Books for seeking Jesus and growing in faith
By Gary A. Williams, April 29, 2014
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested. ~Francis Bacon
We read a wide range of books, including a lot that are Christ centered. Those listed here are in the “chewed and digested” category. Recommendations of friends have led us to discover authors and books we might not have discovered on our own, books that have enriched our lives. Their modeling is what prompts me to add this page of books my wife, Raelene, and I have found to be of special value.
Scripture study / Why consider Christianity?
The Bible — No, I’m not being facetious. Reading scripture is always the best starting point when we want to know about faith matters. For casual reading (as opposed to study in preparation to teach), I like Eugene Peterson’s The Message Remix, which includes Old and New Testaments in modern language. For those new to Bible reading, may I suggest that you consider beginning with one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). They describe the life of Jesus and tell us what he said about himself. Moving next to the Book of Acts will give you a good idea of what the early church was like. The Book of Romans will get you into a good study of theology.
Simply Christian, By N.T. Wright — This is an excellent book! We like it so much we keep extra copies on hand to give away. Was Jesus a historical figure? If so, who did he think he was and what was he doing? Why would a self- proclaimed Jewish ” Messiah” be worshiped long after dying on a Roman cross? Wright answers these questions and more in a book that’s got plenty to offer for those who are beginning their research or seeking to strengthen an already existing belief in Jesus of Nazareth.
Wright begins with four universal issues he calls “echoes of a voice” within contemporary society: the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty. He defines and discusses these in today’s postmodern, post-Christian society, referring to them as “strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out into the unknown.” In the second part of the book, Wright relates the Christian story, discussing what Christians believe and how those beliefs speak to the questions, or echoes, covered in the opening pages. As one reviewer wrote, “A non-Christian could read this book and have an understanding of what Christians believe without all the confusing nuances of different strains of belief (whether Protestant or Catholic, Orthodox or Calvinist).”
In the book’s final chapters, Wright covers prayer, scripture, and Christian living, returning to the questions posed in Part One and describing how the Christian story and the Christian life are lived out in answer to these longings — not as simply biding our time until Jesus returns for us, but as a new creation awaiting its restoration.
The Case for Christ, A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, by Lee Strobel — I also liked this book so well I bought copies to give away. The title pretty well tells the story. In the text, Strobel explains that he set out to debunk Christianity. I thought his premise lost something in the translation because the publisher reveals on the cover that Strobel’s quest for truth not only led him to faith in Jesus, he became a pastor. That’s like revealing who did it on the cover of the mystery you’re about to read. But disclosing how Strobel’s life changed before we read why it changed doesn’t detract from the story of his journey, it just takes the surprise out of the ending. So what if you know how it turns out; you’ll have to read the book to find out why.
Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller — A very fine book!! Miller is an excellent writer who looks at the world from the perspective of someone who is two or three generations younger than me. His book is about his growing faith, including discoveries about himself and how he gets along with others. I related to what he said about not feeling that he fit into any church, though he (and I) grew up in the church and held leadership positions. And I was encouraged to read that he did finally become part of a faith family that welcomed him, warts and all. We heard about Miller from the colleage-age daughter of friends who found this book well worth sharing, even with oldtimers like us.
Searching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller. Seriously, folks, this guy is one of the best writers working. He combines a great sense of humor with insight and wisdom into matters of faith.
A Reasonable Faith, by Anthony Campolo. I’ve had this book on my shelf for decades and don’t recall having read it until I pulled it down and dusted it off a few years ago. Wow, what an idiot I’ve been. If I’d dug into this book years ago I could have used Dr. Campolo’s helpful insights dozens of times to talk with skeptics and seekers. Believers, also, will find this book helpful to clarify personal thoughts about Christianity. Long out of print, the book is easily found on the web. Dr. Campolo addresses four major areas of secular thought, and shows how Christians can respond to them with kindness and reason: (1) Contingency, which claims that everything that exists has a cause that can be scientifically explained; (2) Autonomy, which claims that man shapes his own destiny. There is no God and man is a law unto himself; (3) Temporality, which claims that all things pass away; in the end there is nothing at all; and (4) Relativity, which claims that if there is no God anything is permissible. Man establishes his own laws and principles for living. In the process of learning how to explain our faith in relation to the ideas listed above, we personally gain insights into how we can become more loving and sensitive to where others are coming from.
The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Skepticism, By Timothy Keller. This is New York Times best seller speaks to doubts that skeptics and non-believers bring to religion. Keller uses literature, philosophy, anthropology, pop culture, and intellectual reasoning to explain why believing in God is a sound and rational choice. For those of us who already trust in the Living God, Keller offers handles on how to talk to others in this Age of Religious Skepticism, where Christians are often characterized as myth-keepers and fools. We highly recommend this excellent book.
Books about living as a follower of Jesus
Answering God and Praying with the Psalms, by Eugene Peterson — These are two of my favorite books about prayer. Peterson is one of those special teachers who has a gift for revealing the heart of God to those of us who are looking for a deeper understanding of spiritual truths.
Ruthless Trust, The Ragamuffin’s Path to God, by Brennan Manning — A sequel to The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning discusses how to overcome our primary obstacle to living fully within God’s love — the lack of “ruthless trust.”
The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen — The themes are homecoming, affirmation, and reconciliation. Nouwen’s book has much to say to anyone struggling with how to love and/or forgive those who need it most — those who do unloving things to others.
The Predicament of Modern Man, by Elton Trueblood — written right after the Second World War, it reads now like it was written yesterday. We live in difficult times. This is a good book to help those of us who follow Jesus become better at living as salt and light in the world. Chapter titles include: The Sickness of Civilization, The Failure of Power Culture,The Impotence of Ethics, The Insufficiency of Individual Religion, & The Necessity of a Redemptive Society.
Alternative to Futility, by Elton Trueblood — A companion book to the preceding one. Here Trueblood “presents his prescription for restoring the total health of civilization,” says the cover copy. His answer is a “redemptive fellowship,” a “creative society in miniature” that grows out of the church. Are you frustrated with Churchianity? Read this, then get busy.
Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History, by Francis Schaeffer — a wonderful study of the book of Joshua. I learned much about how God works with individuals and groups from reading this book.
Exposition of Ecclesiastes, by H.C. Leupold — Ecclesiastes is an excellent choice to introduce a seeker to the Living God, especially with the help of this commentary. King Solomon had everything a man could want, yet found it all just chasing after wind. Is there a better way to live? How does God fit in? That’s what this study is all about. Offers many opportunities to work current issues into discussions of Solomon’s discoveries about life.
The Servant Who Rules, by Ray C. Stedman — An excellent study of Mark 1-8.
The Ruler Who Serves, by Ray C. Stedman — Part 2 of this very fine study of the Book of Mark.
The Lord’s Prayers (also published as The Prayers of Christ), by Eldon Trueblood — I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Trueblood. Discovered him later in life and made up for it by purchasing every one of his books I can find. The Lord’s Prayers is one of the best helps for improving your prayer life you’ll find. It is not a book about one prayer; here Trueblood offers accounts from the Bible of how and when Jesus prayed, and how he taught his disciples to pray. Trueblood then applies those accounts to our lives today. I’m a big believer in reading the Bible first for answers about the Bible, but books by insightful teachers like Trueblood add richness to our own studies. It’s only 126 pages long. If I tried to outline line it by eliminating anything that was unimportant, my outline would be maybe 124 pages.
The Company of the Committed and The Incendiary Fellowship, by Elton Trueblood — Two more books that have much to offer about how we can develop within our churches committed believers who demonstrate a living faith. The Church is not located in a church building or out in the world, it is in people, wrote Trueblood. These books were written to help us, the people, stand up and make a difference in the world.
The Safest Place on Earth, by Larry Crabb — You may be catching a theme here in my reading. This is another book that explores how the church can become what God intended it to be, a place where imperfect people receive support and compassion in dealing with our weaknesses. A safe place where lives are forever changed as we deepen our relationship with God and others.
Encouragement, The Key to Caring, by Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr. and Dan B. Allender — Yes, Lawrence J. and Larry are one and the same Crabb. The authors write about how to go beyond “surface community” in our churches, so we can become encouragers of one another. It’s easy to be critical or withdrawn. It’s not so easy to offer encouragement in healthy ways. I found this book, well, encouraging.
Connecting, by Larry Crabb — Another excellent book on how to connect with others. Many of us are “disconnected souls” writes Crabb. “What we need is connection! What we need is a healing community!”
Under the Unpredictable Plant, An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, by Eugene Peterson. While this book was written mainly to those in paid ministry, and I’m not, I found it spiritually uplifting. Peterson uses the story of Jonah to discuss what it means to hear God’s call. Now that has to be relevant to all of us who claim to be His.
A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken — Includes letters by C.S. Lewis. A love story, a search for faith, and a growing friendship with C.S. Lewis are the basis of this book that is best read with a box of Kleenex nearby, even if, like me, you’re too tough to cry.
Reversed Thunder, The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination, by Eugene H. Peterson — This is an unconventional look at the Book of Revelation. Here’s what Peterson himself writes about it: “This last book of the Bible takes the entire biblical revelation and re-images it in a compelling, persuading, evangelistic vision which has brought perseverance, stamina, joy, and discipline to Christians for centuries, and continues to do so.”
More fine books that are well worth your time
Finding the Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, by Reggie McNeal — Found this one by accident (or divine intervention, take your pick). The author looks at the universal church, as practiced American style, and then delivers what is promised by the book’s title, six tough questions for the church. But he doesn’t stop there; he also delivers excellent insights into how church leaders can move from Churchianity to practical Christian living in the 21st century. I love his concept of “life counselors” to greet and work with new people at a church. McNeal compares them to personal trainers who set up individual exercise programs with people who join a gym for the first time and who need someone to work with them to accomplish their goals. If you are serious about your faith, you have to ask why so many good people, followers of Jesus, have such a difficult time in and with the institutional church? This book is a call to action, not a criticism.
The New Thought Police, Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, by Tammy Bruce — One evening, when my wife and I were staying In an Oregon hotel, I turned on the TV. I then indulged in some typically male channel flipping. That stopped when I came to a woman speaking to a college class — the kind of thing you only see on obscure cable channels. She was obviously very smart, so much so that I dropped the channel clicker and began to listen. Turned out it was Tammy Bruce, discussing her then-new book to a hostile group of students. This self-described lesbian feminist former president of NOW was berating her old companions and being slammed in return. She was accusing them of a left-wing version of McCarthyism aimed at the right … mainly at Christians. They were calling her a turncoat. She was actually defending a Christian’s right to reject the left’s politically correct agenda. When we returned home, I bought the book. This is an eye-opener, written by a left-wing insider who met the enemy (us) and found that some of us are pretty cool. Isn’t it time that some of us meet this (former) enemy and find out what makes her cool? At the same time, you’ll get an excellent explanation of the left’s agenda for the U.S. and what they’re doing to beat us into submission. We can bury our heads in the sand, or we can become an army of informed, committed, caring, connected followers of Jesus. The choice is ours.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck — How, you ask, can a guy like Steinbeck be on a reading list for people who seek to grow in their Christian faith? For starters, he’s one of the great writers of the 20th century. What makes a great writer great is the ability to create realistic characters in realistic settings. This sort of book helps us know what people are thinking about and struggling with. In this case, however, the book has even more to offer. This is Steinbeck’s modern version of Cain and Able. It’s about good and evil and our ability to choose between the two. Any pastor who has used too many sermon illustrations from Tales of Narnia or some other favorite would do well to build a sermon around the biblical message of choice, as illustrated in East of Eden. As a bonus, while preparing your sermon you get to read an American classic.
Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to say about the human condition, too, but that might be stretching it for this list. I will confess, though, to having all of his novels and collected short stories. As Vonnegut would say, so it goes.
Coming Soon — Favorites from several other authors, including N.T. Wright and Philip Yancey (or is it Tom Clancy? I get them confused).
** There are many places to buy new and used books. My favorite is www.abe.com. I’ve purchased dozens of books from that site and always been pleased. Amazon also has a good selection of new and used books. Some of my favorites, like those by Elton Trueblood, can only be purchased used. I’ve found the individual booksellers who advertise through abe.com to be reliable in assessing the condition of what they offer.