include a compilation here, but most of Hauerwas’ books are collections of essays.  And since I think this is the most important theologian in America and the man who taught me most everything I know about what it means to be the Church, I say buy the big book and dive in deep.  He’s provocative and brilliant every time.  He has also been incredibly kind to me personally, and his visit to speak at Renovatus in 2008 is one of my favorite memories.  (For Hauerwas fans, the introduction I delivered for him that day as well as his response to coming to Renovatus, his first time speaking at a Pentecostal church, is here)

6.  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

Prophetic Imagination is so ridiculous, I feel like I need to make up new words to describe it.  It’s a genre-crossing, shattering marvel of a book.  As poetry…as cultural critique/social commentary…as Old Testament exegesis…it is categorically beyond brilliant. And will never date.  Brueggemann is incapable of writing anything that isn’t genius: The Creative Word, Cadences of Home, Finally Comes the Poet, his commentaries on Genesis and Samuel, his multiple works on the Psalms, his collections of sermons, prayers and essays.  He’s an artist, a prophet, a poet, a preacher, a beast. But in The Prophetic Imagination, the maestro is at the height of his powers, and every page is stunning. Read it.  (My poor congregation: when I read it first in 2008, I tried to outline the whole book to preach in 1 Sunday. NOT A GOOD IDEA, PEOPLE.)

4.  Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

Almost every sentence of the second half of this book is highlighted. Nouwen’s book is short, but every line is potent. It and Return of the Prodigal Son are the best of his 40 odd books by me. This book changed my approach to ministry forever. The idea that my brokenness is an asset God could use to heal others never left me be. It radically challenged my assumptions about ministry. In Pentecostal tradition, preachers feel like they should act like super heroes. it’s a book I think everybody in vocational ministry should be required to read.

3.  Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale

Every sentence in Telling the Truth is beautiful. It’s the best book on preaching that has been or ever will be written. And Buechner’s grid of “comedy, tragedy and fairy tale” is an astonishingly powerful frame for the gospel story.  A masterpiece.

2.  Herbert McCabe, Love, Law and Language

The now deceased Dominican priest is the most underrated late 20th century thinker the Church produced. Love, Law and Language is the best book on ethics I’ve ever read. I go back to it over and over and over again. (Also worth noting: McCabe’s sermon on “Forgiveness” from the posthumous collection Faith Within Reason is my favorite sermon in print.)

1.  Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom

Pentecostal Spirituality is far and away the best theological work by a Pentecostal. I’ve had a lifelong lover’s quarrel with my tradition- But Land’s big vision for Pentecostal spirituality helped me find my place within the tradition in a time when I didn’t know how I fit. Land won’t let Pentecostals be reduced to fundamentalists who speak in tongues, & makes the case for a distinct vision of the kingdom.

And if you aren’t worn out yet: my top alternates are John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and Clark Pinnock’s Flame of Love.