Every year, I list the books that have influenced me most over the past twelve months. I am always tickled when staff take my recommendations to heart, pick one of the books to read, and later share their insights with me.
I should warn you that this year’s list has a decidedly heavy feel – two novels focusing on the darker side of human nature and three biographies of horrific dictators. Sin is a very real force in our world, and we must not ignore its affects.
Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries by Gerald Sittser (IVP, 2007). Commencing with the spirituality of the early Christian martyrs, Sittser leads his readers on an historical tour of spiritual formation through the ages. Latter chapters focus on the desert saints, monks, mystics, reformers and Protestant missionaries.
A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind (Broadway Books, 1998). This book tells the real life journey of Cedric Jennings from a tough public school in Washington DC to Brown University. Suskind’s account is both inspiring and sobering. An excellent read for campus staff.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (Vintage Books, 1948). Set in colonial west Africa during World War II, the main figure is a British police officer who takes his Catholic faith seriously. His inner torment is akin to that suffered by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. A masterpiece: one of the best five novels I’ve ever read.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck (Penguin, 1945). I first read this short (96 page) novel in high school, and it has lost none of its punch. A parable about poverty, greed, and social injustice, Steinbeck describes a poor diver who finds the perfect pearl. One tragedy follows another.
A Bell for Adano by John Hershey (Vintage Books, 1945). At the age of 28, Hershey’s first book earned him a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He tells a sweet story about an Italian-American Major given civil responsibility over a coastal Italian town following its liberation from the fascists. The book has many lessons that Americans today should learn in dealing with other cultures.
Ben Witherington of Asbury Seminary has written a marvelous three-volume InterVarsity Press commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude (Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians) and 1-2 Peter, Titus, 1-2 Timothy, and 1-3 John (Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians). Witherington is both scholarly and pastoral, bringing the text to life.
Africa Bible Commentary, Tokunboh Adeyemo (Zondervan, 2007). Distributed at the 2007 IFES World Assembly, this volume is an excellent anthology of reflections on Scripture. The African perspective brings new light to familiar passages.
Mao: A Life by Philip Short (Henry Holt, 1999). Having participated in a global project in China last summer, I decided to learn more about Mao Tse-Tung. From his moderately affluent upbringing to his long struggle for power to his decline into decadency, this book is a masterful account of Mao. That he could blink at the starvation of 20 million peasants in his failed collective farming experiment speaks to the coldness of his soul.
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (Henry Holt and Company, 2004). Did you know that the man responsible for the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians studied at Jesuit and Buddhist high schools and later taught French poetry? How different history might have been if the Gospel had been presented to him in a clear manner when he was an international student in Paris.
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Montefiore (Phoenix Press, 2003). As a young man, Stalin considered joining the Orthodox priesthood. Instead of turning to the Lord, he arguably became one of the two most evil leaders of the twentieth century (along with Hitler). For three decades, he nightly scribbled out long lists of people to be executed or sent to Siberia. The figures are numbing – 20 million killed; 18 million enslaved in the gulags.