Summer Reading List 2022
Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is now behind us. That means it’s time for my annual summer reading list (you can find last year’s list HERE).
Usually these are the top 10 books that I have either read over the past year or are at the top of my list to read over the summer. Most of the time they are new books, with perhaps a few older works that I have newly discovered myself. As an eclectic reader, they tend to be a blend of history, fiction, biography, current events, science and more.
This year, I felt compelled to offer an entirely different kind of list, prompted by many younger members of our church staff asking me for books that would nurture their souls. They were often surprised, but intrigued, that time and again I would steer them toward books written centuries before their birth. These classics of Christian devotion, books that were not only pivotal in my own spiritual life but the lives of countless others throughout Christian history, are more pivotal now than ever. We live in a day of information but little wisdom, surface understandings but little depth.
Few are introducing younger generations to these works. As a result, they run the risk of being forgotten in our post-Christian world where, even among those who follow Christ, much of our Christian memory is fading.
Yet just as the theological works of Augustine, Luther and Wesley must continue to speak to our modern minds, so must the works of Benedict, Francis De Sales and Brother Lawrence continue to speak to our modern souls.
And unlike much in the realms of theology, the classics of Christian devotion are not only remarkably accessible, but perhaps best of all in our attention-challenged world, extraordinarily short in terms of length. But do not mistake brevity for lack of depth. A hundred pages of any of these works can provide an ongoing challenge to a lifetime of living.
I grieve over the authors left off—from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to Bernard of Clairvaux. But here is my summer reading list, made up of the 10 books I hope and pray would be read by each new generation, and that I know will serve the hungriest of souls. And need to.
They are offered from the most recent (written more than 50 years ago) to the most ancient (written more than 1500 years ago).
Douglas V. Steere, On Being Present Where You Are (Pendle Hill). This address by Douglas Steere is the most recently composed work on my list (1967). Drawing from his Quaker tradition, this address was prepared for the James Buckhouse Lecture in Australia. Steere died in 1995. While it can be read in less than 30 minutes, the heart of the idea will be reflected upon for a lifetime.
Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion. Another relatively recent title (released in 1941), and another work penned by a Quaker. Kelly had little patience for the “churchliness” or “institutionalism” of the religious. Kelly writes from spiritual experience of a God who can be found. He was not concerned with “knowledge about” but “acquaintance with.” I have returned to this book more times than I can remember.
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence served as a cook in a 17th-century monastery. This classic work is a combination of conversations or “interviews” with him along with his own personal letters. He writes, “We should… fix ourselves firmly in the presence of God by conversing all the time with him... We ought to act very simply with God, speaking familiarly with him.” He then adds, “If I were a preacher, I should preach nothing else but the practice of the presence of God.”
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. Written by a devout Catholic in the early 1600s, this work has stood the test of time for all Christians as a masterpiece of devotional literature. Yes, Protestants will need to sift through the many Catholic references and sensibilities, but I’ve seldom read anything that was so meaningful to my spiritual life. I once took this book with me on my monthly retreats for an entire year, feasting on it with deliberate bites and slow chewing. A little trivia for you: Many do not know that C.S. Lewis considered de Sales one of his great spiritual mentors. When you read him, you see his influence on Lewis’ thought.
St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul. This classic in the literature of Christian mysticism was written by a Spanish mystic during the medieval era (1500s). The central idea is how we must often purge ourselves, but don’t think of the purging as going through difficult times. Though commonly assumed by the title and how it is popularly used, the point of the work is that we necessarily live in the dark, as God is unknowable, as we journey toward the light. More to the point is spiritual crisis and moving forward in faith.
Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle. I apologize for only one female author on the list, as many could have joined her (e.g., Simone Weil, Julian of Norwich). But as many have observed, no other book by a Spanish author has received such wide popular acclaim. This is made all the more remarkable when one considers that this 16th-century woman spent most of her life in an enclosed convent, never had any formal schooling, and never aspired to any public fame. She even wrote, “I am not meant to write: I have neither the health nor the wits for it.” Thank God that, at the command of her superiors, she did, giving us a timeless spiritual guide to spiritual development through service and prayer.
Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Written in the 1400s by a Dutch monk, this classic of Christian devotion is truly a book for the ages. A short book, it can be read in a few hours, but I suggest it be read and reflected upon along the lines of the short sections – often a page or two – in which it is presented. á Kempis begins by noting that it should “be our chief duty to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ,” and then proceeds to help the reader to do just that. It is an incredible, timeless primer on what it means to practically live a life in imitation of Jesus.
St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict. It would be difficult to overstate the spiritual significance of this guide for religious individuals and communities written more than 1500 years ago. Benedict is deservedly recognized as the father of Western monasticism. His rules for obedience, humility and contemplation provide the classic model for simple, Christlike living. Yes, they are written for monks living in a monastery under the rule of an abbot, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rich vein to my life – or even less, that we don’t need something of a rule ourselves.
Saint Patrick, The Confession of Saint Patrick. This autobiography of one of the most popular saints in Christian history (and the patron saint of Ireland), originally written in the 5th century, is extremely short by modern standards. But it is filled with the extraordinary life and faith of an extraordinary man. Here is his life, his beliefs, and – most importantly of all – his faith.
Saint Augustine, Confessions. Augustine became a Christian in 386. He began writing his Confessions in 397, seeing the work published in 400. In the opening paragraph, he famously writes, “… for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it repose in Thee” (sorry, my translation is an old one). This is the spiritual autobiography of one of the most influential minds and lives in Christian history. Adding to the depth, as with St. Patrick’s “Confession,” it is more theological than biographical. Or at least weaves the two together seamlessly. All the better.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.