10 Books That Have Shaped My Thinking

I was challenged this last fall by a cherished mentor of mine on Facebook to list ten books that have had an exceptional impact on me and my thinking. I posted the list on Facebook, but I figured I should share it here as well. The idea here is identifying ten books that have really impacted me and brought me to where I am today intellectually. Being the intense book nut that I am, I jumped at the chance to go through my bookshelf and think about what I’ve been reading over the last few years.

These ten books are in no particular order, and are subject to change as soon as I finish future books. Here we go.

1. “Truman” by David McCullough: I’m nuts for presidential biographies, and this is the one that cemented Harry Truman as my favorite president. McCullough really highlights the Midwest attitude and personality of Truman and how that shaped his exceptionally virtuous and public life, including the many difficult decisions he had to make in office. Truman is undoubtedly the most “regular guy” and relatable president we had in the 20th century, and it shines forth in this great book. A must read for Presidential history buffs like myself.

2. “The Dark Side” by Jane Mayer: I read this book right after I started the political science program at OCU and began becoming more politically aware. It is a detailed and engrossing account of the Bush Administration’s war on terror, and specifically how they decided to pursue and treat those they identified as terrorists. The passages describing torture and those within the administration who pushed back against the immoral actions are particularly harrowing. This book really is the one that woke me up to the real-world consequences and nature of politics.

3. “Jesus for President” by Shane Claiborne: This book totally blew my mind. I read it about three years ago, as I slowly began my journey into a more theologically-tinged political awareness. Shane asks the really hard questions, and makes really tough points about patriotism, American exceptionalism and Christianity, points that would never be tolerated from a political candidate, or a preacher in many churches, but which are nevertheless true. In the end, the book explores how to really, really follow Jesus while being politically aware and involved.

4. “Saving Jesus from the Church” by Dr. Robin Rex Meyers: another book that blew my mind as I matured theologically. The way I approach my relationship to Jesus and what I expect the church to be is deeply indebted to this book. I learned a lot, and also developed a lot of questions that caused me dig even deeper, as a result of reading this book.

5. “Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky” by Noam Chomsky:  Along with “The Dark Side”, this is a book that really woke me up to the real world consequences and effects of American foreign policy. Chomsky still has, and always will have, a strong effect on my thinking. Passages of this book were required reading for a Political Philosophy course I took at OCU.

6. “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: My wife Arianna read this book aloud to me as we drove to Las Vegas last summer. I was at a point in my faith where I was really struggling with the idea of a loving, merciful God who would send people to Hell to suffer eternally. Rob lays out a great argument in this book about why this idea of a “punishing hell” is in no way Biblical and how we should view our faith in a way that keeps us accountable to God without eternal punishment. For further reading on this subject, Benjamin L. Corey has been much help on his blog.

7. “Rubicon” by Tom Holland: I’m slightly obsessed with Roman history, and especially the era around Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, and Augustus. I love learning about the fall of the Republic, the rise of the Empire and most of all, the fascinating personalities who powered the biggest political shake-up in classical history. Tom’s book is a great place to start that learning. Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series (which I’m currently re-reading) is another great source.

8. “A Black Theology of Liberation” by Dr. James Cone: I actually just finished this book recently. If there is any one book that has both challenged me and infuriated me and educated me all at the same time, this is the one. (Arianna can confirm that series of reactions.) I certainly don’t agree with everything Dr. Cone says, but I definitely sympathize with his arguments, and I found my own thinking continually challenged and changed as a result of reading this, especially in light of current events around race and authority in the United States. I love anything Liberation Theology, and along with Gustavo Gutierrez and Oscar Romero and Howard Thurman, James Cone will always been prominently placed on my bookshelf as a minister.

9. “Social Principles of the United Methodist Church” No, I’m serious. Don’t laugh, this counts as a book. At a time when I was feeling that there was no church that addressed the issues important to me in a way that embodied justice and mercy, the Social Principles knocked me onto a collision course with ministry. I was so relieved to find a church that not only held these things important, but also took the time every four years to think about and discuss and debate and pray and write them down. As long as we have our Social Principles, and we work hard to live them, I will always be a United Methodist.

10. “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien: The only piece of fiction on my list. I first read it in the 5th grade. Our library at Benton Grade School had a large, hard-bound copy with big, painted illustrations by Michael Hague that I must have checked out most of the year and read over and over. From hence came my love of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and all the other fantasy books I reread over and over and over again.

That’s my list. Share yours below!

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