The ‘Ten Books’ Meme Jumps the Shark

Which can only mean I’m weighing in with my own list.

In case you missed it, folks have been listing the ten books that either influenced them, they liked the most, or are best in their category (like Dr. Sanders’ theology list).

Problems of determining ‘influence’ aside, then, here’s my list of ten books (plus two!) that left a sizable impression on me and my thinking:

Phillipians. I’ve said this recently, but Paul’s brief letter to the church at Phillipi is a masterful and intricate examination of joy, our eschatological hope in the face of suffering, and the transformation that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus begets.  And for several years, it has functioned as a type of ‘home base’ for me, the book that I return to when I begin to forget the shape the Gospel should take in my life.

Orthodoxy. Is it a surprise, given that I write at a blog named for it?  It’s not Chesterton’s finest book (that’s The Everlasting Man, if you’re wondering), but it’s a close runner-up.  I first encountered this in a particularly rough patch, and it invigorated my sense of awe and wonder at existence and the Christian faith.

Till We Have Faces. It’s Lewis’ last novel, and his best.  And I couldn’t get through it the first three times I tried.  But my fourth time through, I was stunned at its depth.  I have since returned to it every year, and like any great work it has gotten better with each re-read.

Confessions. Probably the most quoted of the Church fathers (“Our hearts are restless…”), I’m never actually sure whether anyone has read it.  While it’s fashionable to loathe Augustine for all sorts of things these days, few thinkers have shaped my thinking about the world as much as his.   His reflections helped me deepen the process of confession in my own life, a confession that takes the dual nature of acknowledging sin and bestowing praise.

Symposium.  Of all the dialogs, I find this one the most intriguing–and the most rewarding.  Discussions about it my senior year dramatically altered and clarified my views on sexuality, beauty, and their relationship to the city.

On the Incarnation. Why did God become man?  Until reading Athanasius, I realized that I had never really wrestled with the question.  And after completing his most famous work, I became entranced by the fact of the Incarnation and its central role within the Christian faith.  It’s an entrancement that I hope never wanes.

Spirit of the Disciplines. This is the book that launched me on the trajectory that I’m still riding:  attempting to understand the role of the body within the Christian life.  Willard’s theology has come under scrutiny in recent years for his inclinations toward universalism, but there’s nothing heterodox here.  If anything, his exegesis of Paul’s understanding of the body remains the most insightful and faithful readings I have yet encountered.

A Hero of our Time. The only book I have ever thrown across the room.  Lermontov’s little gem is a reaction against the fragmentation of modernity and a call to action.  He also launched a genre within Russian literature, the ‘superfluous man,’ that informs later works like…

The Brother’s Karamazov. If I had to choose between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the former wins my vote.  The Brother’s K. remains my single favorite piece of fiction in the world.

Abide in Christ. I’m pretty sure I stole this book from my dad, and I’m never going to give it back.  Murray is a 18th century Reformed preacher who writes like someone who has seen the face of God.  In this, my favorite book of his, he presents the Christian life in all its simplicity:  there is but one thing for you to do, and that is abide.

Summa Theologiae, Prima Segundae Partis Questions 1-21.  Or, more simply, Thomas Aquinas on the nature of human acts.  My thinking through these questions has proved enormously valuable. If you want a section of Aquinas to start with that might be a bit more accessible, this is a good place to turn.

Resurrection and Moral Order.  I’m convinced this is the most important work for theological ethics in the past twenty years.  O’Donovan articulates an ethical framework that is wholly evangelical–that is, grounded in the proclamation of God in the person of Jesus Christ–and that refuses to reduce ethics to either God’s commands on the one hand, or the structure of (fallen!) creation on the other.  (You can read my synopsis here.)

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  • Christopher Benson

    Matt: Thanks for sharing your list of influential books. I hope you cross-list the blog post at Evangel.

    Two notes:

    (1) The Nehamas & Woodruff edition of “Symposium” is very good but there is an edition I like even better:

    Plato’s Symposium: A Translation by Seth Benardete with Commentaries by Allan Bloom and Seth Benardete (Univ. of Chicago, 2001).

    (2) I haven’t read “Resurrection and Moral Order” yet so I can’t judge affirm or deny your claim that it’s “the most important work for theological ethics in the past twenty years.” Richard Hays’ “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” or Stanley Hauerwas’ “A Community of Character” are serious contenders as well (both titles were listed in Christianity Today’s “Books of the Century”).

    One Question:

    As you probably know, Dallas Willard and Richard Foster are close friends and they have collaborated together. What do you think of Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” vis-a-vis Willard’s “Spirit of the Disciplines”?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Christopher,

    I agree with you on the Bernadete translation. I just grabbed the first one that went up…I wasn’t going for which one I liked best (in that case).

    Second, I agree with you about Hays and Hauerwas. But O’Donovan’s has received, I think, considerably less attention within the evangelical community than either of those, which is unfortunate. It also doesn’t surprise me, as I think it’s much more difficult to get through and understand than either of those.

    As for Foster’s book, it’s been some time since I’ve read it, but I always viewed them as complementary. Willard provides the comprehensive framework (with a little bit of how-to) while Foster fills in the practical part.

    matt

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  • Mark

    Well if ten lists have jumped the shark maybe thirtyish lists haven’t. Here’s hoping. Some are ones I just hope to understand better on a rereading, but that’s part of what the list is for.

    http://www.evernote.com/pub/mduling/topbooks#v=t&n=0f16bcc2-01de-4d62-bb4b-5aa3a403e5dc&b=628cabc1-35c6-4c67-b080-abbe6af637d