I was asked recently to participate in a project listing my most influential books. This is always a daunting task. When asked what books he would want when stranded on an island, C. S. Lewis replied: “I would like to have along some books on boat-building.” Good answer. And yet these projects are worthwhile: What arethe big books that shape our lives? I have left the Bible off this list, noting that this sacred text is the most life-shaping of all.

So, here’s my list:

The Challenge Of JesusN. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was And Is.   I could add at least six or seven other N. T. Wright books, subsequent to this one, that have influenced me greatly. Wright has become hugely important to my understanding of faith, Christian scriptures, and how to live faithfully in our pervasively secular world. But this book was where it all began for me. N. T. Wright’s big themes are all here, namely that Jesus fits within the ancient Jewish narrative of the long-awaited Messiah, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ announces the arrival of a new king and a new kingdom, now as it is in heaven, and that God will make all things right in the end.


Foolishness-to-the-GreeksLesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the GreeksThe Gospel And Western Culture. If I could require one book to introduce Christians to the prospect of cultural engagement, this is it.  This incredible book was written in 1986. Dated, some might say. I don’t think so. As with N. T. Wright there are so many other books by Newbigin that have influenced me, but this was the starting point. Lesslie Newbigin — philosopher, theologian, pastor, and missionary to India for most of his life — is quite simply incredible talking about how to live and think as vibrant Christians in a modern, postmodern, secular culture that resists our intrusion.


Finally Comes The PoetWalter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech For Proclamation. I believe that not much is accomplished without imagination. Life requires imagination. Leadership requires imagination. Changing the world requires imagination. Brueggemann guides us into the unique and powerful biblical imagination. The great poets of the Old Testament, mainly those voices from exile in the sixth century B C, “discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern,” but they also “wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongues, their words. New poetic imagination evoked new realities in the community.” This voice becomes “real and winsome,” Brueggemann says. It becomes “authorized and authorizing — in the face of ideologies that want to deny, dismiss, and preclude.” That’s the kind of imagination we need for our day.


witness-to-hopeGeorge Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography Of Pope John Paul II. George Weigel is an important lay Catholic public intellectual and here tackles a biography of one of the great popes of all time. This book is both an endearing, appreciative biography of John Paul II as well as an intellectual history that surrounds the life of one of the influential Christian figures of the twentieth century. Through Weigel, John Paul has influenced my faith immensely.


Leadership Is An ArtMax De Pree, Leadership Is An Art.  Among all the books on leadership, this one stands tall for me as a classic. This is a wise, practical, and articulate guide from my mentor and friend Max De Pree. I have read and reread this great little book so many times. In my leadership roles, I could quote from it on the fly. I recently wrote to Max to tell him that everything I know about leadership I learned from this little book (almost at least). This is a gem. It is quiet and understated and penetrating. There is a philosophy here, worked out over a long period of time as a leader, grounded by his quiet Christian faith. It’s driving principle is that people matter. It’s other guiding principle is that ideas matter. Shaping one’s leadership around those two principles is the challenge and the art of every leader.


The_Brother_KaramazovFyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Published in 1880, set in nineteenth century Russia, this great novel captures all of the swirling philosophical, spiritual, religious, cultural change of the late nineteenth century. It is one of the great Russian novels, perhaps one of the great novels of all time. It raises all the big questions that matter with relentless honesty, stunning character portrayal, and unforgettable social context.



King LearWilliam Shakespeare, King Lear. How to pick among the great writings of this master poet and playwright (the list must also include Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello). King Lear may stand above if only because its tender, delicate familial relationships are overwhelmed by the stormy, passionate overweening ego of the tragic father. As always we witness here the consummate poet, clearly one of the greatest masters of language ever to have written in English.




goodmanishardtofindFlannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find And Other Stories. The title story of this collection is one of the great short stories in all of American literature, though O’Connor has a bunch of them that might qualify. O’Connor is quintessentially a writer of place, in her case, the American South of the early twentieth century. Her situations are always jarring, jolting, the only way, she would contend, to understand the intrusion of Christian faith in a pervasive culture of prejudice, complacency, and self-centeredness. She jars us all into surprising, new understanding.


Their Eyes Were Watching GodZora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching GodJanie Starks, the central character in this beautiful, early-twentieth-century novel, was trapped in a deeply racist, pre-civil-rights South. She was born into a family that came apart at the seams. She was raised by an abusive grandmother and “whipped like a cur dog and run off down a back road after things.” One day Janie realized something or someone “called her to come and gaze on a mystery.” This “stirred her tremendously. . . . She had been summoned to behold a revelation.” That revelation was basically this: She found a jewel down inside herself and she wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. . . . Janie had tried to show her shine.”


The Norton AnthologyThe Norton Anthology Of Modern And Contemporary Poetry. My list of influential works must include selections from various modern and contemporary poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Czeslaw Milosz, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, William Stafford, Theodore Roethke, Wendell Berry, Maxine Kumin, among so many others. These are the keepers of the record—in the delicate, eloquent, graceful music of words—of the individual in a specific place and a poignant moment, swept about in a changing world, revived in situations of wonder and beauty. Not sure what I would do or who I would be without this great poetry of our age.


TheGiftOfAsherLevChaim Potok, The Gift Of Asher LevWhile the setting is the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, its theme the coming of age of a Jewish American artist, its importance to me spilled out into my own search for independence from an almost-fundamentalist upbringing. This book was a profound defining moment in my own journey of faith to find both the freedom of grace yet still the anchoring stability of rich roots of Christian tradition. I came to glimpse the astounding power of Torah, not only for Jewish faith, but for the formation of Jewish community. I yearn for the Christian Bible to be lifted up in this way. Early on in my presidency at Seattle Pacific, I invited Rabbi Potok to campus and hosted a large gathering from the Jewish community in our home for a kosher dinner.


Herman moby-dickMelville, Moby DickThe poet and critic John Ciardi once told me and a group of my students that he learned more in two weeks on the Pequod (Melville’s ship that carried the monomaniacal Captain Ahab on his journey to annihilate the great White Whale) than he learned in his years in the nose of a B-52 bomber in World War II. While this novel has many competitors for a spot on my list of twelve—I think of the Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—this massive, brooding reflection on faith, doubt, meaning, darkness, achievement, and obsessive ego stands as one of the classics of American literature.