5 books that have mattered… and still do

Relevant Magazine recently posted a ‘desert island classics’ top-10 list ala Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Talk about a tiresome task – trying to delimit those books that are both essential culturally (they are part of the fabric of the context that frames you) and have continued power to influence your direct into the future (they still speak to you as a conversation partner in matters of fiath and action). I have had a ‘book shrine’ of sorts on my desk ever since I worked in Campus Ministries in the 1990’s – a rack of texts that were more iconic than transactional in that they served as a beacon to remind be from whence I came from and to where I should be going. When I was in pastoral ministry it was a reminder to be looking toward critical reflection beyond the ‘forrest gump-ing’ of popular Christian publishing, and as an academic it is a reminder both of my commitment to interdisciplinarity and to those books that will always be transcendently lowbrow in all the right ways – books that ‘keep it real’. For what its worth, here are the books in my book shrine:

Augustine’s Confessions. This one made the Revelent list linked above and should be read by every Christian in the 21st century. More and more I come back to this seminal journey of the self that Augustine of Hippo penned late in his vocational journey and am always struck by two things: (1) Augustine frames the narrative as a prayer, not as an objective statement nor disengaged reflection. Augustine knows who his ultimate audience is and writes his ‘life’ for that audience – something I am challenged to do daily. (2) the culmination of the hagiography of his young life in Book X as a depository of memory – that in the end our lives are a collection of memories framed and reframed by the experiences that swirl around us. We never cease being relfective nor should we. I re-read Confessions every year and never get tired of it.

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. For those who know my journey a bit, this will not come as a suprize. My PhD focus at Glasgow was on Victorian Literature with particular emphasis on George Eliot. As a theologian, I have always been uncomfortable with theology as a genre and especially uncomfortable with the ways in which fiction is often mistrusted as a platform for truth claims. In this way I yearn for the mindset of the Victorians who didn’t segment the world into genre based on intent, rather whether something succeeded in the proclaimation of truth regardless of whether it was a novella or a monograph. Eliot’s prolific output is the work of such genius. While Middlemarch is rightly considered (perhaps) the greatest English novel thus far, I side with her earlier works and especially the bildungsroman that is Mill on the Floss. I look forward to the day my daughters can embrace the spirit of Maggie Tulliver. Hers is a story to challenge any father of daughters.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The song goes “Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…” Why not? Cowboys are about as cool as it goes – way, way cooler than the boring superhero genre. McCarthy is probably my favorite American author of the modern period and this is my favorite (a close race with The Road and Blood Meridian in a photo finish). The story of The Crossing is so heartbreaking as to defy category. There are so many holy moments in the book that I can’t read it without stopping to pray (yes… I’m serious). The messianic role of the wolf ‘s journey alone in the story is enough to cause you to pause during Holy Week.

Wendell Berry: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays. Berry could arguably be one of the most grounded, sane writers in America… bar none. In his Sabbath poems, he muses about the place of rest in our hurried lives akin to a Sabbath death:

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, perserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.

He speaks of the gift of the earth, of living with great attention to our surroundings and making each moment into an offering of thanks. His novels and poems are indeed a gift, but his essays are manifestos.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise To say that the question of what it means to “come of age” is a question that drives much of what I do in ministry and academe is spot on. The journey that brought me to teaching in many ways took its current course due to the random event of sitting in a cafe in Antigua and picking up a copy of This Side of Paradise in a pile of used books. It is a weather-beaten paperback that has seen better days, but I was at a place in my spiritual journey where the questions of ‘growing up’ where coming to a head and sitting in a country far away from the things of America gave me clarity. I read the book in one sitting and was so taken with its tale of a young man – Amory Blaine – who goes off to college and loses his way that I began applying for graduate school the next fall. I wanted to teach and be in the lives of these young people. The book sits on my desk as a reminder of the job I have before me and the stories that fill my classroom.

So… what books should I be adding to this shelf?

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