A while back I was teaching a small group (and I mean small) for college and carreer types. The goal for any xian small group is, obviously, spiritual growth, and that’s what we aimed for. As Paul remarked though, that just can’t take place apart from the development of our mind. Disciples of Christ think and believe differently from others, and that’s part of what makes us what we are. To that end, I put together this list of books and websites and such that have helped me grow as a thinking, believing believer. Every book, website, and podcast (and whatever else may be on here) is worth checking out. I put a little intro at the beginning of the list because this was originally a handout for the people in the group. I’ve kept it for this post too, so here it all is:
One of the huge mistakes that I, as a reader, made early on was to think that there would be one book out there that, after reading it, everything would just click for me. I spent a lot of time looking for such a book, and bought a lot of books, which I read half of and then discarded after realizing that they weren’t ‘the one’. Some I read though because, even though they didn’t make everything make sense instantly, they at least helped me look smart.
Eventually I came to understand that the point of reading to grow is not to make everything click at once, and it surely isn’t to look smart or be entertained (actually reading is a pretty boring thing for me a lot of the time). Intellectual and spiritual growth is a wide, gradual thing that involves coming to a whole way of seeing the world and life in all of their many dimensions, many of which we aren’t even naturally aware of. Growth doesn’t happen with a click, but comes through wrestling, anxiety, confusion, sparks of delight, and even the boredom that comes when we’re being something like intellectual cows, throwing up something we’ve already swallowed to chew it back over again and again.
All of these aspects of growing our minds into the mind of Christ are vital, and that’s the end to which this list of books is aimed. All of these books with bring you through all of the stages, from boredom and confusion, to anxiety and delight. And all of them will, in some way, help you (as they’ve helped me and others) to come to a wider, more detailed way of seeing the world and life in it.
So, here I’ve listed each book, with author, and provided a brief description of the book to help you decide if this is the one you want to pick up at the moment, but each of these is worth a read, and are written in a way that anyone can get something substantial out of it. I’ve also included a list of websites and podcasts that I’ve found beneficial. Enjoy.
Books Worth Reading
‘Letters from a Skeptic,’ by Greg Boyd
This book is a compilation of letters between a very bright pastor (Greg Boyd) and his atheist father. In the letters, the father fleshes out his objections to Christianity (from the crusades, to the idea of a ‘god who hates sex’), and Greg responds with his understanding of Christianity, aiming to help his father see the goodness and reasonableness of the faith.
‘The Challenge of Jesus’ by N.T. Wright
This book will absolutely, fundamentally alter the way you think about Jesus. Without a doubt one of the most positively influential books I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough.
‘Mere Christianity,’ by C.S. Lewis
This is probably the deepest, richest and most thorough overview of Christianity out there. It has parts complex and simple enough that anyone can read it and get a lot out of it. This should be at the top of the list, really.
‘Faith and Reason,’ by Ron Nash
This is a book on the relationship between faith and reason. Nash’s central aim in the book is to show that faith and reason don’t conflict with each other, but reinforce and refine one another. It is not an extremely easy read, and there will be parts that will be confusing because of terms he uses. It’s okay to just read through them and go on until you get what he’s saying though. That’s how I did it, and the book helped me a lot.
‘Screwtape Letters,’ by C.S. Lewis
This is a really enjoyable, fictional collection of letters between two demons who are discussing exactly how to tempt a certain man (probably C.S. Lewis) away from faith in Christ. Though it’s fiction, it’s incredibly insightful in it’s exploration of temptation and in showing just how intimately intertwined our faith and our everyday lives are.
‘The Meaning of Jesus’ by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright,
This book is a conversation between a very liberal Christan (Borg), who would deny much of what conservative xians consider uncompromisable, and a much more conservative believer (Wright). Both are extremely well educated, thoughtful, and sincere in their approaches. They’re also good friends, and all that makes for a great conversation on the person they’ve both devoted much of their lifes work to. Each chapter takes a topic such as the virgin birth, the passion, Jesus’ teaching, etc. and they both write a short essay of their perspective on the topic. Worth every moment it takes to read, and an excellent introduction to the wide conversation about Jesus.
‘Love your God with all your Mind,’ by J.P. Moreland
This book aims to explore and instruct us on fulfilling the most neglected part of the greatest commandment. So much attention is given to loving God with all our hearts and soul, that very little is paid to loving him with our thinking selves, which feeds and directs our emotional and spiritual selves. The book’s aim is firmly built on his (at first)startling suggestion that, if you ever get to the point that you’ve asked all your questions, and sought answers in every place you know, and just can’t believe Christianity, you should walk away from it. At the end of the book though, you won’t want to do that.
‘Windows of the Soul,’ by Ken Gire
This one is written by a Christian literature professor who wants to show us how to read life itself in the way that we would read a good book, and so to see God’s love, goodness, and majesty in areas we normally wouldn’t. From what I’ve seen, girls tend to like this book a lot.
‘Words of Delight,’ by Leland Ryken
This book aims to show you how to read the bible well. That sounds pretty boring at first, but Ryken’s approach is really unique and interesting. His idea is that, to read the bible well, we need to understand literature well, and that, if we don’t understand literature, we will never understand the words of the bible, because they were written in a very literary way. He takes you through the different types of writings in the bible, from the often cryptic narratives of the old testament, to the religious poetry of the psalms, to the short, almost secular sayings of the proverbs, into the religious, biographical narratives of the gospels, the instructive letters of the epistles, and finally the visionary theologizing of the Revelation. This is an extremely eye-opening book, and will help you not feel lost or over your head when you read the bible.
‘How Should We Live?,’ by Louis Pojman
This book is a great, light introduction to ethics. It outlines various ideas about right and wrong, and helps you think through many serious moral questions. After reading this short book, you will be able to think through real life moral issues (such as abortion, homosexuality, etc.) much more naturally, quickly, and clearly. The virtue of the book is that, instead of giving you any clear answers to moral questions, it gives you tools so that you can answer them yourself.
‘The Universe Next Door,’ by James Sire
This book gives a short, but full overview of each major ‘worldview’ from Atheism and Agnosticism, to Pantheism (the belief that everything is divine) and the New Age belief system. Very gook book to wake us up to see just how many options for belief there are out there besides Christianity, and show us how to talk with people who believe very differently.
‘Across the Spectrum,’ by Greg Boyd
This book has a chapter on pretty much every single issue within Christian theology that introduces the issue, and quickly explores each option within the issue. For instance, on the issue of predestination, it explores the different ideas of what predestination is – does God predestine every single event and choice? does God limit his/her control to make room for free will? does God self-limit so much that he doesn’t even know the future? This book is a great introduction to Christian theology for people who don’t get to take a class on it. Very readable.
‘Managing your Mind,’ by Gillian Butler
Though this is not a religiously oriented book, and is (obviously at points) not written by a christian, it is totally worth reading. It is geared toward giving you a good, non-technical understanding of the way your own mind works, and how to address various psychological issues that we all have, and which can cause major problems for our own mental and spiritual growth (for instance, a person who struggles with jealousy, or constant, anonymous anxiety may never even know it, and will never be able to calm their mind long enough to think seriously about their Christian life).
‘Does God Have a Future?,” by John Sanders and Chris Hall
This book is another collection of letters (actually emails) written between two very bright and down-to-earth theologians concerning a particular theological issue that they differ on – whether or not God knows the future. The benefit of reading this book is not so much in the fact that you will be able to discuss this issue. Rather, the great thing about this one is that is takes a particular issue that we’ve all presumed to have a good answer for (don’t we all just naturally think God knows the future?) and shows us just how multi-dimensional the question is, and just how quick we have been to assume one answer without considering the question. This discussion with make it clear that this is the way almost every question in Christianity is, but the book is a safe way to see that because, whichever way you come down on the question, you haven’t ‘fallen away’ from Christ. Ask Shane what he thinks about this one.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde
Fiction gets underplayed regarding its educational and inspirational value. What’s worse, modern Christians seem to be the worst writers of fiction on the planet. In this, Wilde’s only novel, you get a great story absolutely full of though-provoking dialogue. Every human should read this book. It’s morally challenging though. One character, Henry Wotton, is literally trying to turn you evil, and he’s pretty brilliant.
‘Reading Between the Lines,’ by Gene Veith
This book calls itself ‘a Christian guide to literature,’ which is about the most boring, thin summary of the book imaginable. Publishers do that to sell books to snooty college-types. What the book really is is an incredibly eye-opening guide to reading books (including the bible), watching movies, listening to music, and engaging the culture of our world as a follower of Jesus. Great book.
‘Postmodern Times,’ by Gene Veith
Another great book by Veith in the same spirit as ‘Reading Between the Lines’. This one focuses on our modern culture. It has great, enjoyable discussions of modern art, politics, philosophy, and a great historical explanation of just how and why people in our day think and act the way they do.
Bible Study Helps
New American Commentary
About as Baptist a commentary as you can get, but very well-written most of the time, and full of good scholarship.
Every Man Commentary Series by N.T. Wright
Bishop N.T. Wright is one of the best readers and scholars of Scripture alive today. He’s very engaging most of the time, and has revolutionized biblical scholarship in a lot of ways. This series is a popular-level version of his more scholarly work. It’s very readable and down-to-earth with lots of interesting historical information and clear explanations of the greek words used. The Romans commentary is especially good.
William Barclay’s Commentary on the New Testament
These are the most readable commentaries out there. I generally despise reading commentaries, but these are so well-written and interesting that you can read one like any other book. He gives his own translation of the passages in the book so you don’t have to keep a bible with you. They’re also good because Barclay is not the most conservative scholar out there (though he’s not a God-hating pagan either), so it’s a bit out of the box without being too painful.
Hermeneia Commentary Series
For serious, in-depth bible study this is the best commentary I’ve ever read. It includes the most cutting-edge scholarship, and each book is written by someone who has spent years specializing on that one book of the bible (or section of the bible; the commentary on the Sermon on the Mount is well over seven hundred pages long). For scholarly-technical commentaries this is definitely the most readable. Be careful though, most of these guys are willing to question everything about the text.
Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament
A good, solid series written from a conservative perspecitve.
New International Commentary on the OT (“ NT)
Another good, conservative series.
These are computer programs that include several translations of the bible, commentaries, and lexicons (hebrew or greek dictionaries) that are downloadable and easy to use, and, best of all, they’re free. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of a lexicon. Even though you can’t read the original languages, the lexicons are programmed to link an english word in the bible (say, ‘brothers’) to the word in the original language (adelphoi, in greek) and give you the definition of that word. Just google the name of the program and you should find the site easily.
Holman Bible Dictionary
A great big dictionary with good articles on nearly everything in the bible that you might be curious about. Want to know who the Gamaliel guy that Paul studied under was? Interested in finding out more about the Passover feasts, or maybe you want to see what the Tabernacle or Temple would have looked like? Its probably in here.
Other Authors to Check Out
Peter Kreeft – a Catholic philosopher who is interested in addressing the most important questions (happiness, death, sex, etc.) in very fresh, interesting ways. One of my favorite guys out there.
Ravi Zacherias – a protestant Peter Kreeft.
N. T. Wright – one of the most highly-respected scholars out there. He was a bishop in England, then he started writing books and blew biblical studies professors away. He recently started writing books for lay-readers and they’re excellent. He now has books on death, resurrection, evil, heaven, and the heart of Christianity.
Eugene Peterson – this is the guy who brought us The Message bible translation. That book has gotten a lot of flack, because people assume he’s just paraphrasing the bible in whatever way he wants, and is getting rich. In reality he is rich, but he can also read greek and hebrew the way we read comic strips. He’s written several books about the christian life and they blow away 99% of the christian inspiration section in the book store. He’s eloquent, insightful, informed, and very sensitive. Women seem to especially like him.
Soren Kierkegaard – he was one of the most radical thinkers in Europe in the seventeenth century. One of the most passionate people to have written on faith and living. Everyone I know who has read him has become infatuated. The Diary of a Seducer is especially interesting.
Walter Wangerin – a great writer with a terrible name. His specialty is Christian fiction, which is normally pure cheese. He seems to do it fairly well though.
Annie Dillard – ten times better than Wangerin.
Ben Witherington III – a good thinker and scholar. At least check his blog out. He often has good movie reviews on there.
Clark Pinnock – a very powerful writer. Full of passion, and great at thinking outside the box. You’ll find yourself caught up and excited about a point he’s making, then realize that he’s saying something you used to think was out of bounds. If anyone out there has allowed his own beliefs to be challenged and changed, it’s Clark Pinnock. He used to be the number-one guy for theological positions that he now writes passionately against, namely Calvinism. A good eye-opener.
Marcus Borg – a very devoted, well-educated, ‘liberal’ christian. Friends with N.T. Wright, who is in many ways his opposite, Borg is a good picture of how someone can be seriously devoted to Jesus, but believe some very different, even troubling, things about the nature of Christianity. Before reading his personal stuff, I would suggest picking up the book The Meaning of Jesus, which he wrote with Wright. It will give you a good intro to his thought, but Wright will be there to shut him down when he makes a dangerously bad point so that you don’t feel helpless.
http://www.peterkreeft.com – audio and writings by Kreeft.
http://www.reasonablefaith.org – website with audio and writings by a major defender of the Christian faith.
http://www.earlychristianwritings.com – you can read tons of writings from the new-testament period and just after that had a heavy influence on the thinking of the first christians.
http://www.ccel.org – another cool library of early church writings.
http://www.jesuscreed.org – a blog by Scot McKnight, the NT scholar that I first heard explain the Adam/Ish/Isha thing.
http://www.veritas.org – an organization devoted to bringing great thought to lay people (particularly in universities). They pay Christian professors to give insightful talks to college students. Their website probably has a few thousand free lectures and videos to download that focus on almost any topic that is relevant to Christian life imaginable.
Any of these podcasts can be found by searching for the titles or authors in the iTunes store.
“Let My People Think” and “Just Thinking” – these are Ravi Zacherias’ two radio broadcasts. They are free and are full of good, solid Christian teaching. http://www.rzim.org/USA/Resources/Listen/JustThinking.aspx
Peter Kreeft’s podcast – purely excellent.
“Stand To Reason” by Grek Kokul – a good show that seeks to explore how Christianity impacts the world and the lives of individuals.
William Lane Craig’s “Defenders” and “Reasonable Faith Podcast – you may know more than your pastor about theology and apologetics when you get done with these. Not extremely difficult, but not extremely easy either.
“Emergent Podcast”- a vibrant exploration of “emergent” Christianity.
The Veritas Podcast – as good as the site.
‘Philosophy Bites’ – a podcast that takes some interesting, deep topic and has a famous thinker dialogue with the hosts on it for fifteen minutes.
‘Philosophy Talk’ – two Stanford phil profs talk about some topic for an hour. Topics include sex, religion, morality, truth, basketball, and so on.
‘Entitled Opinions’ – Robert Harrison, a very eloquent, profound thinker, interviews an authority on some interesting topic. Worth listening to for the opening monologue alone. Please check this one out. Harrison seems like he might be a xian also, but probably doesn’t want to make it very public, since his university (Stanford) is quite a liberal environment.