Christianity is a treasure trove of wisdom. But, as the book of Proverbs tells us, wisdom must be sought. And, again as in the book of Proverbs, it is helpful when we are supplied with father and mother figures who would point us the way, who would instruct us in wisdom so that we might learn, develop, prosper, and grow. 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics is a guide, compiled by wise and thoughtful Christian leaders, who seek to introduce us to those who have helped countless Christians be spiritually formed in the way of Jesus.
The structure of 25 Books is simple. After a word of introduction concerning methodology and the layout of each chapter, as well as a helpful, critical exposition concerning the logic of how and why each work is selected, 25 Books proceeds chronologically from Athanasius to Henri Nouwen, providing historical background for each work or its author, a justification for why that work is essential, guidelines for reading the selection, an excerpt, and discussion or reflection questions that can be used by individuals or small groups.
The selections that are included are all strong recommendations–I have read 12 of the 25 books from start to finish myself, and am familiar with the other 13 selections, having read parts or quotations from each in other works. The books also reflect a diversity across the Christian tradition. There are books compiled by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. There are theologians (Calvin) and philosophers (Pascal) and practitioners (Brother Lawrence). There is both story (Bunyan, Dostoevsky) and poetry (Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins). There are men and women (Teresa of Avila, Julian or Norwich), though more men than women, not including the anonymous texts. There is also more ideological and geographical diversity than might be supposed–though many of these authors might come from the “Western tradition”, many preceded globalization and cultural homogenization.
“Best of” or “Should Read” or “Must see” lists are notorious for being incomplete, and their compilation always leads to debate, as it should. For as soon as the cut off line is established, it is inevitable that a number of selections will be left waiting near the precipice, looking on and wondering why they have been excluded so that another might be included. What differentiates one from another? Why is this book or record or movie or experience deemed worthy, while that one has not? And oftentimes it is the case that this type of debate can be just as productive and fruitful as the discussion of those authors or artists or works that have been included.
I make this point only to say that there are fair and unfair criticisms that have been levied regarding 25 Books. There are those that may say that the selections given do not represent enough diversity, even among the contemporary authors included at the back. In addition to recommending lighting a candle before cursing the darkness by providing their own recommendations, I would note that among those listed I see Russians and French and Spanish mystics. I see British, German, and American authors. I see Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox voices. And I also see a number of women on the editorial board who compiled these selections, and were surely afforded by the board itself a great deal of sway. There are also a number of “Top 5” lists scattered throughout the book from voices like Emile Griffin and Brenda Quinn, in addition to Ron Sider and Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith. There are men and women that helped shape this book, from a number of different traditions. The inclusion of The Desert Fathers and Augustine also allow for ancient Eastern or African voices to be included–Hippo, or present day Annaba, is located in Algeria.
A dear friend of mine has noted that this list “skews contemplative.” But of course! The list has been compiled by Renovare, an organization that is known for pushing the church toward soul transformation, mining the riches of the Christian tradition for all it is worth, and sharing its treasures. And while there is some truth to this charge, it is hard to say that Augustine or Calvin, Bonhoeffer or even C.S. Lewis have been favorites of contemplatives. Granted, Confessions has been read as more of a devotional book, but Augustine’s prose has been invaluable for the intellectual development of the church on doctrines such as human anthropology and sin, God’s sovereignty, and grace.
There are books that I would have preferred to be included, such as selections from the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, or excerpts from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. I’d also contend that Brian McLaren does not merit conclusion on the list of contemporary authors who should be read, having read and discussed in detail most everything he has ever published. But as I’ve noted above, these lists must stop somewhere, and the exclusion of some provides a good contrast for the inclusion of others.
I recommend this book as a “library builder”, a helpful companion that points toward resources that are indispensable for every Christian library. It is not an “end all” list, but a beginning point for conversation. The discussion questions are solid, and the historical background is helpful. The underlying point that Christians should read for spiritual formation is undeniable, and all that is discovered within this book’s pages is worthy of passing on to other Christians, or even those considering the Christian faith.
Solid resource, excellent selections, worthy of discussion, and trustworthy as a guide to authors and books that will build your soul.
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Ben Simpson, who graciously allowed us to re-post this review from his web site, is a writer, speaker, and theologian residing in De Soto, Kansas. He enjoys spending time with his daughter, Joy, and his wife, Molly, who is a United Methodist elder. Visit his website, or connect with him on Twitter.
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And in case you missed it, this book is editor by Practicing Families contributor, Julia Roller!