books · charis · creativity · the arts · Uncategorized

15 Books That Have Shaped My Soul


Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird:

…for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.

And in the movie Shadowlands, a character says,

We read to know we are not alone.

Books have meant so much to my life. They have been there for me when I had no one, and they have given me hope. They have formed my view of the world. Here are 15 of the most important ones in my life, and why they matter to me.

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe–C.S. Lewis

I’ve been to Bible college, been to seminary, and studied theology for years. Every theologian has his atonement theory, her way of explaining the process of salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross. It’s easy to begin to view this most amazing event in history with a theoretical, jaded eye. Nothing has ever driven home the power and reality of redemption for me like this masterful fantasy book for children. Aslan, dying on the stone table at the hand of the White Witch for treacherous Edmund. And then the “deeper magic still” coming upon him so that “death begins to move backwards.” When I get tired of theories of the Gospel, I read this again and reconnect with the heart of the Gospel. It’s powerful stuff and it never grows old.

2. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings–edited by Timothy F. Lull

My one and only seminary book entry in this list. For those who want to read the most important theological writings by Martin Luther, this book is a splendid, accessible, and elegant introduction. Key theological documents as well as letters and sermons are included, along with Lull’s introductions which provide helpful historical context for the readings. Important historical and devotional reading, steeped in Scripture.

3. From Bondage to Bonding–Nancy Groom

The shelves are lined with vapid self-help books that tell you what you want to hear. This book is different. It is the single deepest, most challenging book on codependency that I have ever read. I first read it when going through and recovering from a terribly wounding church experience. A Christian counselor, to whom I will always be grateful, introduced me to the book and challenged me to grow in emotional maturity and authenticity. I found I could only read a chapter at a time because the book confronted me with difficult truths about myself. But there is power in the truth and as I read, I began to experience the first waves of wholeness. I also experienced the Gospel–not just for the people I served in the Church–but for me. This is a life-changing book.

4. The Shipping News–E. Annie Proulx

I have written previously about how much I love this book for the way it makes resurrection take on flesh and bone:

In this story, Quoyle, a ne’er-do-well haunted by his past, the generational sin of his family, his impotence in life and ambition, his failure with women, and the messages of shame constantly being thrust upon him finds redemption and healing. He grapples profoundly and honestly with the darkness. But the story ends with a storm which shakes his community, which unseats the power of evil heritage in his life, and which brings one member of his community to a miracle of actual resurrection.

In both the film and book, the closing language of resurrection blow me away. This is not at all a “Christian book,” but without a doubt its author is using the Christian image of resurrection to evoke the new life and healing that can come to a broken life. There is rich material here for meditating on the hope of new life. This story has powerfully impacted my own life in my experience of family brokenness and dysfunction. I have sometimes felt shame for these things in my life, but Quoyle’s story of redemption brought me hope and gave me a concrete visual for what redemption can look like. Not the mere abstract language that we sometimes throw around in the Christian community, but redemption in real flesh and blood.

5. The Kite Runner–Khaled Hosseini

What happens when one terrible sin from your childhood continues to haunt the rest of your life? Is there any way to be good again?  In this masterpiece by Khaled Hosseini, this is the core question. Do human beings fall beyond redemption–or can they be made new? I wrote here about the way The Kite Runner moved me with its hopeful journey through evil and sin to redemption.

6. Amos: To Ride a Dead Horse–Stanley Gordon West

Who could be a more unlikely hero than an elderly man recently moved into a nursing home? After his wife is killed in an accident that he survives, elderly Amos Lasher gets sent to the Sunset Home,  where he suddenly is at the mercy of the sadistic head nurse, Daisy Daws, a fiend that gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money. Abused and taken advantage of, Amos overcomes the odds and the way he conquers the evil forces against him is a stand-up-and-cheer triumph. It’s also a powerful parable about self-sacrifice.

7. The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt

People either love or hate this book. I adored it (but I do admit it took me a while to get into it). A true storyteller, Donna Tartt weaves the magnificent story of “modern waif” Theo Decker, a boy of 13 who loses everything when his mother dies in an art gallery explosion. In the chaos after the explosion, Theo is given a priceless painting to which he clings in fear and longing. All alone in the world, Theo must learn to fend for himself, but his abandonment leads him down some dark paths in the process. Is hope possible for a boy (and then a man) who has lost everything and who has become lost in bondage? As the book slowly weaves around your heart, you will root for Theo and fall in love with the vivid characters of this masterful novel.

8. Blue Like Jazz–Donald Miller

I don’t agree with everything Donald Miller has done and said since he wrote Blue Like Jazz, but that doesn’t change the impact the book has had on my life. Above all, this book taught me the importance of humility in Christian witness. The story of the “confession booth” at Ren Fayre is forever etched in my memory: Christians confessing to nonbelievers the way we have sinned against them. The secular students breaking down in tears. This is what real Christianity looks like.

9. The Complete Stories–Flannery O’Connor

You can never go wrong reading Flannery O’Connor. Above all, her short story “Good Country People” nails it. In O’Connor, you frequently see how original sin is hidden deep in the hearts of the religious people along with the irreligious. The banality of sin and evil hit you between the eyes as you recognize yourself and the other “nice people” that you know as arrogant, self-centered sinners. Perfect for the “nice” culture of the Midwest where many try to convince themselves that the only sin they’re guilty of is eating that extra piece of cake.

10. Dakota–Kathleen Norris

I fell in love with this book in college and with it was lured to the Great Plains where I lived for 3 1/2 years. I came to realize that I am not quite as solitary as I wanted to believe I was, but the honesty, beauty, and call of the artist found in this spiritual memoir continue to resonate with me today. It is largely because of this book that creative nonfiction came to be one of my favorite genres. And I deeply admire the artful way in which Norris writes about her Christian faith. No easy answers here, but deep, quiet conviction.

11. Through Gates of Splendor–Elisabeth Elliot

My parents served as missionaries for a few years, and this book was one of the most influential on their lives. In it, Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of her husband and four other men who longed to share Jesus with those who had never heard of Him. In the course of their outreach to a remote tribe in Ecuador, the five men were killed by the group they sought to reach. In an incredible act of love and mercy, Elisabeth and her young daughter and one of the other missionaries’ sisters later returned to the tribe, befriended them, and ultimately led them to faith in Christ. The kind of humble sacrifice found in the lives of these missionary heroes is very rare today, but continues to inspire future generations. Through this book, I learned that serving Christ was not about what I could get for myself, but what I could give in service.

12. All Joy and No Fun–Jennifer Senior

Since becoming a parent, I have read no other book that so perfectly captures the dilemma of modern parenthood as this book. Instead of telling me how to better parent my child, this book resonantly describes what it is to be a parent. It details the affect of parenting on parents, particularly in a time when children are now “economically worthless but emotionally priceless” (in the words of sociologist Viviana Zelitzer). Senior made me feel less alone: of course my life was more difficult now that I had kids, but it was also richer and more rewarding. The latter part is often acknowledge in parenting literature, but the former is not so readily talked about.

13. The Weight of Glory–C.S. Lewis

This book taught me that the “not-yet-ness” I feel in relation to even the best things in my life is a sign to point me to heaven. Earth will not finally satisfy me. Because my home is beyond.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

14. The Hiding Place–Corrie ten Boom

This well-crafted Christian classic tells the story of one warm and loving Dutch family who defies the Nazis. During the WWII period, the ten Booms hide and protect Jews in their home, their deep faith guides their decision. Corrie ten Boom and her family are sent to a concentration camp for their good deeds, and her father and sister ultimately die there. Corrie honestly tells of her battle with unforgiveness and hatred. She emerges from the concentration camp, eventually is able to forgive, and becomes one of the greatest ambassadors for Christ of the modern age.

15. The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor–Jonathan Rogers

A devout Catholic and unapologetic original, novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor was preoccupied with sin and redemption. Despite this fact, she was frequently misunderstood by religious people. I think she is the master of how to engage in the arts as a devout Christian, and I see her influence in countless narratives in literature, film, and books. Take this tidbit, quoted in Rogers’ book:

I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

This is why O’Connor so often offended religious people. She was trying to take them by the scruff of the neck to give them a hard dose of the reality already present in the world. Deep embedding in reality prepares people for grace. Most of us don’t want to see. Instead we want what O’Connor called “religious propaganda” that confirms what we think about ourselves and the world already. But propaganda makes poor art, and O’Connor believed that if a work failed as art, it would fail as a delivery of truth as well. I admire her for this, and it is her work and beliefs about art that I return to again and again.

What 15 books would be on your list? Comment below!

photo credit:

creativity · film · food · the arts

Spinning Plates: A Documentary About Restaurants and Community

Spinning PlatesSpinning Plates (2012) is a powerful documentary which follows three very different restauranteurs and shows how passion, adversity, and love are at the heart of each. The power of each story and real respect for the art of dining–no matter the locale or type of cuisine–make for some deeply compelling storytelling in this film.

The first restaurant is Alinea, rising culinary star Grant Achatz’s Chicago temple to modernist cuisine. Alinea constantly innovates, using scientific techniques, rethinking every aspect of restaurants and menus, in order to produce audacious creations which must be described as works of art. Achatz is a striking figure not only for his culinary skill, imagination, ability to articulate deep meaning in his chosen art form, but also for his battle with devastating stage IV cancer which nearly left him without his tongue and which, while in remission, is in need of constant monitoring. Despite his battle with adversity, Achatz continues on, driven by his passion to perform at the height of his field and to literally change people’s lives through his restaurant.

Breitbach’s Country Dining, the second restaurant, is in Balltown, IA. It features down-home food and functions as a community center for the town. It is Iowa’s oldest food and drink establishment, established in 1852 by the original Breitbach immigrant family. The compelling underlying drama of this restaurant is that in a period of less than a year, it was completely and utterly destroyed by fire not once, but twice. Each time, the community rallied behind their beloved Breitbachs and provided countless man hours and donations to help them rebuild. The second fire so devastated Mike Breitbach that he almost didn’t rebuild, but ultimately his heritage and community pulled him through.

The final restaurant, La Cocina de Gabby, is a small Mexican restaurant in Tuscon, AZ. This labor of love is run by Francisco and Gabby Martinez. Everything in the restaurant (which Francisco describes as his “home”) is done by he and his wife and his wife’s mother. The care and devotion of this little family to each other and to their customers is deeply moving, as is their constant hard work despite so little to reward them. The family cannot afford daycare, so their toddler daughter must follow them around the restaurant all day. In the course of the film, we see them lose their dearly-beloved house. Ultimately, they are not able to make enough money to survive, so the restaurant closes its doors by the film’s end. This family dreams not of great wealth, but simply to make a living and to give their daughter a brighter future. Modest goals combined with love and hard work. (By the way, those who wish to help the Martinez family can give to them here.)

Toward the end of this moving documentary, Achatz makes some profound statements about the art of dining. He talks about how his father began a diner in a small, farming community when Achatz was a kid. It was a family operation, with his dad doing most of the cooking and his mom baking pies and doing accounting. Their whole life belonged to that restaurant, and the parents put in 90 to 100-hour days. As a young preschooler, he was brought him into the restaurant to help out and so the whole family could spend more time together. He says:

“I was there and I was with them and I was learning a sense of community, not only with them and my aunts and uncles and my cousins. But I watching this town convene on a restaurant on a daily basis. We would have people walk in the front door at 6 in the morning. And we knew who they were. They sat in the same spot every day. And they became friends, in the restaurant. They didn’t have to order because every day they ate the same thing. That was comfort. They knew what to expect. They knew themselves. You had people that are surrounding themselves with everything that they feel safe with.

“And then, you come to Alinea. And the moment you open the front door, you’re confronting something that’s not normal. The hallway is this false perspective. You’re not really sure where you are. The food comes out. It challenges you. It’s different than anything you’ve ever seen. Why? Well, you’re here to experience something that you’ve never felt before, but something that you recognize in yourself. You’ve already said to yourself: I’m going to figure out who I am, in a way, by experiencing something that I might be uncomfortable with. You’re basically stripping away all the armor and you’re saying, here’s who I am.

“And that’s the same thing those guys were doing. They were, you know, patting each other on the back and drinking coffee and talking about local politics and their wives and their kids and exposing themselves, you know. And that’s what people do here, because we force it on them, you know? So, people say, how do you come from a diner to this? And it’s the same….You’re, at the same time, making people feel comfortable and exposed. And that’s a restaurant.”

To be comfortable and exposed at the same time is a profound statement of what it is to be in relationship, of what intimacy looks like. Think of your closest friendships; think of your family members. You know each other. You know almost everything about each other. There are few surprises because of the depth of that knowledge.

But to know and be known so intimately is also frightening. You’re emotionally exposed to those who know you well. That’s why most of us choose very carefully to whom we expose ourselves emotionally. That’s why some of refuse to be in deep relationships at all, jumping from surface relationship to surface relationship. That’s why people church hop. That’s one reason people divorce.

But how beautiful when we are in a safe place to reveal ourselves as we are, warts and all!

That’s not just a restaurant. That’s a real relationship. That’s a real community.

And from a faith perspective, that’s a real church!

Spinning Plates is more than a documentary about the culinary world. It’s the story of how the art of dining–or any art form–can bring us together in true community. I highly recommend it. (You can view this film on Netflix streaming.)

Photo source:, Spinning Plates.

books · charis · creativity · the arts

The Beauty that Makes Dead People Alive


It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

–C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

I believe in the power of beauty to transform our lives.

Beauty makes us hunger for what is beyond. We see that which is beautiful and we long to possess it, to make it our own. Yet, no matter how much beauty we hold onto, we desire the elusive “more.”

This was C.S. Lewis’ point in one of my favorites of his books:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
The Weight of Glory

Share Beauty with Gentleness and Respect

I believe in being a gracious Christian, not an angry, condemning one. I believe in the words of Peter:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respectkeeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.–1 Peter 3:15-17, NIV

It seems to me that Peter is saying that how I and my fellow Christians speak and how we live are as important as what we say or how right we are. The latter is definitely important, but the former create an environment that helps people to take the Good News seriously. How we live and how we speak can create a hunger for the beauty of hope–or it can create a revulsion to the ugliness of anger, hypocrisy, evil.

Do we live out the beauty of being Christ’s? Or do we live in the ugliness the world sees everyday anyway?

We are Christ’s, but the Bible writers also tell us to “put on” Christ, to put on the the beauty that is found in Him, rather than the deathly garments of our old selves (Colossians 3, Romans 13).

When we put on Beauty, Beauty is compelling. I believe that.

Beauty Is An Indictment

But as a pastor friend pointed out to me recently, beauty is also an indictment. Even when I seek to walk in humility, to love and serve, to not just talk about Jesus but try to live like Him, my underlying belief is that I have been claimed by the One who is the most beautiful–and that all other claims to beauty are poor substitutes for Him. In fact, as Lewis says, I am basically saying that all other beauty is a mere idol.

I imagine most of us don’t like to be told that we have idols. Or, if we don’t mind being told that, perhaps we think there is nothing wrong with idols.

Most of us are comfortable with spirituality. Spirituality is basically “whatever trips your trigger.” It says: I’m not you, so I can’t dare to suggest what beauty is to you. I can’t impose my definition on you. We’re all blindfolded guys tripping around a giant elephant called spirituality. We’re all right, really.

But Christianity says that we’re all wrong and God is right.

Beauty Indicts Christians Too

A lot of Christians I know are really solid on the absolutes of Jesus, the Trinity, the Bible, basic Christian teachings. But I think sometimes we Christians get a little confused. We think we claimed the beauty. We think it’s all about us.

But what the Bible says is that the Beauty claimed us. Chose us. It’s humbling.

Paul said this:

Here is a saying that you can trust. It should be accepted completely. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the worst sinner of all. But for that very reason, God showed me mercy. And I am the worst of sinners. He showed me mercy so that Christ Jesus could show that he is very patient. I was an example for those who would come to believe in him. Then they would receive eternal life.–1 Timonthy 1:15-16, NIRV

Absolute Beauty is an indictment. It troubles us before it heals us. It acknowledges our deadness before it raises us.

But here’s the thing. That’s true for me and my fellow Christians too. Anytime we start getting too big for our britches and start thinking Beauty is all about us and being right and being on top, we have forgotten how merciful this Beauty has been to us.

Anytime we start saying, “I raised myself by the power of my will!” we have seriously missed the point.

Death and Resurrection

We were smeared with the mud of our own unadorned grave, funeraled alone, being gnawed by maggots, grave-food…the ugliest of the ugly.

But Beauty saw a life that could be made new. Beauty didn’t buy us off on the garage sale rack–used, but still with some use in us. Beauty tunneled deep grave-ward, sinking His fingernails into the wet dirt, and the worms shuddering His nerves. He set our decayed bodies up in the grass to wait, took a deep breath, and took the earth and the maggots into Himself. Absorbed them. He died.

But as the crocus burst up between the ugly rocks, His clenched fist pounded up through the earth’s weight. And when He emerged, shaking this dirt from His hair, Beauty breathed life into us…that indestructible life. His Beauty could not help but share and give itself to the ugly dead.

When His oxygen filled our lungs, we coughed out dust and lived again. He sprayed away the filth that caked our bodies, reminded us that we were made from dirt in the first place, drowned the worms that tore our flesh.

He brought his muddy hands upon us and took our sticky clay, rolling it this way and that, and beauty began to shine from us. Like Michaelangelo, He says, “I saw the angel in the marble [or our clay] and carved until I set him free.”

What Beauty Is, What Beauty Does

Beauty is an indictment, yes. A reminder of what we don’t have. A reminder of what we need.

But oh how far He is willing to go to renew us, restore us, give us meaning and purpose and new life.

And oh, when Beauty like that gets a hold of you, how you long to share Him with your fellow yearners.

For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.–2 Corinthians 2:15-17, NIV

photo credit: seyed mostafa zamani via photopin cc