My mother switched the lights off. I knew she expected me to close my eyes and drift off to sleep. Instead, I pulled the quilt over my head so the glow of my reading light wouldn’t filter out the door. Flipping the book open, I read a chapter. And then another. I feel justified in laying the blame for a sleep deprived childhood at the feet of the authors who tempted me most to keep reading.
Writers are the spinners of worlds. But the worlds they craft aren’t pure invention; they’re a reflection of the environments that shape perceptions and character. Early on I found my footing on European and American soil, absorbed by novels written by the usual suspects—Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Madeline L’Engle, and a cast of other authors too long to name. But it wasn’t long before I found myself wandering further afield into foreign territory with a new set of guides. I traveled to languid afternoons on the Carribean coast with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to the troubled streets of South African cities torn apart by apartheid with Nadine Gordimer, into the restrained elegance of Japanese society with Yukio Mishima, into Afghan courtyards with Khaled Hosseini, and through the labyrinthine backstreets of Istanbul with Orhan Pamuk.
As words printed on pages ushered me into psychic, social, cultural, and historical spaces that I couldn’t experience any other way, I realized human connection doesn’t require physical proximity because longing transcends international borders. The human spirit is indomitable in its quest for the meaning of existence. The search for meaning I first encountered in fiction later led me to non-fiction—especially philosophy and theology.
So many of the books I’ve read have been delicious, some have been harrowing, others illuminating; but the challenge here is to identify five that have been transformative. So, these are a few of the books that changed my life by opening up the world in a new way.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
I spent summers in the western corner of Virginia at my grandparents’ mountain cabin, but I never saw the landscape and the countless creatures that inhabited the fields, ponds, and woodlands quite the way Annie Dillard sees them. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a lesson in meditative looking, an ode to being, a prayer for awakening all fused into one. As she describes the changing of the seasons and the teeming minutia living along the banks of Tinker Creek, she inspired me to live with an essential attentiveness to the beauty (and savagery) of the created universe, to wake up to the lives of the beings—botanical, avian, amphibian, human—that share my neighborhood. Years after reading it, I’m still tromping around trying to find the tree with the lights in it and longing to live like a bell that has just been rung.
Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster
The comfortable notion that our particular brand of Christianity is the only true expression of the church is hard to shake. But a parochial faith restricted to my own century, my own cultural moment, my own denomination, is deeply unsatisfying. I want a faith connected to the whole multi-faceted, mystifyingly diverse body of Christ that has struggled (and mostly failed) to be unified in a common confession in Jesus Christ as Lord from the first-century up until now. It was this book by Richard Foster that first helped me see the glory of taking a long, inclusive view of the church. Foster introduces us to the strengths and potential weaknesses of various traditions that flow together within two millenia of Christian history. He discusses the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational traditions demonstrating how each stream can be traced to a biblical paradigm and each has been embodied by historical and contemporary Christian figures. Foster’s genius is recognizing that we need all these streams and that each is an integral part of the ancient and modern expression of the church.
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Our deepest loves our tenderest wounds are often bound to the concept of home. Home is never just a place; it’s a whole complex network of relationships that are found in the tension between welcome and alienation. The memory of reading this novel about a prodigal son’s return to visit his pastor father invokes an ache in my heart akin to the memory of unrequited love. Robinson’s writing burrows into the distances between people who desperately want to love one another well but find themselves inhibited in mysterious ways from doing so. Observing the finely drawn characters in the novel consistently misunderstand one another, I began to perceive the yawning gap between our perceptions of one another and our underlying motivations and fears. The awareness that we have a natural proclivity to misread, judge unjustly, harden our hearts, can free us to a supernatural love that is not conditioned by our prejudices and disappointments. The question of whether a father is capable of loving his prodigal son bleeds into an urgent theological question—does the doctrine of predestination mean some were never meant to be welcomed home? When read alongside Gilead and Lila, two novels set in the same small mid-western town populated by the same cast of characters, Home takes on an even deeper emotional resonance and is lifted by the hope of redemption.
The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright
Not long after I read The Challenge of Jesus, I applied to a graduate program in theology. I’m not kidding—reading N.T. Wright made me want to go back to school to study the Bible. When my father handed me a copy of this particular book (hand signed by the scholar himself), I had no idea what a towering figure Wright cut in the world of New Testament studies. But now I realize that any of his many works would likely have had a similar effect on me. Wright brings his expansive knowledge of ancient history, archaeology, biblical languages, philosophy, literary criticism, and contemporary culture to his exposition of Jesus’s ministry, teaching, and redemptive mission—the result is rich and revelatory. His informed defense of the historical reality of the resurrection bolstered my faith in a time it was waning. And his passionate apologia for a Christianity rooted in history and alive to and engaged with the present moment continues to be wind in my sails.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
Some books that are transformative are not a pleasure to read. And that’s true of Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s haunting, anguished tale of Hazel Motes, a man whose name hints at his journey from vision to blindness. Hazel means “to see” or “God sees,” but by the end of the tale (spoiler alert!) Hazel is identified simply as Mr. Motes, his physical loss of vision symbolic of intentional spiritual blindness. As Hazel actively pushes God to the margins of his life, he spirals into an existence that can only be described as pained isolation. O’Connor is fiercely unflinching in her mission to unveil the depths of darkness so that we aren’t tempted down Hazel’s path—a futile attempt to assert our independence from God through rigorous vice or rigorous asceticism. Wise Blood is nothing if not a stern warning that if we petulantly resist God’s overtures, if we refuse his grace, if we reject the light, if we chase after the darkness, eventually, we’ll end up alone in the dark. Glimpsing the void of life without God left me straining toward the light.
Tina Boesch, Author of Given: The Forgotten Meaning and Practice of Blessing
How do we express the good that God wants for those we love? How do we experience blessing through pain and suffering? Why would we bless even enemies? How do we keep spoken blessings in sync with God’s will? And how do we integrate blessing, a concept woven throughout the entire Bible, into the fabric of our everyday lives?
In Given, you will journey outside of your comfort zone, into a world of blessing as a relational calling—as a way God relates to you and a way you’re called to relate to others. You will travel across countries, cultures, and centuries of church history to expand your paradigm of a word ripe with significance. Along the way, you’ll be inspired to begin the essential Christian practice of being given by God as a blessing.
Journey with author Tina Boesch to discover your calling to a meaningful way of living and relating to God and others, inspired by Christ, who gave himself on the cross so that we could fully experience God’s blessing.