Excerpt from 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

We all want to be bet­ter. Our think­ing. Our act­ing. Our believ­ing. But how do we real­ly change?

Through­out the his­to­ry of the Chris­t­ian faith, Chris­tians have been trans­formed by spir­i­tu­al read­ing. Our pri­ma­ry resource is the Bible, but our life of faith has also been shaped by the writ­ings of many Chris­tians who were seek­ing to inter­pret the Bible, fur­ther their under­stand­ing, and live the Chris­t­ian life. Such writ­ings serve not only as lens­es to reveal and clar­i­fy the bib­li­cal mes­sage but also as tes­ti­monies and guid­ance from Chris­tians who have walked our path before us. We rec­og­nize that these authors have achieved Christ­like­ness in a way we would like to emu­late, and, so, by read­ing their works, we, too, hope to be trans­formed in the ways these exem­plars of the faith were transformed.


The goal of spir­i­tu­al read­ing is for it to affect who we are and what we do, to trans­form us. As Richard J. Fos­ter writes in Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline, Remem­ber that the key to the Dis­ci­pline of study is not read­ing many books, but expe­ri­enc­ing what we do read.” 

The most impor­tant book in the Chris­t­ian devo­tion­al life is, of course, the Bible. Indeed, as Richard Fos­ter writes in Life with God, God has giv­en us a writ­ten rev­e­la­tion of who God is and of what God’s pur­pos­es are for human­i­ty. And God has cho­sen to accom­plish this great work through the Peo­ple of God on earth. 

This writ­ten rev­e­la­tion now resides as a mas­sive fact at the heart of human his­to­ry. There is, sim­ply, no book that is remote­ly close to achiev­ing the sig­nif­i­cance and influ­ence of the Bible. It is tru­ly The Book (hay Bib­los).”1 Time with the Bible, on our own and in our com­mu­ni­ties, is vital and well spent. No book can sup­plant its pri­ma­ry impor­tance for us as Christians. 

The Bible is the foun­da­tion­al work for the read­ing of all [great] books, just as the foun­da­tion of a build­ing allows for the cre­ativ­i­ty and func­tion of the build­ing on top of it. [Clas­sic books] rep­re­sent a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty and chal­lenge: the oppor­tu­ni­ty is that read­ing them can assist in the ref­or­ma­tion of our hearts and minds into the like­ness of Jesus Christ; the chal­lenge is that read­ing for this pur­pose can be very dif­fer­ent from the way we typ­i­cal­ly inter­act with writ­ten mate­r­i­al. In short, here we are read­ing pri­mar­i­ly for for­ma­tion rather than for information. 


Our soci­ety has trained us to extract data and knowl­edge from what we read. In con­trast, what we hope to get out of read­ing these heart-ori­ent­ed texts is wis­dom and guid­ance from God. So we need to adjust our approach to the books and style of read­ing accordingly. 

You may want to con­sid­er which book it would be good for you to read based on what you need at the time.2 Those seek­ing wis­dom to chew on through­out the day might select The Say­ings of the Desert Fathers. Those need­ing an affir­ma­tion of the love of God might try Rev­e­la­tions of Divine Love or The Return of the Prodi­gal Son.

So often we are inclined to blast through a book like we go through mag­a­zines or mys­tery nov­els…. It is much bet­ter for our souls if we give our­selves the per­mis­sion to read and reread and read yet again the same para­graph that at any giv­en moment is speak­ing to the heart with­in us. This slow­er pace of read­ing requires time. While a half hour is good, an hour or more is bet­ter, even if time can­not be set aside each and every day. Time allows one the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pore over and soak in the text, to chew and savor it. 

Space is anoth­er con­sid­er­a­tion. Where will you do your spir­i­tu­al read­ing? Know that the focus that spir­i­tu­al read­ing requires is best achieved when we are com­fort­able and there are few com­peti­tors for our attention.

A time-test­ed way for slow­ing our read­ing and focus­ing our atten­tion is to keep a jour­nal on hand while read­ing for thoughts and reflec­tions. Writ­ing in the mar­gins of the book and under­lin­ing words and phras­es that res­onate can also become a type of jour­nal, a record of read­ing that will both mark time and bring ben­e­fit again when the book is ref­er­enced later. 

We also rec­om­mend approach­ing the text in a non­judg­men­tal fash­ion. Often when read­ing old­er books or books in unfa­mil­iar gen­res, we focus so much on the dif­fer­ences between our own out­look and that of the author that we close our minds to the wis­dom found in this dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. We must con­sid­er the dis­tance of time between when [the] books were writ­ten and our peri­od. Many of these authors were also expe­ri­enc­ing a much dif­fer­ent style of liv­ing than our own, such as a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty or clois­tered order. 

And there is the mat­ter of our post-Enlight­en­ment out­look; for instance, some of the authors of these books thought that the sun revolved around the earth! For whichev­er rea­son, to read these books for for­ma­tion, we need to allow the sto­ries and phras­es that strike us as odd and pecu­liar to stand, at least ini­tial­ly. A good strat­e­gy might be to try to sus­pend judg­ment and sim­ply allow the author to teach what­ev­er it is she or he has to teach even if at times it seems unre­al­is­tic or strange. Remind your inner crit­ic that the authors of many of these books were ask­ing much dif­fer­ent ques­tions than we do, and that maybe we should be ask­ing dif­fer­ent ques­tions ourselves.

The results of read­ing these books may be that (1) your vision of the king­dom of God becomes more and more acute, and it makes you long for the poten­tial of it for your­self and your neigh­bors, and (2) you become depressed because this vision is so far away from your cur­rent real­i­ty…. Inevitably, as we read, we will be caught up into this vision as well, and we may feel dis­cour­aged as we see how our own lives fail to mea­sure up to this ide­al. Read­ing these books with oth­ers can help mod­er­ate such feel­ings of dis­cour­age­ment, and even add to the ben­e­fit of our study. But ulti­mate­ly we are alone with our thoughts and will look to God as our solace. In so doing, we enter into the joy and sor­row of God over the life of the world and our role in it.

  1. Richard J. Fos­ter, Life with God (San Fran­cis­co: Harper­One, 2008), 3. ↩︎
  2. Empha­sis added. ↩︎

Adapt­ed from the intro­duc­tion to 25 Books Every Chris­t­ian Should Read: A Guide to the Essen­tial Spir­i­tu­al Clas­sics (A Ren­o­vare Resource), edit­ed by Julia L. Roller.

Pho­to by César Viteri on Unsplash

Text First Published September 2011 · Last Featured on Renovare.org November 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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