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15 Books That Have Shaped My Soul

Books

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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/76686348@N05/7982852568/