Looking for a good book, for me, is a quest a little like a detective’s searching for clues: anything that can be anticipated is not it. It is like a good surprise birthday present: you know it when you see it, but anything you can anticipate is not it. (In that regard, it is like a foretaste of Heaven: eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor any mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.) The list should grow longer as time progresses.
I told a friend once that I thought that some things would be a lot better if theologians would do all the apologetics, and apologists would do all of the theology. I’m not sure how to explain that remark (beyond asking people to think about it and let it sink in), but I often get more out of lesser works than greater. I am not including Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae on the list, for instance, because I got less out of reading it (in abridgment) than out of reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and less out of reading parts of Dante’s Divina Commedia than C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Maybe when I have matured more I will be ready to read some of the greater works, but now I usually learn best at the hands of the lesser masters. My judgment has certainly bothered people; the aforementioned friend was quite surprised when I gave high acclaim to Titanic, and he eventually said, after seeing what I saw in it, that my reading was so beautiful of a reading that he almost hesitated to attribute it to Kirk Cameron. Many of these works are lesser classics; I am aware of the greater classics, but have not learned much from most of them. Readers who enjoy this list may also like to see my favorite haunts on the web.
- The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
- An excellent and concise description of what Western culture is trying to do, and what will come of it.
- Abortion: A Failure to Communicate.
- On Saturday Night Live, the announcer said, “Kenny G came out with his new Christmas album. [pause] Happy birthday, Jesus. I hope you like crap!”
Being aloof from popular artists, it took me a while to realize that Kenny G is not a Christian artist. Most of what goes by the name of Christian is intellectually and artistically worthless, in a sense a blasphemy against the Creator who lovingly and lavishly created no two blades of grass alike. In looking through Christian this and Christian that on the web, it was a very refreshing pearl amidst a desert of sand. This was the first good Christian article I found in a long while.
- Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, by Franky Schaeffer
- This book provides an excellent analysis of bad philosophy as it leads to an impoverished culture — dealing with how utilitarianism (leaving the obvious critique related to pursuing only means and never ends) has nearly killed one aspect of the imago dei in our culture. A good and accessible read to anyone concerned with philosophy, art, or culture.
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman
- After I read this book (a quick read, in contradistinction to Jerry Mander’s weightier and slower Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), I’ve never looked at a TV the same way again. This would be a good candidate for the first book on this list to read, because once you’ve read this one you’ll find it easier to break away from television’s accursed spell and read other books and otherwise experience life.
There’s something that must be said for television. It must be said, because it cannot be printed.
- All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections, by Gandhi
- This book, and in particular the chapter entitled, “Ahimse or the way of nonviolence,” provided a large part of my real beginning in understanding peacemaking, and the loose prototype for Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real Peace through Real Strength. It’s largely a collection of excellent quotes, and well worth reading to anyone asking the questions concerning violence and peace.
- The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
- C.S. Lewis said that children’s books should be good enough for adults, and that childrens’ books which aren’t good enough for adults won’t be any good for children, either. All of the best children’s literature is good for adults, and this book in particular is interesting, funny, and truly profound. (Something similar, incidentally, might be said for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)
- The Book of Heroic Failures, by Stephen Pile
- This book I debated putting in, but I decided for: first, because when I read it I laughed so hard I cried and could barely talk, and second, because it does help to come to terms with a side of being human that most of us find a smidgen embarrassing.
- Changeling: the Dreaming
- Reading about this game (which I could not play in good conscience, incidentally), was one of the things I did that most pierced me with a glimpse of Heaven, as did Pilgrim’s Regress and other places. To quote from the web site:
We are changelings, the forgotten ones, neither fully fae nor wholly mortal. The last of our kind on Earth, we have built ourselves an invisible kingdom. We are everywhere, yet you have never seen us. We hide, not behind some fragile Masquerade, but in plain sight, with the power of our Glamour. We exist within a real world of make-believe where “imaginary” things can kill, and “pretend” monsters are real.
This is an exquisitely beautiful description of the spilled religion that is Romanticism, and someone who drinks those drops may well imbibe deeper from the Chalice than someone who is careful to have his lips touch the chalice, but makes no effort to take in the Drink inside. We are indeed members of an invisible kingdom, hidden in plain sight by the power of grace and prayer, and believe many things that the Kingdom of Darkness now calls imaginary. Reading this inspired a part of one of my writings:
On the web, I found a place set up by a woman who believed she was a fairy. At first, it weirded me out — but, the more and more I think about, the less it strikes me as strange. I don’t mean that it’s not wrong — I mean rather that it is far less wrong than many beliefs about which we’ve become blase’. The essential idea of a person who is really a fairy, and a world of wonder, a nature of beauty, and of magic, is in some ways very close to the truth of imago dei, of God’s magnificent creation, and of prayer. It has its definite errors and omissions, but it is far closer to true than the idea of a person as only a material body, of nature as only a particular configuration of subatomic particles, of the supernatural as only a figment of human imagination and superstition. The beliefs around fairies would make the basis for an excellent parable, of which a crude rendition is as follows:
Once upon a time, there was a village of men, that was on the border of fairy-land. And some people saw faries, but some lived lives that were dull and dreary.
And the god of nature, who was the prince of the gods, entered this village and began to take men and women into his arms, embracing them and kissing them. And when he kissed them, he made them into fairies. And he took them, and taught them to dance, a wild, merry, pagan dance with the trees and stars and rivers and lakes and flowers.
And the god cut through what was dull and mundane, and the leaders whose interests were in all that was dull and mundane were enraged and killed him. And yet all of their rage and unbelief and violence, even death itself, could not keep him. Before he was killed, he gave the fairies to eat his flesh and drink his blood, that he might live in them and they in him, and after he was killed, he rose in a surge of the indestructible life that was within him.
And now, he has left that he might be everywhere — in men, in the stars, in the trees, and enchant them with his magic, that they might dance also, and he abides and is found inside each fairy, and empowers them to kiss others with his kiss and draw them into the circle of life, that they also might become fairies, living the life of the nature god, weaving his magic by which the entire universe pulses with life, carried about by song and wonder, and dancing the great dance.
And he has designs yet unveiled — to bring an even greater perfection to the nature, the fairies, the magic, the dance, the embrace.
And the story is unfolding even now.
- Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, by Dorothy Sayers
- An excellent collection of essays, beginning with a beautiful satire entitled, “The Pantheon Papers”
- The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
- These seven books are excellent children’s literature, and storytelling that tells the most beautiful story through fantasy. I have always been drawn to fantasy, because it draws out the wondrous and beautiful truths about our world — “The better you know another world, the better you know your own,” (George MacDonald, Lilith) — and because good fantasy is a reflection of our world.
- Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, by Steve C. McConnell
- All of the really good books, in any field, are books of philosophy. This book is a book of philosophy in computer programming, but it is widely applicable outside of that field. Its central point is that computer programming is an activity done by humans instead of just an activity using computer, and as such it is not enough to know the computer’s strengths and weaknesses, but also to know your own strengths and weaknesses. Some of its immediate content — how to choose variable names and lay out procedures so that you’re less likely to run into certain bugs resulting from your short-term memory failure in designing the program — is only relevant to programmers, but macroscopically it would be valuable to anyone. A must-read for software engineers, and a should-read for everyone else.
- The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- This is an excellent book; it is a good competitor to Experiencing God for the place of #1 recommendation, or more appropriately a good companion volume. This book shows what sola fide really means in terms of works, and the monumental importance of good works in a context of faith. Bonhoeffer repeats, as a refrain, “Only those who believe can obey, and only those who obey can believe.” Works are like a sacrament — not human means of making ourselves worthy, but physical conduits of God’s blessing. Show Bonhoeffer your faith without works, and this martyr and mensch will show you his faith through his works.
- Darwin on Trial, by Phillip Johnson
- Shortly after reading Abortion: A Failure to Communicate, I earnestly read all kinds of articles at Leadership University, happy to find high-quality Christian articles… and my estimation of the site dropped several notches when I saw articles with titles like “Darwin on Trial.” It seemed that here, after a lot of mature thought, was a kneejerk conservative backsliding into fighting to restore six-day creationism and otherwise fight what good science said. One day, I actually read one of these articles I detested, and it blew me away.What followed after that was a crisis, followed by a loss of faith — not in God, but rather in academia. I came to believe something I had long resisted — that Darwinism was established dogma, not because of its support in the evidence (existing scientific evidence being extremely hostile to any form of Darwinism that is both recognizably connected with Darwin’s theory, and within spitting distance of being called a scientific theory), but because it provides an excuse for an explanation of how life could come to be without a Creator.
- Darwin’s Black Box, by Michael Behe
- Darwin on Trial gives a broad overview of scientific evidence concerning Darwinism. Darwin’s Black Box provides a focused and in-depth look at one very specific biochemical mechanism. I didn’t find it quite as fascinating as the former, but it’s definitely worth reading for people who like intricate clockwork and complexity. An engineer should like it.
- The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce
- This classic of satire contains a number of extremely funny definitions (my personal favorite defined rum to be “generically, fiery liquors which produce madness in total abstainers”), and is poignantly insightful as to the shortfallings of American Christianity. It was the basis, and provided the model, for Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary. Its cynicism is something to be wary of, but beyond that it is a classic of wit and refreshingly blunt honesty.
- The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman
- I plan on re-reading this book if and when I get married, have kids, and my eldest child reaches the age of three. It deals with the themes of other books, plus a harmful blurring of the line that separates children from adults. If you care about children having a real childhood, you should probably read this.
- The Empty Self: Gnostic Foundations of Modern Identity, by Dr. Jeffrey Burke Satinover
- Gnosticism is the most ancient of heresies, and one of the deadly poisons infesting the Church. (I am using ‘heresy’ in its ancient sense of “a fatally flawed idea that is as damaging to the believer as is a belief that arsenic is healthy food”, not in the modern sense of “an excellent idea which narrow-minded society benightedly condemns.”) This provides an excellent introduction by which to know and avoid it.
- Experiencing God: How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God, by Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King
- This book articulate deep lessons about listening to God and obeying him. It comes highly reccommended.
- Fairy Tales: At The Back of the North Wind, The Complete Fairy Tales, The Day Boy and the Night Girl, The Golden Key, The Light Princess, The Lost Princess, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, by George MacDonald.
- C.S. Lewis said that he fancies he never wrote a story that did not in some way borrow from MacDonald, and it was MacDonald who served as his mentor in The Great Divorce. These different fairy tales are profound, moving, and some of the deepest literature I know. They are rare gems equally appropriate to children and adults.
- Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father : Being the Narratives Compiled by the Servant of God Alexander Concerning His Spiritual Father
- This book shows how the light of Heaven shines in the darkest situations. Father Arseny was a survivor of the brutal “special sector” death camps of the Stalinist regime, and is the kind of person who can light a candle in the darkest corner of Hell. One comes away from this book feeling, not the atrocity inside and outside of the brutal Stalinist death camps, but a good that could shine even in those circumstances. I highly reccommend it.
- Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey.
- This book, written by a doctor, explores the beauty and power of the human body, and by analogy the body of Christ. Chapters 15 through 18 awakened me to the goodness of touch — hugging me used to be like hugging a board, but I now have a very present and powerful touch. It was because of them that I wrote A Treatise on Touch. A very beautiful and thoughtful book.
- First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life
- This journal is about putting first things first, as described in the opening editorial. It has substantial and intellectually mature treatments of many of the issues of our day. If you like it, you might consider subscribing.
- Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander
- Neil Postman presents one good argument as to why television is not the bestthing since sliced bread. Mander presents four, developped at greater length. There is less of a lively pace, and the argument gets weird some of the time, but it still produces thought-provoking and serious arguments as to why television should be eliminated. Among the excellent comments may be found, “The programming is the packaging; the advertising is the content.” If you watch more than an hour of TV a week, take half an hour of your regular TV time and devote it to reading this book.
- 45 Effective Ways of Hiring Smart! How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game, by Pierre Mornell, et al. (Author has also written another excellent title, for job hunters: Games Companies Play)
- Written for people who hire others, this is a book on how to read people. It seems to me to do a good job of living up to its rather large title.
- Foundations of Cognitive Science, ed. Michael A. Posner
- This is my favorite textbook; it presents an interdisciplinary field, cognitive science, and is fascinating reading.
- Galileo, Science, and the Church, by Jerome J. Langford
- I make it a personal rule not to reccommend a book I haven’t read, and this book justifies breaking that rule.
I, and I suspect you, have heard in science classes a moral fable about a heroic natural philosopher named Galileo who was martyred by the evil, oppressive, and censorious Church. It is a beautiful story — showing, as well as any morality play, that being a scientist is good, and the Church and its concept of orthodoxy are demonspawn (sentiments that are echoed in, for example, the Oxford Companion to Philosophy having an entry for persecution of philosophers, but no reference to persecution by philosophers — not the faintest reference to the bloodbath that culminated the siecle des lumieres with cleaning ladies and eight year old children guillotined as much as clergy and statesmen, with patriots standing at the foot of the guillotine to be sprayed by the blood of the unfortunates and then eat their still living flesh; nor any reference to the hundred million lives lost, and the blood that has flowed like a river every single time people have taken Marx’s philosophy as a good basis for a political order). But the Galileo fable has no connection with fact.
Among other points may be mentioned that Galileo scientifically produced garbage — no experimental data and no particularly good interpretation of those results — that Galileo was friends of the Pope but alienated him and made a number of enemies by being a jerk, and that Galileo was preceded in his heliocentrism by nearly half a century, and that by a cardinal. The only reason the story is told is as part of the process of brainwashing people to worship science and despise the Church.
- The Game (movie)
- Q: What do the following three things have in common?
- A joke.
- A Zen koan.
- The book of Job.
A: They all share something with The Game, and the effect in that movie is stunning.
- Gather (hymnal)
- This is a lively, modern hymnal of the sort that achieves several dishonorable mentions in Why Catholics Can’t Sing. That stated, it has a number of songs that I cherish and that were new to me, including “Canticle of the Sun,” “Gather us in,” and “The City of God.”
This is the songbook used by Koinonia at the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois, and for that reason I cherish it — I purchased a copy when I had almost no money, just to be able to have those songs. I used a few of its songs to improvise on in my second recorded tape.
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher et al.
- This is, as far as I know, the best book for dealing with conflicts where another party and you can’t yet agree on something. I don’t think that this is the substance of life, but conflicts are bound to happen, and knowing this book will be immeasurably helpful in dealing with some conflicts.
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas E. Hofstadter.
- This book is one of the most stunning displays of intellectual fireworks I have read. It relates art, music, stories, and mathematics, along with wit, witticism, and clever dialogues. It started out as a little pamphlet, and Hofstadter soon realized he was writing more than just a pamphlet explanation of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.
- The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
- This is just a great book, useful for nurturing the reader in Christian wisdom — and one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. I got a lot more out of this than out of the parts of La Divina Commedia that I’ve read.
- Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers, by James T. Webb et al.
- Being very smart does not just mean more of the same kind of intelligence most people possess; it means possessing a different kind of mind. When I first read this book, it seemed to me to be part of the cult of giftedness; my estimation has since changed to recognizing a special needs population, with its strengths and weaknesses, and providing insight into things such as an unusual sense of humor and special moral concerns.
- Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, by Peter Kreeft
- Hebrews catalogues what a few giants of faith did, and then says (11:13-16, RSV):
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Christians have historically placed a major emphasis on Heaven and the hope that is there, and today Orthodox believers give a high place to bringing Heaven down to earth. For beauty’s sake, I wish to quote another passage, one that is very close to my heart (Rev. 22:1-5):
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.
Kreeft’s book could as well be entitled, “Heaven: The Heart’s True Home.” I consider it to probably be the most profound and one of the most beautiful books on this list, and would deeply recommend it. It both speaks of Heaven — the sort of reason why, on a young adult retreat where a getting-to-know-you question was “If you could visit one place, where would it be?”, I answered in perfect seriousness, “Heaven,” giving not a physical ‘where’, but an infinitely greater spiritual ‘where’. It also tells how to listen with your heart — something very, very important in life.
- Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton
- A part of being in a culture means a kind of blindness, a “How else could anyone think of it?” Heretics unmasks the blindness.
- How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, by Francis Schaeffer.
- This book is on par with The Abolition of Man, providing a much more culturally in-depth treatment of how Western thought is falling. It is a deep and extensive writing, as well as a fascinating read. It deals with the interior schism between head and heart, something well worth escaping.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
- The title sounds positively Machiavellian, doesn’t it? Don’t let that deceive you. I prefer to talk with people who are trying to follow the principles in this book. It tells a lot about how to be a person others will genuinely enjoy being with.
- I Saw Gooley Fly, by Joseph Bayly
- This book is a collection of short stories; the first one, from which the book takes its title, is about a college freshman who is a complete klutz, gets into all kinds of accidents, and can fly. Not fly an airplane or hang glider or kite, mind you; he can jump out of his third-storey window and sail over to the dining hall.
I read that story after my best friend Robin, who is quite busy, took the effort to type it up and posted the whole printout to a forum wall. It struck a deep enough chord that I poked around until I purchased one of two available copies from a suggested book dealers’ network, by a friend who works at a used and rare bookstore. I recently read it, and am glad to have gone to the trouble to find it.
What’s so impressive about this book? In a word, creativity. The stories are as creative as Dorothy Sayers’ “Pantheon Papers”, but it’s not just one work like that in a book of essays (which are insightful and quite often creative, but do not fill the same literary niche). Someone who likes the creativity shown in my different writings may find I Saw Gooley Fly to be a rare treat.
Best odds for getting a copy? Probably inter-library loan.
- Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, by Dinesh D’Souza
- This book helped me make sense of some of my own experiences, and offers an alternative analysis of racial tensions besides, “Continue with what we’re doing, only more of it and faster!”
- In Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster
- This book was given to me when I was baptized in Malaysia, and I am glad to have read it. It guides the reader on a spiritual journey inward, upward, and outward, in four disciplines each:
Part I: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study
Part II: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service
Part III: Confession, Worship, Guidance, Celebration
The note on the first page reads:
Presented to MR. JONATHAN HAYWARD on the occasion of his baptism on 13 JUNE 1993, by the Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall.
Ephesians 3:16-19 RSV reads:
…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.
- Introduction to Eugenics, booklet
- This booklet, which struck me as too weird to be true until I actually did some research, is something I haven’t been able to find online, but I believe there are probably some good books on. Nutshell is that the eugenics movement is alive and well, appearing under various masks such as Planned Parenthood: Margaret Sanger, the organization’s founder, being openly and actively interested in reducing the number of black babies born — though her successors are much better than that, and instead work on having abortion clinics situated well to take on charity abortions (‘situated well’ meaning ‘in minority neighborhoods’). The belief in a population explosion (which is a bit absurd, if you think about it: why should population growth in third world countries suddenly meet such astronomical growth after being more or less stable for millenia, and why is apocalyptic overpopulation still approaching despite repeated and careful predictions for the doomsday which have come and gone) is listed as a major eugenic success.
- The Joy of Mathematics, by Theoni Pappas
- When I tell people that I’m a mathematician, the reaction is usually some mixture of one or more of awe, fear, and pity. They’ve had a couple of bad math classes, and therefore they figure that a math major experiences a concentrated form of such torture. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and this book explains to a non-mathematician what joy and beauty lie in such a profession.
- Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory, by Kevin Trudeau
- Long ago and far away, people had memories that were prodigious by our standards; in Somalia, a large minority of educated men have memorized the Koran—without knowing Arabic. There is a proficiency in using memory that is mostly neglected here, and it can be useful. As I write, I’m using the basic technique to keep with me about twenty distinct points in an hour-long speech.
I’m at a disadvantage using these skills; they work best for a concrete mind rather than a very abstract one like mine. You may well find it easier to use the techniques than I do, and I still find them useful. Kevin Trudeau’s book is one of several practical how-to books, and knowing even some of it is useful.
- Labyrinth (movie—out of print, check an older rental store)
- This fantasy movie is visually exquisite, and has the penultimate scene in M.C. Escher’s “House of Stairs”. Morally, it is the only movie I can recall seeing whose villain really tempts someone instead of shooting at him; the story goes on and has more and more things fall apart; the heroine keeps saying, “That’s not fair!” — and finally says in her heart, “It’s not fair, but I’m going to give it my determination and my elbow grease. I can identify with that; I have met difficulties I would not have imagined possible, and yet still I follow God — all the more powerfully, if anything. The term ‘eye of the tiger’ refers to a soldier who has been wounded and then returns to battle; there is no warrior so fierce as the eye of the tiger. I am in spiritual warfare the eye of the tiger, and this movie means a lot to me.
- Leadership Is an Art, by Max DePree
- I was calling random recruiters to send a resume… one of them was AC Recruiters, and (having seen many meaningless acronyms) did not guess that the AC stood for ‘air conditioning’, and was meant to place air conditioning repairmen etc. So I called, and had a pleasantly relaxed conversation, and he happened to know one guy in Homewood, “the best boss you’ll ever have.” He passed on my resume, and Lou (the head of the company) wanted to meet me. I asked him, “What’s the title of that book he’s so enthusiastic about?”, and when he told me “Leadership Is an Art”, checked out a copy to be able to read it and be prepared for the interview… and checked it out, and found that it was solid gold. It is the most humane and moral — not to mention effective — form of capitalism I have yet seen, and I would like to work under it. Lou, acting out the principles in this book, had a sign at the front door saying, “Welcome Jonathan Hayward”, and we talked for over an hour.
This little book could be summarized as the Sermon on the Mount applied to business.
- Leadership University
- This site is an anthology of a lot of the best stuff on the web; it is worth at least a week of reading. It was where I found Abortion: A Failure to Communicate, and other gems.
- The Lefthander Syndrome, by Stanley Coren
- Apart from trying to make left-handers into another angry minority (a cure which is worse than the disease), this is a fascinating book about left-handedness.
- Listening, A Practical Approach, by James J. Floyd
- The art of communicating well consists far more in being a good listener than in being a good speaker. Few people want someone to talk to them; many people want someone to listen, and then share a something afterwards. A short and valuable read.
- Love is Stronger Than Death, by Peter Kreeft
- This book looks at love first as a stranger, then as an enemy, then as a friend, then as a mother, then as a lover: each mask worn must be looked into and embraced until it dissolves and shows the next mask. The last mask to come off reveals the face of God. This is an excellent companion to Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing; we live in a pain-killing culture that is terrified of facing death, and this book provides a mature and thoughtful invitation to come, and see what death is. I found it to be very moving.
- My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers
- A classic.
- Never Alone: A Personal Way to God, by Joseph Girzone
- This is a gentle book, that may introduces spirituality to people who cannot see God because of pain caused by perversions of religion.
- An Orthodox Prayer Book
- I wish I could put the print version of a prayer book like this. Alas, this book is hard to find in print.
- The Orthodox Way, by Kallistos Ware
- This describes the Christian faith with fingerprints on it. It has the kind of beauty of a very personal touch, not only because of the mystical author, but much more because the author brings in the fingerprints of his tradition.
- Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith, by G.K. Chesterton
- After Chesterton wrote Heretics, someone asked him, “If that is what we shouldn’t believe, what should we believe?”
After a moment, he said, “I am going to write a book about that.” So he wrote Orthodoxy
- Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis
- This is an enjoyable read about a fantastic journey to another world.
- Participant Observation: Step by Step, by James P. Spradley
- This is an anthropology text, but some of its concepts have broader application.
- Pensées, by Blaise Pascal
Qu’est-ce donc que nous crie cette avidite et cette impuissance, sinon qu’il y a eu autrefois en l’homme un veritable bonheur dont il ne lui reste maintenant que la marque et la trace toute vide, qu’il essaye inutilement de remplir de tout ce qui l’environne, en cherchant dans les choses absentes le secoures qu’il n’obtient pas des presentes, et que les unes et les autres sont incapables de lui donner, parce que ce gouffre infini ne peut etre rempli que par un objet infini et immuable?
What then does this avidity and powerlessness cry out to us, if not that there was once in man a true happiness of which nothing remains save the quite empty mark and trace, which he futilely tries to fill with everything around him, looking in what he does not have for what he does not find in those he does have, and which either one is incapable of giving him, because this infinite void can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object?
Pascal knew a haunting romance as well. Food for thought.
- Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis
- The sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, this describes the main character brought to a sinless world to be his representative as the sinless Eve was being tempted.
- Phantastes, by George MacDonald
- This is a faerie romance for adults. It was my favorite book for a time, and reading it let me know that I could write A Dream of Light.
- The Pilgrim’s Regress, by C.S. Lewis
- This allegorical defense of Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism was Lewis’s first writing after his conversion: a little rough around the edges, but a good writing. Lewis knew romance’s haunting as well.
- Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, by David Kiersey
- I have read both Please Understand Me and Please Understand Me II on the suggestion of a reader, and thought considerably about whether one of these texts should be included. The case for inclusion is that they offer an invaluable enrichment to interpersonal understanding, and for reasons I explain below, one beyond the benefit offered by standard descriptions of the sixteen Meyers-Briggs personality types. The case against it is that it is woven through and through with a very destructive philosophical error, one that appears humane and reasonable on the surface and at the core is a far worse poison than racism. If I knew an alternative, a book that would offer the same insight without mingling it with poison, I would include that; not knowing of any such alternative, I think I will reccommend it with a warning.
The idea of the sixteen personality types based on four personality dimensions is one of the best things to come out of Jungian psychology — the only one, for that matter, that I have encountered which is separable from Jung’s Gnosticism — and Meyers and Briggs created a tool that allowed most people to get a good quick-and-dirty result that would help them to understand themselves better. The good thing about a book about the sixteen personality types is that it allows people to read about their own types, and quite probably come to understand themselves better. The bad thing about such a book is that it provides too much information to be assimilated or navigated by the casual, nonspecialist reader. The reader’s type, read with interest, is quite probably the one personality type that will be remembered. Maybe one more for spouse, if the reader is married — but not sixteen. Sixteen are too many to keep track of.
Enter Please Understand Me. This book provides a road map, connecting Meyers-Briggs personality types with the four classical temperaments. Each temperament is a cluster of four similar personality types, and the four temperaments provide a much more manageable learning feat. I at least walked away from both books with a clear understanding of all four temperaments, not just my own. The books do treat all sixteen personality types, but within the context of a coherent and manageable framework. The reader is likely to walk away from either book with a far better picture of human variation than from any straight description of the sixteen personality types.
That’s the good news. What’s the bad news?
Errors often come in diametrically opposed pairs — such as legalism and libertinism. C.S. Lewis said that the Devil always sends us errors in pairs — he wants our extra hate for one to pull us into the other. The pair of errors I am concerned with here is as follows:
There are no legitimate personal variations. Every difference is a matter of right or wrong. Everybody should strive to adhere to every standard I want to adhere to. There are no matters of right or wrong. Every difference is a legitimate personal variation. No person should apply any of his standards to anybody else.
I am not going to tell you which of these errors is worse; I am not going to say which is the real error to be aware of. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that’s exactly what the Devil wants. He wants us to be so focused on how bad one of those errors is that our extra hate for it will suck us into the opposite — like the pickpocket duo where one member urgently warns you about a spilling cup of coffee so that you won’t notice that the other has stolen your wallet. Like extreme heat and extreme cold, they are quite different from each other, but both extremes produce the same undesirable result: they make you quite thoroughly dead.
I am not going to tell you which of these errors is worse, but Kiersey is. He succumbs to the temptation. Kiersey bewails one error and uses its awfulness to lure the reader into the other. From a theologian’s perspective — or from a demon’s, for that matter — it doesn’t particularly matter which is which. In this case Kiersey bewails the error on the left, luring the reader to embrace the error on the right. He makes no distinction between preferences in matters keeping to a schedule vs. open-ended playing by ear, or keeping a neat vs. creatively disorganized house, and choices in matters such as embracing faith vs. delving into the occult, or chastity vs. lust.
The treatment of sexual practices in Please Understand Me II deserves particular note. I was going to say that the text makes no distinction between sexual purity and promiscuity — but then I realized that that is not quite correct. It is certainly true that one temperament’s tendency towards sexual promiscuity is described in respectful, nonjudgmental terms — and that two other temperaments’ tendency to do what they choose whether or not contemporary society approves (that is, whether or not it violates the concensus of the Natural Law shared by innumerable times and places — save that the choice of loaded language leads the reader to regard these standards as arbitrary and parochial). When, however, one temperament at least tries to be abstinent before the wedding and faithful after, it is described in language that appears to be neutral, nonjudgmental and “just the facts, Ma’am” — and somehow manages to describe this purity in what I consider to be the most degrading language in the text. It calls to mind the maxim, “Where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.” Chastity isn’t exactly proscribed, but it is a mark of talent to be able to appear to be impartially and nonjudgmentally reporting the facts and still paint a picture that’s that unflattering. There is no hint in the text — in the chapter on mating or anywhere else — of the freedom and joy of sexual union between a husband and wife who offer each other their virginities on their wedding night and choose to be faithful thereafter.
I would like to elaborate a little more about what I said about this being a worse poison than racism. I wasn’t just making a poetic exaggeration, like someone who comes in during the summer and says, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” I was making a literal statement. I am a white male — and if racism is not defined as “the prejudice of whites against blacks and other minorities”, then my tenure as an American in a non-Western nation at a time when anti-American sentiment was running strong, my experience of (for example) having a careful and respectful question met with an angry rant, and other experiences of getting only the dregs left after those in power had considered how to meet the needs of those types whom they considered worth caring for, gives me at least a limited basis to know, by experience, that racism is nasty. Even after this, I do not believe that racism is the one unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost, that it is presently made out to be. It is as if a person may be dishonest, may be coldhearted, may be arrogant and lazy, and he is like everyone else an imperfect person — but establish that he is really, genuinely, and truly racist, and then he embraces the unacceptable. You think I exaggerate? For the next week, as you go about your life, count the number of times you encounter a communication from some group working “against racism,” and the number of times you encounter a communication from some group working “against coldheartedness.” I will be surprised if the ‘working against coldheartedness’ tally totals to a tenth as many as the ‘working against racism’ tally. For that matter, I will be surprised if the ‘working against coldheartedness’ tally is not zero.
It makes sense to say that a person is a smoker and is relatively healthy. Cigarettes do damage to any person’s lungs, but it is possible to regard a person as being overall healthy despite the very real damage caused by smoking. In the same sense, it makes sense to say that a society is openly racist and relatively healthy. Not by any means that the racism is harmless — it causes real and significant harm. But that harm can coexist with other areas of health. A society can be openly racist, can nurse grudges against other ethnicities, be they minorities or the denizens of other nations — and live on for centuries, alive and kicking. It is poison, but not all poison, not even all strong poison, is lethal. The same cannot be said for poison found in Please Understand Me. As a member of the host of ideas Lewis analyzes in The Abolition of Man, no society can long embrace such ideas without destroying itself. Societies have taken such “progressive” views before — and then fallen apart. In addition, this idea appears a reasonable and enlightened idea, one that a person should be respected for holding — to say that you are for racism, on the other hand, is to instantly forfeit all claim to be taken seriously. Poison that appears to be food will harm far more people than poison in a bottle clearly labelled, “Poison”. For these reasons, I mean quite literally that one of the fundamental ideas woven throughout the text is worse than racism.
Having made this critique, I wish to say that Please Understand Me is a book worth reading, even with such a massive flaw — and I believe that the danger is lessened to a reader who has been forewarned. That I would list anything I believe to justify such a warning is meant as a reccommendation.
There are two editions of the book: Please Understand Me, published in the 1970s, and Please Understand Me II, published in the 1990s. The second book is about twice as long, and talks about differences in kind of intelligence found in temperaments and personality types; the first book gives a very good feel for what people are like — experience of the world and actions. I am not exactly going to reccommend one book over the other, so much as provide a helpful question: “Do you specifically want to know about mental competencies enough to read twice the length of material, or would you prefer a shorter piece that gives the same insight into most aspects of personhood but does not significantly treat intelligence?”
(Side note: I would not endorse Please Understand Me II as a resource for understanding multiple intelligence theory. It does not ask the question of “What are the basic kinds of human intelligence?” so much as “What are the temperaments and personality types, and what kind of intelligence may be associated with each of them?” It’s kind of like a book on academic departments asking, “What are the academic departments in a university, and what kinds of intelligence may be associated with each of them?” That would be a good resource on academic departments, but it’s the wrong place to look if your goal is to understand multiple intelligence theory.)
- Prayer, by Richard Foster
- An in-depth treatment of one of the most foundational areas of the Christian life. Giants of faith have said things like, “I am so busy that I cannot get on with less than two hours of prayer a day.” This book is worth reading and following.
- The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, by Shih Chao-Chou
- This provides a collection of profound koans (illustrative stories), not concerned primarily with moral cleanliness, but with something that will sharpen and challenge almost any mind. It was after reading them that I wrote Christian Koans.
- Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Law, Science, and the University, by Phillip Johnson
- Darwinism is the cutting dullness of the sword being wielded against Christianity; the sword is named ‘naturalism’. Johnson here provides a good and broad view that is well worth reading, especially for Christians in an academic context.
- Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, Thomas Oden
- About how modern theology has gone sour; interesting and quite honest. A must-read for anyone going to seminary.
- Saint Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton
- This book is full of “magic from another real world;” it does a good job of telling the story of one of the most colorful saints in history.
- The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll
- “The scandal of the Evangelical mind,” Noll writes, “is that there’s not much of an Evangelical mind.”
This deals with the tragic story of how many people who really love the Lord and yet who are very far from loving God with all of their minds. An Evangelical equivalent to Why Catholics Can’t Sing.
- Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
- This is a practical and popular book, and it is practical and popular precisely because it does something deep.
- Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor
- This book provides a good history of the philosophers whose work has shaped our modern sense of identity. It’s ponderous reading; I thought I hadn’t gotten anything out of wading through it until I found myself referring to its concepts in a conversation.
- Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
- Heinlein was a sex-crazed libertine, anti-Christian, and deliberately wrote to be offensive. Stranger is the most monumentally flawed book I have read which I would even consider reccommending to another person — and I have. This book is a deeply interesting book. I identify a lot with Michael Valentine Smith, and Charles Wallace in A Wind in the Door.
- Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk
- I’ve given away a couple of copies of this book. Its stories are short, simple, and profound.
- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu
- Written millenia ago in China, this book is a collection of 81 poems (and the inspiration for me to write The Way of the Way). There are a number of insights about slowing down and growing still, relying on God’s grace, and other things…
- Technopoly, by Neil Postman
- This book could be summarized in a single question: “Was technology made for man, or man for technology?” It has a number of valuable insights, and I would like to see a new edition published with an appendix about the Web. His insights about the detrimental side effects of technology, and the sorceror’s bargain involved in each. I wish Postman would write a book entitled, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, which would analyze different technologies and the advantages and disadvantages of using each, to help people decide when and where to buy what technological items — and suffer from the sorceror’s bargain as little as possible.
- That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis
- The conclusion of Lewis’s space trilogy, and a good fairy tale for adults.
- Three Philosophies of Life, by Peter Kreeft
- This book explores three philosophies of life: life as empty vanity, as developed in Ecclesiastes, then life as redemptive suffering, as developed in Job, then life as love and joy, as developed in the Song of Songs. It is a fascinating book, and the onethat (after being lent to me) motivated me to check out other Kreeft books.
- Truth is Symphonic, by Han Urs von Balthasar
- A fascinating theological read about the beauty of diversity in the created order.
- Two-Way Prayer, by Priscilla Brandt
- Reading this book helped me desire a prayer that is listening as well as speaking. People who like Experiencing God might like it.
- What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Bolles
- This book is practical by remembering what people forget when they try to be practical. There’s something shining that often dies in people; Bolles has helped me pursue work where that something shining is alive.
- Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, by Thomas Day
- A Catholic equivalent to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This deals with truly awful Catholic music, and is of relevance to a whole lot more people than just Catholics.
- Why Go to Mass?
- A short article dealing with why consumer-oriented services are not a substitute for services designed ad maior Dei gloriam.
- A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l’Engle
- This book is special to me, both because of its imagination, beauty, storytelling, depth, imagery, description of kything, etc., and because I identify with Charles Wallace — in needing to adapt while remaining wholly myself, and in other things.
- Die Wolkenreise, a picture book by Sis Koch, with illustrations by Sigrod Heuck
- This children’s book was given to me by a very good friend after her trip to Germany, and it is one of the most beautifully tragic books I have read. Here is the rough paraphrase translation she gave me (as best I can reconstruct it from memory, the pictures, and a very rough knowledge of German — the pictures are exquisite, and the reason I am reccommending the book):
Once the wind said to a cloud, “Come with me, let me blow you about, and show you the world!
“I will show you woods, hills and fields, and plains with wild horses and fields, cities, and even deserts, seas and mountain islands. I’ll show you desert islands, coral reefs, and even more, all around the world.”
The cloud said to the wind, “I can’t do that. I have to go and make it rain.”
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine l’Engle
- The book introducing the characters in A Wind in the Door.