Have you noticed? 2014 is upon us and it is time for a few resolutions. Have you resolved to read a good book or two in the coming year? I hope so. Reading is something of a divine privilege and can bring great joy. It trains us to use and appreciate one of God’s fundamental gifts, the gift of language. Reading is a rebellion against the spirit of our age which sees video as the ultimate purveyor of communication and truth. In an age of images, reading requires that we sit still and interact with words. Unlike watching something on a screen, this activity demands our attention and concentration. The reader becomes the judge of what is important and what is trivial, what is true and what is false. His or her mind evaluates the written word. As Jacques Ellul writes in his book The Humiliation of the Word, “An individual can ask the question of truth and attempt to answer it only through language.”
For years friends and acquaintances have asked me for a reading list, a list of books that I would recommend as essential reading. I have never compiled such a list, probably because I’d rather be reading… But I’ll end my boycott and supply what I’m calling a lazy list of books I have found to be essential reading. These are books that have become my friends, books that I have read, re-read and will be reading until either my eyes or my mind fail me. I call this a lazy list because I haven’t been too careful to come up with my absolute favorites. I’m sure by the time you read this I’ll utter a huge Homer Simpson Doh, saying to myself, How did I forget that book on the list? That being said, here is my list in no particular order of importance. Looking for a New Year’s reading resolution? Try one of these.
Pilgrim’s Progress: You knew this was coming. Pilgrim’s Progress is John Bunyan’s classic (1678) allegory of the Christian life. It follows Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. In my library it ranks just below the Bible itself. If Bunyan’s old English is too cumbersome for you, try Judith Markham’s slightly softened “translation” from Bunyan’s English into our own “English.” The New Pilgrim’s Progress has Warren Wiersbe’s explanatory notes which are very helpful.
Body of Divinity: Thomas Watson (d. 1686) was a devoted Puritan and paid heavily for his convictions. He was one of the authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Late in life he preached 176 sermons on the text of the Catechism and Body of Divinity is the result. I have found Watson’s book a priceless encouragement in my Christian journey. I have Body of Divinity on my Kindle, but I love to take my hard-bound, abbreviated text on vacation and enjoy a few pages during my morning devotions (published by Banner of Truth Trust).
Orthodoxy:G. K. Chesterton penned this classic in 1908. I’ve read it over and again. Chesterton teaches me how to think with a God-entranced worldview. Don’t expect to understand everything in this book, but expect to have your soul lifted toward heaven.
Mere Christianity / Screwtape Letters: How could a reading list be complete without C. S. Lewis? Mere Christianityhas been a comfort to me since I first read it and re-read it in college. Like Chesterton, Lewis teaches the reader how to think. The clarity of his writing makes reading this professor’s books pure joy. Screwtape Letters is the book that landed Lewis on the cover of Time Magazine and made this man of letters famous. Screwtape is a senior devil taking Wormwood under his wing. The book consists of short letters telling Wormwood how to subvert the faith of a new Christian. It will make you laugh at yourself even as it will convict you of your sins and make you yearn for holiness.
When God Weeps:Joni Eareckson Tada has thought carefully about the problem of suffering. She has known untold pain in her own life as a result of quadriplegia incurred over four decades ago. When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, is one of the best books I have read on the topic. A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty, by the same author comes in a close second. Joni Tada has shown me much about living in a fallen world and waiting for the world to come.
Holiness: J. C. Ryle (d. 1900) was the first Bishop of Liverpool and an evangelical firebrand. His book called Holinessis really a compendium of sermons and essays by Ryle and is his challenge to a half-hearted, self-deceived approach to Christian faith. Few books have meant as much to me in my Christian pilgrimage.
Counterfeit Gods: Tim Keller’s pastoral influence is impressive. His books will be in print for decades to come. Counterfeit Gods is a book I have read several times and intend to return to regularly. Keller addresses the idols of my heart in a unique manner and shows me how I can crush them.
God’s Passion For His Glory: This is a two-for-one book. John Piper writes a short biography of Jonathan Edwards in the first half of the book. The second half of God’s Passion consists of Edward’s The End for Which God Created the World (1765). I found this book on my doorstep at 12:00am when coming home from a vacation. I read through most of the night! This relatively short book of 250 pages will give you a great glimpse of what the universe and your life is ultimately about, that is, the glory of God and the enjoyment of God!
The Institutes of the Christian Religion: John Calvin’s seminal work sounds like a dry theological tome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin, (d. 1564) was a pastor deeply in love with God. The Institutes is a devotional classic. Calvin points my heart toward God on virtually every page. I read Institutes devotionally and repeatedly. Try the translation by John T. McNeill.
Knowing God: As clowns yearn to play Hamlet, so I have wanted to write a treatise on God. So begins J. I. Packer’s 1973 book that will probably emerge as a classic. Knowing God is pure gold insofar as it is an accessible book that reveals the greatness of God and how we can know him.
Finally, two books that will enhance the library of any disciple. I was asked recently to recommend a one-volume commentary on the whole Bible. My answer was easy, the ESV Study Bible. The ESVSB is a treasure of insight into our most treasured book. The notes, artwork, and formatting of this study Bible make it very easy to use, the essays in the back of this resource contain a seminary education. If I could put one study aid in the hands of everyone in our church it would be this one. A second resource I would love to put into the hands of every student of the Bible is Robert Gundry’s Commentary on the New Testament. CNT is over 1000 pages long and contains a brief commentary and literal translation on every verse in the New Testament. Gundry, or Bobas we know him around SBCC, brings to his commentary a life of New Testament scholarship. This lively, and often winsome, commentary is a treasure.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that all writing comes by the grace of God. We might add that reading allows us to appreciate God’s grace in every area of life. Reading need not be a chore. On the contrary, it is a gift. Edward Gibbon said, My early and invincible love of reading,… I would not exchange for the treasures of India. 2014 is upon us. What are you waiting for? Grab a good book, take it, and read.