A fellow pastor emailed me with some kind words, and a suggestion – blog about the 10 books that changed my life and ministry. Of course, the Bible goes without saying, but I said it anyway to avoid unnecessary comments on its absence from this list.
And I’m not including books that influenced me as a kid, like “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Captains Courageous” and “Call of the Wild.” The following discoveries are all after my master of divinity degree and provided fundamental transformation in aspects of my theology and ministry practice.
So here’s my list in no particular order:
1. “The Celtic Way of Evangelism” by George Hunter. This book changed how I look at the whole process of evangelization. The memorable phrase in Hunter’s book for me was that Celtic Christians encouraged people to belong before they believed. In other words, they incorporated strangers into the community with hospitality, and many gradually came to accept the Gospel. Hunter’s book piqued my interest in reading more about Celtic Christianity, but there is no doubt this book changed my ministry.
2. “Jesus Christ for Today’s World” by Jurgen Moltmann. This was the first book I read by Moltmann. Tears came to my eyes reading this phrase: “The Bible is the book of remembered hopes.” What a wonderful description. Moltmann moved me then and still does several volumes later. One of his latest books, “Son of Righteousness, ARISE,” is spectacular. Moltmann’s conversion story captures the hope of the Gospel, and his theology of hope is the result.
3. “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith. This is one of those classic texts that should be in every library, minister or not. Smith’s reputation and sympathetic treatment of the world’s great religions is unsurpassed. I have new appreciations for other faith expressions. When read along with Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s “An Introduction to the Theology of Religions,” one can appreciate how Christian theologians through the ages have dealt with the issue of world religions. Get the illustrated edition of Smith’s book if you can because the graphics add much to the telling of these ancient stories.
4. “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh. If you have not read Thich Nhat Hanh, please do so. Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, a Zen master, a peace activist nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and a gentle soul. His books are short, often repetitive, but his writing has a calm and reassuring affect. Nhat Hanh also talks a great deal about practice, primarily the practice of mindfulness. I have used his breathing technique many times to “calm body and mind” as he teaches. One of the renowned Buddhist scholars and teachers today, Nhat Hanh is perhaps second only to the Dalai Lama in worldwide influence.
5. “Dissident Discipleship” by David Augsburger. I read this book for a class I took from Augsburger, but I was captivated by his Mennonite witness and his multifaceted approach to discipleship. Augsburger writes about “tripolar spirituality,” which includes God, self and others as foundational to following Jesus. If you don’t know Augsburger, this is the book to start with.
6. “Night” by Elie Wiesel. The Holocaust is an inexplicable horror and Wiesel writes his first-person account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps. The tone is understated for the tragedy speaks for itself. Wiesel presents the question of evil and suffering in graphic detail and comes away with no answers, only memories. A classic that should be read by anyone concerned with evil, suffering and the presence of God in its midst.
7. “Covenant of Peace” by Willard Swartley. Swartley’s subtitle for this book is “The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics.” His contention is that peace has been neglected, and that God’s shalom is the heart of our theology. Written from a Mennonite appreciation for peace as a practice, this book convinced me that peace with God, man and creation is what God is ultimately up to. Swartley makes his case compellingly, and he changed my perspective on peace. If you like John Howard Yoder, you’ll love Swartley.
8. Books by N.T. Wright. OK, I’m cheating here, but Wright has been a tremendous influence on me. His books on Jesus, Paul, the Bible and eschatology (“Surprised by Hope”) are amazing. Wright gave me a new perspective on the “new perspectives” on Jesus and Paul, and with it a firm connection to the contexts in which Jesus and Paul ministered. I believe Wright calls his approach “biblical realism” or “historical realism” or something like that, which I have not taken the time to look up and footnote. Whether you agree with Wright or not (John Piper does not), Wright is a force to be reckoned with in theological insight.
9. “Gandhi: An Autobiography” by M.K. Gandhi. I have a Buddhist, so why not a Hindu on my list? Of course, Gandhi transcends categories, both cultural and religious. Martin Luther King Jr. took his nonviolent approach to civil rights from Gandhi. Gandhi changed the British empire, liberated his people and left his mark on the world by demonstrating that nonviolent resistance in love is an irresistible force. See the movie, read the book. Gandhi’s life is one you must know.
10. “The Friends of God” by Meister Eckhart and company. Of course, this is not a real book, but I have been more influenced by Eckhart and the gottes freunde in the 14th century than I can attribute to one book. I’m reading Dorothee Soelle’s book, “The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance,” and she quotes extensively from Eckhart. Of course, Eckhart and the friends of God were mystics in that German sort of way that gets your head spinning when you read their stuff. But they were, and continue to be, a tremendous influence in the arena of the immediate experience of God.
I also could have added Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, Taitetsu Unno (Buddhist), Marcus Borg (no, I do not agree with everything Borg says), Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and Leonardo Boff. Plus, Thomas More, Richard Foster, Piero Ferruci (“The Power of Kindness”) and Cynthia Bourgeault. Plus, I am sure, many others whose books have affected my life and ministry by providing new information, insight, inspiration and challenge.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.