Writing is an exercise in faith. Either that, or vanity. Alone at a keyboard, the voice in my head is my own, and I imagine these pixels will light up some other screen God-knows-where. Writing requires an inflated sense of self-worth. The only act more vain is to write a post all about me. Today I want to share with you the writers who have shaped my life. These five books were not the result of "study." Each was life-changing encounter. Someday, at the marriage supper of the Lamb, I will ask for the privilege of pouring wine at the table of these men.
God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis—I had been a high-school evangelical for three years when someone handed me this collection of essays. They changed my life, and Lewis became my first teacher. If you have never read C.S. Lewis, you have missed one of God’s great gifts to the church in the last hundred years. God in the Dock is the most formative work in my life because it was the first to capture my heart and my mind. Thirty-plus years later, Lewis is my constant companion.
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard—This book put into words the things I knew, but didn’t know that I knew. Willard is a Southern Baptist with a PhD in Philosophy who teaches at USC: that’s enough to stretch anyone’s idea of what it means to be a Christian. He cracks open our narrow ideas of “the gospel” and re-introduces Evangelicals to “the gospel of the Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God was the message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul. It should be the message of every student of Jesus but I daresay not one out of ten would define the gospel that way.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen—This book taught me what it meant to reflect upon the scripture. Nouwen is an exegete of the soul. Return of the Prodigal was not the first of his books I read, but it moved me more than any other. It taught me by example how to meditate on the scriptures, and how to place myself into the Biblical narrative. When anyone asks me what it means to go deep in the scripture, I give them this book. Let me know if you want a copy.
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence—This little collection of letters and thoughts from a centuries-gone Carmelite brother is disarmingly--and dangerously--simple. Far from retreating from the world, Brother Lawrence opens the possibility of being with God every moment. His message is sacramental in the most universal sense. I discovered the secret of not just a daily life with Him, but life that is available moment-by-moment. The Creator of the universe is not far from any one of us: all we need to do is “turn.”
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro—The only work of fiction on this vain list. No amount of explaining will convey the impact this book had on me, but I would be dishonest if I left it off. Perhaps it would mean nothing to you, but it taught me that a life of selfless service is not enough. We are responsible for who and what we serve. This book gloriously wrecked my life. I wept for weeks after reading it, and everything I’ve done since 1994 is a result of it’s impact. You may read it and think, “that’s it?” But if I ever meet Mr. Ishiguro, I will bow before him!
Writing is an act of vanity, but it can also be a gift to generations unseen. I will be forever grateful for the gifts I have received. These writers have made me who I am. More than any others, they formed my life with God. I have had plenty more fellow-travelers. Francis Schaeffer, St. Augustine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, John Milton, Thomas a Kempis, A.W. Tozer, William Blake, and Ray Bradbury, but in a very real way, these five have changed my life.
May I include one final observation before we part? Years ago I taught a Spiritual Formation class at a nearby university. Our class read Willard’s Renovation of the Heart during the semester. One student, a junior in college, told me that he had never read an entire book, cover-to-cover, before in his life. How could this be? Perhaps it was just this one guy, but I cannot see how one can claim to be a follower of Jesus apart from drinking deep at the well of other believers, and that includes reading books. Not quantity. We should invite the Holy Spirit to be our tutor while we learn at the feet of past masters.
What are your life-changing books? Please let me know. I'll read your comments with great interest.