My Top Twelve Books

Dan Johnson

A few weeks ago, one of my clergy buddies posted his list of 10 “books that have stayed with him,” that “have shaped his life.” It was an intriguing idea, which prompted me to make my own list of 12 books, in addition to the Bible, that have shaped me, that have had a formative influence on my life. I share them with you here:

  1. Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi: An Autobiography
  2. St. Francis of Assisi, The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi
  3. E. Stanley Jones (any and all of his books)
  4. Eugene Peterson, The Pastor
  5. Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered
  6. Richard Lischer, Stations of the Heart
  7. Jim Collins, Good to Great
  8. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
  9. Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  10. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  11. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
  12. Paul Tournier, To Understand Each Other

I invite you to make your own list, and I would enjoy seeing what you come up with. I would also appreciate your sharing any reflections on the process, and what you learned about yourself in creating your list. I have these observations:

To Understand Each Other is a book given 43 years ago to my wife and me by the pastor and friend who married us. It’s a book that has served us well, calling us back to it again and again. It was foundational in how I interacted with our two children. As a pastor myself, it became a model for facilitating dialogue and understanding, both between two persons, but also between large groups of people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. It occurs to me that this book may have been influential in my taking a lead in our city’s “Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope,” bringing together persons of Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish faith in the positive alternative to Terry Jones’s inflammatory and hateful remarks about Muslim persons and his vow to burn their holy book.

I remember E. Stanley Jones’s writings as the first positive portrayal of Christianity I ever read, and written with such vibrancy and compelling insight. They forever changed my own understanding and hence my preaching.

Eugene Peterson’s book is the only book I’ve read and then immediately read again. It gave words and description to the person I have striven to become.

Richard Lischer’s book is unparalleled (except perhaps by Nicholas Wolterstorf’f’s Lament for a Son) in its honest journeying with his grown son into the unrelenting grasp of cancer, all the while being enveloped by the grace of the church, its sacraments, and the community. Exquisite, deep, moving — even now I feel tears welling up. And if one ever wonders if preaching and theology matter, this book provides a resounding “Yes!”

On the one hand, reading Emily Dickinson is terribly intimidating. On the other hand, her work can do wonders to eliminate banal preaching and platitudinous theology. She simply won’t let you get away with it!

St. Francis, oh how grateful we are that we have one after his own heart, as well as name, in the current pope. As a pastor, I resonate with both men’s ability to live a loving theology in every aspect of their lives and ministry. Such instruments and voices of peace are desperately needed in our world today.

The Divine Conspiracy helped me to see, for the very first time (after already 30 years in ministry!), the meaning Jesus intended in the Sermon on the Mount, for which I shall be forever grateful.

In their own ways, Collins and Goodwin helped me to be a better leader in the church. The intricacies of Lincoln’s ways with people is so remarkable. And Collins did what many have attempted and failed, because he did the solid research to learn what moves an entity from good to great, and when his research led to the unexpected qualities of a level-5 leader (humility and iron will), he didn’t fudge, but acknowledged and celebrated them.

I realize that the act of choosing just 12 books caused me to see again “what really matters” to me. It has challenged me to view myself through the lens of the books I have placed on this list. And it has been immensely rewarding for me. I hope it will be for you as well.

Posted Oct 06, 2014

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