Introductory Note:

I am about the same age Richard Foster was when he penned this essay on the books and authors that profoundly shaped him, and I’m struck by what a meaningful spiritual exercise writing such a piece must have been for him. In the essay, Richard combs back through his childhood, youth, young adulthood, and recent years to celebrate pivotal readings God used to nurture his faith. His gratitude is palpable as he recalls how these books shaped his heart, his mind, his spirit.

Looking backward to recall God’s grace in literary form is a new idea to me, but I am inspired to try it out as a spiritual practice… not aiming, as Richard cautions, to impress anyone—even myself!—but to gain a deeper appreciation for the authors who have blessed me with their words, and to thank God for the formational friendship of books.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Writing this article was spiritually dangerous for me, for underlying such a task was the subtle but persistent temptation to impress rather than to help. (And I am not at all sure I have successfully avoided that temptation.)

When, however, I realized the assignment was not actually to list "My Choice of Books" but to honestly record the books that have profoundly influenced my life, the temptation lost its power, for while I wish I could tell you how deeply influenced I was as a child by reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Milton, such was not the case. So I will share simply something of the pilgrimage of my mind and soul.

Soon after my conversion as a teenager, I was particularly drawn to the Book of Romans, which I studied for two years. I read the rest of the Bible too, but always I came back to Romans. Why? I'm not sure except that a youth pastor encouraged me. It wasn't stuffy and academic to me as it was to some—to the contrary, every verse seemed to throb with intensity and fire. It worked theology into me more profoundly than anything before or since.

As a college student I wanted to understand what a life of faith and prayer looked like in practice. Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret best represents those years of seeking. Taylor's life and faith moved me profoundly. Shadow of the Almighty was another book that helped me immensely—I read it perhaps twelve times in those years, memorizing several passages. Biographies of Adoniram Judson, C. T. Studd, George Muller, William Carey, David Livingstone, Francis Asbury, and David Brainerd all helped to flesh out the meaning of faith.

In graduate school I sought to understand the social implications of the gospel, and I found The Journal of John Woolman. This is the most contemporary of all the classical journals precisely because it deals with the three major social issues of our day: racism, militarism, and consumerism. The profound simplicity of Woolman's life, the courageous (yet compassionate) way he dealt with the cancer of slavery, his uncanny perception into the spirit that causes war, and his moving "plea for the poor" spoke to the deepest recesses of my spirit.

As a young pastor of a small, struggling church, I was confronted with the awesome task of nurturing a Christian fellowship, and hence my fourth area of reading interest was church renewal. All of the writings of D. Elton Trueblood have been helpful to me. Trueblood lifted my sights to new possibilities as well as helped me work through the often discouraging realities. Keith Miller in Taste of New Wine and Elizabeth O'Connor in Call to Commitment helped give flesh and sinew to the principles. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together touched me at a very deep level and gave me hope for the Christian fellowship.

Early in my pastoral experience, I was privileged to work with people who had been particularly bruised and broken by the culture around them, the "sat upon, spat upon, ratted on," as songwriter Paul Simon put it. I discovered that these folk needed far more than the pious religious platitudes I had to give them. This forced me to search more deeply than I had ever done before and led me, through a process of time, to the great devotional masters of the past. I found they understood the human condition and knew how a person could be freed from slavery to ingrained patterns of sin and led into a life of holy obedience and communion with God. I saw that these ancient writers were more contemporary than my contemporaries.

Their insight into the human heart, their wisdom into "the cure of souls," their experience into the presence of God drew me to them like a panting deer to flowing streams. I suppose The Little Flowers of St. Francis epitomizes this chapter in my pilgrimage as well as any. But there were so many others: Brother Lawrence's lovely Practice of the Presence of God and Thomas a Kempis's challenging Imitation of Christ and William Law's stern Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and Augustine's tender Confessions. I need to mention two contemporary books during this period that bridged the gap with the old writers for me, the first A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly, the second The Healing Light by Agnes Sanford. Kelly reflected the same spirit of inner devotion as the classical writers and helped me see that such a life was realizable in modern society. Sanford made the devotional masters believable, for in her life I saw experience of the power and love of God that had the same character as a Saint Francis or Richard Rolle.

My final area of reading is not really a separate period at all. It is a kind of reading that has spanned the years, beginning in college and continuing to the present. I choose the writings of C. S. Lewis, in particular Mere Christianity, as a paradigm for these books. Reading Lewis (along with the other Inklings) benefited me in three significant ways: I saw modeled a Christianity that was intellectually defensible, I saw that Christians could write genuine literature instead of mere propaganda, and I saw that God could sanctify and use the imagination. When I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my children, I was as enchanted as they—perhaps more so. And Tolkien's Middle Earth captured my imagination and broadened my spirit. My debt to the Inklings came not just in the obvious and significant ways but also in small and trivial ways: the turn of a phrase, the inversion of a concept, the germination of an idea.

Over a period of years, significant books became good friends. They have helped shape who I am, and I am better because of their friendship.

Originally published as MY CHOICE OF BOOKS: Richard Foster reflects on the writers who stretched his thinking” in Leadership, 1983.

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Text First Published November 1983 · Last Featured on November 2022