I don’t know why but I found myself pondering the other day which books had had the biggest influence on my thinking about and practising Christian faith. So here are my thoughts. These aren’t necessarily what I’d consider to be ‘the best’ books in each field (no 1 excepted…) – simply those which have been most influential on me.
1. The Bible
Well, it had to be in there somewhere! Though I’m no great shakes as a biblical scholar, I have been reading the Bible for longer, and on a more regular basis, than any other book and as I get older I feel more and more strongly the way it has shaped my mental furniture. At my first Greenbelt festival I heard the Aussie speaker John Smith say that ‘if you are not always reading one of the Gospels you are not serious’ and I think something of that challenge has stayed with me. I’m most fond of Acts, however, which feels as though it provides the bridge between my life here and now and the world in which Jesus walked.
2. Daily Bread – Bible-reading notes
As a teenager and into my mid-20s I used daily Bible-reading notes every day and Daily Bread was the first. A bit the question of how many sermons you could actually remember, I could only put my finger on one or two days’ worth of notes which are still immediately memorable, but using a set of Bible reading notes did allow me over a number of years to cover the whole Bible at least once – something I doubt I’d have had the stickability for, if left to my own devices. In my late 20s I began to find I was getting less and less out of using daily notes – I think in the end I needed a different approach, one involving a bit more thematic study and more insight into the background of the text. Since then I’ve never quite picked up that daily Bible notes habit again, although the regular Bible reading has continued and my debt to daily notes remains.
3. John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700
Having spent a good part of my career to date in our around church history, choosing a history book for this list which has influenced my thinking as a Christian was the hardest task of all. Which of the literally hundreds (possibly thousands?) I have read most brought Christian history to bear on the way I think about and practice faith? It’s almost impossible to say. I love RA Markus’ The End of Ancient Christianity for the way he charts the changing intellectual world of late antiquity and the growing contribution of Christian thinkers to it. I also love Adrian Hastings’ History of English Christianity 1920-1990 for its partisan, but ground-breaking and deeply intimate acquaintance with its subject-matter. Jean-Claude Schmitt’s The Holy Greyhound: St Guinefort, Healer of Children since the 13th Century is a masterclass in the possibilities of the cultural history of popular religious belief and practice, as well as being an intriguing piece of detective-work. But I have chosen John Bossy’s book – controversial and disputed in its own way – as the first book I read which went beyond conventional ‘ecclesiastical history’ (of bishops, theologians and institutions) to explore the changing religious lives of ordinary people and the way in which Christianity was deeply interwoven into the tapestry and social, cultural and economic practices of the period he describes. I love its vividness and the way it draws upon material culture as well as documentary evidence. I love its intimate attention to the way ordinary people experienced time and space (something which we so often overlook but which is so fundamental to how we arrange our lives and make meaning). But it’s particularly influential for me in the way it gets under the skin of the shifting boundaries between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ – which in popular thought are so often assumed to be fixed and mutually exclusive, but which Bossy demonstrates to be porous and in constant flux. It was also the first piece of serious history which for me began to challenge lazy assumptions about the corruption and spiritual deadness of the late medieval church. Reform was certainly needed, but it did not come from a standing start.
4. James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament
I read this during an undergraduate course on the history of Christianity in comparative historical perspective, along with a number of books (very much in vogue at the time) casting doubt on the continuities between the early Jesus movement and the Pauline Christianity which emerged in the Gentile world of the near-east. Dunn is alert to the changes taking place in earliest Christianity but also sees good grounds for asserting the continuities between the pre- and post-Easter faith, and between the beliefs and practices of Jesus’ first followers and the Christianity that emerged later in the first century, and in due course freeze-framed by the New Testament canon. As biblical scholarship there are doubtless books which have brought fresh additional insight to the question subsequently, but I owe it a great debt for introducing me to the richness of in-depth textual study and the historical context of the New Testament.
5. Heather Ward, The Gift of Self
In 1996-7 I had just made some difficult decisions about the direction of my life, had ended up in a new place and was feeling low on confidence and self-esteem. At very short notice, I decided to go on a weekend’s retreat with some others to Burford Priory, home at that time to an Anglican Benedictine community of monks and nuns (recently I’ve had the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with them at their new home, the fantastic Mucknell Abbey). Although my church background was gently charismatic/evangelical, I had also begun within the previous few years to add to this some familiarity with more contemplative traditions, and it wasn’t the first time I’d been to a monastic community. When describing retreats, people often talk about peace and tranquility, but for me the outstanding experience was of the simple goodness of the life of the community and the sense of joy in their pattern of work and worship. Into this, one evening I noticed on the bookshelf in my room a copy of Heather Ward’s ‘Gift of Self’. Reading the first few chapters that evening was nothing less than a revelation. Ward, like me, struggled with self-image, struggling to accept that there was much appealing or useful in her. Ward’s critical insight is that we so often equate our ‘selves’ with our personality, whereas this is a misleading measure of our self-worth. Our true self, she says, consists in our being created and loved by God, and in particular by our inviting Jesus Christ into our lives. These basic fact cannot be altered by the particularities of our psychological and genomic make-up. ‘I am through my personality’, or as Paul says ‘not I, but Christ living in me’. True humility consists neither in exalting or abnegating our ‘self’ but in saying yes to God and allowing that to be our strong centre. I couldn’t say that I have consistently managed to retain focus on that fact throughout the following eighteen years, but it’s something I have continually been able to return to in times of struggle, and it’s honestly made a difference.
Coming soon…. nos 6 to 10…