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Five Books for College Students

October 26th, 2005 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Update: Rhett weighs in! Surprise choice: My Name is Asher Lev. I haven't read it, but that's a strong recommendation...

I'm a bit behind these days, but feeling a bit vindicated. The bloggers over at OneTrueGodBlog are a bit slow these days as well. Only yesterday did Hugh's interesting question from ten days ago elicit a response from his chosen panel. Since they're taking a long time, I thought I would engage in that particularly annoying practice of answering a question not directed to me.

Hugh's question:

Please recommend the five books you would have a Christian college student read who was interested in deepening his or her faith but who also had all the time constraints and background education of most college kids today. (In other words, no Summa Theologica or Institutes.)

Professor David Allen White responded by going after those college students who still love books--Plato's Phaedo, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Shakespeare's Lear all make the list. While a huge fan of these particular works, my own approach is slightly different. When thinking about Hugh's question, I realized that two things have built up my faith: arguments and experiences. Yet in my low moments, it wasn't the arguments I returned to but the experiences I had and the mentors I had talked with. This may have been because I went to a Christian college, but it seems that even in a Christian environment many students lack a robust understanding and experience of the life of the Kingdom. You might say the books below were my guideposts on the road into the Kingdom, since the doorway to the Kingdom is limited to the Word of God alone. It was these books that formed my devotional life and these authors who served as surrogate mentors, especially number five.

1) Abide in Christ. Few devotional writers are as able to motivate and inspire as Andrew Murray. A 19th century pastor, Murray possessed an amazing ability to foster a desire for the deeper Christian life. The single best devotional work I have ever read, Abide in Christ will move you to rest in the work of Christ and to make your home in His sufficiency and power. Murray, in this respect, is the antidote to the meritocratic, achievement oriented thinking of most college students.

2) The Great Divorce. I suggest The Great Divorce over Mere Christianity because The Great Divorce, by virtue of its genre, has the potential to instill a gravitas about our normal, everyday affairs. When confronted with the fact that small decisions over a long period of time form my character, I am left crying with Lewis, "The morning! The morning! I am caught by the morng, and I am a ghost!" If you don't understand, well, then you should read it.

3) Four Quartets. What most students need in a text is something that will force them to pause and reflect about their lives. I have found no piece of poetry as effective at accomplishing this as Eliot's Four Quartets. Relatively accessible, Four Quartets is captivatingly beautiful and hauntingly relevant. "Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, of belonging to another, or to others, or to God. The only wisdom we can hope to acquire Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."

4) Confessions. When you read them, be sure to read the Chadwick translation. Intimate, revealing, and often difficult, Augustine's Confessions forms the basis of years of Christian reflection about the nature of the soul, sin, and grace. Augustine's masterpiece (yes, I think it is better than City of God), Confessions is an invitation to learn how to lead a reflective, thoughtful life. Though the end is difficult, it's worth reading and meditating upon. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee..."

5) Orthodoxy. I saved what I think is the single most important text for last. One of the two books for which this blog is named (the other being the aforementioned Mere Christianity), G.K. Chesterton's book is witty, insightful, and uplifting. Though not specifically a work of apologetics, Chesterton meets objection after objection head-on, and in doing so presents a vision of Christianity that is vibrant and lively. An eminently reasonable man, Chesterton understood the overwhelming power of joy and realized (along with Lewis and Charles Williams, specifically) that the rejection of Christianity is fundamentally a retreat from joy into cynicism and skepticism about the universe. The only pitfall to reading Orthodoxy is that you won't actually understand it the first time--Chesterton turns a phrase better than anyone, and I can almost guarantee you'll lose the argument for the phrases, which is just as well. The phrases changed my life by rescuing me from the darkness and cynicism and drawing me into the deep and abundant life of joy.

Honorable Mention: A Severe Mercy. A disciple of Lewis, Sheldon VanAuken was an adult convert to Christianity who lost his wife Davy to cancer not long after converting. Van Auken, like his mentor, has a way with words, and is able to capture the essence of his relationship with Davy. Part love story, part conversion story, part Problem of Pain, Severe Mercy models a reflective, intelligent Christian life.

Honorable Mention 2: Spirit of the Disciplines. It was this book that tipped me off to the importance of the physical body in Paul's theology. That chapter was so formative in my thought that I have never looked back. Willard provides excellent exegesis of Paul combined with solid, practical exhortation and advice about the classical spiritual disciplines. A must-read for anyone interested in the deeper Christian life.


Other answers at Ordinary Everyday Christian, One Clear Call, Challies, and Mere-O friend John Schroeder at Blogotional. I now think that I saw John's post earlier and got the phrase "Answer a question I haven't been asked" stuck in my head without remembering where it was from. My apologies.

My question: where's Rhett's list?

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.