January 23, 2012

My Must-Reads: Challenging Books


In my last two posts I’ve covered the general spirituality and fiction books on my “must-read” list. These are titles that have shaped my faith in significant ways over the years, enough to end up on my required reading list for young Christians hoping to grow in their faith.

Today’s list is a little different. I won’t necessarily say these are books you HAVE to read, but they are books I think you SHOULD read. Why? Because they will make you uncomfortable.

Here’s the thing about our personal reading lists: the books we read tend to be books that we hope will inspire us, that we hope will teach us something, or that someone we trust has recommended to us. We read for fun, pleasure, or personal growth. We almost always read stuff that “fits” us. We rarely seek out authors or subjects that really make us think, or that might bring a little resistance to our beliefs.

I’ve found it’s a good spiritual practice to read books I suspect I won’t like — or, at least, books I’m pretty sure I’ll disagree with a lot. It keeps me sharp. The resistance is good for my intellectual and spiritual muscles. If you don’t apply resistance to your muscles from time to time, you end up with flab.

So if you’re up for it, here are a few books you might add to your resistance list.

A Generous Orthodoxy (Brian McLaren): Be careful reading this in public, because when it comes to McLaren, guilt-by-association reigns among many American Christians. But despite his reputation for being a theological gadfly, McLaren is also notorious for taking a thoughtful, gracious look at the places where our faith and practice has been corrupted by culture. You won’t always agree with him, but he asks questions that need to be considered.

Desiring God (John Piper): Over the last three decades, few books have impacted theology like John Piper’s classic about “christian hedonism” — that, as stated in the Westminster Catechism, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Piper’s theology is thoroughly Calvinist and his writing occasionally dense, but his passion for God is contagious. Not everyone agrees with his Reformed take on Christianity — he can be as polarizing on one end of the theological spectrum as Brian McLaren is on the opposite side — but Piper’s influence is substantial.

The Irresistible Revolution (Shane Claiborne): Claiborne is a former high school prom king who now lives in a radical faith community as a “new monastic,” attempting to live a simpler, less worldly and more missional life — one more in tune with Christianity’s roots, and more in tune with the poor. Claiborne is funny, likable, and a great story-teller, but passionate about what he believes. He’s committed to nonviolence, ecology, and urban missions, and isn’t afraid to criticize the comfortable, suburban Church for its lack of passion about those things.

Love Wins (Rob Bell): There was a reason the blogosphere erupted over this book upon its release a few months ago — because it was designed to be provocative. In it, Rob Bell questions the typical evangelical beliefs about hell as a place of eternal, conscious, fiery torment. Using his typical breezy, too-cool-for-school writing style, he explores what the Bible really says about hell and how our beliefs about God’s love and God’s judgment often clash. Read it if you’ve ever been troubled by Christianity’s history of hellfire and brimstone. Read it if you’re uncomfortable with fear tactics in evangelism. Or just read it to see what all the fuss was about.

The Myth of a Christian Nation (Gregory Boyd): If “America” and “Christianity” might as well be synonyms to you — or if you prefer your politicians wrapped in Church talk — Boyd’s book will be tough to finish. He’s out to tear down the nationalistic idol of a “Christian nation,” arguing that our quest for political influence comes at the expense of the cross. Our faith, he writes, ought to define our politics, and not the other way around. We should seek sacrificial service rather than power and might. An excellent book examining the differences between the kingdom of the cross and kingdoms of this world.

Misquoting Jesus (Bart Ehrman): The Bible is a complex document with a messy history, yet most Christians tend to view it as if it just fell from Heaven one day, already printed on onionskin and bound in thick leather. A biblical scholar with an evangelical past, the now agnostic Ehrman is a teacher at heart who delivers accessible biblical education for those of us who haven’t been to seminary. But, of course, the point of this book is to show the places in the Bible where it seems much more human than divine. If you come from a biblical inerrancy background, this is a very hard book to read. It’s not for everyone, though Ehrman goes to great length to show how he believes faith is still possible despite a Bible full of contradictions and mistakes. While it’s divisive and potentially discouraging, it shakes us out of our blissful ignorance. Christians need to be aware how the scholarly community views the book at the center of our faith. Misquoting Jesus is a good place to start.

Those are my challenging reads for Christians. It certainly could be a lot longer, so don’t hesitate to add to it in the comments. What books have challenged your faith, theology, or Christianity? (And check out parts one and two of this series if you missed them.)

Originally posted on July 16, 2011. 

Originally Published: January 23, 2012
Category: Books
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