Introducing a Three-Year Christian Reading
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and mind ... Teach them to your children ... Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land. Deuteronomy 11:18-21
Assume that a new believer asks you, "What Christian books should I read to grow spiritually?" Or if you are a parent, assume that your high school son or daughter asks
you, "What books do you recommend I read to understand the Christian faith?"
A Lifelong Vision
These questions have followed me for years. In the 1960s, as I watched the blossoming growth of the Christian book industry, I thought about these questions. In the 1970s, when Christian publishers produced one out of every three books in the market, the questions came back with force. No one can doubt the power of the press when it comes to Christian publications, but one can legitimately wonder, "Are Christians reading more but discerning less?" Even more specifically, "Is their reading leading them to Christian understanding and spiritual growth?"
Red warning flags went up in the decades that followed as books on pop religious psychology, doomsday prophecy, and apocalyptic fiction topped the best-seller lists. It appeared that market-driven forces more than biblically based judgment influenced the reading choices of many Christians, especially new believers and searching youth.
Red flags flew again when polls showed that many Christians fail basic tests of biblical beliefs, differ little in attitude from their secular counterparts, and tend to remain immature in their faith after conversion. While reading Christian books is not the only answer to these problems, it can be an important tool of Christian discipline and development.
All of these concerns were reinforced by personal visits to Christian homes when I was a college, university, and seminary president. As I mentioned earlier, I made it a point to note the periodicals in the magazine racks and the books on the shelves of our Christian homes. A Bible was almost always present along with a denominational or interdenominational magazine and occasionally, a popular Christian book.
Devotional books were rare, collections of Christian books were rarer still, and Christian classics were almost nonexistent. Soon, the lingering questions of the past took on a new urgency as I asked myself, "What do new believers read to grow spiritually?" and "What do our children read to understand the Christian faith?"
Through the years, I looked wistfully at the Great Books of the Western World, a collection that serves as the centerpiece on the shelves of our family room. Years ago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the boy wonder president of the University of Chicago, created an experimental undergraduate curriculum around the reading of the great books. He and his colleague, Mortimer Adler, developed a process for selecting the greatest books of the Western world for that curriculum. Volumes chosen had to be universal in truth, timeless in value, and literary in quality.
Consequently, they chose fifty-four books ranging in subject matter from philosophy to fiction and by date from Plato to Tolstoy. They also provided a reading plan for the great books and a cross-reference guide for tracing ideas throughout the books. Although I am still far behind in my reading of this collection, the introduction to great ideas and great authors through The Great Books has been a learning experience as valuable as my undergraduate education.
Each time I look at the Great Books of the Western World on my bookshelf, I envision a similar collection of "great books of the Christian faith" serving as the centerpiece for the shelves of our living rooms, family rooms, and dens in Christian homes.
At the end of the twentieth century my interest in the idea peaked when I saw so many lists and displays of the "greatest," "best," and "classic" books of the last one hundred years. Evangelical Christian publishers have followed suit with various collections, such as Christian classics through history, special subjects of contemporary interest, and favorites of prominent evangelical Christian leaders.
A void still exists, however, around the specific questions of a new believer, "What Christian books should I read to grow spiritually?" and a young member of the family who inquires of parents, "What books do you recommend I read to understand the Christian faith?" Behind each of these questions is the common concern that Christians of the twenty-first century remain true to biblical faith in belief and practice as well as experience.
In response to these questions, I found myself moving from interest to impatience and from inspiration to implementation for a Christian three-year reading plan. For me, it was an idea whose time had come.
The Vision Becomes a Plan
Simply put, the plan was to develop a process for selecting thirty-six books that had been published in the last fifty years, were potential classics, and would assist lay readers in understanding the Christian faith and growing spiritually. These thirty-six books would comprise a three-year plan that would encourage the laity to follow a comprehensive and progressive schedule of Christian reading. Admittedly, the time limit of the last half century ruled out many Christian classics that had been tested over the centuries. They deserve a collection of their own on the shelves of Christian family libraries. To meet the purpose of this project, however, I made the decision to select more contemporary books that would appeal to the average lay reader.
I began the process of selection by searching through literature for best-sellers, award winners, and recommended books from the past fifty years. Out of this search, I came up with a preliminary list of 120 books. Fifteen persons whom I knew to be avid and discerning readers of Christian literature agreed to review the list and provide reasons for making
additions and deletions. Based on their responses, I compiled an expanded survey form and sent it to seventy-eight prominent Christian authors and leaders, requesting their top three choices of books in various categories and inviting them to recommend other books for the top spots. The respondents were asked to imagine a new believer or a young member of the family asking them the question, "What books would you recommend I read to help me understand the Christian faith and grow spiritually?"
Selections by the respondents also had to be made according to these criteria:
Biblical credibility. The content of the book is true to Scripture and consistent with the statement of faith in the Lausanne Covenant.
Lay readability. The book can be read and comprehended by a layperson with the reading skills of a high school graduate who is motivated to develop skills for more advanced reading.
Literary quality. The style of writing, depth of thought, timelessness of truth, and universality of application qualify the book as a potential classic to be read and reread again and again.
Developmental value. The book is especially conducive to understanding the Christian faith and nurturing spiritual growth.
Responses came from 50 percent of the Christian authors and leaders who were invited to participate. Their top three choices and alternative recommendations were then submitted to a selection committee of eleven well-known Christian authors to narrow the list down to thirty-six books. Members of the selection committee were the following:
Leith Anderson, senior pastor, Woodale Community Church
Jill Briscoe, author and speaker
Maxie Dunnam, president, Asbury Theological Seminary
Ted Engstrom, president emeritus, World Vision
Vernon Grounds, president emeritus, Denver Theological Seminary
Jack Hayford, senior pastor, The Church on the Way
Jay Kesler, president emeritus, Taylor University
James Earl Massey, dean emeritus, Anderson Theological Seminary
Rebecca Manley Pippert, author
Rick Warren, senior pastor, Saddleback Community Church
David McKenna, chair and general editor
The Plan Becomes a Reality
With the continuing counsel of the distinguished selection committee, the final list of thirty-six books took shape. Three editorial decisions governed the final selection process: (1) The books should be readable for laypersons; (2) the list should contain only one book per author, except for C.S. Lewis; and (3) the list should progress from introductory to more advanced writing. Accordingly, following is the list of thirty-six volumes we propose for a progressive three-year reading plan.
As you review the plan, you will see a specific design. First, the plan is divided into one-year segments with books scheduled for reading in each month of the year. You may start to read the books at any time of the year, but whenever you start, it is recommended that you begin with
the introduction How to Read a Christian Book and continue to follow the curriculum through the ensuing months.
Second, the books in the first year are intended to introduce the beginning reader to each of the twelve subjects in the library (discussed below). In the second year, then, the subject areas are enriched, and in the third year, they are addressed in more depth and detail. There is no lag in the quality of writing or content among the three years. All books meet the stringent criteria of selection: biblical credibility, layperson readability, literary quality, and developmental value.
Third, the plan allows for variety in the reading schedule during the year. After starting with a devotional classic early in the year, foundational reading continues until the summer months, when the choices are intended for more relaxed reading in discretionary or vacation time. In the fall, the schedule returns to books that apply the faith in practice. Each year concludes, then, with a book already acknowledged as a classic in Christian literature.
Fourth, within the plan itself, you will detect twelve subject areas. Following, the twelve subjects are identified with an example of a book on each one:
1. Bible Study
What the Bible Is All About, Henrietta Mears
2. Devotion and prayer
My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
3. Spiritual discipline
Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
5. The church and worship
The Company of the Committed, Elton Trueblood
6. Church history
Church History in Plain Language, Bruce Shelley
7. Autobiography / biography
Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot
8. Evangelism and missions
The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman
9. The family
Dare to Discipline, James Dobson
10. Christian living
Healing for Damaged Emotions, David Seamands
11. Social issues
Let Justice Roll Down, John Perkins
12. Apologetics / ethics
The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires
Notably absent are books of fiction and poetry. Although these books are highly recommended for the cultivation of imagination and inspiration, the decision was made to build the library on other subjects, with fiction and poetry as complementary reading.
Books on such popular subjects as prophecy, leadership, and gender roles along with the writings of authors who present a specific theological or denominational perspective have also been excluded. Many of the books in these categories are worth reading, but due to the limited number of volumes in our three-year plan, it is virtually impossible to include some and not others. As much as we could, books were chosen for biblical soundness without a dominant slant in one theological direction or another.
Reality Becomes Opportunity
Many hints and helps have already been given for reading a Christian book. All of these suggestions apply to the books in the three-year plan. Now, however, it is time to go directly to the list itself and begin reading. A simple, ten-step strategy will help you get started.
Step 1: Meet the Author
Each of the books in the three-year reading plan will more than likely contain a brief biographical introduction to the author. Reading the biographical brief lets you "shake hands" with the author as a person, a writer of note, and a thoughtful leader of the Christian community. As you read the book, assume that you are entering into a conversation with a friend from whom you can learn much as you grow in mind and spirit.
Step 2: Grasp the Thought
Many books contain a preface written by the author. Often we skip these introductory pages and go directly to the text. When we do, we miss the opportunity to enter into the mind of the author. In a well-written preface, the author explains the reasons for writing the book, reveals its theme, and perhaps explains what he or she hopes the reader will learn. Discerning readers will not skip the author's preface. They know that once they enter into the mind of the writer and grasp the thought behind the book, they gain a perspective that helps them understand the rest of the book.
Step 3: Ponder These Questions
After reading the chapter "Judging a Christian Book," readers should have in the back of their minds these three primary questions:
1. Is the book true to the inspired Word of God?
2. Is it useful for Christian teaching?
3. Does it contribute to Christian maturity?
By asking these questions before we begin to read, we create a framework for judging what we read. After reading several chapters, we should ask the questions again to assess
whether we should continue reading. Finally, after completing the book, the questions provide a standard for judging the qualilty of the book. Of course, more specific questions should be asked of each book due to differences in subject matter, but the above three questions apply to every book that attempts to provide a Christian message.
Step 4: Find a Friend
While each of us knows the value of solitude as we read, we also know the enhanced value of reading a book with someone. The person becomes our corrector, our confidant, and our encourager as we talk through the ideas of a book, and we become the same for that person. As you read the books in the three-year program, think of it as an interpersonal project in which the members of the body of Christ are bonded as brothers and sisters in spiritual growth and Christian understanding.
Step 5: Join a Group
Anyone who has ever been part of a reading group knows the value of discussing ideas among friends who love you but will also challenge you. When we join a group, a natural synergism takes place. The working principle is given to us by Jesus when he says, "Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them" (Matthew 18:20). Imagine coming together in a reading group with a Christian book as the common subject. The promise is that Christ, through his Holy Spirit, will also become a member, stimulating thought, provoking questions, and leading to conclusions.
Step 6: Own a Thought
As you read a book from the list, look for thoughts that you can embrace as your own. This is not cheating or
plagiarism. Every author I know is flattered when a reader grasps a thought that helps him or her better understand the Christian faith. These thoughts become anchors in our walk with God. They steady us, help us define our Christian character, and serve as vehicles for communicating our faith to others. Elton Trueblood's conclusion to his book The New Man for Our Time comes to mind. He writes, "It is the vocation of Christians in every generation to outthink all opposition."1 During the formative years of my faith, when I was also doing graduate study, I wrestled with the role of intellect in my ministry. Trueblood resolved my struggle with these words. I saw that intellectual integrity was not only essential to my faith but that I had an obligation to my generation to "outthink all opposition." In hundreds of speeches and hours of counseling with students, I have used these words again and again. The credit belongs to Trueblood, but his thought is also mine.
Step 7: Pray It Through
Once you have grasped an author's thought and made it your own, it is time to submit the idea in prayer before God in advance of racing down the road to announce and apply it. Too many immature thoughts are passed on because we skip the ripening process of reflective prayer and thoughtful decision making. As a person who has lived through the past fifty years of evangelical Christian history and has known personally most of the leaders of this era, I can assure you that they are as fallible as they are great. In one way or another, I have seen the feet of clay on each of them. Never have I heard one of these Christian leaders deliberately deceive people, but under the press of the moment or seduction of the second, they spoke with later regret. Even the ideas of our most trusted Christian leaders, therefore, need to be tested in the crucible of prayer as well as in the arena of public debate. Prayerful reflection is the best antidote
known for a rush to judgment. So before owning an idea that you would be ready to defend, weigh its truth against God's full revelation and embrace it with humility not arrogance.
Step 8: Teach It to Others
A wise and witty man once said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I write?" He reminds us that there is a vast difference between the ideas we frame in our heads and those we put on paper. Writing puts our thoughts at arm's length and forces us to view them objectively. Teaching does the same thing. It is one thing to nurture a thought within ourselves and quite another to say it out loud to others. Therefore, if you want to know what you really think about an idea found in a book, try to explain it to others. Both your knowledge of the idea and your ownership of it will be tested.
The ultimate test of our knowledge is to teach a child. Parents, in particular, have a greater teaching opportunity than any of the world's most renowned scholars. Yet, we remember that the brightest of scholars have also been the greatest teachers. They can take a complex subject and explain it even to a child.
I repeat my favorite story as an example. When I was a very young college president, I found a colleague, friend, and brother in Rev. William MacCleister, senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Michigan. Bill, as I knew him, told me about living in Princeton, New Jersey, while attending Princeton Theological Seminary. To help him through his graduate study, his wife taught second grade in the public schools. One day she came home with the story of a second grader who seemed to have a block against learning math. Try as she might with individual attention and special tutoring, the child still failed. But then, to her shock, the boy arrived at school one morning with his math homework completed and all the answers correct. Assuming that someone had done the work for him, Mrs. MacCleister quizzed
him on his understanding of the problems and their solutions. Her shock level increased when the boy confidently explained the process and showed how he got his answers. She could only contend, "Someone must have helped you with your math!" "Yes," the boy said, "it was the man across the street." Mrs. MacCleister gasped in total disbelief because she knew that the man across the street was none other than Albert Einstein!
If you want to test your knowledge of your reading, teach a child. Meals around the family dining table can be turned into lively conversations, and family devotions can become times of sharing insights into the Word of God from our reading and study. If the list in this book fulfills its purpose, parents and children will teach and learn from each other in the setting of the Christian home.
Step 9: Search Out a Subject
An additional way to learn a truth is to search out a subject that can be traced throughout the books in this list. Such a practice is called cross-referencing. Assume, for instance, that you are going to teach a lesson on the subject of grace. Reading what different authors have to say about the subject will widen and deepen your understanding.
In the three-year reading plan, for instance, the selections for Bible study include Understanding the Bible by John Stott, What the Bible Is All About by Henrietta Mears, and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Although the subject of each book is the same, each of the authors brings a different and enriching viewpoint to the study. In these books, you can also find bibliographies that will point you to other valuable sources that will enrich your understanding of the Word.
Internet connections are fast becoming a ready reference for checking out a variety of books on a given subject. By simply typing in the key word of the subject on a bookstore web site,
you can find scores of entries for other books on the same subject. Recently, for example, I wanted to do some research on the subject of grace. My interest in the subject had been piqued by reading Chuck Swindoll's moving account of King David's gracious treatment of Mephibosheth, the crippled grandson of Saul, in his book The Grace Awakening. Swindoll uses one sentence in Scripture to summarize the meaning of grace. Although David had the kingly prerogative to wreak vengeance on Saul's family, instead we read four times in 2 Samuel 9 that David said Mephibosheth shall eat at the king's table (2 Samuel 9:7, 10, 11, 13). With a new sense of the meaning of grace, I began my search for other sources. By typing in the word, I found over three thousand entries under the subject. I narrowed down the list and chose a few books for further reading. For starters, I reread Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing about Grace? in which he describes the term as the "last best" theological word that has never been spoiled. I then added a touch of meaning from David Seamand's book Healing Grace, and then read Paul Tournier's Guilt and Grace. Anyone who has experienced the exhilerating moment when the larger meaning of God's revelation bursts into view will follow the path of searching out a subject time and time again.
Step 10: Expand Your Reading
The limits of space did not permit us to include all the exceptional books that qualify for the list. Yet, as you search out subjects through cross-referencing with various authors, you will find other books to read. And as your library grows, you will want to include many of them in your personal collection. To show the range of books that are available to Christian readers in all twelve subject areas, a more complete list of the books recommended by the selection committee is included in appendix A.
Believe it or not, after you have experienced the joys and rewards of reading the books in the three-year plan, you will realize your adventure has just begun. In the world of Christian books, there are untold treasures yet to be mined. We call these treasures "Christian classics" because they offer eternal truth that has stood the test of time. When all is said and done, they qualify as the best words on the Holy Word.
Chapter Seven || Table of Contents