A colleague of mine recently asked me what books have contributed to my pursuit of wisdom and virtue, and asked me to offer why those particular books have meant so much to my holistic development as a human being. After much deliberation and soul-searching, I offer the following texts as those that have helped develop my own journey towards moral virtue. (**I apologize up front for the length of this post. There is no way to do this in short hand).
I spent a great deal of time thinking through the criteria for this selection, and I came to this: they could not just be books that I like, have enjoyed reading, or would recommend for their plot, characters, themes, lessons, ideas, etc. There are hundreds of books I could fit into that category; instead, I asked myself which books (and authors) consistently open a vein in me, haunt me, and force me to examine the places of deep mystery in my own life. These are books I return to again and again, and have for many years. They are books that may or may not speak to you, but they speak loudly to me.
I offer you this list as a glimpse into the texts and authors that have made me want to be a better man. Books in this category are extremely subjective; what haunts me may not even offer a whisper to you. If you can glean anything from this list, so be it; if not, no worries. I welcome eagerly the list of books that have honed your moral compass and served as companions on your own personal journey.
***These are in no particular order except as they came to mind***
The Prophets: Though the entire Bible has played a tremendous role in shaping my identity, I have a particular love for the prophetic narratives for the role they play in calling a community to live out an ethic that stands in redemptive contrast to that of the dominant imperial ideology of the day. The prophetic call to return to God; to care for the widow, the poor, and the fatherless; and to see the world become one of human and communal flourishing in the midst of war, affluence and competing world views is as beautiful as it is challenging. These ancient prophets of Israel were not “seers” or predictors of a distant future (as they are commonly thought); rather, they were the social critics of their day—men who would have much rather been left alone had they not been scorched by the word of God; men who felt the blast of heaven while the rest of the world slumbered. The following, Amos and Isaiah, are my personal favorites.
In the midst of economic prosperity, great wealth and commerce, thriving marketplaces, magnificent palaces and lush vineyards, Amos saw a nation rotting internally. While the priests offered sacrifices of fatted beasts and burnt offerings in the temples, the poor were afflicted and exploited; the judges were corrupt; nations pursued one another with the sword, ripping up women and children; and the people were driven into captivity and sold into slavery. In the economy of affluence and religious fervor, where markets teemed with the consumption of goods and harpists played songs in the temples, the book of Amos proclaims that God’s supreme concern is righteousness and his essential demand of man is justice.
Caught in the military contest between the great empires of Assyria and Egypt, the kings of Judah found themselves turning outward for protection. For a time, the relative safety of Judah’s foreign policies kept the marketplace busy, the priests happy, and the people docile. There was prosperity in the land as people bought and sold goods, pursued their work, and made their burnt offerings in the temple. The might of Judah’s political alliances were kept strong by the power of the sword and the people reveled in the splendor and pride of their kings. Into this culture of victory, wealth, and success came a prophet who saw a land drunk with lust for power and infatuated with war. Isaiah dreamed of a day when swords would be turned to plowshares, when judges would plead the cause of the fatherless, and when mourning would be turned to singing and barrenness to blessing.
**Walter Brueggemann: I owe a deep intellectual debt to perhaps the greatest living theologian, Walter Brueggemann, for helping me to see that the overarching narrative of the Biblical story is this: how do the people of God live out the ethic of Justice, Righteousness and Shalom in the midst of the dominant ideology of the Empire? In other words, how, in the midst of the hell that is Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, and Rome, do we live out the practices of Heaven? Three books in particular (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Edition, Journey to the Common Good, and Out of Babylon) are worth their weight in theological gold:
Les Miserables (Movie Tie-In)
I still remember the first time I saw the musical, Les Miserables, in London during my study in Oxford. Knowing nothing about the story when I walked in, I left mesmerized by the tale of one man’s heroic, intentional journey to “be an honest man”. Fifteen years later, its grip still holds me tight. This is my favorite book of all time. Its story is dense and full of enough theology that, were books being added to the Bible today, this one would deserve a spot. It is a heroic tale of transformation, a social critique, a history text, and a riveting love story all rolled into one. If you are only familiar with the musical, do yourself the favor of reading the second greatest story ever told. (You can read the abridged version if dense French history does not interest you).
In this brilliant piece of inquiry, Plato dismantles the rationale for being immoral, self-serving, boastful and full of unrestrained, rabid individualism. In this text, Plato unpacks a vision of the ideal state, the danger of unpunished immorality, and the evil of miseducation. Writing during a time torn apart by wars both internal and external, Plato holds up his vision of the love of wisdom as the highest end for rulers and the only assurance for a life well lived. The “Philosopher Ruler” is the central aim of The Republic, and, as such, this idea has much to offer education, politics, religion and social justice. Plato’s answer to Glaucon’s question: “Why would anyone be moral if he could get away with immorality without consequence?” and the famous “Allegory of the Cave” are worth the price of the book! What I enjoy most, though, is Socrates’ continual exploration of what it means to be the “just man” and why it matters, a question that still haunts us today. “Societies,” he writes, “aren’t made of sticks and stones, but of men whose individual characters, by turning the scales one way or another, determine the direction of the whole.”
This is one of the books that I read every year for its treatise on virtue, wisdom and the choosing of excellence in moral wisdom. In his lectures on ethics, Aristotle offers this brilliant analysis: happiness (eudiamonia, or full human flourishing) can only be attained by the virtuous man, the one who commits to doing the hard work of moral responsibility. Aristotle offers a wide range of thoughts on what this means, from practical reason to the weakness of will. Following in the footsteps of his master, Plato, Aristotle accounts for why the pursuit of wisdom is the only path to a truly content life. One of my favorite ideas is the importance he puts on virtuous friendship: “If people are friends, they have no need of justice.” How true and transformative this simple thought is!
Much like Plato, this Chinese philosopher was deeply concerned about developing an ethic of living to counter the unrelenting, escalating violence tearing through his country. To raise awareness to the deadly consequences of a life lived solely unto oneself, Confucius took to the road, offering wise counsel to any who would listen. Eventually, his philosophy came to dictate the standard of behavior for the entire Chinese society, including the emperor himself. His writings on the exemplary person is as fine as anything written by the best Greek or Hebraic writers. When asked about governing effectively, the Master replied, “Set an example yourself and then urge the people on.” It is Confucius who first sets up the “Golden Rule”: “Zigong asked, ‘Is there one expression that can be acted upon until the end of one’s days?’ The Master replied, ‘There is: do not impose on others what you yourself do not want.'” A few of my favorite lines: “Exemplary persons make demands on themselves, while petty persons make demands on others.” “Exemplary persons cherish fairness; petty persons cherish the thought of gain.” “As for persons who care for character much more than beauty–even if it were said of such persons that they are unschooled, I would insist that they are well-educated indeed.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau
One of my favorite philosophers is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose First and Second Discourses outline a theory of man every bit as sweeping as that described in Genesis. For Rousseau (countering Thomas Hobbes’ vision of a man who, left to his own devices, ends up living a life that is cold, poor, nasty, brutish and short), man is fundamentally a creature of proper self-love who is only corrupted by the progress of civilization. Rousseau’s famous line, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” speaks to the idea that it is not man’s inborn nature that corrupts him, but rather the inequalities, injustices, vanities, and jealousies of society that bring him to ruin. In his First Discourse, he argues that progress has not made man better as a human being, no matter how fancy, smart, or technologically savvy he is, and, though he is writing in the mid-1700s, his message is especially relevant today. In his Second Discourse, Rousseau details exactly how man’s natural happiness and freedom have been corrupted by systems of wealth, power and social privilege that have become part and parcel of the world we take for granted. He writes, “I must now consider and bring together the different chance factors which have succeeded in improving human reason while worsening the human species, making man wicked while making him sociable.”
**In this list are a handful of authors whose works as a whole have done much to guide me. I consider these authors my intellectual and spiritual Mentors, and I return to them as often as possible, sitting at their feet to learn afresh and anew. I offer them here in the order in which I first met them.
C.S. Lewis: Though I have read almost all of his writings (in theology, English criticism, science fiction, fantasy, and even his letters), I will offer here the ones that have left the most indelible imprint, though I could easily expand on this list with at least half a dozen more (The Four Loves, Till We Have Faces, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, etc.). Everything Lewis writes is worth the time; here, however, are the texts that have seared my soul:
This little book has done more for my thinking of what it means to live out the presence of Heaven than almost anything else. I first read this when I was a teenager, and have come back to it almost every other year since. It can be read in just a few nights, but its message takes a lifetime to digest. In this story of Lewis’ journey from Hell to Heaven, there are so many scenes that stand out: the landscape of Heaven that is so real, rain shreds the hellish ghosts and apples threaten to crush a man; the dwarf leading the giant by a collar; lizards of lust becoming stallions of Love; the dimensions of Hell and Heaven (an idea that describes the vastness of Hell as smaller than a grain of sand compared to the richness of Heaven); the idea that one must become “Heavenly” in order to grow into Heaven; and, of course, the beauty of the Shining Ones come back to turn shades into Saints. This book is more music than prose!
In this classic work, C.S. Lewis unpacks his great examination of what it means to be Christian. Drawing on myths, Greek philosophy, early church fathers, and his own background in literature, Lewis makes his great case for why Christianity matters. His depiction of God as the Great Moral Reality at the back of the universe, of the reality of good and evil, of the great and holy work of being a Christian, and what it means to be made whole “at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him,” has cut me year after year. This book is second only to the Bible in its impact on my Christian faith.
I love all of The Chronicles of Narnia, but this one stands out as the great masterpiece. It is, for most, the introduction into Narnia, a world so rich and thick and deep that one wishes it were real. When I tell my son about Narnia and the good lion, Aslan, he says, “Dad, I wish it were real.” I say, “Me too, son. Me too.” What Lewis is able to do in this beautifully written book is make come alive all that we hope and desire Jesus to be: strong, noble, and good, yet never tame. He is Wild in the way holiness must be wild: severe, dogged, ferocious, but certainly not tame. Who hasn’t felt a stir of hope at these words of Mr. Beaver’s describing Aslan:
“Is he a man?” asked Lucy. “Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.” “ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
If The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the mythical entrance into Narnia, there is no finer sortie out than this. Here, Lewis is at his finest, bringing home what it must be like to finally see the reality of faith come to full fruition. The final chapters of this wonderful book are worth the price of the whole series, for here, in death, Life is revealed in all its grandeur. I can still remember the holy awe I felt the first time I read these words: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!” This book converted me long ago, and its vision of home has never left me.
The Curate of Glaston
Like C.S. Lewis, I claim this old Scottish writer to be the baptizer of my spiritual imagination. A contemporary of Charles Dickens, this theologian, pastor and writer has done more for my concept of God and belief in Jesus than just about anyone living or dead. MacDonald’s writing takes some getting used to, but his depth of fleshed-out spirituality is unmatched. He has a way of making me want to believe in the sheer Goodness of the Father of the Man, Jesus Christ. His characters come alive with a thickness that few authors possess. I am captivated, to this day, by the lives of Donal Grant, Robert Falconer, and Thomas Wingfold, and I have longed many times to meet a mentor as honest, true and heavenly as the Godly dwarf, Polwarth. Just a few of MacDonald’s quotes should serve to whet the appetite for more of his deep, earthy wisdom: Put your trust in work, not money. God never buys anything, but He is always at work. / Where greed and ambition and self-love rule, there must be money; where there is neither greed nor ambition nor self-love, money is useless. / Our crimes are friends that will hunt us either to the bosom of God or the pit of hell. / I am not able to live without a God. I will seek him until I find him, or else die in the quest. You need no God, therefore you seek none. But I need a God–oh, how I need him, and I will give my life to search for him!
There, that should do for now! There are probably a few books that should be on this list (the memoirs of Brennan Manning and the works of Charles Dickens come to mind), but they are not. If these titles and authors do not impress you, so be it. They have left their impression on me most certainly. I would not be who I am without them.
As I said at the start, I hope this is the beginning of a larger conversation about the power of words to shape souls. Feel free to use the comments to add to the collection.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the image of the book and purchase it, I will receive an affiliate commission Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade COmmission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”