Top 10 Authors That Changed My Life
Before I jump into my top 10, I want to list 4 honorable mentions that really could be on the list.
Honorable Mention 1: JI Packer - Favorite Book: Knowing God
Honorable Mention 2: ND Wilson - Favorite Book: 100 Cupboards
Honorable Mention 3: JRR Tolkien - Favorite Book: The Hobbit (yes, I've read LOTRs many times but prefer the simplicity of the Hobbit)
Honorable Mention 4: Fyodor Dostoevsky - Favorite Book: Brothers Karamazov
Now.... here are the top 10 authors that changed my life.
10 - Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut was the first author I learned to love as an adult. I was in my late teens when I started reading him and I devoured everything he wrote. His dry sense of humor and his unique blend of pugilism and compassion shaped the way I viewed the world for a huge chunk of my early adulthood. He taught me to love fiction and the craft of beautiful prose.
I reread several of his books last year and still found him to be well worth the read. Vonnegut was an agnostic secular humanist and his works can be a little nihilistic in the feel. But they are all insightful and beautiful.
Top 3 Vonnegut Books to Read Right Now
Mother Night (a fascinating book about pretending to be evil and then becoming it)
Cat's Cradle (a book about the end of the world - sad and yet funny)
Slaughterhouse Five (quintessential Vonnegut)
9 - Alister McGrath @alisteremcgrath
I started reading Alister McGrath when I asked the question: "Were there any Protestant-esque people before the Reformation." I was specifically interested in the topic of justification. McGrath's "Iustitia Dei" answered the question. McGrath is a thoughtful and intellectual Christian who spoke to me at a time when I needed to know answers to hard questions about theology and encouraged me to read other authors such as JI Packer, CS Lewis, and NT Wright.
Top 3 McGrath Books to Read Right Now
Iustitia Dei (the definitive history of the doctrine of justification)
Historical Theology (an excellent overview of theology throughout the history)
Mere Apologetics (an introduction to defending the faith that was helpful for me early in my faith)
8 - Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway lives in a similar part of my brain as Vonnegut. He, like Vonnegut was not a believer but like Vonnegut he had a certain wisdom and insight to life that has had a profound impact on me. But in many ways, he could not be more different than Vonnegut. Unlike the always self aware Vonnegut, Hemingway's writing is bare to the point of being jarring. He writes like the Old Testament prose with few explanations or statements of reflection. "Distrust adjectives," Hemingway said and it shows in the writing. But like the Old Testament prose, his writing has a heaviness to it that affects the reader. Also, unlike Vonnegut who could plausibly write as an asexual (in "Deadeye Dick") Hemingway was robust and masculine in all his writing creating the romantic image of the ultimate masculine life. Drinking, hunting, and being a man.
Top 3 Hemingway Books to Read Right Now
For Whom the Bell Tolls (amazing story of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s)
The Old Man and the Sea (powerful story with deep religious imagery)
A Moveable Feast (a beautiful autobiography posthumously published)
7- Tim Keller @timkellernyc
One theme the reader will note in this list is that many of the authors are effective at arguing for the truth of the Christian faith. I have found the evidence that Christianity is true, intellectually fulfilling, and existentially satisfying both exciting and important in my life. Keller is not without flaws (sometimes embracing SJW-ish views and sometimes with a very truncated view of the gospel) but his defense of the Christian faith is both compelling and important. I read a lot of him early in my Christian walk and his arguments for the faith helped shore up my baby-faith. Keller writes for non-Christians and addresses the questions our society is asking about hell, claims of exclusivity, and truth. He answers these questions well and I know so many people that have been encouraged and strengthened by his writings. I am one of them.
Top 3 Keller Books to Read Right Now
The Reason for God (Keller's most straightforward defense of the faith)
Making Sense of God (another brilliant apologetic work)
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness (a short but charming book about the power of being outward focused)
6 - George Orwell
George Orwell is a genius. Most people know him for 1984. Rightfully so. The book is a work of genius and paints a prophetic picture of the hell that can come from government control and oppression. Other's know him for Animal Farm. But if it were only those two famous books, I would probably not have him on the list. It was his non-fiction that made me love his writing and that had the biggest impact on me. Orwell was a complicated person. He was both a faithful Anglican and a skeptic of religion. He was strongly opposed to communism but supported socialism. But despite the seeming contradictions in his life, reading his thoughts on almost anything provokes thought and reflection. He spent time with the poor of England and paints wonderful and powerful pictures of the homeless and destitute in England and France during the mid-20th century. And even when he was wrong, he seems to have a certain self awareness of the shortcomings of his views to at least address them. If I could make anyone read Orwell, I would say devour all his non-fiction. But non-fiction is never as fun as fiction and his fiction is excellent. So, for my recommended reading, I will recommend his two most famous fictional works and an excellent non-fiction.
Top 3 Orwell books to Read Right Now
1984 (a terrifying and prophetic picture of government oppression)
Animal Farm (a parody in animal form of communism)
Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell's account of living among the poor in the 1930s but it is his postscript that is worth the price of reading. Wonderful insights on technology, socialism and extremism)
5 - GK Chesteron @GKChesterton
Chesterton was an Inkling before there were Inklings. The Oxford Inklings that included CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Charles Williams were the next generation but Chesterton would fit in perfectly. He combined excellent fictional writing with powerful Christian apologetics. Chesterton was a Catholic convert from Anglicanism and is pretty outspoken about his promotion of Mother Rome. I would argue this is when he is at his weakest but most of his writings are simply defenses of Christianity. And it is here that he is at his strongest. A man writing during the height of modernism, Chesterton was a prophet saw where the new morals were going. “Men invent new ideals," he wrote, "because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”
Chesterton masterfully wrote both fiction and non-fiction in an effort to change the world.
Top 3 Chesterton Books to Read Right Now
Everlasting Man (Chesterton's Magnum Opus showing how the modern idea of progress is flawed)
Orthodoxy (Chesterton's wonderful treatise on Christianity as truth)
The Complete Father Brown Stories (an example of Chesterton's fiction at its best)
4 - NN Taleb @nntaleb
When you are young, you are more impressionable. This is why college ministry is important. We are ready to change. Many of the authors I have listed influenced me when I was young and still looking for meaning and purpose in life. Taleb, in contrast, I discovered as an adult. In my 30s. And he changed my life and my way of viewing life in major ways. Taleb is a former options trader who now is a philosopher. His writing is raw and arogant. But his ideas are so compelling. Taleb is a genius. It is rare to know statistics, ancient Roman history, and how to trade options but this is Taleb. The first book I read from Taleb was Antifragile. I found Taleb arrogant, contrarian, and wonderful. He argued a philosophy of life focused on surviving the unexpected. Taleb challenged his readers to survive the unpredictable by being 'antifragile.' By antifragile, he means winning when things are unstable. I went on to read 'Fooled by Randomness' and 'Black Swan.' All these books changed my life. They not only changed the way I think about investing financially but also changed the way I view risk, entrepreneurship, science, philosophy, and life.
Top 3 Taleb Books to Read Right Now
Fooled by Randomness (Taleb argues that humans see patterns where reality is random)
Black Swan (Taleb explains that most of life is unpredictable and that forecasters are charlatans)
Antifragile (Taleb explains how to live in an unpredictable world)
3 - NT Wright @NTWrightSays
When I first read Wright, I had no idea how controversial he was. McGrath mentioned him in one of history of theology books and I read his "New Testament and the People of God." It blew my mind. I then read his "Jesus and the Victory of God," and "The Resurrection of the Son of God." Wright took the tools of liberal academic New Testament studies and made overwhelmingly clear case that the New Testament is historically accurate. These three works showed how ridiculous many of the "historical Jesus" studies are untenable and why the orthodox understanding of the bible is so much more plausible. Everything in the New Testament only makes sense in the context of the first century. These books were a huge boost to my faith and gave me great confidence that my faith was not in a myth but in true historical events.
Wright taught me a few other things that I still treasure as well. Among those are the importance of remembering that the Christian hope is resurrection not heaven. The creeds and every major denomination says that we will rise from the dead at the last day but modern Christians often just talk about going to heaven when we die. Wright showed me why this distinction is not minor. One is an embodied existence that points to a God that cares about the physical created world. The other is disembodied existence of Platonic philosophy. Another powerful truth that Wright taught me was the meaning of Kingdom in this world. Christ, Wright maintains, came to be king of the world. The gospel call is primarily a call to bow before him as king. In these ways, Wright has so much to offer the church.
But after I fell in love with Wright's works, I learned that he was very controversial. It was not primarily liberals or skeptics that hated Wright. It was orthodox Christians who viewed him with suspicion. Specifically, it was Reformed Christians that I respected such as John Piper. The main critique of Wright rested not on his writings on Jesus and the historical nature of the bible but on Wright's understanding of the doctrine of justification. Wright is viewed as a proponent of the "New Perspective on Paul" which maintains that the main thrust of Paul's doctrine of Justification by faith alone was not about how to get to heaven but was about how to view other Christians. I have mixed feelings about some of these critiques. I think in part, Wright has been misunderstood and the critiques are unfair but in other areas, I agree, Wright is flawed in his thinking and clouds things that should not be clouded.
But whatever you think of Wright on the doctrine of justification, his writings on the historicity of the bible, the resurrection, and the kingdom should be required reading for every Christian.
Top 3 Wright Books to Read Right Now
Note: I linked to three books above that are wonderful but long scholarly books. I highly recommend those but I am going to link to 3 shorter popular books here in the hopes that he will be read.
Simply Jesus (a basic understanding of Wright's view of the New Testament)
Surprised by Hope (a wonderful book on the importance of the Resurrection as the Christian hope)
How God Became King (a beautiful book explaining how Jesus was God incarnate coming to become King of this world)
2 - Doug Wilson @douglaswils
Like NT Wright, I liked Doug Wilson before I knew he was controversial. I first learned about Wilson from Credenda Agenda. This journal was a great cultural magazine that Wilson edited. A friend had a copy and I read it. The cover article was by a guy named Douglas Jones, titled , "Playing with Knives: God the Dangerous" by Douglas Jones. This article showed me what it means to have a God who is the author of history. A God who is in control even when things are dangerous and bad. A God who created a dangerous world. A God who created a world where people could die. Where kids could be tortured. Where suffering, violence, war, abuse, and danger were possible. What sort of a God does that? The Christian God. But Jones was not the intellectual heft behind Credenda Agenda. Another Douglas was. As I started to read Credenda Agenda, I realized that Douglas Wilson, the founder and editor of the magazine was funny, thoughtful and brilliant. And his books, blog, and sermons changed my life. He, like Chesterton, was a cheerful warrior. He laughed and was optimistic about history. He was intellectual but orthodox. He loved the arts but despised artsy fartsy culture.
I have read his blog since he started his blog. His ideas have influenced me for more than a decade.
But I learned that, like Wright, many in the Reformed world, view Wilson with suspicion. Some view him with suspicion because he has expressed sympathy for Wright and his views of justification. Some view him with suspicion because they view him as a reactionary fundamentalist. I think both these are unfair criticisms. I think Wilson is reasonable and funny and, in my experience, the people that like him least are the people that only know him second hand. Those that have actually read him with an open mind generally respect him even when they disagree. He was, after all, able to get along with famed atheist Christopher Hitchens.
Top 3 Books by Wilson to Read Right Now
The Serrated Edge (a book explaining how satire works as a weapon)
Reforming Marriage (a great book on marriage and how men and women can live together)
Angels in the Architecture (an wonderful picture of the ideal Christian life)
1 - CS Lewis @CSLewisDaily
There is no one that has impacted my life more than CS Lewis. When I was a child, raised by hippies who had no sort of orthodox Christian faith, my mother would read the Narnia books to me. These books shaped my view of God, of faith, of adventure, and of right and wrong. As an adult, I started reading the Narnia books again and then found the rest of CS Lewis's works and devoured them. His non-fiction is as beautiful as his fiction. His fiction is amazing.
Top 3 Lewis Books to Read Right Now
The Chronicles of Narnia (great for both kids and adults)
Til We Have Faces (his worst selling and most hated book is his best work in my opinion)
The Great Divorce (a parable about how humans reject God)