Significant Books

Fr. Chris was posting on books that had been particularly formative in his faith journey and, turning it into a meme, tagged me for it.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and I find it a very difficult one to answer. There have been so very many books that have influenced me in many ways. But—fitting in my turn away from true protestantism—when I think about my faith journey people have been more formative for me than books. Or—to mix it up, what certain mentors taught me with certain books has been incredibly formative…

None of that answers Fr. Chris’s question which is partly about recommending really good books to other people. I’ll morph it a little bit too–I’ll list what I currently think to be the seven most important books for my faith formation and theology. There are, of course, three that should go without saying so I’ll just stick them here at the top for the sake of form and make it a round ten:

  1. The Bible
  2. The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer
  3. The ’82 Hymnal
  4. The Book of Concord: Ok—here’s the first book that I’ll explain, and that needs some explanation. For those who don’t know it, the Book of Concord is that official collection of theological writings that Lutherans accept. I don’t accept it all (one of the reasons why I’m not currently a Lutheran pastor), But I find myself very frequently going back to Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession and its Apology. The Small Catechism in particular is a key work for me.
  5. The Rule of Benedict/John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences: Three books for the price of one… Benedict’s work is fairly widely known in Christian and Episcopal circles and is justly honored for its wisdom, structure, and humanity. Cassian’s works are still fairly obscure—and that’s to our detriment. The early church didn’t write systematic theologies. However, Cassian’s work is the closest that you’ll come to a systematic spirituality. Filled with theological and psychological insight, Cassian focuses less on doctrines and more on practices, on communicating a path for cultivating disciples. I find myself at a place in my spiritual and intellectual life where I can’t see these three works as truly distinct from one another. The Rule is in many respects a distillation of Cassian and yet the Rule becomes a lens for reading Cassian as well.
  6. Monastic Practices: This is a supremely practical book written for Cistercian novices. It introduces them to the basics of the monastic spiritual practices. Ever since I first encountered it in a theology library in Tokyo during undergrad this book has been having on me.
  7. On Christian Doctrine: This is Augustine’s main work on hermeneutics–how to read Scripture and get stuff out of it. The center of his argument is caritas: If you are reading and you find something other than love, read it again because you missed it. Of course, love is not a gooey do-whatever-you-like; it’s love with depth and integrity. Like the Rule & Cassian, this one has been very influential in my spiritual and intellectual lives.
  8. The Soul in Paraphrase: This was a very important book for me because it introduced me to the notion of the religious affections. It gave me a vocabulary for thinking about a range of human experience I didn’t know how to describe. In many ways this book laid the groundwork for me to appreciate what Stoicism is really about and therefore monastic spirituality which is fundamentally a kind of Christian Stoicism. 
  9. The Temple: For a sacramental Anglican who loves poetry, this is simply a no-brainer. Herbert’s verse sings. He soars up to great heights but—just as important—he plumbs great depths too. His poetry of misery in relation to God is second only to the Psalms in my opinion.
  10. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters: This work begins by affirming that the creed is not an easy thing for modern people to affirm. Then, rather than making excuses for it or weaseling out of it, affirms the importance of a literal reading of the Creed and ties each article into classic Christian theology and spirituality, explain why each one is important and the broader ramifications of it.

What are your picks?

14 thoughts on “Significant Books

  1. Michelle

    The Soul in Paraphrase sounds interesting. Can you tell us more about it? A quick online look turns up really nothing. Is it a book of poetry?

  2. Fr Chris

    I recently read Benedict’s Rule for the first time. It’s obviously very useful, but it also confirmed that I’m more Augustinian than Benedictine about many things. (Though of course liturgically Benedictine stuff is great from my perspective.) There are lots of little differences in emphasis between Augustine’s rule and Benedict’s rule — and I definitely fall toward the former.

    Good to know that LTJ’s book on the creeds is useful. I’ve seen it in bookstores for years and thought about picking it up (I’m a fan of his). But I was worried it was one of those Borg-ish pop-theology jobs. Not that I would expect that from Johnson, but even Amy-Jill Levine has spoken about the “HarperCollins curse” before — the way one gets pushed to water things down for mass consumption.

    Anyhow, thanks for your response!

  3. Lee

    I’ll second the rec of LTJ’s The Creed. Though, for me personally, his The Real Jesus was more important as it showed a viable end run around the “historical Jesus” stuff.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Michelle, Soul in Paraphrase takes its title from one of Herbert’s poems but is a book on prayer and the religious affections. Essentially it argues that we’ve lost a sense of the religious affections–which are related to but separate from emotions. Saliers suggests that how we think about a thing is intricately bound up with how we feel about it and towards it. Prayer doesn’t just shape how we think about God but offers models for how we feel as well. Naturally (as a Benedictine oblate), he points us to the Psalms… Definitely worth the read.

    LTJ’s creed book is not watered down. In reference to The Real Jesus it should be read in connection with The Living Jesus; the first recommends how we shouldn’t approach Jesus, the second recommends how we should. However, if you were to ask him which of his popular books has had the most impact he might refer you Faith’s Freedom: A Classic Spirituality for Contemporary Christians which discusses classic Christian themes and negotiates a balance between a “gnostic” approach and an overly “social justice” approach. Come to think of it, it might be well worth rereading in todays Episcopal environment…

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  6. Brian M

    Dr. Olsen, you may also want to check out Fr. Thornton’s CHRISTIAN PROFICIENCY as a companion volume to MONASTIC PRACTICES. Fr. Thornton was also a monastic, interested in matters of praxis, but grounded in the BCP as he was a member of SSJE.

  7. Derek the Ænglican


    (Not Dr. yet, I’m afraid…) I’ve heard Christian Proficiency referred to a number of times but haven’t had a chance to get my hands on it yet.

    It’s definitely on the list!

    Likewise, I’ve heard good things about MacQuarrie but haven’t had the opportunity to catch up on it.

    I have a huge list of books waiting to be read once the dissertation finally gets done!

  8. LP

    I thought you were going to be my personal continuing education/drinking partner when you finished you the dissertation?!

  9. Christopher

    MacQuarrie’s works are always thought-provoking. I highly recommend him as the rare Anglican systematician in an Anglo-catholic sort of vein.

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