Thursday, June 06, 2013

10 Must-Read Books

Every now and then, you read one of those books that captivates you so much, or educates you to such a degree, that you just can't help but think that everyone should read it.

It happens to me a lot.

So without further ado, and in no particular order of significance, here is a list of the ten books that have most impacted, entertained, educated, and/or influenced me, and which would make valuable additions to anyone's reading list.  I've included Amazon links to each book.

1) Liberating the Gospels by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong is the retired Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church.  A widely-read scholar and theologian and a prominent voice for progressive Christianity, he is an outspoken critic of fundamentalism and traditional Christian theology.

I've read all of Spong's books and they are all recommendable, but the one that impacted me the most was undoubtedly "Liberating the Gospels," which is subtitled "Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes."

That subtitle is important because the book demonstrates the importance of understanding the first century Jewish context in which the New Testament gospels were written - particularly Mark and Matthew, the first two gospels.  Modern Christians tend to approach the gospels - and indeed the whole Bible - as though they were written in a vacuum for modern sensibilities.  They weren't.  They were written by first century Jews practicing first century Judaism and incorporating their understanding of their Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, into their distinctly Jewish worldview, which was itself heavily influenced by the Jewish scriptures, laws, and customs.

Spong's book his highly readable and aimed at a general reading audience.  He explores the Jewish roots for the stories of the gospels and highlights how they were profoundly influenced by Jewish scriptures.  It may go without saying that his conclusions fly in the face of virtually everything you ever heard in church or Sunday school.  

At the risk of be hyperbolic, this book left me staggered.  It completely altered my view of how to understand the biblical stories of Jesus.  When people ask me to recommend a book on Christianity, this is always the first one I name.

Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes

2) Sphere by Michael Crichton

Before his novels became a veiled political platform for anti-environmentalist claptrap, Michael Crichton was a exceptional thriller writer.  "Jurassic Park," of course, made him famous, but "Sphere," which was published in 1987, several years before "Jurassic Park," was easily one of the best scientific thrillers ever written.

The first time I read "Sphere," I read it in one sitting.  It reads like a movie and the pages just fly by.  I was captivated from practically the first sentence and every page riveted me.  I've since re-read the book four or five times.

Set mostly in an underwater laboratory in the Pacific Ocean, the book tells the story of a scientific investigation into an unknown spacecraft discovered buried under the ocean floor.  The narrative very quickly becomes a psychological thriller as it becomes more and more difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined.

"Sphere" is, quite simply, a brilliant thriller novel.


3) Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett 

A massive, thousand page tome, "Pillars of the Earth" is British thriller writer Ken Follett's masterpiece.  In this book, which was published in the late 1980's, Follett diverged from his normal duties writing spy thrillers and embarked on a historical novel set in 12th century England and centered on the building of a cathedral.

A thousand pages about the construction of a cathedral in the 1100's sounds about as much fun as a root canal, but take my word for it: "Pillars of the Earth" is one of the best historical novels of the entire 20th century.  When I first read the book in 2005, I read it in about a week.  I simply could not put it down.  It is a sprawling saga of medieval England that draws you in with its rich descriptions, captivating characters, scheming intrigues, well-crafted suspense, and heart-wrenching romance.

If you like historical fiction and have not read "Pillars of the Earth," you need to buy or borrow it right this minute.

The Pillars of the Earth

4) Jesus by Marcus J. Borg

In the same way that "Liberating the Gospels" is the first book I always recommend when talking about Christian scholarship in general, the first book I recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the study of the historical Jesus is Marcus Borg's fantastic book "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary."

Of all the books I've read on the historical Jesus - reconstructing his life and times, his purpose, his message - none is even in the same category with Borg's "Jesus."  It is simply the finest resource I am aware of on understanding who Jesus was, where he came from, and what his life and message was all about.  Like all the other books on this list, once started, it is difficult to put down.  You keep wanting to come back to it to learn more.  I practically devoured this book.

Borg is a well-respected Christian scholar and theologian and, like the aforementioned Spong, writes his books for a general reading audience.  He has spent a significant amount of his scholarly career focusing on the study of the historical Jesus, so he knows the subject intimately.  In this book, he argues convincingly that Jesus was a peasant healer, prophet, and voice for social change, working against the cultural norms and powers of his day, providing a radical reinterpretation of God and the Jewish scriptures, and offering a new way of life to his followers.

If you ever wanted to know what Jesus was really like, what his life and message was really all about, without all the theological pomp and circumstance that the Church has draped over him for 2,000 years, this is a book that you simply must read.

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

5) 1984 by George Orwell

"1984" has always been the book I traditionally say is my favorite novel.

I first read this book in a 10th grade English class and absolutely loved it.  I then had it assigned again for a 12th grade English class, and since I had liked it so much the first time, I went ahead and re-read it.  I enjoyed it so thoroughly the second time that as soon as I had finished it, I immediately started it again and read it for a third time.  By the time I was 25 years old or so, I had read it five or six times through.  

Even after 65 years, "1984" is still disturbingly relevant, with its dystopian view of an authoritarian government ruled by the seemingly omniscient Big Brother.  Stalin's communism (which inspired the novel) may have collapsed in Europe, but the major themes explored in this novel are still playing out in the modern world with disturbing frequency.  Of note is the novel's description of "doublethink," and the Party's revision of language, which is called "Newspeak" in the novel.

Orwell describes doublethink as "holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them...[telling] deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them."

Orwell might as well have been talking about modern politicians, news media personalities, or fundamentalist religious figures.


6) River God by Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith is my favorite novelist.  Born in Zambia in southern Africa during the waning days of British imperialism there, he has been publishing grand adventure novels consistently since the mid-1960's.  Every one of his more than 30 novels is set primarily in Africa, and the time period of his novels spans from the ancient world to the modern, with most set during the 19th and 20th centuries.

"River God," published in the early 1990's, was the first book of his that I read, and it captivated me from the very first sentence: "The river lay heavily upon the desert, bright as a spill of molten metal from a furnace."

Set during the so-called "Middle Kingdom" of ancient Egyptian history (roughly 1800 B.C.E.), the novel is a sweeping saga of adventure and romance, narrated in the first person by the slave and eunuch Taita, whose master is Lostris, daughter of the powerful Egyptian king.  Smith's strength is the richness of his prose, his vivid descriptions, and his ability to draw his reader into the world of his characters.

If you like historical fiction, and especially if you are fascinated, as I am, by all things ancient Egypt, this is a novel you absolutely, positively, must read.  Its sequels - "Warlock," "The Quest," and "The Seventh Scroll" - are fantastic too.

River God: A Novel of Ancient Egypt

7) Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

It's a simple fact: every Christian should read this book.

Bart Ehrman is a UNC religion professor and a major voice in the world of modern New Testament scholarship.  A widely-published and highly-decorated scholar who writes books for both academic as well as general reading audiences, he has published more than twenty books and routinely appears on television.

I don't like the title of this book because it is intentionally sensational and also misleading: very little of the book has to do with the actual words of Jesus.  (If I recall correctly, Ehrman even notes in the book that the title was not his own, but was chosen by his publisher.)

In any case, the book discusses the textual history of the Bible.  In prose that is easy to follow, Ehrman takes a very complicated subject (papyrology, linguistics, and the general study of ancient texts) and makes it not just easy to understand, but actually fascinating.  Specifically, he focuses on how and why the actual words of the Bible were changed over the centuries by scribes who copied the texts during the Middle Ages, before the advent of the printing press.  Most people don't often consider the fact that for the first 1400 years of Christian history, no Bible was ever produced without it being hand-copied.  This copying naturally resulted in countless mistakes and slips of the pen, as well as a number of changes to the texts that could only have been intentional, motivated by theological perspectives.

Ehrman catalogues a number of major variations among existing ancient manuscripts of various New Testament books, and discusses the significance of these variations on major points of commonly-accepted theology.

"Misquoting Jesus" totally changed my perspective on the Bible, how it came to be the book it is today, why it says what it says, and why anyone who suggests that it is "infallible" is simply ignorant of the Good Book's own history.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

8) 11/22/63 by Stephen King

This is the "newest" book on my list, published in late 2011.  I only just read it in January and it immediately went onto my list of favorite novels.  I simply could not put this book down.  It is the first and only book I've ever read by Stephen King that I absolutely loved.

I've always had a turbulent relationship with the King of Horror.  I've read roughly half a dozen of his books (which is, admittedly, not very many), and with the exception of his non-fiction book on the art of writing, I've always been mostly dissatisfied.  "11/22/63," however, grabbed me from the start and I practically swallowed it whole.

As the title indicates, this is a novel about the Kennedy assassination.  Starting out in the present day, the main character, Jake, discovers a time travel portal inside an old diner that always takes its traveler back to 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958.  No matter how long a traveler stays in the past, once he returns through the portal, only two minutes have passed in the present.  Jake eventually decides to use the portal to stop the Kennedy assassination, and thus alter the course of history for the better (so he believes).

The Kennedy assassination has always been a popular topic among modern Americans, and who doesn't love a time travel story?  This book is a perfect blend of both, and has a healthy amount of suspense to keep you turning the pages.  The characters feel like your best friends, there's an underlying love story that provides a nice romantic counterbalance to the suspense, and (unlike many King novels that I've read) the ending is actually satisfying.

11/22/63: A Novel

9) The Wolf's Hour by Robert McCammon 

One of my absolute favorite thriller novels of all time, I almost never read "The Wolf's Hour," and when I finally did, it was on a whim.

My sister had loaned me this book, telling me it was really fantastic.  Based on the cover, I could see that it was a horror/thriller novel about a werewolf who doubled as a World War II British spy.  I thought it sounded silly and nothing at all like what I would typically read.  Not wanting to hurt my sister's feelings, I took the book and stuck it on my shelf and subsequently ignored it for about two years.

One day I was browsing my bookshelves, looking for something to read.  I had gotten caught up on all my "to-be-read" books and was thinking about re-reading something.  My eye caught the tattered, 15-year-old copy of "The Wolf's Hour" that my sister had loaned me several years before, and I decided that, since I didn't have anything else better to read, I'd give it a whirl.  I figured I'd read a chapter or two and probably end up abandoning it.

I was blown away.

This book hooked me from page one and I was stunned by just how much I loved it.  If you like spy novels or thrillers, and especially if you enjoy those kinds of novels against a backdrop of World War II, you should move this book high up on your "to-be-read" list.  I enjoyed this novel so much it led me to check out the rest of McCammon's bibliography, and he has become one of my absolute favorite novelists, right up there with Mr. Smith and Mr. Orwell.        

The Wolf's Hour

10) The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman

This book is a bit more "academic" than the other non-fiction books I have recommended, but it is still written for a general reading audience.  Freeman is a British historian of ancient Greece and Rome, and this book details how the pursuit of knowledge and reason, championed during the height of the Greco-Roman period, was supplanted in late antiquity by superstition and ultimately led Europe into a centuries-long dark age.

Freeman talks extensively about the influence of Christianity on this social move away from reason and knowledge.  Once the Catholic Church took control of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century, there was an intentional and systematic war waged against science, technology, reason, medicine, and even literature and history.  While these subjects flourished in the East under Muslim rule, the West decayed and the Roman empire crumbled, leading to the so-called "Dark Ages," where western Europeans suffered for centuries with a standard of living significantly lower than that enjoyed by their ancestors several hundred years earlier.

This book will educate you and will challenge some of your preconceived notions about where we come from and why we believe the things we believe.  It left me with an overwhelming sense of "what might have been" if not for the intentional suppression of knowledge that was carried out in the name of God and power by the early Christian church.        

The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason

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