After sharing a list of 10 recommended Lenten books at BookNotes, I compiled another list of some of my favorite books about spiritual formation; books that help us practice spiritual disciplines and books that help us resist the world’s seductions, replacing the dysfunctions of our lives with God’s glorious (and often messy) work in us, granting us Christlikeness. The ones I listed are either true classics or personal favorites, and I am confident they will be useful resources in your spiritual journey.
Of course, even as I went through the grueling process — and, if you are a serious book lover, you can imagine just how grueling — of narrowing down the list, I kept thinking of other books that fit in, that could be mentioned, that ought to be named. Here I will give a quick shout out to just a few other titles that I really want to add to our conversations about this topic, and then I will tell you about a very, very precious new book, a posthumously published book by one of the great leaders of in this field, the late Dallas Willard.
BOOKS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT AS BACKGROUND TO SPIRITUAL FORMATION
The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei In Genesis 1 J. Richard Middleton (Brazos Press) $27.00 I suppose this isn’t for everyone as it is serious, rather scholarly, and not a quick read. Yet, for one wanting a mature and ground-breaking work of Biblical studies, this is one of the most important books I could recommend because it is about what it means to be made in the image of God (and how in Christ that scarred image is restored.) Let me briefly say why it is important in this conversation.
Much of the rhetoric that comes up in many recent books on spirituality revolves around the notion that in Christ we can reject our “false selves” and become our true selves. (See, for instance, David Brenner’s small but useful The Gift of Being Yourself.) Yet, without a robust theology of the human person made to image God in God’s creation, and a profound awareness of the cultural damage caused by humans misappropriating their high and holy calling to reflect the true King of the Universe as stewards, such emphasis on rediscovering our authentic selves can drift off into psycho-babble and fund a very un-Christ-like narcissism.
This tension seems to even emerge between the lines on occasion in Richard Rohr’s popular The Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, just for example. No one would fault Father Rohr for not being socially and culturally engaged (in fact, he founded a spiritual center https://cac.org/ specifically designed to explore the social implications of an active contemplative lifestyle. Like Thomas Merton, say, or Parker Palmer, Rohr stands in a tradition that is usually very intentional about making overt the nuanced interface of what some call “the journey inward and the journey outward” and draws on contemplative prayer to empower us to work for peace and justice. But, still, there is this shift in books about the self that are worrying to some.)
So, I am convinced that Middleton’s sound and sophisticated treatment of the meaning of the imago dei and the implications of the Biblical call to reflect God’s rule over a blessed, pregnant-with-possibility, but very damaged creation is a needed foundation for any development of fruitful and humane spirituality. In my small BookNotes review when The Liberating Image came out in 2005, I noted that extraordinary Biblical scholars such as Walter Brueggemann have said that this may be the best book on this topic every written. Here is what Patrick Miller, then of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote of it: “The book is probably the most comprehensive treatment of this topic in the English language and will be an automatic point of reference in the continuing effort to understand the human in the light of scripture.”
A book like this maybe wouldn’t come to mind as essential for most who are entering spiritual direction or who are exploring the classic spiritual disciplines or who are teaching a new class on prayer or fasting. Which is why I felt compelled to mention it here, in this Lenten context. It really does offer a brilliant and needed perspective!
Reordered Love Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness David Naugle (Eerdmans) $18.00 This marvelous and wise book really should be on any list about spirituality but even I who love it so will admit that we sometimes don’t know where to shelve it in the shop; it isn’t a typical book about spiritual practices, but is about, well, about being happy by being human (God’s way!)
Professor Naugle has his PhD in philosophy and teaches at Dallas Baptist University and runs a wonderful student-oriented learning community there as well; he is one of the most thoughtful teachers I know, and one of the happiest, too. The heart of this book is on learning to love the right stuff, in the right way, and have our deepest desires shaped by the ways of God. In this is an ancient as the Hebrew prophets and draws on St. Augustine (and laid good groundwork for Jamie Smith in his magisterial Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom.)This necessarily draws on the same insights about being made to image God and to serve the creation (as explained in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1) as is so expertly explored by Middleton, as well.
Naugle covers a lot of ground — including a study of the historic “seven deadly sins” and what he calls “the expulsive power of a new affection.” He cites many authors, from spiritual classics to contemporary scholars (and throws in some lyrics of his beloved Switchfoot, too.) He talks of a mended heart, new lives, and how that is part of God’s restoration of all things. In this he is a rare voice, placing spirituality and our interior lives in the broader context of God’s creation regained. It is a very useful resource, a truly good book. Publisher’s Weekly said his discussion of virtues was particularly compelling “and his presentation breaths new life into this topic.”
Listen to Steve Garber’s comment about David Naugle: “…amazingly wise, incredibly well-read, he is always attentive to what matters most, and his book should find its way into hearts and minds, courses and colleges, far and wide.”
THE SPIRITUAL CONVERSATIONS SERIES BY EUGENE PETERSON
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00
Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00
The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00
Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00
Well, well. This famous five-volume magnum opus of the prolific Presbyterian Pastor Peterson are, I believe, some of the finest books written in our generation, and among the best books we’ve sold in our 30-plus years of book-selling. We’ve always promoted all of Gene’s books, and we continue to respect him immensely for his no-nonsense and (literally) down to Earth approach to the basic stuff we need to know about being a sensible Christian. He sometimes is beautiful as a writer, sometimes plainspoken and direct. He sometimes ruminates and reflects, drawing on classic theology and important literature (novels and poetry inform his work, the titles themselves often drawn from lines of poems — for instance, Christ Plays… is from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Practice Resurrection is inspired by the famously revolutionary poem by Wendell Berry; the covers, by the way, are from Jewish painter Marc Chagall.)
As one decidedly not influenced by the fast-paced and hip, Peterson occasionally meanders into brusk cultural criticism, all the while wisely teaching folks to realize God’s faithfulness and presence and God’s wondrous call to be human beings. He knows that the meaning of life, and the essential characteristic of spiritual formation is an increased capacity to serve God in the day to day of ordinary life in the world; in each of these meaty books he points us to what ought to be well-known habits and practices among us.
In each of these amazing volumes, Peterson takes up topics such as attending to God in creation and Scripture, learning to read the Bible well, learning to pray, (re)thinking things like leadership in the way that Jesus does, rooting ourselves deeply in the church, realizing the majesty of the work God is doing in quiet ways in our lives together. All of his books are treasures, and these five, especially, conversations that they are, are to be read slowly, carefully.
Although these can be read in any order, I do recommend them all, and I suppose you might read them sequentially. (I will admit that I myself am savoring them, and have not gotten to the last one yet myself. Like all true classics, though, we may take our time, and work with them over a lifetime.) Highly recommended for your personal library. Send us a note if you want further detail about what each is about.
25 Books Every Christian Should Read A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics edited by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Phyllis Tickle, and RIchard Rohr (HarperOne) $18.99 This Renovare-produced book is so useful on so many levels and for many reasons. Mostly, it is a fine set of reviews of (and excerpts of) spiritual classics and whether you are led to read the full primary sources or not, these are books you should know about. This allows a perfect “toe in the water” and educational tasting experience. The title of this is good, but could be amended to at least read “books every Christian should know about.”
Besides having the good reviews of the best of the best of enduring spiritual and devotional classics, this slightly over-sized book also offers numerous sidebars listing the “top ten” books recommended by many contemporary Christian leaders. Those intriguing lists are themselves a delight and a helpful guide for those wanting to develop longer term reading lists. This is my favorite guide into these kinds of books and very, very useful.
The books I wrote about the other day are so, so helpful, and I believe will encourage and assist and even teach you new things about how to proceed in your walk with God and how to be more faithful in your times of solitude, in your prayers, in your spiritual practices that will help shape your soul. Read Foster, read Haley Barton, read Rolheiser. Read John Ortberg and Gary Thomas.
But then read these other more foundational works, background, so to speak, that will help you frame your practice of the disciplines by these bigger themes, growing in this vital theological soil. They are deep and solid and will be fruit of wisdom and maturity.
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words On Heaven and the Kingdom of God Dallas Willard (InterVarsity Press) $20.00
One simply cannot underestimate the role of the late Dallas Willard in the contemporary religious landscape. The first book he wrote was a wise and good work on discerning the will of God — a common question among evangelicals and charismatics, at least — which brought good sense and a non-sensational approach that we trusted. That book, after having been out of print for a few decades, was recently expanded and reissued as Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (IVP; $17.00. and there is a DVD curriculum, too.) We are glad to recommend it — it is deeply spiritual but yet very thoughtful and not weird. (Interesting that we have to qualify that, eh?) That Dallas was a philosophy professor at UCLA was striking — how many evangelicals who write books of basic Christian growth have that as their day gig?
Little did we know back then that Willard would take his impeccable scholarly credentials and use his sharp mind to help folks explore the very meaning of discipleship, what it means to be transformed by Christ as we find ourselves united with Him in faith, and how to deepen our confidence in the ways of Christian transformation. His Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives came out in the late 80s, and remains a strong paperback seller to this day. (That he had a chapter on the role of the body in that early book is, come to think of it, remarkable.)
Dallas Willard’s many books have been exceedingly well reviewed and his teaching and speaking and mentoring has influenced some of those who have been influential in recent years. Willard befriended young emergent types and he shared speaking events with older-school church types. He’s written with Eugene Peterson; he helped create the movement within evangelicalism that focused upon Christ-centered spiritual formation (think of the NavPress line once called “Spiritual Formation Books” or the excellent IVP line of formatio books.) He co-edited the spiritual formation-oriented NRSV Life WIth God Study Bible (HarperOne; $24.99 -paperback; $39.99 – leather) with Peterson, Walter Brueggemann and Richard Foster.
Foster is perhaps better known among those who are drawn to monastic practices – it is hard to name a book more influential than Celebration of Discipline – but Foster himself has insisted that Willard is one of our most important spiritual writers. Those that value Foster should read Willard; it is that simple.
I sometimes mention that I have never read a more interesting and complimentary preface to a book than the amazing one written by Richard Foster in his 1998 introduction to Willard’s seminal The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne; $24.99.) That Mr. Foster places it as an enduring and important book, standing with other all- time great works from church history may be a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly indicates how important and rich and thoughtful that book is.
We are taking pre-orders, by the way, for a sequel of sorts, The Divine Conspiracy Continued… that is going to be released in June by HarperOne (regularly selling for $27.95 although our orders here will get the 20% discount.) It is being finished up posthumously by Gary Black, who wrote a very fine study of Willard that we carry called The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (Wipf & Stock; $29.00)
For many of our customers, the somewhat more accessible Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ (Navpress; $16.99) is a better place to start. Also, the practical, devotionally oriented guidebook co-written by Jan Johnson, Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice: Experiments in Spiritual Transformation (NavPress; $14.99) is a great supplemental tool to process the teaching. There is even a teen edition which we carry. These are life-changing resources, and we commend them to you.
I have read and re-read certain chapters of his feisty book on the failure of the church to make disciples with the great title The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (HarperOne; $23.99.) It is very, very important. Listen to this line from the back cover: “Willard boldly challenges the thought that we can be Christians without being disciples, or call ourselves Christians without applying this understanding of life in the Kingdom of God to every aspect of life on earth. He calls on believers to restore what should be the heart of Christianity — being active disciples of Jesus Christ. Willard shows us that in the school of life, we are apprentices of the Teacher whose brilliance encourages us to rise above traditional church understanding and embrace the true meaning of discipleship — an active, concrete, 24/7 life with Jesus.” This, in itself, is important to hear, but he isn’t alone in saying it. His significance comes in the very concrete way he helps us understand our apprenticeship to the Teacher. This is very, very useful stuff.
Although it may be his most philosophically minded, his rumination on what we can know, and what it means to know (and whether religious knowledge is of the same sort as other knowledge) is amazing. If you enjoy deeper stuff, you should ponder Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne; $24.99) His claim that reality simply isn’t “secular” and therefore religious knowledge as a kind of knowing ought not be ruled out of the modern university (let alone be mistrusted in our own hearts) is splendidly provocative and important.
College prof Mary Poplin just released a large and significant (and well written) book inspired by Willard on this very matter entitled Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (IVP; $18.00) Willard would approve of her desire to show the truthfulness, experienced in the real world, of real knowledge about real things, and you see his work in this book shaping hers. It is a theme he draws on from time to time, but makes it most explicit here. It warrants a careful, slow reading.
This reveals something important about Willard, and it bears saying, even in this short overview: he not only believes that Christ’s claims, as shown in the Bible are true, but because they are true, they are in a profound way, do-able. The “dog in the fight” he has, here, is more than about epistemology, but it is about how people of faith live into and out of their convictions, and how authentic Christian discipleship can be, well, the best way to life. As churches help people be free in Christ, a joyful and fruitful lifestyle emerges, and it is to that way of life, based on the really real, that will draw people to Christ who is “the way, the truth, the life.” He is a philosopher, as we’ve noted, but it seems he is a pastor and an evangelist, too. May his tribe increase!
So, we hope you are familiar with the good work of the late Dallas Willard and esteem his contributions to public theology, discipleship, and how he has shaped our insights about spiritual transformation in our time. He was, as I’ve said, a very important author. He isn’t always simple to follow (although he is writing for an ordinary audience of lay people and church folk as well as those tasked with offering pastoral leadership.) Don’t discount him as simple (again, mature thinkers like Foster and Peterson commend him) and don’t think he’s too philosophical. He’s perfect for Hearts & Minds kind of readers!
Which brings us to his brand new book, Living in Christ’s Presence (IVP; $20.00) which was produced out of a conference held at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church with Willard and his good friend John Ortberg one year ago, just months before Willard’s untimely death.
The popular and upbeat Ortberg gave a few of the lectures at this gathering, so he has a few chapters in here.
Besides his own good chapters, Ortberg played another very important role at the event to help translate and unpack Willard for the audience. After each Willard lecture, in fact, Ortberg interviewed him, asking him to repeat certain phrases and explain particularly dense sentences or his occasionally counter-intuitive insights. Ortberg had shown his ability to insightfully do this in a previous DVD they did together and it is a great, great approach, a very good teaching device.
The chapters by Dallas Willard in the aptly named Living in Christ’s Presence are truly great, but these conversations at the and of each are even better. They are sizable (not just a quickie line or two) and themselves are wonderful to read. Ortberg is a fine interlocutor and Willard is so good on his feet, extemporaneously reflecting upon Ortberg’s probing, practical questions. They made an excellent team and this book is worth every dollar spent on it.
Willard is being a bit more conversational here than he sometimes was – these were talks, not formal book chapters – and having Ortberg conversing with him throughout makes this certainly one of his most accessible books and, therefore, perhaps one of his most important. We recommend it strongly.
Although he is now in heaven, his legacy will deepen, not only because of the ongoing importance and popularity of his earlier body of work, but because of this wonderful, wonderful title.
By the way, there is a fine study guide in the back (very insightfully written by Gary W. Moon) making this an ideal resource for small groups, book clubs, or soul friends to do together.
Further, there is a great DVD, a companion to the book that show Willard and Ortberg live from the “Living in Christ’s Presence” conference. The package has two discs with seven hours of material, making it a great value. It sells usually for $30.00 but with our 20% off we have it for $24.00.
You can get a glimpse of the DVD here.
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