I am a cistern.
My experience of life with God has been deeply shaped by others, many I have never actually met face to face, but who have nonetheless been my “companions” (Latin: “com” – “with” + “pan” – “bread”). I have known them through their books. C.S. Lewis liked to say that he read “to know that he was not alone.” And I know that I am not alone spiritually because there are people who came before me and who surround me still who struggle with the same questions and fight the same battles that I do, and some have written about what they have discovered along the way. Some of them have become treasured friends of mine, and I would like to introduce them to you.
This week I want to introduce you to the ten popular spiritual books that have profoundly shaped my thinking and believing. Next week I will introduce you to ten of the academic or scholarly books that have had a direct and strong hand in arranging the architecture of my soul, but this week I want to start with the books that first got me going spiritually. These are mass market books, books that you can readily find at Barnes and Noble or at Half Price Books. They are not technical. You don’t have to have a University degree in history or philosophy to be able to read them with understanding. In fact, I had read all of these books between my 12th and my 18th birthdays. They are foundational, the veritable building blocks of my spiritual life. Just as Picasso couldn’t paint until he knew his colors, and Shakespeare couldn’t write sonnets until he knew the alphabet, and Brahms couldn’t compose symphonies until he knew the musical scale, so, spiritually there are some things we need to know, or at least have given some thought to, before we can soar. These books were my colors, letters and notes.
My spiritual awakening took place on a silent retreat at a monastery when I was 13 years old. The little booklet I read that weekend was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. This is what spiritually primed the pump of my awakening for me. When the Presence of God broke in on me powerfully and personally that weekend, it was what Brother Lawrence had explained about what it means and how it unfolds that created the categories for my own expectation and experience of it. This book opened up to me the possibility of a personal encounter with the living God.
It’s not so much this book as it’s teaching that has been spiritually decisive for me. Being raised in a spiritual tradition that “prayed by the book,” Rosalind Rinker’s invitation to and explanation of “conversational prayer” in Prayer: Conversing with God was liberating to me. A few years back, when Christianity Today polled its readers about the most important books in their spiritual formation, this one was the most frequently mentioned! I know it’s had that kind of impact on me. This book gave me permission to talk with God in Jesus Christ as a friend with a friend.
Not long after my spiritual awakening, I began to read the Bible; “devour” it might be a better description. I knew that it mattered and I knew that I really needed to be conversant with its teachings as a Christian, but I didn’t really know why. It was reading F.F. Bruce’s little book on the reliability of the New Testament documents that helped me come to terms with why what the Bible said mattered, and why it could be trusted in what it told me about God in Jesus Christ. As you know, I regard the authority of the scriptures to be a watershed issue for Christianity, and this book sent me in the direction of having some real confidence in what the Bible says rather than beginning with suspicion and doubt. F.F. Bruce provided me with the example of a reasoned and intelligent defense of Biblical authority. This book provided me with the map that I needed to help me navigate between the fundamentalism of Scylla and the skepticism of Charybdis.
I read a series of Christian biographies published by Image Books when I was in middle school, and this one made the deepest and most lasting impression on me. Fr. Damien, the Beatified leper priest of Molokai, became one of my spiritual heroes and pastoral role models as a result of this book. The example of his sacrificial commitment to his Lord and Savior and his willingness to go wherever Jesus Christ needed him to be no matter the cost has challenged and inspired me to live my life by the same sort of commitments. This book honed my sense of call to ministry.
This was the first “theology” book that I ever read. J.B. Phillips was more familiar to me for his modern translation of the New Testament – the first “contemporary” version of the Bible that I ever owned and read, but it was this book that had the greater and more enduring impact on me. His description of the “unreal” gods that we hold dear and the urgency of finding the real God was the first exercise in critical thinking about God in which I ever engaged. And when J.B. Phillips went on to explore the basis for knowing who the real God is because of how He has gotten focused for us in Jesus Christ, the excitement I felt as I watched the unfolding of the theological argument was plapable, and became the itch that the rest of my life has been spent scratching. I still love this little book, and read just about every year as a way of getting back in touch with what it was that first ignited the great passion of my life – faith seeking understanding. This book introduced me to the joy of loving God “with all my mind.”
This book was a text for the “Life of Christ” course that I took in my first semester of Christian College. It is E. Stanley Jones’ exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, and his argument that it was how Jesus Christ lived and not just what He taught. It’s argument that Christianity involves both creed and deed, both belief and behavior, both an orthodoxy of conviction and an orthopraxy of character, both a redemptive side and an ethical side, was absolutely compelling to me them, and now. I have turned to this book so often in the past 40 years that I have literally worn out copies of it. This book cast the vision of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for me. It has been a blueprint for my Christian life.
Billy Graham gave me this book, actually it was his Evangelistic Association. They would occasionally send books to people who supported them financially, and not long after I had sent them a small financial gift, this book showed up in the mailbox. Sherwood Wirt was the editor of the monthly periodical of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Decision, and this book spelled out a perspective for Christian involvement in social concerns that was deeply rooted in one’s conversion to Christ and that was a consequence of one’s sanctification by the indwelling, empowering Spirit. Neither a substitute for nor a rival to the personal Gospel of salvation, this book created the category in my thinking for the Social Gospel as its full partner and necessary consequence. This book forced me to think in “both/and” ways when it would have been very easy for me to slip into an “either/or” way of thinking.
I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer. This was another book that was assigned as a text for a class I took my first semester of Christian College, and the experience of reading it was intellectually intoxicating for me. I have heard other Christian leaders of my generation say that it was reading Francis Schaeffer in the early 1970’s that showed them that you could be a Christian and still be intellectually serious and culturally engaged. Schaeffer pushed me to go deeper than the popular, warm-fuzzy kind of Christianity that like cotton candy tastes good but dissolves quickly. From his own spiritual struggles he came to terms with the good and sufficient grounds for Christian faith, and he challenged me to approach my own believing with that same kind of rigor. This book convinced me that Christians don’t have to park their brains at the door of the church when they go in.
The Charismatic Movement was in full blossom as I started Christian College. The Holy Spirit had made His presence known in the life of the church and in the lives of Christians, and as has always been the case with movements of spiritual revitalization and renewal, together with the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through the staid corridors of Christianity came a fair share of excess and sheer silliness. It was Ray Stedman’s book Body Life that provided me with balance and perspective. In fact, it convinced me that being a Charismatic Christian was something that I myself needed to seek. Now, his understanding of what it meant to be a Charismatic Christian went way beyond the fascination with the showy spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy that captivated the imagination of the church in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, just as it had 2000 years before in Corinth. His core conviction was that it is the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit with His sovereign distribution of the spiritual gifts to Christians that enables the church to function as the Body of Christ. This book has been the foundation to my understanding of what the church is and how the church is supposed to work.
This book by one of the great spiritual giants of the 20th century, John R.W. Stott, was what helped me make sense of my Charismatic experience when it finally happened. A careful Biblical study of who the Holy Spirit is and how the Holy Spirit operates, Baptism and Fullness provided me with normative Biblical categories for understanding contemporary spiritual experience. Measured and reasonable without becoming dismissive or overly critical, this book not only helped me sort out my own spiritual experience, but it also helpfully modeled a gracious way to affirm Biblical authority without being petty or becoming brittle. In an age when the emphasis is clearly on spiritual experience, this book has helped me to appreciate and embrace the strengths of this approach to Christianity while avoiding its dangers and weaknesses.
In so many respects this is an artificial, “forced” exercise. There are other books and other authors; so many others: Philip Yancey, Calvin Miller, George Mallone, A.M. Hunter, Thomas Merton, Elton Trueblood, Lewis Smedes, C.S. Lewis. J.I. Packer, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen… But trace back through the 50 years of my spiritual growth and change, and these ten will be very close to my roots. DBS+