What I Took Up and Read

I’m insulted. I wasn’t invited. I guess I’ll get over it.

But not before I inflict this post on an unsuspecting world.

A month or two ago, I watched online as many of my friends challenged and answered each other to name ten books that they found especially meaningful. I don’t know if these were books they’d take to a deserted island, favorite books, books they’d recommend, or just books that had played a formative role in their lives. I don’t know because no one asked me.

Which is why I’m writing this now.

So, with the Bible excepted, here are my ten books. I don’t recommend them for everyone, but I think they help to explain who I am today and who I hope to be tomorrow. I have put them in the order that I found them in my library, beginning with the shelf behind my desk.


1. A Christmas Carol, by Charles DickensIMG_0002

Christmas, in my imagination, is Dickens, and I try to read this one every December. I long to help put this on stage someday and play Scrooge… or Fred or Marley or Bob or a Portly Gentleman. I’ll even monologue the whole story if I have to! Because Dickens identifies – like few others – the inner transformation necessary for man to truly embody the grace of God in Christ. This story overflows with biblical truth.


IMG_00032. The Great Divorce and Perelandraby C.S. Lewis

Ok, I confess that I’ll be cheating with my ten, but sometimes it’s hard to decide. Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s space trilogy, imagines the beauty of Innocence, the brutality of Corruption, and the place of a Redeemer between them – all taking place on Venus. Here Lewis evokes a true repulsion for sin and temptation and creates a longing for salvation.

But if I had to choose between these two short books, I’d probably go with The Great Divorce. It’s a parable of the huge gulf separating heaven and hell, showing that the distance isn’t geographical. It’s spiritual, and it lies between the hearts of those men and women who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” He asks the reader, Will you love and trust Christ enough to forsake the ephemeral pleasures of sin for the eternal reality of true joy?

I rarely shed tears, but I remember wiping them at 3am after reading this in one sitting.


3. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper LeeIMG_0004

Little did I imagine as a 15 year old reading this book for school in Melbourne, Australia, that I would one day be living a mere 45 minutes from Monroeville, Alabama, the author’s hometown. Now, after 8 years in the rural South – 50 years after the novel’s publishing and almost 80 years after its setting – I can say that this book is not fiction. It wasn’t fiction then, and it isn’t fiction now. But thank God for a few Christians with the heart and courage of Atticus Finch. They have made and will make a difference.


IMG_00054. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Depth. Tolkien’s power lies in his depth. He creates an entire world – nay, an entire universe and pantheon – for his stories, stories that feel like a postscript when sprinkled with hints of other quests, other catastrophes, other victories. (Jackson’s film treatment misses this almost entirely, though Howard Shore’s score comes close to evoking it.) I’d add The Silmarillion to this collection because it sketches out the vast historical backdrop for the Hobbits and their friends we love so well.

These heroic characters occupy the spotlight for a brief moment in the history of Middle Earth. As do the rest of us in the story of the real one. And Tolkien inspires us to the glorious work of sub-creation as creatures made in the image of a Creator, whose character we might reflect in our own works.


5. The Reformed Pastor, by Richard BaxterIMG_0006

For Baxter in the 1600s, reformed meant “born again,” and he thought it ought to be a basic requirement for all Christian pastors. Basic, that is, foundational. For a pastor who believes the Gospel has an incredibly important role to perform in order to see Christ fully formed in others.

I grew up in church and graduated from both Bible college and seminary without any full understanding of what a pastor does. Baxter became my mentor, and his words frequently remind me of the joy and gravity of my calling. He also offers some very practical means of fulfilling it. I recommend this one to all ministers everywhere.


IMG_00076. Desiring God and Brothers, We Are not Professionals, by John Piper

Ok, I’m going to cheat again, but only because one of these books led into the other. Brothers was my introduction into the world of Piperian thought, and it contains short elaborations on many subjects. But they all flow through the filter of Christian Hedonism, which he most fully develops in Desiring God.

Many Christians quote, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” but this is the source. Of course, Piper would say that it came from C. S. Lewis. Or Jonathan Edwards. Or King David and the Apostle Paul. Ultimately from God himself. We were created for God’s glory, and we never bring him more glory that when we are enjoying him as our all-sufficient treasure. This drives prayer, worship, witness, and every element of a Gospel-centered Christian life.

Desiring God influenced me more than most books I’ve read, not only because it introduced me to the work of a careful, worshipful modern expositor, but because it opened my eyes to the joy of loving God through the grace of the Gospel.


7. Systematic Theology, by Louis BerkhofIMG_0008

I was reading this in the hospital next to my wife before she went into labor with our first son. And I read it for the next year as I sat next to his crib waiting for him to fall asleep at night or for his daytime naps. Berkhof is dense! But he rewards his readers.

Before Berkhof, theology was (for me) like a spice rack – each doctrine carefully self-contained, never interacting with the others except in controlled situations. But Berkhof demonstrates the true systematic nature of theology, one doctrine flowing from another, all biblical teaching necessarily derived from God’s own self-revelation. Ironically, I don’t agree with everything he says, but I appreciate his God-centered approach.

I also appreciate his attention to history. Many theologians write as if all wisdom will perish with them, but Berkhof carefully traces the historical development of doctrine as understood by saints in many times and places. Historical theology can be a weapon wielded against the ignorant, but Berkhof uses it to distinguish the orthodox from the novel. Helpfully.


IMG_00098. Lectures to My Students, by Charles Spurgeon

Another mentor, I cannot overstate the blessing of Spurgeon. I have read Lectures and re-read many chapters many times. These are not merely instructions to pastors and preachers but heart-felt attempts to mold disciples of Christ in the crucible of vocational service. His address on “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” shines as the crown jewel of the collection, offering strength to those crushed beneath the inevitable discouragement of ministry. Written by one who knew both the heights and depths of following Christ, Lectures offers something for everyone, no matter the season.


9. Spurgeon, by Lewis DrummondIMG_0010

I had to put a biography on this list somewhere. Regretfully, I had to strike The Last Lion (Winston Churchill) and To the Golden Shore (Adoniram Judson), but Spurgeon probably had the greatest impact.

Drummond frames his narrative of Spurgeon’s life around Spurgeon’s favorite non-Bible book, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He then loads it with primary source material and gives a compelling picture of this renowned saint, powerfully used by God.

I read this during my first year as a pastor, and I came away with a zeal for Biblical fidelity, dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s power, and a balance between evangelistic passion and the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace.

IMG_001110. Commentary on the Book of Psalms, by John Calvin

Disclosure: I’ve never read the Institutes, despite the recommendation of an evangelist friend. (Anyone know of a good, used copy of the 2-volume Battles edition?) Nevertheless, I highly value his commentaries on the Scriptures. I have rarely found what we would call “Calvinism” today, but I have always found a scholar’s mind and a pastor’s heart.

In the “deserted island” category of books, I would take his 5-volume commentary on the Psalms, simply for their devotional quality. I believe they would help any Christian in their walk with God. Of the Psalms, Calvin said: “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror… In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book.”

11. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, 3 Vols., by Bill Watterson

IMG_0012Speaking of Calvin, I couldn’t decide who was more culturally significant, the 16th century reformer or the 6-yr. old terror. So, I’m cheating again.

In short, Bill Watterson is an artist and philosopher of the highest degree, and the older I get, the more I appreciate his work. No tale of my adolescent mind’s formation would be complete without Calvin and Hobbes, including the “Raven-esque” use of “defenestration.” (See, “A Nauseous Nocturne.”) But today I simply admire the irony, the imagination, and the innocence of his work. It’s an experience I want to share with my own kids.

So, these are my 10. (Who’s counting?) Have you read any of these? Would any of them show up on your list? Let me know in the comments!

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1 Response to What I Took Up and Read

  1. T. Gates says:

    I find it interesting that you read To Kill A Mockingbird for school in Australia. I guess I had never really thought about how widely known it really is. And, yes, it would be on my list of favorites as well.

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