I recently happened upon a website called Goodreads, which allows you catalogue and rate books you have read, and gives you the ability to share your interests with others whom you have friended.  Predictably, this site only fueled my book addiction.  While compiling my library and rating my books, I began to wonder which books have impacted me the most – which books get a 5-star rating in terms of rocking my world?  I thought it would be an interesting list to share, so here they are in no particular order.

Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler

  • Why It Impacted Me – I had just returned from a trip to Egypt and Israel in 2005 and this book absolutely fueled my desire to further experience these ancient places you read so much about in the scriptures.  Feiler sets out on a pilgrimage to many of the places mentioned in the five books of Moses, visiting the sites, talking with the people, and gaining an understanding of the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible.  The television program of the same name is itself a spiritual journey.
  • Why You Should Read It – If you want to read familiar stories in the Bible in a new way, paying attention to oft overlooked details, this book is a great primer – written in narrative, non-academic language – in the importance of cultural context for a full understanding of scripture.

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

  • Why It Impacted Me – I read parts of this book in seminary, but then again, I read a lot of books in school and didn’t always have time to process what I was reading.  But I remember this was a book I wanted to pick up again.  So a couple years later I read through it again.  N.T. Wright is one of my favorite theologians/thinkers and this book really showed me how much there was in scripture to understand beyond the surface reading.  Much of the New Testament was written not just from the Hebrew worldview, but also the Greek and Roman worldview as well.  Stories and references begin to take on new meaning when processed through these multiple lenses.  Wright in many ways rekindled my love for scripture.
  • Why You Should Read It – Unless you reeeeeeally love the topic, this may not be a book you want to read – it is over 700 pages and it isn’t easy reading.  Fortunately, Wright’s popularity has grown and he has written a number of more accessible books for those wanting an introduction to his work.  Try After You Believe or Surprised by Hope.

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

  • Why It Impacted Me – At a time in my life when I was tired from maintaining an image of having it all together, I read Abba’s Child and Manning gave me permission to get real with myself.  To use Manning’s words, we all have inside of us a struggle between the impostor and the beloved.  When we have the courage to quit living as an impostor, we are freed up to truly be embraced by God.  It was a message that had me in tears more than once and I have returned to this book many times since.
  • Why You Should Read It – Manning has a way of giving you permission to be yourself and embrace the love of God.  If that isn’t something you need, then skip this book.  But if you ever struggle to live in the freedom of authenticity, this book will help you embrace the beloved inside.

Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

  • Why It Impacted Me – There are times on your spiritual journey when God’s presence seems more distant than near.  And then there are those times when God’s presence feels completely absent.  I have encountered the latter on my own journey and it was very disconcerting.  Reading this book both gave me words to describe that experience and hope that it doesn’t last forever.  It helped me relate to God in new ways and in many ways normalized the entire experience.  For that I am thankful!
  • Why You Should Read It – For hundreds of years, this writing has encouraged people through dark times in their lives.  I would almost recommend not reading it if you are in a good place.  Rather, keep it in mind if you ever find yourself feeling distant from God.

No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton

  • Why It Impacted Me – I have to confess that there isn’t any one thought that jumped out at me in this book.  I just know that I read it three times before I was able to put it down.  It is so full of small profound insights into navigating this life that I had to include it.  Merton, though not necessarily in this book, speaks quite a bit about contemplative prayer and the role that contemplation can play in your daily routine, and I have benefited much from a more contemplative life.
  • Why You Should Read It – Don’t let the title fool you.  Though this book uses the language of men, there is plenty for both men and women to take from it.  It is broken up into manageable chapters that make it easy to read a handful of pages and process that reading throughout the day.  It is a very insightful book into navigating the spiritual life on a daily basis.

So there you have it.  If I were compiling a list of the best written or the most interesting books, perhaps the list would look different.  But these are the books that have influenced me the most.  So what about you?  Have you read any of these and if so, what did you think?  What books would you include on your list of books that influenced you the most?

While N.T. Wright has been one of my favorite authors, having read many of his books I was often left with the question, “So what does this mean for daily living, the stuff discipleship is made of?”  In his book, After You Believe, Wright attempts a long-awaited answer to that question.  However, if easy answers are what you are looking for, N.T. Wright is not the author to read.

After You Believe starts with this basic premise:

Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed.  The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it.

Wright has been passionately and convincingly refocusing believers of that goal: God’s kingdom here on earth, rather than the long-held belief of abandoning earth to spend eternity in heaven.  Quite simply, if heaven is the goal, then how we live on earth correlates little to that goal.  But if God’s kingdom is the goal, then how we live this life is only a precursor to life in the kingdom of God.  And this is where Wright reclaims the idea of Christian virtue.  What follows are some of my thoughts.

After You Believe

I have personally done a lot of reading on transformation.  Christians use that word a lot, but few seem quite sure of what it is.  Does it take place at salvation?  To a certain extent.  Does it continue to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit?  Again, that is definitely an aspect of transformation.  Will it only occur upon death/new life?  Some believe so, but I think it is more available to us now that we realize.  Now comes the controversial one: Can we be engaged in activities to bring about transformation?  Many get uncomfortable answering “Yes”, but I believe “Yes” is the correct answer.  Dallas Willard has written, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”  The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our efforts, not our attempts to justify ourselves.  And while the ultimate outcome may be out of our control, we are never-the-less called to put in effort toward transformation.  I appreciate that Wright is not afraid to suggest this.  Transformation does not just happen to us while we lie around on the couch.  We go to the gym – to use his language – and develop our moral muscle.

This leads to another observation, a broader topic mined from the entire book.  It is the idea that virtue prepares us for this “kingdom-in-advance life” – we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience kingdom life.  Now I have to say that this sounds great, but it can be difficult to live out, given the lack of immediate payoff and the time it takes to build up moral muscle.  I also say it can be difficult because, let’s face it, we are largely judged by this world’s view of success. And God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to that view of success.  I am concerned that many churches today are primarily promoting the idea that following God will lead to that same view of success promoted by the world around us.  The more I read Wright, the more I grow uneasy with that idea.   Am I willing to develop virtue for a kingdom life that may or may not ever lead to success and fulfillment in this lifetime?

Another quote from the book jumped out at me:  “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.”  I couldn’t agree more with Wright on this point.  Christians should be some of the most thinking people around and yet are still largely perceived of as simpletons or naive.  Where did we get so off track?  His chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the mind” was really good on just what that chapter title suggests.  Ironically, many Christians assume that the renewing of their minds is a very unthinking process – it is something that will eventually just happen to them.

In After You Believe, Wright calls for a transformation to take place through the reclamation of virtue.  But this transformation is different than what is encountered among many nowadays.  It is proactive, it is at least partly driven by our own efforts, it is mind-engaging, and it has a different goal: God’s kingdom on earth.  True to his other writings, I am left with more questions than answers, but I have been offered a different path to those answers as well.

Every now and then, a menial task is illuminated by something I read.  I am working my way through N.T. Wright’s book  After You Believe and came across this:

Humans are to enable the garden to flourish, and to speak words which bring articulate order to the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

The garden Wright speaks of is a reference to Eden, a microcosm of all creation.  And we are called to reign over this garden.

I spent the summer tending to my parents backyard.  My mom usually keeps up with it quite well, but she spent much of the summer traveling and it was beginning to revert back to its “natural state.”  So the hot summer days were spent weeding, pulling out dead plants, exterminating countless mud wasps (which I finally conceded was a losing battle), and trimming back rose bushes and other shrubs intent on expanding their little kingdoms.  Pots were replanted and flower beds were reclaimed.  A drainage area that constantly held standing water was turned into a water bog garden.  A broken pot my mom particularly liked was renewed to look like an ancient artifact with a new plant growing out the side.  Everything had order and purpose again.

It was an odd summer; much of it was spent in transition.  So often I felt like my career was sinking, my faith was stagnating, and the future uncertain.  All I did was reclaim the backyard for my parents.

But sometimes, when we feel like we are accomplishing the least, we are actually making great strides in the kingdom of God.  I read that quote from N.T. Wright at the end of the summer and it changed my perception of things.  My summer was spent literally getting my hands dirty restoring order to a little slice of creation and allowing it to flourish.

In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was another microcosm of creation.  It was a picture of what the world would look like when God’s kingdom was fully come.  So what part of creation has God entrusted to my care – to tend to, to reign, and to restore order?  First, our own bodies are under our direct care, and I am discovering that mine needs evermore attention lest disrepair sets in.  Next, there is a relational sphere that I am called to tend and care for.  Friends and family can either wilt or flourish depending on how I might serve and be served by them.  Regardless of the circumstances, my soul also can either flourish or dry up, depending on how I tend to it.

And yes, this summer, God entrusted a small part of creation called my parents backyard into my care as well.