Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read [Vol. 4, #25]

A Review of

25 Books Every Christian Should Read.
Edited by Renovaré

Paperback: HarperOne, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith

[ Download 8 of these 25 titles as PDF ebooks!  ]

I love making lists of books.  Just as John Cusack’s character Rob, compulsively makes lists of albums in the 2000 movie High Fidelity, I have a similar joyful compulsion about making lists of books.  Making and comparing lists of books is, for me at least, a wonderful portal into conversation. So, I was intrigued at the outset by the idea of the new release from HarperOne and Renovaré, 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics.  These books (you can find the full list here on the Renovaré website), are all undoubtedly classics and represent a wide swath of church history

I have read almost all of the books – the exception being The Philokalia, from which I have read excerpts but never the full work – and would recommend almost all the books, the possible exception being Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a preachy book that presents the Christian faith in such baldly moralistic and individualistic terms that it seems to have little relevance to the Christian faith in a postmodern world.  Renovaré, the curator of the collection, is an organization founded by Richard Foster, and not surprisingly almost all of the books on this list are mentioned in Foster’s classic work Celebration of Discipline.  I know this because, in the year or two after I graduated from college, I read Celebration through at least a half-dozen times and then also read most of the books that Foster mentions throughout this work.  These works served me well, deepening my perspective on historical Christianity and guiding me to faith with roots that ran deeper that I had known in the fundamentalism in which I was raised or the evangelicalism of the Christian college from which I graduated.

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These books are wonderful, and they serve us well in depicting where Christianity has been, but there is a sense in which they suffer from a homogeneity that is less than helpful for our times.  First, they are largely non-fiction, devotional sorts of works.  Granted, the novel is a fairly recent historical development, but poetry has been written over the whole of church history, and there are many fiction and poetry titles that could have appeared on this list.  Secondly, the authors represented on this list are almost completely male. The third and probably deepest flaw of the collection is that is very much a Western collection, and here I don’t mean Roman Catholic versus Eastern Orthodoxy, but rather Western as in imperialistic Western culture that would include both Western and Eastern traditions of the church; maybe it would be better and less confusing for me to use the label Constantinian.  There are no representations here of the church of the oppressed rather than the church of the oppressor, no Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, no Martyrs’ Mirror of the Anabaptists, no slave or post-colonialist writings, no Asian Christianity (where, for instance, is Shusaku Endo’s majestic novel Silence?).  J. Kameron Carter has argued powerfully that the hope of Christianity lies in the lives and work of those who have lived a Christianity outside the boundaries of Western colonialism. Let me emphasize here, that most of the selections here aren’t bad, rather that some diversity of form and authorship would make this list more relevant for our postmodern, post-Constantinian world.

For this reason, I much prefer the recent book Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should or Will Create Christian Culture by Dan Gibson, Jordan Green and John Pattison (a book that will be re-released in 2012 by IVP Books).  Granted, the list is longer – which I believe actually serves to undercut the imperialism of such a list (with a larger list, the reader feels less compulsion to read every work on the list) – but it also is much more diverse in the forms of work represented as well as in the scope of the authors represented.  To be fair to Renovaré’s 25 Books, however, there are a large number of top 5 lists from Christian thinkers and writers sprinkled throughout the book, and the books on these lists do represent much more diversity that those on the book’s primary list.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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One Comment

  1. Lyle SmithGraybeal

    Thanks for the helpful review, Chris Smith.  Fantastic.  While a person that worked on the project, I in many ways agree with your assessment of the book.  We could have had more diversity of culture, nationality, race, and outlook.  But this is the list chosen by our editorial board as the result of an involved process and 25 BOOKS does do a good job of recording the devotional history of the Church, which is part of the Renovare USA mission.

    I do want to challenge calling the list of 25 “Contstantinian.”  Many of these works, from the sayings of the desert mothers and fathers to the Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross to Bonhoeffer, were written either outside of the sanctions of the Constantinian Church or in direct opposition to it.  And if we consider that even more of the authors wrote as members of religious orders, which it seems to me are the historical fruit of a movement sown because of Constantine’s takeover of Christianity, then even more of the list is a historical work of protest.  At the very least most of the authors saw the sleepiness of the Church in their day and wrote to encourage something different.

    In any case, thanks for your great and thoughtful review.  I think you will appreciate the comments of Bruce Reyes-Chow, who takes a similar point of view to yours:

    Lyle SmithGraybeal, Renovare USA