There are three types of people in our country. There are, first of all, those who are able to read but do not read books. An AP-Ipsos poll recently revealed that 25% of Americans do not read books, while other polls have put the number higher, at around 50%. It is not that these Americans cannot read or that they do not accumulate knowledge. (No country’s citizens-and I mean none-bring more gravitas and enthusiasm to subjects such as celebrity clothes, hair and makeup, and the intricacies of the Pitt-Jolie marriage, than the citizens of the USA.) It is just that their knowledge is not gained from books. Second, there are those who read but do so aimlessly, choosing on a whim what to read and when to do so. Third, there are those who plan to read and who read with a plan.
For any of the three types of folks above, a good book might be the perfect gift. For those in category one, why not introduce them to the joys of reading? For those in category two, why not help them read with a plan? And for those in category three, why not feed their addiction? With this in mind, I’m offering a short list of books to buy for Christmas, in case any of you need something to stimulate your thinking. Because the list will be short, I’ll have to leave out more than a few good gift ideas. Please leave a comment telling us the one or two best gift ideas that I left off the list.
Introducing a Friend to Christ
C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is a powerful little 20th-century classic treatment of the Christian faith. Lewis writes in a lucid and compelling manner that will hold the attention of any person who is reasonably interested in the subject matter. Plus, Lewis’ street cred as a writer and scholar (Oxford and Cambridge) provides the book a measure of advance credibility.
Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters is an exploration of the things that we tend to trust as our functional saviors/gods (sex, money, and power), which are actually false saviors and gods. They cannot save. Only Christ can save.
John Stott’s Basic Christianity is a brief, well-written and concise introduction to, umm, basic Christianity. Stott writes the book for people who are “hostile to the church, but friendly to Jesus Christ.”
Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life is a #1 New York Times bestseller, having sold over 30 million copies. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history.” It is structured as a 40-day introduction to the Christian life. Warren asks the reader to read only one chapter per day in order to “have time to think about the implications for your life.”
Tim Keller’s The Reason for God is a 21st-century version of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. He demonstrates that even skeptics have beliefs and “faith,” then presents the basic Christian faith, answers skeptical questions, and does so in a manner that is compelling for 21st century inquirers and skeptics.
Introducing a Friend to the Bible
Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s The True Story of the Whole World. This slim little 170-page volume presents the Bible as a unified and coherent narrative that is the true story of the whole world. For a more in-depth treatment by the same authors, see The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. The former book is best given to interested laypeople and undergrad students. The latter is a good gift for thoughtful undergrad and grad students. I find Bartholomew and Goheen’s narrative exposition to be a powerfully effective way of unfolding the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Christian Scriptures.
Introducing a Friend to Theologically-Driven Devotional Reading
J. D. Greear’s Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. This is the perfect book for Christians who need some theological and devotional “caffeine” and even more importantly, who need to rediscover the blazing center of the Christian life-the gospel. This book is maybe your best one-stop purchase for all of your believing friends.
John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life is like J.D.’s Gospel, in this respect: if you are looking for a Christmas book for a believer, then buy it. There’s no reason to hesitate. Life-changing book.
C. J. Mahaney’s Living the Cross-Centered Life is a concise little book that shows us how to center our day on the life-giving reality of the gospel, and how to avoid the life-sapping temptations of legalism, condemnation, and feelings-centered Christianity.
David Platt’s Radical is an unsettling book. Like Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, it challenges the reader to be shaped more by Jesus’ call to discipleship than by the American dream. Be careful with this book-it is dangerous.
C. S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory is a collection of sermons and essays by Lewis. I’ll admit I’ve read only one chapter in the book, but it is the sermon “The Weight of Glory” for which the book is named, and it is one of the most elegant and powerful essays I have ever read. IMHO, this is the single best essay/sermon/book that Lewis wrote. From it, we get his classic statement that “it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (26).
Introducing a Friend to Some Classic Christian Writings
C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, a tale of two princesses (one beautiful and one unattractive) and of the struggle between sacred and profane love. IMHO, this is his best work of fiction.
G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are two must-reads for young theologians. Chesterton was a British journalist (and armchair theologian and philosopher) who possessed a top-shelf mind and one of the sharpest wits of the past two centuries. Orthodoxy is a circuitious, witty, and ultimately compelling account of why he rejected his early agnosticism in favor of Christian orthodoxy. The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s argument that the Incarnation is the key to unlocking world history. A smart and witty book.
Pascal’s Pensees. I recommend Peter’s Kreeft’s edited version of the Pensees, entitled Christianity for Modern Pagans. In the book, Pascal provides a brilliant and elegant argument for the Christian faith.
Determining what to read is more than a little important. Of the many books in any given library or bookstore, most can be left unread without any fear of intellectual or moral deprivation. Even (and sometimes especially) the bestsellers are not necessarily worth reading. For this reason, I’ve tried to help provide some helpful gift books for this Christmas. As I close out this blog installment, I want to mention a few reasons why you should consider buying books as Christmas gifts.
First, reading books sharpens the mind. For Christians, reading gives us the chance to interact in the world of ideas, giving theological critique of what you read. It is one way to practice thinking Christianly. If I am reading a work of fiction, I ask a series of questions: Who is the hero, and why does the writer want me to admire him? Who is the adversary in this story, and what does the author think is so bad about him? Does this story provide a note of redemption, and if so, in what is the redemption found? If I am reading a theological text, I critique it in light of the Scriptures and the best of the Great Tradition. If I am reading one of the great philosophers, I question his presuppositions and look into the logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and existential viability of his theories. Reading prepares us to think in a distinctively Christian manner.
Second, reading exercises the mind. It forces us to increase our skills of concentration, memory, and reasoning. It requires that we focus on, remember, and assess arguments, plots, themes, characters, facts, and figures. Reading improves vocabulary. Without reading regularly, I would have never known, inter alia, such susquapedalian words as “pervicacious” or “stultiloquence.” :) Further, reading makes us better writers. (Just think how much worse this blogpost would be if I didn’t read regularly.)
Third, reading gives one something about which to converse. If I have read Ghost Wars, I can make a meaningful contribution when conversation turns to Afghanistan. If I have read The World is Flat or The Clash of Civilizations, then I can make conversation with about any number of global issues. If I have read Mere Christianity, I have some idea how to make theological conversation with a skeptic. If I read Wildlife in the Kingdom Come, I will be well-equipped to poke fun at theologians.
Fourth, reading allows one to “travel” to other times and places. Although I might not have the time or money to travel to Iran right now, I can read about it in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ or The Shia Revival. I may never be able to interview Abraham Lincoln or Jonathan Edwards, but I can read their biographies. Although I was never able to converse with one of the famous atheists, I am able to read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian.
Fifth, reading reduces stress. Researchers at the University of Sussex have shown that the best way to relieve mental and physical stress is to read a book. In their study (which Al Mohler pointed out in his blog on 4/3/09), reading caused a 68% reduction in measurable stress, topping other stress reducers, such as listening to music (61%), sipping tea or coffee (54%), and taking a walk (42%).
Sixth, reading is an inexpensive and low maintenance form of entertainment. Compared to the cinema, for example, books don’t cost much. Most books cost $10-$30, which is approximately the same as 1-3 movie tickets, and give more pleasure over a longer period of time. Library books do not cost a dime. Imagine the money I can save if I can one day get my baby daughter hooked on reading (and convince her not to marry).
Finally, reading is an inherently humane and theological activity. The Triune God created through the Word and speaks through the Word. Indeed, the Trinity is a model of accomplished communication, as God the Father speaks, God the Son is the Word, and God the Spirit enables and illumines the reception of the Word. Further, God created us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and imaginative capacities, which are precisely the capacities needed to read. May we use our capacities in a manner that glorifies Him.