January 25, 2021

Pilgrim Tracks Through The Stacks

banned.jpgI’m not like you. I’ve got a mongrel library.

I don’t like to be told what to read.

One of my characteristic behaviors in high school was to be constantly reading….reading something that was not my assignment. I moderated this a bit in college- an English degree generally comes with reading lists that can’t be totally ignored, and this in the day before the internet- but I still managed to spend the largest part of my time reading what I wanted to read, not what was on the reading list.

Call it an only child behavior. Call it my stubborn and resistant nature. Call it ADD or curiosity or a love of the library. Whatever it was, it continues to this day.

I don’t like to be told what to read. I like to read what I like to read. I make my choices myself. I am not trying to imitate the intellectual life of some hero, guru, preacher or professor. My reading is eclectic, independent, and all centered around my faith in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, as the key to all knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3)

I do not read these days to discover my theology. My basic theological approach has been the same since seminary days, despite a long journey into Calvinism and some other detours. If anything, I read in dialogue with my theology, and not to establish or rehash it.

I don’t read to hear that I am right about everything or that I am thinking the thoughts of great men whom others praise. I don’t read to high-five those with whom I already agree or to arm myself for debate. I do read a bit as a fan of certain writers, but I will tell anyone that when you hear the writers that I like, I can apprise you of major ways in which I disagree with almost every one of them. In some cases, I share little in common and disagree about much, but what I admire makes them worth the read. Some of my favorite writers are just fun to read, no matter what I think of what they are saying.

I read to explore. Faith is a pilgrimage and an adventure, but it is a journey best made with guides, friends and those who have been farther along the road than I. We read to know we are not alone. I practice that maxim.

I am saying all this because I have been thinking lately about the extent to which evangelicals are divided into teams, and that “laundry lists” of “approved” books and authors are a regular feature of this theological team sports.

I was once held in moderately high esteem by a well-read writer on the net. Then, one day, I read something about me similar to this: Spencer also admitted to reading and liking Thomas Merton, the mystical, Buddhist-sympathizing Monk. The author concluded from this and other issues that I could no longer be “trusted” to be recommended to young minds in the blogosphere.

One thing needs to be said at this point. Judging Merton like this works fine to an audience of the uninformed, but if you are talking to people who know Merton, you just showed your cards. A man lives one of the most literate, documented lives in Christian history. At the end of his life, he develops an interest in Buddhism, and your summary of his life is to portray him not as the author of Seven Storey Mountain or New Seeds of Contemplation, but as a proto-Buddhist. If you read your way to that conclusion through the Merton canon and scholarly work on Merton, fine. If you got there by way of a critical paragraph or two or the research of a Christian radio fixture like Berit Kjos, just go ahead and admit that you simply have it in for Roman Catholics and you don’t plan to ever know what you are talking about. Your shortcut got you where you wanted to go, and you are there.

You cannot trust me to avoid the likes of Merton, dozens of other Catholics, and many dozens of unsafe, unapproved and unprofitable writers. The idea that membership in some faction of evangelicalism carries with it an expectation to not read and like the Mertons, or the admirers of Mother Theresa, or N.T. Wright, or Brian Mclaren is obnoxious. It’s oppressive. It’s ridiculous.

I spent some time looking at my library tonight, and noted the authors whom I liked enough to spend money on many, most or all of their books. When you see their names- in no particular order- think what this says about my theology and my Christianity. Construct your theory. Then say the following: “I couldn’t be more wrong.”

Phillip Yancey
Os Guinness
C.S. Lewis
John Piper
Michael Horton
N.T. Wright
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Thomas Watson
Ravi Zacharias
Garrison Keillor
Thomas Merton
Robert Capon
Brennan Manning
Eugene Peterson
Mark Dever
Charles Spurgeon
Martyn Lloyd Jones
Peter Kreeft
Paul Johnson
Marcus Borg
J.D. Crossan
Frederich Buechner
Garrison Keillor
David Wells
Jerry Bridges
Robert Webber
Dallas Willard
Don Whitney
J.I. Packer
R.C. Sproul
Doug Webster
Gordon Macdonald
John Meier
Thomas Oden
William Willimon
Elton Trueblood
Michael Wilcock
John Stott
Barbara Brown Taylor
Tony Campolo
Ben Witherington III
William Lane
George Eldon Ladd
Alistair Macgrath
Earl Palmer

To Be Added: Donald Miller, Mark Driscoll, many others.

Reformed. Arminian. Evangelical. Liberal. Conservative. Baptists. Catholics. Presbyterian. Methodist. Mainline. Fundamentalist. Progressive. Anabaptist. Safe. Unsafe. (BTW- what a white, male list. So sad.) You won’t trace my path very easily from those names, but they’ve all been my guides somewhere.

Why do I read these authors? In the end, the answer is simple: Each one of them brings me, uniquely, into an appreciation of Jesus Christ. Each one, even those who- like Crossan- are opponents of much of what I believe to be true, brings me to a place where I see and understand Jesus better. That they are not all representing the same denomination or theological team matters not at all. Because they are creative, competent and effective writers, they stimulate my own journey and my own thinking.

There are things to admire, and things to deplore on such a list. But I can think for myself. So can you. I appeal to those who are laundering the reading of Christians like youth directors laundering a CD collection to leave us to read, think, question, converse and come to terms with writers on our own. We do not know who or what God will use as a catalyst to move us forward in our faithful journey with Jesus.

And by the way…I’m not telling you what to read. But that is a good list 🙂


  1. Did a watchblogs really jump on you for reading and liking Merton? I’ve never read him (though I’d like to), but I’m rather surprised that it would rile anyone that much.

    Even in my first year theology class at the very conservative Dallas Sem, we managed to read a postmodern theologian (Stan Grentz), a charismatic (Jack Deere), a Roman Catholic (Avery), as well as Alistair McGrath (whatever he is).

    Love your last paragraph. Funny enough, one of the authors God used to teach me about sin and depravity was Albert Camus, a French atheistic existentialist. His essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” and his books “The Stranger,” “The Plague,” “The Fall,” and “The First Man” impressed on the the reality of the sinfulness of humanity more than any other author. So you never know. . .

  2. Bravo! I love this post. I really appreciate your willingness to step on toes (but not in an ungodly way) in your journey to be more like Christ. I love your anticonformity and your candidness. Keep it up!

  3. What? No Jacques Ellul?


    On the more serious side, I know what you mean in terms of Merton and the reaction you get when you mention you read him. I get the same in my SBC Bible study if I mention any author that wrote prior to the Reformation, as if the church popped into existence in A. D. 1500.

    I try to find value in all Christian writers; therefore, I never fully side with the Catholics or the Protestants, conservatives or liberals, or the creationists and (theistic) evolutionists. As a result, I end up being a Heretic to all concerned.

    I have decided to just live with it. Maybe it is just stubborness on my part, like yours. Maybe it is because I just see value in all these authors, as I said. It seems a shame to lose out on an insight or perspective just because it bears the wrong label.

  4. Michael,
    To help make you more gender balanced : ), there are a couple of excellent women writers I would highly recommend:

    Frederica Mathewes-Green – I’m sure you’re familiar with her. If all of the Eastern Orthodox writers wrote with the same grace and beauty with which she writes, I might be tempted to convert! Her tiny book “The Illuminated Heart” is worth its weight in gold.

    Leanne Payne – a charismatic Anglican author whom Dallas Willard referred to as a “seasoned and daily associate of Jesus”. Much of her writing is focused on ministering to folks living with profound brokenness, but her book “Listening Prayer” should be required reading for all followers of Christ.

    Another female author that I am really interested in is Marva Dawn. Interestingly, she is reputed to draw quite a bit from the work of Jacques Ellel, mentioned above. I’ve recently purchased her book “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God”, and have enjoyed the first few pages. I’m looking forward to learning from this highly respected theologian and teacher.


  5. Kierkegaard?! Oh my gosh, you heretic!!

  6. Disappointed that you didn’t include Stanley Hauerwas, James W. McClendon, Alasdair McIntyre, Luke Timothy Johnson or A.W. Tozer.

  7. Name dropper.

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