Reading is an endurance sport in seminary. To narrow down a wide-array of spiritually encouraging and intellectually stimulating books to ten is equally a difficult task. In part two I share the final five texts which have dramatically influenced and impacted my theology and have ultimately increased my love for the triune God. They have challenged me to think differently as well as appreciate the ideas and concepts which are foundational to the faith I hold dear. I pray these works will equally impact you and I also request your interaction with this list, offering your own suggestions for books and experience as you read them. In the final part three, I will offer five books I wish I had read in seminary. No, these are not books that I was assigned but neglected, rather they are works I missed out on from other classes or sadly were never offered. Enjoy this and come back soon for part three.
6. Life Together. Dietrich Bonhoffer. New York: HarperCollins, 1978. 128 pp.
– Bonhoeffer’s passionate yet simple language is capable of engaging just about any reader. This text demonstrates an earnest appeal to view the Christian community as something more just an ideal to strive for, but something which currently exists and we are called to obediently participate. Whether our community experience is more exuberant than other times, we must not seek to strive for something more than it is: this is lusting after the idol of experience. God has redeemed a people in Christ and we have entered a community which is “not an ideal we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ which we may participate” (30). This book has profoundly increased my humility in being a part of a community of believers and rather than seeking to always find something new and better, we must submit one to another in the humble task of displaying the love of our Savior. Bonhoeffer notes, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses” (86). May we always continue to intercede for one another as we participate in the providence that is being a member of Christ’s body.
7. Reason for the Hope Within. Edited by Michael J. Murray. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. 445 pp.
– This collection of essays demonstrates high quality academic Christian apologetics yet is meant to be enjoyed by any interested Christian reader. With topics ranging from discussions on the relationship of faith and reason, to scientific arguments for the existence of God, to discussions on the defense of the Incarnation and Trinity, Reason provides interested readers with a helpful exploration of relevant apologetic matters. The collection of scholars represented in this text also testifies to a great resurgence in Christian intellectualism. Though thought-provoking, these authors also provide essays which come from pastoral concerns for the church and her members. These scholars dwell not in ivory towers, but among the people of Christ’s body and care deeply for spiritual growth more than proving academic pedigree. Reason supplies the church with clear, relevant apologetics to be used in defense of the faith but more than that, for the call of the Great Commission. In the forward Alvin Plantinga comments, “Work of this kind is indeed imperative, and part of the Christian philosopher’s service to the Lord. But there is another way of serving the Lord that is at least as important. This involves serving his children, the Christian community. That community needs to know how to think about a thousand things….Christians want and need to know about these matters, and do not necessarily want to be obliged first to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy” (xii). These learned men have gifted the church with the fruits of their academic investment, and we should gratefully accept their gift for God’s glory and the expanse of his kingdom.
8. Late Medieval Mysticism. Edited by Ray C. Petry. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1957. 420 pp.
– Few evangelicals are familiar with the rich Christian theological heritage found within the medieval period of the church. For sure there are some interesting twists and turns that few of us can agree with, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Christians throughout ALL ages have sought to faithfully follow Christ, reflect upon Scripture and the tradition of faith and passionately communicate that faith in fresh ways. This is where we find the mystics. We must do a better job as 21st century evangelicals to accept and appreciate the tradition of faith represented by medieval theologians, as well as these spiritual writers who sought intimacy with God and passionate communication of that affection. Writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of Victor, Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena demonstrate intense reflection upon Scripture and a Christian’s call to love God with all their heart, soul and mind. Though Christians should rightly question certain theological developments through the middle ages, to declare that all was lost is to fail to see God’s providence working through his people in order to advance his purposes. Bernard declares, “Learn, O Christian, from the example of Christ the manner in which you ought to love Christ. Learn to love him tenderly, to love him wisely, to love him with a mighty love: tenderly that you be not enticed away from him; wisely, that you be not deceived and so drawn away; and strongly, that you be not separated from him by any force.” Truly this is the kind of encouragement Christians have needed to receive throughout all time till Christ returns.
9. Desiring the Kingdom. James K.A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009. 238 pp.
– This text and the following (RetroChristianity) were not reading for any particular course I took in seminary, though through recommendations and interactions with colleagues and professors they became texts which dramatically influenced my thinking and spiritual life. After demonstrating that we are affective (loving) more than cognitive (thinking) beings, Smith thoroughly evaluates the various cultural “liturgies” of society and how their vision of the good life (telos) compete with that of the vision of Kingdom of Christ. By liturgies, Smith simply means the actions which are practiced that make up and form individual identities who participate in these various cultures. The mall (materialism), the stadium (sports/patriotism) and the university (social/personal realization) are various paradigms which comprise rival visions for life. Various entities compete for our loves, and these paradigms prove that there is a religious aspect to everything we choose to participate in. We want to worship something and places such as malls and universities are built upon this innate urge to worship. They feed into this and perpetuate this desire. The church, however, has answered this challenge by seeking to educate the mind rather than the heart. Such a battle will ultimately be a losing one. The church must educate to the heart, to people’s affections, in order to effectively demonstrate the call to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Through intentional worship which engages the entire body, Christians will understand (and perpetuate) the holistic fashion of loving God. Smith provides the church with the following challenge: “The reconciled and redeemed body of Christ is marked by cruciform practices that counter the liturgies of consumption, hoarding, and greed that characterize so much of our late modern culture….We are sent into the world to make disciples, which means we’re being sent into the world to invite them to find their identity and vocation in Christ, the second Adam, the model of the new human. And they will do this by participating in the worship and practices of the called-out people that is the church” (205-6).
10. RetroChristianity. Michael J. Svigel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 320 pp.
– The final work in this list is a personal one which more or less reflects the totality of my seminary journey. Like Desiring the Kingdom, this book was never a class assignment, rather it was a book written by one of my professors who helped to shape my theology and encouraged me to think theologically as well as historically about my faith. RetroChristianity is an assessment of modern day evangelicalism and an appeal to its adherents to understand the tradition of faith apart from the minuscule history of modern evangelicalism as a whole (roughly 100 years). Part of Svigel’s argument goes from understanding what is orthodox, that is, what has been believed always, everywhere and by all in regards to the Christian faith. We must retrieve the forgotten faith without a reactionary return to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy nor falling into the trap of “trendy tradition-trapping without careful theological thought” (70). Svigel argues, “RetroChristianity favors carrying on a constant dialogue with the past, but it also requires an actual practical connection with the present and an orientation toward the future” (70). The idea of RetroChristianty allows for the understanding that some things have never been the same, that some things grow clearer through the ages, and that some things never change nor should. Evangelicals are in desperate need of this realization! The call is to hold to the essentials of the faith, understanding that there is room for theological growth while being equipped to know what things should always be rejected. Svigel places the proper weight on the sacraments and offers forth a “pulpit/altar centered worship” (243). Centered on the preached Word and the sacrament of the supper, Evangelicals would do well to seek the historical model of worship which faithfully reflects the NT and the historical tradition of faith as practiced through the centuries. Evangelicals can be proud of their distinctives and should rightly hold to them, but we must not forsake that which has always been practiced by Christians for the promotion of other more trendy practices which may or may not reflect proper Christian worship and theological reflection. Svigel challenges his readers to “boldly go where countless have gone before” by “carefully and critically reflecting on the whole history of the church” and by adjusting “individuals’ and churches’ attitudes and actions, retrieving ideas and practices from the Christian past for the present, renewing personal and corporate identity, and providing evangelicalism a positive path toward the future” (278-9).