The Chaplain's Reading List
Below is a list of the books that I most frequently recommend in my work as the pastor. These books and authors have not simply changed my thinking. They have shaped my whole life. As disciples of Jesus together, and all members of the communion of saints, these authors feel like good friends to me. I pass their names on to you, as one introducing one old friend to another: “I am so glad to finally be able to introduce you to each other. I think so much of both of you!” Here are some of my dearest friends . . .
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together, New York: Harper and Row; 1954.
Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church during the Second World War and died at the hands of the Nazis. This short and accessible book is a great introduction to Bonhoeffer the pastor. Unlike his longer works of theology, which are wonderful but dense, this book is immediately accessible. His thoughts on the place of prayer, the reading of scripture, listening, confession, and communion in life that Christians live together have formed my own view of what the Church can be. His The Cost of Discipleship was the first works of true Christian theology that I ever read. At the time, I had never come across a Christian writer who took the gospel message so seriously.
Chambers, Oswald, My Utmost for His Highest, New Jersey: Barbour & Company.
This devotional was given to me by a Christian mentor when I left home for college. I began reading it during those years and continue to consult it whenever I write a sermon or give a talk. Chambers was a Scottish Holiness minister who was instrumental in beginning the YMCA. His writing is notable for his absolute dedication to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His one-page entries are also a good example of how much can be said in just a few words.
Clapton, Eric, Clapton: The Autobiography, New York: Broadway Books, 2007.
Among the many rock biographies that I’ve read, this one is hands-down my favorite. Clapton tells his own story from childhood, to achieving “Clapton is God” rock star status, his battle with alcohol, and the loss of his son. His words about recovery, the depth of his struggle with his own personal demons,an.d his turning to a higher power at his darkest hour are so moving. Clapton’s personal story is an excellent companion read to “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades: Revisited (Clinton Heylin) finishes a close second for me in the rock biography category.
Kierkegaard, Soren, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. (Charles E. Moore, editor) Plough, 2014
This collection of short pieces from the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard is arranged by topic, with short selections from all his major works. The index enables the reader to track down the original setting for the selection. My first experience with Kierkegaard was through his philosophical writings. I would have done better to start with his criticism of the Church of his time. This book reintroduced me to him and I’ve enjoyed Kierkegaard ever since. His short Purity of Love is to Will One Thing is also a favorite.
Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, Ohio: Barbour and Company, 1990.
Lewis is perhaps the most widely read Christian author in history. He also just happens to be an Anglican.His writings have stood the test of time in a way that few modern Christian writings have. This book argues for the primary beliefs of the Christian faith and is based on series of Lewis’ talks that were broadcast by BBC radio. The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and A Grief Observed are also classics of Christian literature.
Percy, Walker, Signposts in a Strange Land, USA: HarperCollins, 1991.
In this collection of essays, Percy muses on life in the south, science, religion, morality, literature and language. I’ve found his non-fiction to be much more accessible than his fiction. Though I’d recommend The Moviegoer. His great theme is the dislocation, malaise, and alienation of the modern world.
Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992.
Peterson draws on some thirty years of pastoring a single congregation as he reflects on the joy and challenges of parish ministry. He uses the story of Jonah as a metaphor for the lure of religious success (Tarshish) in contrast to the pursuit of vocational holiness (Nineveh). He explores the mixed motives of pastoring, and the difference between religion and the Gospel. Though this book is addressed particularly to pastors, anyone seeking depth and integrity in their ministry will find a friend here.
Rutledge, Fleming, Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015.
Rutledge is one of the premier preachers in the United States and just happens to be an Episcopalian. This work of theology is the culmination of a lifetime of study of and preaching of the Gospel message centered on the Cross of Jesus Christ. Yes, its 640 pages with no pictures. But when I finished, I wished it was longer. God is the subject of any book of theology that is worth reading. God’s acting on the Cross is the subject here, not a technique, a spiritual fad, or some passing church enthusiasm that will be gone in six months. Her sermon collections The Bible and the New York Times and The Undoing of Death are some of my favorites. Her book The Battle for Middle Earth is absolutely my favorite book on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Zahl, Paul F. M., Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.
This book is hands down my favorite for connecting the Good News of the gospel with the realities of everyday living. The first section describes the foundational beliefs of reformed Christianity (atonement, original sin, the un-free will, imputation, grace and law). The rest of the book applies these truths about the human predicament to the actual situations that people face in families, at work, in the church, and in one’s own head. It’s full of fabulous illustrations from music, theater, films, and literature. A great read.
Zahl, John, Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody, Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries, 2012.
There are lots of good books out there on recovery, but this one is my favorite. Zahl draws on personal experience to describe how the alcoholic is driven by forces beyond his control. He helps the reader to connect the insights of AA with the old, old story of Christianity. The book is also full of fantastic illustrations.