Guest Post By: Michael Whitworth of Start2Finish Books
I’m an avid reader, and with the exception of a brief period during my college and post-collegiate years, I’ve always loved books. As an author, I know that my writing is only as good as my reading habits. For preachers and ministers, we need help with our creativity at times, and reading (both the Bible and other literature) helps keep the pump primed and well full. One of the worst feelings in the world is having a speaking assignment and not knowing what to say. Speaking only for myself, my avid reading habits help keep this feeling at bay.
This list is by no means exhaustive (I had to draw the line somewhere), nor is it scientific. I didn’t conduct nay polling or research. Instead, I tried to think of the eight books that have been most formative to me as a minister. The easiest one would be the Bible, of course. And it’s not listed here only because I think it’s a given. Your effectiveness as a minister is directly tied to how much time you devote personally to a study of the Word. Not for a sermon or lesson you are preparing, but for no more than your personal spiritual benefit. That said, I’d also commend these books to you:
This was the first book by Lewis I ever read (I somehow managed to graduate childhood without ever having read the Narnia series). I’m also a huge fan of satire and its ability to smuggle truth through the back door, slapping you in the face before you ever see what’s coming. In this book, Lewis exposes the tricks and schemes that Satan uses to destroy us spiritually. The apostle Paul would often remind his audience that he did not want them to be ignorant of Satan’s schemes, and books like The Screwtape Letters can help us think methodically through the traps often laid for us. You won’t agree with everything Lewis talks about (which could be said for every other book in this list), but this book will challenge you spiritually in any number of ways. In fact, it’s a book I enjoy reading every few years as a sort of diagnostic checkup on my soul.
Christian bookstores are full of discipleship tomes that exhort us to be more like Jesus and to follow him at any cost. Few of those books, however, were written by someone forced to walk his talk. For those who don’t know, Bonhoeffer was a German pastor in Nazi Germany who was implicated and arrested in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was eventually executed by the Nazis, and while it’s still murky as to whether he was really out to kill Hitler, there’s no doubt at all that he was a vocal critic of the Fuehrer and how fascism had corrupted the German church. More so than any other book on the subject, Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship will challenge you with the uncomfortable implications of what it means to leave all behind and follow Jesus.
I discovered Yancey at a very difficult time in my life. I read “The Jesus I Never Knew” only two weeks after the unexpected death of my father, and less than four months later, I had read everything else I could find from Yancey’s pen. In his book on grace, Yancey explores the subject from nearly all angles and asks penetrating questions. Can God really forgive someone like me? Why is it that, when some think of grace, the last thing the think of is the church? and so on. Yancey is a journalist by trade, and so he writes in a very appealing, accessible manner. You’ll be drawn into the book as if you were drinking coffee with the author in his own living room–a style I prefer. I promise you that you won’t ever look at grace—or God—the same way after reading this book.
This isn’t a religious book by any means. In fact, you deserve disclaimer that there is some foul language at times, but for understandable reasons. This is a book about the relationships between U.S. presidents beginning with Hoover and Truman. I love this book because it not only gives a fascinating glimpse into our past leaders, but is excellent in its anecdotes concerning relationships and human behaviors. Washington D.C. has no monopoly on politics; such sadly exists in ministry and church. Perhaps one of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that it’s possible for someone to be a decent human being and I still disagree with them. There is no reason to castigate them as the devil in disguise. This book drove that message home as it explored unlikely friendships (Hoover-Truman, Eisenhower-LBJ, Bush-Clinton, Nixon-Clinton), as well as relationships that were pretty frigid (Eisenhower-Kennedy, Carter-Clinton, Clinton-Obama).
I first read this book in college and have loved it ever since. The fact that Peterson chose as the book’s title a famous phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche makes it even better. Using the 15 Songs of Ascent in the book of Psalms, Peterson discusses what it means to live the Christian life, especially as a pilgrimage. This is another of those books you will want to read every few years. It will help you feel closer to the generations of saints that have come before you.
6. Expository Commentaries by Alexander Maclaren
Of the writing of Bible commentaries, there is no end. There are many, many commentaries I could recommend to you, and not every commentary fills every need. But if there is such a thing as a commentary that I enjoy sitting down with and reading, cover to cover, its those by Alexander Maclaren. His prose is fantastic, his points hit hard and home, and he will leave you in awe of God, in horror of your sin, and in love with Jesus. Maclaren’s commentaries have been published in multiple volumes by some publishers, but they are also now in the public domain if I’m not mistaken, and thus available online in several places. I cannot recommend a commentary series enough if you want help in thinking through the application of Scripture while at the same time drinking deeply from the fountain of godliness.
This book is religious only in regards to its subject matter. But it’s a delight nonetheless. Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazine, writes books chronicling his latest “experiments.” In one book, he set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica, and in another, his quest was to become the healthiest person alive by pursuing any and all diet fads, nutritional supplements, exercise crazes, and the like. In this book, Jacobs (a Jew, but only by heritage) sets out to live out all 613 laws in the Old Testament…literally. It’s a comical story: my favorite anecdotes included his attempting to stone adulterers (he throws at a pebble at the foot of a man who confessed to being a philanderer) and to avoid sitting where a menstruating woman might have sat (he ends up carrying a camp stool everywhere he goes, even the subway, just to be on the safe side). The book is funny, but it also provides valuable insight into how non-WASPs think about God and the Bible. If we want to reach the world, we should probably get a handle on how they look at things. The year-long experience of trying to literally live out the Bible was helpful for Jacobs; he still doesn’t attend synagogue, but he sends his boys to a religious school because he sees the value of growing up with religious principles instilled in you. That, I guess, is a start.
This is an odd book to throw in at the end like this, but hear me out. I found this book among my dad’s library several years after he had passed away. At first, I didn’t think it would be worth much as to the information it contained. But I was very wrong. I’ve since come to appreciate Wood’s scholarship and writing style. This book is what the title claims, a systematic survey of the history of Israel (i.e. the Old Testament). This book has been invaluable to me in terms of connecting the dots and piecing together information in the Bible that is often hard to collate. He also draws on what we know from secular history and how it influences the events of Scripture. Other historical surveys of the Old Testament period exist, but I think Wood’s is the best.