top 5 most challenging, convicting, mind-bending, face-melting books of all time?

I received this email from one of my blog readers a few weeks ago asking about my thoughts about the “Top 5 most challenging/convicting/mind-bending/face-melting books of all time.”

Do you take requests for posts on your blog? If so…. I know that from time to time you do top 5 stuff, like favorite movies or songs or artists, etc. This isn’t anything novel, but I’d be grateful for a “Top 5 most challenging/convicting/mind-bending/face-melting books of all time.” I guess I’m someone who learns a lot from books and I was just thinking about how I have roughly 5 books that I have read within the last few years that have truly changed the way I perceive myself and the world around me. It would be great to hear what others are reading -not their most favorite or enjoyable books (although this might be the case)- but books that have significantly reoriented the way they live. Maybe, you’ve done something like this before and I just missed it, but if not, something like this would be fun to be a part of.

Thanks! ~Ric

Asides from the Bible, what would you be on your Top 5 List?

I can’t list 5…I don’t even know know where to begin so I’m just sharing my list of most influential Christians books again. There are so many excellent books that it’s really difficult to condense it into a list of 10. My recommendations are created with an attempt towards the larger picture of Christian discipleship – meaning that I want to balance my list with theology, discipleship, spirituality, bibilical studies, etc.

I hope 50 years from now, this list will change so that it also includes numerous female and non-Caucasian authors.

Let me also say that nothing is more important than reading, studying, and loving the Scriptures. The Bible is important – especially in a cultural context where so many are prone to sound bytes, podcasts, RSS feeds, and video stimulation. Read your Bible. Having said that, I would recommend these versions: TNIV, NIV, and ESV. In addition to these versions, I would also highly recommend reading The Message by Eugene Peterson to accompany the reading of your Bible. Also, a solid Bible dictionary and a set of Bible commentaries [even a single or 2 volume set] are very important for any and every Christian.

Okay, here’s my List of the 10 33 Essential Books I’d Recommend every Christian to Read [in no particular order]:

  • Testament of Hope – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton
  • Celebration of Discipline – Richard Foster
  • Mere Christianity – C. S. Lewis
  • Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger – Ron Sider
  • Wounded Healer or Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • Dogmatics – Karl Barth [yes, all 13 volumes if possible]
  • The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society – Leslie Newbiggen
  • The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder

Okay. Because I can’t stop at just 10, here’s my Next 10 that I think are also essential reads for all Christians.

  • Knowing God – J.I. Packer
  • Theology of Hope – Jurgen Moltmann
  • Old Testament Theology – Gerhard von Rad
  • The Moral Vision of the New Testament – Richard B. Hays
  • A Theology of Liberation – Gustavo Gutierrez
  • Irresistable Revolution – Shane Claiborne
  • Transforming Missions – David Bosch
  • The Jesus I Never Knew or What’s so Amazing About Grace – Phillip Yancey
  • Christ and Culture – H. Richard Niebuhr
  • Moral Man & Immoral Society – Reinhold Neibuhr

Honorable Mention:

  • The Hiding Place [Corrie ten Boom]
  • Confession [Augustine]
  • Summa Theologica [Aquinas]
  • The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [Mark Noll]
  • Let Justice Roll Down [John Perkins]
  • The Prophetic Imagination [Walter Brueggemann]
  • any one of Francis Shaeffer’s trilogy
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy [Tolkien]
  • Surprised by Hope [N.T. Wright]
  • Silence [Shusaku Endo]
  • Traveling Mercies [Anne Lamott]
  • The Brothers Karamazov [Dostoyevsky]
  • Life Together [Bonhoeffer]


52 Replies to “top 5 most challenging, convicting, mind-bending, face-melting books of all time?”

  1. Wow, this is fantastic. Can we do something with this? Like, could you do something on your website like Elevation Church’s Thru 30 program ( to get people out there online to commit to reading this list in a year?? With a discussion forum?? I think that would be great. And you don’t look like TOO busy of a person to coordinate that (snicker, snicker). Love to hear if you are willing to take up the challenge.

      1. In “Between Two Worlds” John Stott says that if you read one hour a day, one morning a week, one day a month and one week a year you can easily get through 40+ books each year.

  2. 1. “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” by Wendell Berry

    2. “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne

    3. “The Jesus Creed” by Scot McKnight

    4. “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller

    5. “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning

  3. Don’t know if I can come up with five face-melting reads but off the top of my head, these have been essential in my life:

    1. Traveling Mercies – Anne Lamott. This book, more than any other, showed me that it IS possible to be real (flaws, f-bombs, and all) and be a Christian.

    2. Stumbling Towards Faith – Rene Alston. Her (continuing) story of tragedy continues to haunt me and challenges me to wrestle with a God who sometimes just seems cruel and indifferent. It’s a story that highlights the danger of trite, pat answers. Her struggle for survival simultaneously breaks my heart and inspires me to keep pursuing a God who refuses to be domesticated or contained.

  4. These are my mind-bending books.

    Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards

    No Future Without Forgiveness by Bishop Desmond Tutu

    Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

    A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer

    Power vs. Force by David Hawkins

  5. I’d have a separate category… what you have listed are what I would consider “classics” … and I’d love to see what your top “modern” list looks like…

    Few of my recent favorites include “Blue Like Jazz” and “The Principle of the Path”.

  6. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
    Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon – Daniel Dennett

    I recommend these books to all Christians as well, simply for a balanced perspective. Religion has been great and not so great for mankind. It’s important to look outside-in sometimes for deeper understanding.

    1. Bruno, I appreciate what you are suggesting. One of the best books I ever read was, “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell. I was deathly afraid he was going to say something that would shatter my faith. And as I closed the book I felt like I had taken on one of my deepest fears in the process.

  7. i love that LOTR made the list because it’s on my list! i also loved the Jesus i never knew. experiencing God was also very impactful for me. changed my view of my relationship to God and my relationship to His creation and my place in it all.

  8. In no particular order…

    Dismantling Racism, by Joseph Barndt
    Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright
    A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren
    In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
    The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne

    @Travis: I’m looking forward to reading more Wendell Berry; I like what I’ve read/heard so far.

    Thanks Eugene!

  9. “of all time” is a bit broad, but here’s some relatively recent theological texts that might bend your mind a little bit:

    1. Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann
    2. Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin
    3. God of the Oppressed, James Cone
    4. Race: A Theological Account, J. Kameron Carter
    5. Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century, a Walter Rauschenbusch redux w/ Trible, Campolo, Hauerwas, West, Wallis, etc.

  10. Most of my top 5 are already mentioned, but I’ll add Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell and give another vote for N.T. Wright; and a recent favorite, Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson. And for ultimate face-melting, anything by Nietzsche.

      1. EJ isn’t in my top 5. Just wanted to give it a shout-out, because it does do a great job of intertwining faith and ethical consumption in a graceful way that people can connect with (as opposed to when I open my own mouth about consumption issues…)

        And yes, has some killer endorsements….like McLaren 🙂

  11. Of course, not in any particular order.

    1) Mere Christianity -C.S. Lewis

    2) Love & Respect -Emerson Eggerichs

    3) Cross and the Switchblade -Rev David Wilkerson

    4) Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications -D.A. Carson

    5) Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out -Pastor Mark Driscoll

    These are a few off the top of my head. “Systematic Theology” by Wayne Grudem is right up there too.

  12. Okay so now I’m totally overwhelmed. Since I know time is not going to stand still until I read these books and so many more I will just continue to press on one day at time. Thanks for the recommendations!
    Also, I appreciate you saying this, “I hope 50 years from now, this list will change so that it also includes numerous female and non-Caucasian authors.” You are the only christian leader I know of who is consistent in speaking out on this topic.
    Thank you for using your voice for the benefit of others.

  13. – The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah

    – Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne

    – Transforming a Rape Culture (many articles by many writers). You might have been asking for spiritually-focused books, but this book opens eyes and minds to the gross prevalence of sexism and preference for men in all areas of our society.

  14. Testament of Hope – MLK
    The Autobiography of Malcom X – Malcom X with Alex Haley
    Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin
    The Triumph of the Therapeutic – Phillip Rieff
    ..and Reason for God or Prodigal God by Tim Keller

    How about a top 5 blogs list?

  15. Eugene, great list thank you.

    Mine thus far in life…(in no order)

    The Sabbath – Abraham J. Heschel
    The Wounded Healer – Henri Nouwen
    Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People – E.P. Sanders
    Crazy Love – Francis Chan
    What’s so Amazing about Grace – Phillip Yancey
    Mere Christianity – C.S Lewis
    Man in Search of God – Abraham J. Heschel
    I and Thou – Martin Buber
    A New Kind of Christian – Brain McLaren
    The Irresistible Revolution – Shane Claiborne
    Jesus the Jewish Theologian – Brad Young
    Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell

  16. I thought the question was just about any challenging books, not just Christian books ;).

    As for me, in the last year or so a book that was really engaging was The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. However, it was so challenging I had to put it down after reading 2/3 of the way through. I think I’ll finish it eventually, but it’s heavy stuff. Perhaps there’s also the creepy factor that I got the book signed by her at an event approximately one year before she committed suicide.

    It’s challenging in some similar ways as Elie Wiesel’s Night and John Hershey’s Hiroshima were for me, but more intense for me somehow.

    Sorry to submit mostly depressing, war-related books. To make up for it, a popular new author I’m a big fan of is Jhumpa Lahiri. I really enjoyed Interpreter of Maladies as well as her latest release called Unaccustomed Earth. Coming from an immigrant family, I really resonate with the theme of struggling to straddle cultures between continents.

    Oh, and as far as changing the way I live, I suppose I need to throw in Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson as well.

  17. I’m surprised there aren’t more novels listed by everyone… although not labeled outright as “Christian” or “Theology,” novels can be every bit as challenging/convicting/mind-bending/face-melting.

    I can think of very few books that would meet ALL of the above requirements but several come to mind when considering what books have had an impact on my world view.

    Five more recent reads would include:

    East of Eden — John Steinbeck
    The Power of One — Bryce Courtenay
    Till We Have Faces — CS Lewis
    Harry Potter series — JK Rowling
    Cold Sassy Tree — Olive Ann Burns

    1. Nancy, My last 15 years have been so engrossed in non-fiction and theological books that I think it has seriously created a defect in my thinking. Prior to that, it was all fiction.

      I just want a balance but I wonder if that’s why I enjoy movies so much.

  18. Great list Eugene-

    Changes That Heal- Herny Cloud
    Dark Night of the Soul- St John of the Cross
    Ragamuffin Gosper- Brennan Manning
    Challange of Jesus- N.T Wright
    Waking the Dead- John Eldredge

  19. Tremendous list. “Silence” by Shusako End–I never see that one referenced, but there it sits on my shelf and in my heart. Thanks for making my mind wander . . . nothing better!

  20. I agree with much of this list. One that was foundational to my own story was CS Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters”. Taught me to see the spiritual in the mundane.

    I’d also like to comment that often the books that resonate depend on where I am in life. The first time I read “What’s so Amazing about Grace?”, I loved it. The second time, it seemed redundant. The great books are the ones that grow with you.

    To that end, I have to list Eugene Peterson’s “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. Every time I pick it up, it manages to speak to where I am.

    Also, I’m a fan of the mystics: John of the Cross & Teresa of Avila. Nouwen’s “The Genesee Diary”

  21. The most mind-bending study I’ve done was of deconstructionism, though I have to admit I needed the professor to translate what Derrida etc were saying. I believe a Pete Rollins is bringing this perspective to the Christian faith in an understandable manner. I’ve only listened to him (Greenbelt talks) but I think he covers it in The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales.

    Elie Wiesel should be read along with Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi. And probably Kierkegaard.

    The rest of my list is already on here.

    Also, if you haven’t seen the What’s so Amazing about Grace Visual Edition you should check it out. Amazing design work, somewhat like Jesus for President.

  22. Eugene,
    It seems like most of your book recommendations are for Phd folks or seminary professors who love Reformed theology with Barth’s works, VonRad and Theology of Hope, Hay’s Moral vision of the NT. I’ve tried to tackle and get into these works but I read the “lighter” books that most folks on this blog read. I know Barth is big with Princeton Grads

  23. I guess I’d have to go with five that specifically bent my own mind for one reason or another…

    “The Wounded Healer” by Henri Nouwen
    “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger
    “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown
    “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    “A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches” Houston Peterson, ed.

  24. Wow Eugene, hardcore list here.

    BTWm you mentioned in the comments section that you’re averse to reading alive guys, but much of your list is still alive (much to their great pleasure, I’m sure!

    Lots of amens to your list: Hayes, Wright, Gutierrez, Sider, Nouwen, Yancey, Bosche. All excellent.

    as a leader, if I had one Nouwen book to read it would be “In the Name of Jesus.”

    most surprising leadershp book: “Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham.” I had no idea.

    best fiction: East of Eden. I’m a non fiction junky, so I’ve been trying to read more classic fiction lately.

  25. I think it is also important that Christians spend time reading literature that profoundly challenges our faith in ways that Christian-literature can’t.

    Indeed the lists above are insightful, mind-bending, and influential in their own ways; but to be frank they all (more or less) point in the same direction. In my personal experience, along with reading Christian books I have experienced growth in my faith by reading literature that directly challenged my beliefs.

    In answering Ric’s question, I would suggest a list of authors, books, and playwrights which includes Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke…” and “The Antichrist”; Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” and “No Exit”; Socrates/Plato “Apology”; C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”; Voltaire’s “Candide”; etc…

    Just food for thought.

  26. Hi, There are some interesting books that have been listed. However my top 10 Christian books would have to be in this order:
    1. The Holy Bible (KJV) prefer or NKJV or NAB
    2. Holiness by JC Ryle
    3. The Life & Diary of David Brainerd
    4. Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill
    5. Sodom Had no Bible by Leonard Ravenhill
    6. The Beatitudes by Thomas Watson
    7. The Life, Walk & Triumph of Faith by William Romaine.
    8. Elijah by A.W. Pink
    9. Gleanings from the scriptures by A.W. Pink
    10. Any of the puritan writers such as Sibbes, Flavel, Owen, Calvin

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