I think of Christian books like restaurants.
Several are like fast-food––they can be good and filling in the moment. Sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy for anything more. You know you shouldn’t make them the staple of your diet, but they have their place. And we’ve all craved a chalupa at some point. (Right? Right??)
Some are a bit better than that––more like Applebee’s. It’s… good. Not the highest-quality fare, but… good.
And then there are the ones like Malone’s––a premier steakhouse in Lexington. You don’t go when you only have 30 minutes for dinner (or when you only have $10). But when you take the time to enjoy it, you won’t regret it. You know that whatever you order, it will be high-quality fare.
And on the other end of the spectrum, there are a few that you really shouldn’t go to at all. They keep getting a C from the Health Department. You’ve been warned: eat this, and you may get food poisoning.
From my observations and sampling of Christian book bestsellers, I think the majority of American Christians’ diets consist of McDonald’s and Applebee’s. The New York Times Bestsellers lists are full of Crazy Love and Love Does and Radical and Not a Fan. Ask a random reading evangelical, and they’re likely to have read one of those, if not all four. Now please hear me when I say that I believe these books have their place. I’ve read Crazy Love with two different groups! It produced good conversations. I may even read it with another group in the future. I love Platt’s and Chan’s sincerity and conviction. Their lives challenge me. I hope they challenge others, too.
What upsets me isn’t that these books sell and are read at all. It’s that many Christians think these are as good as it gets. It’s like a friend looking up from his Applebee’s sirloin and saying, “I think this is the best steak ever made.” Oh, friend…
How dare I be so elitist, you say. My friend may not be able to afford better than Applebee’s, you say. This is one of the wonderful places where my analogy falls apart. Those high-quality fare books often won’t cost you any more than the fast food ones. And some of these are just as easy to understand. The difference is in their depth, not their accessibility. A different time and energy investment, probably… but not a different financial or intellectual requirement.
And if the expense were equal, I’d have Malone’s much more often, McDonald’s and Applebee’s much less.
With that, I want to suggest a few books for anyone living on a fast-food diet. Just like Malone’s, this menu has some things that are really heavy––you’ll probably need them in small doses––and others that are much lighter. Whether heavy or light, though, they come with the chef’s stamp of approval. This is real food. (These are books I think most people can read. I’m not including high-shelf scholarly works. Those are like… that great restaurant in the woods you have to hike to––might be hard to get there without building up your endurance, and the trek might not be worth it to some people.)
APPETIZERS & SALADS
These are lighter selections––a great place to start that shouldn’t overwhelm you.
This is probably the lightest fare on this list as ease-of-reading goes, though the subject matter is hardly light. I’ve talked to several people who wished they had read this years earlier. It’s the most self-helpish book on this list, but I appreciate helpful books. It provides good categories for those who are too slow to say no or too slow to say yes. (Although I fear it may give people too quick an excuse to be selfish and say, “That’s just my boundary.”)
The Way to Heaven by Steve Harper
This is a clear and accessible presentation of the core of Wesleyan theology. And Wesleyan theology changed my life, so I’m a fan. If phrases like “original sin,” “prevenient grace,” or “Christian perfection” are unfamiliar or a bit fuzzy for you, this book will be a great help. It’s light and quick reading, outstanding substance.
The True Story of the Whole World by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew
If you’re not sure you have a firm understanding of the biblical narrative, this book may be exactly what you’re looking for. An easy read that will help you understand how these 66 books of the Bible tell one cohesive story.
And if this book doesn’t quite fit your palate, may I suggest instead The Story of God, the Story of Us by Sean Gladding? It will accomplish much of the same, but in a more narrative format. If non-fiction is easier for you, start with Goheen and Bartholomew. If you’re usually a fiction reader, choose Gladding.
There’s some debate about putting this on the appetizers menu. It’s like those buffalo chicken wings––you could have it for your meal. It’s just not quite as much as the things listed under entrees. It’s as full of conviction and challenge as Chan and Platt, but with a lot more to bite into. It has been the most influential book in several of my friends’ lives. A modern classic.
These will all take a while to digest, but they’re worth it. Savor them. This part of the menu has a few major headings that include several items underneath. Imagine the server saying, “You can’t go wrong with our steaks.” That’s how it is with some of these.
You really can’t go wrong with C. S. Lewis. If you get to choose only one right now… I’d go with Mere Christianity (the modern classic of all modern classics) or maybe The Great Divorce. Lewis puts profound concepts into language and analogies that are relatively easy to understand.
You can also pick at blind from the Bonhoeffer menu and know that you’re getting something great. Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship) is his best. Life Together is maybe the easiest starting point. Even if you don’t have the time or appetite for the whole book, chapter 1 of Discipleship could change your life.
You could really read anything by Foster. Or choose Dallas Willard, if he suits your taste better. These are the devotional masters of our time. They’ll teach you how to orient your life toward listening to God and hearing from him.
Again, most any of the popular works by Wright will do. (He also writes scholarly books. You’ll know them by the extensive footnotes and 900-page sizes.) I choose Surprised by Hope as the best starting point for most people. Wright is helping re-orient American Christians to a salvation that means more than heaven.
This isn’t the most popular dish on the menu (it’s Lewis and Bonhoeffer that you’ll hear about in all the magazines), but it might just be my favorite. It’s just so good. I think you’ll love it. DeYoung will introduce you to some deep historical Christian theology, give you tools for a solid self-examination, and delight you with the way she writes, too. Who knew examining our vices could be so enjoyable?
When you’ve saved room, this is the cherry on top.
Chesterton deserves more than “cherry on top.” He’s far more substance than just that. But when I’m really getting Chesterton, it seems like dessert. He makes me smile and shake my head at just how good it is. He’s very different––maybe not to everyone’s taste, but you should really give it a try. Orthodoxy is his classic.
Everything I’ve included here is a “new” book by historical standards. I thought these might be an easier place to start for most people. If you keep coming back, you should check out the secret menu. It has some great classics from previous centuries. (Those classics are hardly secrets, but they’re often sadly overlooked in our popular culture today.)
Hey, if all you have time and energy for is fast food, go ahead and grab it. It will at least fill you up for a bit. Just know that there’s even higher-quality fare out there. You can’t eat it in your car at stop lights, but if you can make the time to sit down and really enjoy it, I think you’ll agree it was worth it…