Updated: Nov 1, 2021
I feel a bit indulgent writing this blog. It’s so fun to introduce you to these books. If you are like me, good reading stirs your impetus to produce good writing yourself. This coming Sunday I start teaching a Specialty Course called How To Write A Sentence. It’s not too late to join if you sign up right away by Friday, November 5th at noon PST. In this nitty gritty course, we will work on writing sentences, publishable sentences, one right after the other, and part of the way we will learn is by gazing at and analyzing exquisite sentences in the books briefly annotated below.
I write this list from a lifelong perspective. In other words, at the time when I read the book, I ranked it in my top ten. For the sake of creating a hint of suspense I have enumerated the books in reverse order as a classic countdown.
10. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Is this really my favorite book by C.S. Lewis? I’m not exactly sure. Maybe C.S. Lewis’ books are all my tied-for-favorite that fit into my Top Ten. This book stands out to me because it contrasts tolerance to reality with intolerance to reality. It vividly lays out the great fork in the road, with one path leading to heaven and the other to hell. That very divergence is the great divorce.
Reading this book makes you want to choose the road to heaven.
9. Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy. This quirky book offers a very creative approach to winning people to Christ in language that sounds the opposite of churchy. The pinnacle moment in it for me was when Percy explains how Annie Sullivan got through to Helen Keller. Helen was lost in the cosmos until she learned the word is. Similarly, people are lost until a breakthrough makes them found. I’ll leave it as a cliffhanger to show how Walker Percy, a Catholic, tries to break through to his readers.
8. Truth To Tell by Lesslie Newbegin. This slim volume is one I am using now as a required textbook in our Faith Recovery course. If there is one book that I know of to heal the Church in the West, it is this book. I found it in my young forties and have never been the same ever since. It will teach you how to share the gospel in a way that accounts for all the philosophical confusion ushered into history by luminaries such as Plato, Descartes, et al. Newbegin was a missiologist; he is the person who gets credit for introducing me to Michael Polanyi who is my epistemological hero .
7. Telling the Truth by Frederich Buechner. This is one I read in my fifties. Oh my, his visualization of Pilate talking to Jesus is as brilliant as anything that I have ever read. For me, it made John 18-19 my tied for favorite chapters in the whole Bible. Prepare yourself for a stunning, unconventional approach to explaining the golden truthfulness of truth. In Buechner’s rendition, Pilate’s way of smoking cigarettes displays an unforgettable mixture of arrogance and anxiety. Juxtaposed to Jesus, the scene is utterly gripping and spellbinding.
6. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This is another two inch thick book that rocked my world by teaching me about self-respect. It is written by a sacrilegious atheist who had no faith in God, but who was extremely graced by God to understand the dignity of being a real person. The book is riveting from start to finish. It’s an epic story filled with romance, philosophy, business ventures, mystery, and exalted thoughts of humanity that are difficult to describe. If you read it, make sure to read it in sequence only after reading first, We The Living (which is the only book I’ve ever read that left an oppressive black cloud over me for a month, but I still recommend it because it is so important vicariously to experience what it’s like to be under the evil of godless communism), then second, Anthem (which is dry philosophy but only a hundred pages; the reason I promote it is for understanding the big message of Ayn Rand’s novels), then third, The Fountainhead, seven hundred pages that will intoxicate you and leave you drunk in a good way for the rest of your life. Again, do not expect these books to champion Christianity. Ayn Rand was not a preacher of the gospel. But she understood so well what the gospel upholds, even though she did not know the Lord.
5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I am a Steinbeck fan who recommends every book that he wrote. But this one is his greatest masterpiece. It’s a modern day rendition of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. It’s the most effective rebuke that I have ever received with regard to being told to stop thinking within myself that I am too “bad” to repent. The protagonist is the counterpart of Cain, who indeed, is steeped in sin, but who learns that it is his own personal responsibility to forge his own choices and self-differentiate from his sinful mother (“Eve”) and not be duped into thinking that he is stuck forever with his dark tendencies. Repentance is possible. For you. For me.
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I read every jot and title of this tedious, massive volume that delivered me unexpectedly in my inner being from war to peace. It is a fabulously insightful, evocative commentary on the sovereignty of God. If you read it with the idea of it merely being a book of details on the War of 1812, then sadly you miss the metamessage that is so life changing. The book ends with a lengthy, heady essay that I still remember reading at a McDonald’s in Santa Barbara. That essay escorted me over the Rubicon, so to speak, and healed me from my eating disorder because it enabled me to see why I disagree with predeterminism (even though I believe in predestination). In reading Tolstoy’s belief about why we are not free, I found my freedom in Christ to make freer choices. Tolstoy’s lucid thinking helped me to find mine.
3. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I read this very thick book in my late twenties. It is hands down the best commentary on grace that I have ever encountered outside of Scripture. (Karl Barth’s commentary on the book of Romans ranks second on that count.) Neither the movie nor the musical comes close to conveying the depth of the theological message of this classic novel that puts misery, justice, anger, and grace into magnificent perspective.
2. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. This is the book God used (after I had plowed assiduously through many other volumes, including books on other religions, and books on atheism, and books on apologetics, and the like) to help me slough off my atheism at age 25 and be freed from it for good. As you know, I am still quite a sinner, but I am also a saint who is not an atheist. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whom C.S. Lewis said was “the most sensible man on the planet,” helped me see the truth in such a shimmering, shining way that I still burst with joy in every remembrance of what he taught me about God. The joy of the Lord is something so triumphant that all we can ever do is underestimate it. (Nehemiah 8:10).
1. Hinds’ Feet On High Places by Hannah Hurnard. I read this little book in my young twenties. It helped me to launch a life of moral courage and step out of my comfort zone because it helped me to internalize and visualize the painful, arduous journey of ascending a mountain, holding hands on either side of me with the two companions assigned to me by God: Suffering and Sorrow. I cried all through the book. But when I finished it, I felt emboldened because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, greatly helped the protagonist and amazingly transformed her in the end. In fact, I have tears in my eyes right now, fondly remembering His love. Wow, God knew way back then that someday in my fifties I would design and lead Strategic Futuring in the deep, theological way that we do it at Right On Mission. Strategic Futuring invites us to ask God to give us hinds’ feet to walk on our high places (Habakkuk 3:19).
I guess I’m going to have to list my Top 100 books at some point at a later time because I have hardly begun to share the treasures I have basked in over the years. Of course, Scripture is supreme among every other book and stands firmly alone in its own category.
In Christ’s love,
Sarah Sumner, Ph.D., MBA
President, Right On Mission