Thursday, 15 September 2016

The 7 best books I read before I turned 25

Krish Kandiah has mandated 11 books every Christian should read before they turn 25, and Andy Goodliff responded with an alternative list. I will give you my own list. How can I resist?

Instead of legislating for the rest of Christendom though, I'll just tell you the most formative books I ever read as a handsome and hopeful youngster. I assume we're only interested here in theological-type reading, so I won't mention other formative literary experiences like reading Dr Seuss and Phantom comics and sci-fi novels and the articles in Playboy magazine.

1. The Psalms. Technically I didn't read this book but I sang it a lot in the church where I grew up, even before I learned to read. It was the best thing about charismatic/Pentecostal singing back in the 70s and 80s: most of the songs were direct quotations from the Psalms (often from the KJV). I never read the Psalms for the first time: even my first reading was already a re-reading of the things I'd heard and sung in church.

2. The Book of Proverbs. I went to a religious primary school where I was subjected to a regime of edifying and disciplinary verses from this book. I often read the book of Proverbs too, and hated it. Then, later in life, I loved it. (But by then it was too late: the book is addressed to the young, i.e. to those who cannot hear it.)

3. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. We had a dramatised musical version of this called Enchanted Journey and I used to listen to it over and over on the old record player at home. My father taught me how to use the turntable and how to turn the record, which is how I got to nourish my young spirit on 1980s Bob Dylan and The Pilgrim's Progress. Later in primary school, the drama group did a production of Pilgrim's Progress. I was too young to get a part but I went to all the rehearsals and, I suppose out of sympathy, they let me be the Sound Effects Technician. What I still love about the book is the plain speech, the realistic dialogue, the journey narrative, and the lifelike novelistic characters. I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that other writers try to create people and end up with types, while Bunyan tried to create types and ended up with real people. In my opinion it is one of the most perfect books ever written in English; there's not a single thing you could change without diminishing it.

4. George Herbert, The Temple. I read and learned many of these poems during my early high school days. My mother was writing a PhD thesis on The Temple and she was always sharing some little morsel from Mr Herbert. I loved the poems because my mother loved them, and because of the plain style. Later I loved them because I discovered that they were true. The Temple is still the most precise and honest account I've ever come across about what the Christian life is really like (not what it's meant to be like: the problem with nearly all other books on this topic).

5. John Milton, Paradise Lost. Another 17th-century writer: you can see that it was a good century for me. After I finished high school I was given a Penguin paperback of Paradise Lost with a Blake illustration on the cover. I was told solemnly, "It's like an acid trip." I had been on some of those but they always left me feeling burnt out and disillusioned with the human race. Milton, who was himself burnt out and disillusioned, enlarged my vision of the human spirit and of the way history bears within itself the secret of divine providence. I liked the book so much I later wrote a PhD thesis about it. It's not my favourite book anymore, not like it used to be. The rhetoric is too high and holy. Really, Paradise Lost was written for angels, not mortals. Perhaps in the next world it will have the readers it deserves. As for me, I have gravitated back towards the plainer speech of Herbert and Bunyan, as well as other plain-style masters like Shakespeare and Hemingway and Julian of Norwich.

6. Augustine, Confessions. A few years after reading Milton for the first time, I read Augustine's Confessions. It produced a sudden change in me, more than than anything else I have ever read. Most books take years or decades to do their magic work upon the soul, but this one seemed to burn right through me and to change my view of everything. I left the Pentecostal church where I had grown up. I might easily have become Roman Catholic if anybody had suggested it to me at the time, of if it had occurred to me that Augustine was a Catholic. I thought of becoming a monk. I started reading theology, devouring thick books as if my life depended on it. I decided to go to university. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I had begun to dwell in the life of the mind (still today the only place I really feel at home).

7. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was one of the things I read after Augustine had made me hungry for books and learning. I had never even heard of Calvin, he came to me innocent and free of his own reputation. I chose the Institutes for one reason only: it was the biggest book on the shelf at the Christian bookstore, and I wanted as much knowledge as I could get my hands on. (It was the same thing that would later lead me to read Karl Barth, again an author whose name I had never heard.) I suppose because of all the 17th-century Protestant books I'd read, I found Calvin easy to understand. I could see where he was coming from. What impressed me most about the Institutes was its atmosphere. Calvin seemed to be forever poised in a kind of nervous tension between love and awe. With one hand he is grasped by majesty, with the other he is held by mercy. Calvin meant a lot to me: he was a help to me. He seemed to have an intuition for where the real problems lie. He had a knack for asking my questions before I had been able to put them into words myself. And although he didn't always claim to know the answers, he had a way of searching out the scriptures, opening up lines of inquiry, putting things into perspective and seeing everything in relation to the loving majesty of God.


Darren Wright said...

What theology books written by women, and/or by non anglo's would you add to a list of formative books for under 25's?

I wish I'd read Short Stories By Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine before I hit 20, it'd had shaped my thinking on parables so much earlier...

db said...

A fun list. The other two links were kind of boring. The most formative for me before 25 were Newman's Apologia, Augustine's Confession, and Ratty's Introduction to Christianity. Pretty standard story, but these three led me to become a Roman Catholic parishioner of the Oratory. If I didn't already have a girlfriend at the time I would have likely become a priest.

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