Suggested Reading for New and Recovering Christians
Over the last couple of years, I’ve read a number of books that have helped me re-learn about certain aspects of faith that may have been unhelpfully shaped by the evangelical subculture in which I spent a number of my formative years. My own experience seems to parallel that of many of my peers, some of whom would call themselves “ex-vangelical”. That experience has even become a publishing/media trend of its own, with a fixation on “deconstructing” one’s faith and reconstructing it as something new. While I resonate with the desire to move away from the harmful aspects of evangelicalism, I think ex-vangelicalism can result in an unhelpfully negative framing of the problem, focusing on what one no longer believes. Additionally, the “reconstruction” that follows sometimes seems to be more about accommodating one’s faith to modern cultural and intellectual sensibilities, rather than revisiting and recommitting to what is essentially true about God, life, the cosmos, etc.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do think that the Christian story is substantially true, and that it provides a way of understanding the world that can handle the frustrations that vex modern people, particularly in the West (the growth of Christianity and its various expressions among non-Western societies is worth mentioning, but beyond the scope of what I want to address here). I believe that the claim “Jesus is Lord” is binding on all people and at the same time radically inclusive, but the most prominent voices in public discourse around religion seem inimical to such a thought, regardless of the perspective the come from. Thus, I thought it would be helpful to compile an annotated list of resources that have benefitted me in relearning about Christian theology and experience that isn’t so profoundly distorted by the forms of white American evangelicalism that myself and many of my friends were raised with. I see many people struggling to maintain their faith while feeling that their only choice is between either fundamentalism or embracing the culturally acceptable spirit of the age. I hope that the resources in this list show that there is a better way that will help people feel a greater connection with the deeper magic that the gospel proclaims.
I plan to update this list periodically, and will try to keep it thematically organized as best I can.
A note about pronouns - while I don’t believe that God is gendered, and that scripture is full of masculine and feminine language and imagery for God, I use the masculine singular pronoun when referring to God, mostly because that’s what I’m accustomed to.
I think that struggling through one’s faith must be done in the heart as well as the mind. A friend working through his own doubt once suggested that, when reading through a vexing passage of scripture, you should pray through it. Obviously, prayer is difficult, but those struggles are a way of understanding God’s compassion; he can and does absorb those doubts and fears into himself. In my own life, I’ve found the practice of Hesychasm, reciting the “Jesus prayer”, to be invaluable. And, when even that is too difficult, I find great comfort in the promise that God’s Spirit still prays for me when I cannot. Here are a few things I’ve found that speak to the heart, and are helpful for learning about what Richard Foster calls the “with-God life”. These are also probably the most accessible items on this list.
Interior Freedom - Jacques Philippe - This short book is probably one of my favorites. Philippe, a French monk, shows us we can commune with God by reminding us of how God meets us exactly where we are at.
Being Christian - Rowan Williams - Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, explores the very basic components of the Christian life - baptism, scripture, the Eucharist, and prayer. I recommend this to any new Christian. I especially found the chapter on reading the Bible helpful; Williams shows how the Bible can still be formative and authoritative for the Christian without holding to the biblicism (i.e. belief in “inerrancy”) that is widespread in Evangelicalism.
Here and Now - Henri Nouwen - A series of short reflections on how the spiritual intersects every aspect of our lives.
Falling into Grace - John Newton - A book about spiritual growth that counterintuitively shows how God forms his character in us through weakness and relinquishment, rather than strength and accomplishment.
The Ragamuffin Gospel - Brennan Manning - A classic that’s probably well-known in evangelical circles, but whose message is rarely heeded. Manning unrelentingly reminds us of how God’s grace is for those who know their own need for it.
Most of these books tend to be fairly meaty, and I worry about accessibility. That said, those who are struggling with questions on an intellectual level will probably benefit from the robust and faithful theological reflection to be found in these pages. Their rewards are worth the effort.
Theology for a Troubled Believer - Diogenes Allen - Allen gives an introduction to Christian theology from the perspective of a philosopher who is also deeply familiar with the biblical texts. He moves through the narrative of scripture and addresses theological topics by connecting them to the questions that Christians experience in everyday life. A couple of things I love about this book: 1) He suggests that the Exodus story should be our framing narrative for understanding God in the Old Testament, and shows how that understanding informs everything from creation to the prophets. 2) He has a deeply apocalyptic understanding of the New Testament, and primarily understands the atonement as God’s rescue of humanity from the powers of darkness, sin, and death.
The Crucifixion - Fleming Rutledge - This tome is arguably the most important Christian book of the 21st century thus far. Rutledge provides a sweeping survey of all of the atonement motifs in the New Testament, and shows how, when taken together, the gospel story provides a profound answer to the suffering and wickedness that vex humanity.
The Bible in a Disenchanted Age - R. W. L. Moberly - I highly recommend Moberly’s book for those who are wondering how we can still trust the Bible as authoritative for faith and life while still also acknowledging the findings of critical scholarship. If you’re wondering how to understand the Bible outside of a fundamentalist worldview, this is valuable reading.
Reading While Black - Esau McCaulley - Esau McCaulley, a black Anglican theologian, shows how a faithful interpretation of scripture affirms the importance of justice for Christians. McCaulley shows how slaveholder religion and the racial injustice it perpetuated is in fact a bastardization of true, biblical Christianity. Although written primarily to encourage black Christians, it nourished my soul and I highly recommend it to white Christians as well, particularly those living in America.
Life with God - Richard Foster - This could also go in the “devotional” section. Foster shows how we can read scripture in a way that is spiritually transformative. At the same time, he reads the Bible in such a way that doesn’t necessitate holding to biblical inerrancy, although without addressing the issue as such. Rather, he embraces difference and tension within the canon. It’s a good practical outworking of the ideas in Moberly’s book, despite being written years before.
Law & Gospel - Mockingbird - A good primer on the distinction between law and gospel in theology. It’s short, almost more of a booklet, but provides a good argument for a grace-centered understanding of Christian theology.
The Experience of God - David Bentley Hart - A cogent argument for the existence of God that addresses popular misconceptions of who/what God is. Although Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian himself, he pulls from a number of humanity’s faith traditions. His intended audience isn’t so much Christians as non-religious readers.
That All Shall Be Saved - David Bentley Hart - I was ambivalent about including this one here, mostly because Hart already has a book on this list, and because this book has stirred up more than a little controversy. Belief in universal salvation for all humanity feels challenging and audacious, especially for those who remember the whole debacle around Rob Bell’s Love Wins a number of years ago. Unlike Bell’s book though, Hart offers a forceful philosophical and biblical argument for universal salvation. I think his acerbic tone comes across as off-putting at times, but for those who grew up in churches where the damnation of most people was spoken of with absolute certainty, Hart’s book feels like a refreshing counterpoint. He also gets bonus points for his interesting interpretation of the book of Revelation as a political satire.
Listening and Watching
Queen of the Sciences podcast - Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and her father, Paul R. Hinlicky, are both theologians who make theology accessible to everyone with down-to-earth language and a good dose of humor and lighthearted earnestness. If you don’t have the bandwidth for much reading, I recommend listening to this podcast. Any episode is great, but some highlights are episodes about the wrath of God, being white and Christian, the resurrection, the book of Leviticus, medieval theologian Anselm, and triple(!) predestination.
Lectures with Sarah Coakley podcast - If you want to learn about prayer and theology, Sarah Coakley’s lectures for her church’s Sunday school are a great place to start. She’s also written a number of books that come highly recommended about theology, sexuality, and church history, but sadly I’ve yet to read any of them.
Hopefully you find some of these helpful. Like I said, I’ll try to keep it updated. Any suggestions or thoughts are appreciated.