"Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.
As a writer, I make the acquaintance of a lot of people who read, some of them more widely than others. Since I'm also a Professional Christian, I meet folks who tell me they only read Christian books-but what they typically mean by that is very different from what I typically mean by that. They're reading the latest Christian bestseller, whether evangelical or progressive, and while as a writer, I applaud that, I also lament the lack of knowledge of earlier writers and ancient Christian wisdom.
That's why I am so pleased to see 25 Books Every Christian Should Read come to press. 25 Books is not a guide to the Christian books everyone will be reading this year and next; it is, rather, an introduction to 25 works stretching back to the first centuries of the Christian tradition, none of them by living authors. The book offers a short introduction to each text, an explanation of its continuing relevance, and a short selection, a taste of the actual book, if you will.
25 Books is, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, an attempt not to elevate the new, but to explore those things that never grow old. For centuries, serious Christians willing to stretch their wings and explore new practices and challenging territory have come to these works by authors ranging from the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) and Augustine to C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen, and while they have been at times puzzled or frustrated, they have also grown from entering into this ongoing conversation about spiritual practice and theology. Thus, this introduction serves a vital function in modern Christian life, which is dominated by the book of the moment, prayer of the moment, and a cloud of unknowing (to badly misappropriate the title of one of these 25 books!) about Christian tradition.
Any such book is only as good as its selections, and these are well-chosen by an ecumenical board that includes Phyllis Tickle, Dallas Willard, Emilie Griffin, and Richard Rohr. It includes works familiar to me (Augustine'sConfessions, The Rule of St. Benedict, Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship) and some unfamiliar to me (Thomas Kelly's A Testament to Devotion, St. Teresa's The Interior Castle). It also steps outside the usual bounds of prayer and practice to incorporate great works of literature-Dante's Divine Comedy, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins-all of which illuminate and inspire.
In fact, all these selections seem challenging and worthy of further study, if the introductions and selected readings are to be trusted (and they certainly seem accurate to the works with which I'm familiar), but since my primary focus in this column is our life together, I want to focus particularly on how these 25 books might (or which might) illuminate our life together, whether in faith communities, human families, or the body politic.
Much of the material in the book seems to be about texts related to prayer, mysticism, and individual spirituality, and I do not disparage this. Corinne Ware's fine book Discover Your Spiritual Type suggests that one sort of spiritual person regards God as a mystery to be experienced, and 25 Books is heavy on selections for this spiritual type. But that spiritual grounding in prayer and experience of God is necessary for other spiritual types, and undergirds the attempts to reach out to others in love and service. A deep core of personal faith and practice is necessary to be in relationship with others. You can't offer water from a dry well.
Other texts, however, speak more directly to the experience of our lives in community. Some are classics like the Rule of St. Benedict, one of the first attempts to formulate a practical Christian political ethic. This work, as 25 Bookssuggests, "offered order, routine, and peace" to those who followed it (and continues to offer those things to us today). Leaders were to be carefully chosen and accountable to all, using their power responsibly and with attention to individual strengths, weaknesses, and needs. The Rule translates the teachings of Christ into concrete actions, and in so doing argues that our thoughts and intentions, while important, are less important than our actions. (Like Aristotle, who argued that "action is character," the Rule has no place for good intentions.)
Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, which I began this past spring, is a brave but necessary choice for 25 Books. It's a hard and demanding book, but one that contains much more than the expected teachings on personal piety or predestination. The Institutes reminds us that holiness consists of sobriety, righteousness, and godliness-all of which may and must be translated into actions related to our neighbors. Calvin, despite contemporary Neo-Calvinists who may seem at odds with Progressive Christian belief and practice, is essential reading. 25 Books summarizes Calvin to say that we can only find happiness in God, not through our own actions, a fine corrective for the Protestant work ethic and American individualism. Independence and autonomy, according to Calvin, are not ultimate values (which may surprise some American neo-Calvinists).
I blush to say that I'm not familiar (beyond the title) with William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which also offers correctives to American Christianity as it's usually lived out. As I pointed out in The Other Jesus, evangelical pollster George Barna is one of many current observers who argues that American spirituality is wide and shallow, consisting largely of church attendance and some opinions on moral issues. 25 Books notes Law's call to look beyond these narrow definitions of Christian life. If the gospels are about life, not church, church attendance is not the measure of Christian faith-religion, Law argues, teaches us how to be in the world and how to act toward each other. Prayer is the smallest part of devotion, Law suggests; "devotion is a life given to God." Charity and good works are an essential part of that devotion, and our resources are not our own, since we are to offer "generosity, care, and kindness to such that are in need of it."
While it's not the final work in 25 Books, I close with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, which I have been teaching for the past few years to priests and pastors in training at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. This book and Bonhoeffer's own life outline the public nature of our faith; following Jesus will not just affect our private devotion, but every aspect of our experience. In fact, Cost of Discipleship suggests that we must marry our private devotion and mystical submission to God with public action, that, in essence we must both believe and obey. If we are to follow Jesus's teaching that we must love God and our neighbor, then "we are called to action in the world." Private faith, at last, is not sufficient. Famously, Bonhoeffer argues that when Christ calls someone, he bids him come and die. That may not, like Bonhoeffer, mean actual physical death, thanks be to God. But it certainly means obedience, dropping everything to follow Jesus, giving away our lives in the service of others.
25 Books Every Christian Should Read has inspired me to explore several of its selections, which strikes me as exactly what it should do. If someone reads The Cost of Discipleship or The Institutes or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers because of their treatment here, then 25 Books has served its purpose.
I'd guess that it will serve that purpose many times over.
Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.
Originally posted Nov. 30, 2011.