My 10 faith-shaping books.

Sarah Bessey (as noted earlier) is a smarter person than I, and when I read that post in which she shared 10 books that changed her faith, I felt... kinda compelled to respond. It just took me a really, really long time to figure out what that list was, especially being distracted by being a demiurge and all. (Confession time: while I was in Niantic last week, I bought some of those books. One of them is overlapping, but one or two others were "Hey, she mentioned that! Want!" splurges.)

So here we are, with my list of 10 books that shaped my faith.

#1: Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, by Bruce Bawer.
I'm honestly ashamed by this one, because in a lot of ways it shaped my faith for the worse. But it was the first chronologically, and it's had the most lasting impact, so there it is at the top.

How for the worse? By giving me something to oppose. I didn't believe in much, but I opposed quite a bit. And in establishing that I opposed that, it started the politicization of my faith, turned it into something I needed to assert... and an oppositional faith like that wasn't enough to keep me attending after I turned 18. (In hindsight, an enormous number of things I objected to - the local megachurch and its successful burning-out of my mother and sister - weren't rational but tribal.)

I doubt I'd agree with Stealing Jesus very much now. Now that Emerg* Church exists, now that evangelicalism has become less monolithic than it used to be, I wouldn't dare paint with quite so broad a paintbrush. I doubt I'd agree with Bruce Bawer himself either (he went right, I went anarchist.) But there's no way for me to write any of the others without admitting that I read this first, and read all the others in its very long shadow.

#2: The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri.
The first time I really thought about the Inferno was when I was prompted to by an InQuest magazine article; I must've read it that year too, so maybe early high school. I've meant to, but never actually have, read the other two volumes of the Divine Comedy; but the Inferno is still the formative one to me.

Why Dante? VIII.123-6, that's why. Before I had words like "Christus Victor," before I knew I could have ideas like that - I was working out my theology in pretty much purely symbolic terms, using Dante as my touchstone. I'm not sure if he introduced me to the Harrowing legend, but he pretty much cemented it there; he's why that "He descended into Hell" line of the Apostle's Creed is really, really important to me. Without Dante I wouldn't have the vocabulary to be here now.

#3: Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
I did actually read it at one point, but reading it alone wasn't nearly enough to merit its inclusion on the list. (I will say that his half-assed Antichrist first inspired me to become a polyglot, though.) What earns it this place on my list is, in this case, reading it with somebody else: the inimitable Fred Clark. Over the many years he gave it a proper Fisking (and then he continued! Many years, Fred, many years - you'll need them to reach the end), and I paid attention to his every word on Fridays in exactly the way I didn't pay attention to sermons on Sunday.

Seriously, read those archives. I remember when some of them first came out. The one way back when, when he distinguished between the Rapture and the Resurrection? That's stuck with me ever since (and caused a problem once.) I remember commenting on some of those threads, although they were probably all lost in the move to Patheos. Reading Left Behind with Fred taught me what bad theology looked like; it also gave me reasons why it was bad, and showed me what good theology could be.

#4: The Subversion of Christianity, by Jacques Ellul.
In college, I was the world's biggest Jacques Ellul fanboy. It was, as ever, a tribal thing; I was thinking in the Reformed tradition because I had nothing else to cling to (and I didn't dare wonder whether that tradition was actually the right one for me), he was too, let's be friends! I devoured his books; must've checked out every one that was in both the English language and the Five College library system.

There are others that I like more, but this one is probably why I still identify as Christian today, entirely because of that last chapter, "Eppur Si Muove." It was an absolutely devastating read (in hindsight, maybe the wrong read for the time), but I remember that last chapter giving me a kind of grimdark resolve: This is you, Edo, this is totally you, and you're not washing your hands of this one, you are in this Christian thing for the long haul.

#5: United Methodist Beliefs, by Will Willimon.
After college, I spent a decade nonattending. I never went to church of my own volition; when I did, it was because I was with my grandmother, usually twice a year for Christmas and Easter, where I'd go with her to a Mass whose main point was that I wasn't involved, and watch as the Archdiocese of Scranton progressively lost its ability to put on a decent show. The evangelicals were barren. The mainline was dead.

Last year, when I'd started writing Andalusada, I derped to Engel that my ersatz Martin Luther was "a weird hybrid of Rhine mysticism and John Wesley." It was awkward, because I realized that I had no idea what I was talking about; I didn't know anything about Wesley at all, except that he founded Methodism, which again I knew nothing about. So that sent me back to the stacks, and there I discovered then-Bishop Willimon's little red book.

This is not one of the best books that I've ever read. Not by a long shot. But I still think it merits a spot in my Ten, because it said things that I couldn't have said myself. Yes, Willimon was critical of his own church; but they were my criticisms too, and without that I'd have written the entire thing off as a puff piece. Theology was an academic thing for me before I read him; after I read him, it became a lot less ethereal and a lot more practical. I'd given up on praxis; he reignited that craving for praxis.

Will Willimon, ex-bishop of the UMC, was the first person to ever give me a concrete statement of what a mainline church believed, and how. The first person after a life growing up in a mainline church. Without that, the later books on this list wouldn't be here. And this post wouldn't exist.

#6: How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: A Guide to Journal Keeping for Inner Growth & Personal Discovery, by Ronald Klug
This March, about the same time that I got my birthday gift from my sister, I also got this (out of the library), a spiral notebook, and The Naked Now by Richard Rohr (from B&N.) The last of these remains mostly unread, after I realized that it was a bit advanced for me.

But this is the first book that actually inspired me to do things about my faith somehow. And although most of my journal entries start with a variation of "How long I've neglected you, dear diary," it's probably the best habit I've developed this year beside consistent brushing and flossing. And although it's a bit dated, it was the first mention of the name of Richard Foster, on which see directly below.

#7. Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, by Richard Foster
I may have checked out Celebration of Discipline from the UMass library; it wouldn't be the first book I've checked out and returned unread, simply to stack the books high enough to tuck neatly under my chin. Prayer was the first Richard Foster book that I have any clear recollection of actually reading, mostly because I have an exact memory of when I bought it: Pentecost Sunday this year, after thinking about it the night before. I was acquainted with the author from other sources; it was on sale; most importantly, the first skimming at B&N did not set off any tribal klaxons. (#1 cast a long shadow.)

I'm not gonna lie; I haven't actually finished reading it yet. Truth be told, I'm less than a third of the way through it. But when I sat down to articulate why I spent a decade nonattending, one of the big reasons was "I had no idea how to pray." If I'm still hovering around chapter 7, it's because I keep rereading those first remedial chapters and flipping over them, and I don't want to get ahead of myself too much. (I'm oddly superstitious about that. It's why I basically stopped reading The Interior Castle at the end of 2.1: I basically said, "This is where I am now; anything after that is spoilers.")

When I was in Niantic, I lashed out and bought two extra copies of it for embarrassingly cheap. One for carrying; one as a giveaway copy.

#8: The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard.
No real surprises here - and again, something that I'm still reading through - but it's something of a manifesto right now. The Divine Conspiracy is one of those works that... connects a lot of dots all at once.

...so that's my ten faith-shaping books. Make that eight, for the moment. More to come.

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