30 Books That Spiritually Transformed My Life This Last Decade

I love reading books, and like many of you, I read a lot of books in the last 10 years. Half of the decade I spent in graduate school (finishing up my MDiv and MFT) so there were a lot of books to be read. And I just really enjoy reading anyways.

I read about 500 books this last decade and there were a lot of great ones….some good ones….and some not so good ones. But there were definitely some books that stood out and really changed my life.

These are 30 books that I consider to have greatly been a part of spiritually transforming my life.

When I chose my books there were some basic criteria that I considered:

  • they were memorable (some books are just forgettable, and these were not)
  • they didn’t have to be written this decade
  • they are ones that I recommend to everyone
  • they are leading works in their field
  • they are ones that I have read multiple times, or are back on the reading rotation to read again
  • they needed to have fundamentally shifted some area of my thinking–paradigm shifting influence
  • they transformed me spiritually (my theology, my ministry, my prayer life, my leadership, my preaching, my counseling, my pastoring, my understanding of humanity, my relationship with God, etc.)
  • and yes, I didn’t list the bible, because I’m hoping you assume that that is the book that has spiritually transformed me the most

Here we go:

The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis by Ray Anderson
–Two words: theological praxis. Anderson helped me bridge the gap between my theology and ministry like few others did.

The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective by Jack Balswick, Pamela Ebstyne King and Kevin S. Reimer
–The concept of the “reciprocating self”, centered in the Trinity was life shaping for my work not only as a pastor, but as a therapist.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
–This book forever changed my view of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as forever affecting my view on grace.

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
–Bonhoeffer was a theologian who didn’t live in an ivory tower, and this work coming out of his experience of community while in an underground seminary during WWII is amazing.

Message of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann
–Brueggemann’s writing on the Psalms and their rhythm of “orientation/disorientation/re-orientation” provided the lens through which I come to understand many things in life, especially areas of trial and transition.

Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts by Eberhard Busch
–Many consider Barth to be the greatest theologians of all time, and a theologian that must be read if one is to better understand the landscape of 20th Century Protestant theology. His Church Dogmatics alone is enough to garner more in depth study.

The Stranger by Albert Camus
–Camus’ existentialism, and the themes of absurdity, nihilism and the meaningless of life were challenging and insightful, and helped me better understand and proclaim the hope of Christ in a lost world.

The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
–Sigmund Freud called it “The most magnificent novel ever written, ” and who can argue that. Dostoyevsky’s exploration of God, free will, ethics is unbelievable, and I walked away from the novel with a greater sense of God’s grace than almost anything I have ever read.

Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities by Stanley Fish
Nancey Murphy let me into her “Theological Uses of Postmodern Philosophy” doctoral seminary as an MDiv student, and this book is what I wrote my paper on for the class.  Fish challenged my views of on the authority of interpretive communities, and who holds the power in communities to provide various interpretations.  This book began to alter my views on how one interprets scripture. It forced me to ask very different questions of a text than I previously did.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
–Gibran’s views on marriage, solitude, and what can be considered differentiation in a relationship helped me better understand the relational interactions in marriage like few books on marriage could do.

Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions by Roberta Gilbert
–This is a great book from a Bowenian perspective, and her exploration of family systems, boundaries, triangles and enmeshment forever changed my views and perceptions of how families and couples operate–and how the church operates as a family.

Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
–I have read this novel about 7 times and it is better and better everytime. This honest and authentic look at people in ministry with all their foibles, vices and strengths is a penetrating work that gets behind the masks and “glittering images” we all put on in ministry. I actually recommend the entire Starbridge Series.

Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
–This interpretation of the binding of Isaac by Abraham in Genesis 22 is thought provoking, and Kierkegaards discussion on the “teleological suspension of the ethical” is enough to blow your mind as you begin to re-think how ethics are practiced and lived out.

Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession by Soren Kierkegaard
–This work on willing one thing and our double mindedness was particularly insightful as he explores it in our vocations and occupations.

The Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle by Mike Mason
–My favorite book on marriage–why a lot of books on marriage try to tidy things up into simple steps, Mason really explores some of the greater philosophical and theological themes in marriage.

Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam McHugh
–This book altered my view on leadership by helping me recognize that I was failing to understand a large population of the church. From now on I will be looking differently at people when I recruit leaders for ministry positions.

The New Man by Thomas Merton
–Merton’s discussion on identity is mind-blowing, discussing how and why most people seek identity in external things, and how those external things lead us to a false sense of identity.  It is extremely penetrating and convicting in our new web driven world.

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
–This book forever changed what I’m looking for in writers–a humble, vulnerable authenticity as one wrestles with God is hard to find in many writers, but Miller changed the game when he wrote this book.

Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen
–Nouwen’s exposition of Philippians 2:6-11 is wonderful, and his discussion on “downward mobility” provided a new lens through which I view my service and vocation in life.

In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri Nouwen
–Best book on leadership in ministry. I required my student leadership team to read it every year, and I re-read it every year as well. I wish more leaders read books like this and not simply defaulted to those found in the business world.

The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen
–This book is a much needed antidote in a busy, wordy culture. His themes of solitude, silence and prayer speak deeply to me.

The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Grant R. Osborne
–One of the first major books I read on hermeneutics, and Osborne leaves no stone unturned. This set the stage in how I approach scripture.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer
–One of the best explorations on vocation and identity. Phenomenal book that I read 1-2 times a year.

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson
–Peterson has so, so many books, but this challenge to pastors is so counter-cultural (how many pastors can be described as contemplative in this busy culture?) and I wish more people read it. It’s a book that spoke deeply to who I wanted to be as a pastor.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
–This book started me thinking about the tension that often exists between calling/vocation and the religious communities we are a part of. Beautiful story.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
–Rilke’s advice to this young poet had me nodding my head in agreement at every word. Rilke’s words speak to the poet, pastor, artist, writer, etc.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
–Shirky’s discussions on “communities of failure” and “architectures of participation” helped inform my views of participatory culture especially in church.

New Horizons in Hermeneutics by Anthony Thisleton
–One of the first hermeneutic books that I read that included theology, interpretation and hermeneutics from those who are not White, Male, American/European (Western) theologians. Helped me understand how much of mine/our views of scripture and interpretation are culturally bound.

Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf
–This is perhaps the best book I have read in the last 10 years. Volf discusses almost every major theologian and theological school in this book on identity, otherness and reconciliation (as the book title states).  He presents a huge challenge to approach, live and embrace the “other” in a culture that usually resorts to alienation and warfare.

Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends by Michael White and David Epston
–One of the seminal books in therapy, their exploration of narrative in therapy helped me better understand the use of story and re-framing as I work with people.

Okay, so there it is. I would love any comments or feedback that you might have. Or if you have further questions about any book, as I didn’t exactly have time or room to comment at length on every one.

Which books have you read?

Did any of these books change your life?

Which ones are you wanting to read?

20 Comments

  1. by Greg on December 22, 2009  9:03 am Reply

    Cost of Discipleship is a great one. His thoughts on costly and cheap grace are words the Church needs to hear again.

    For me, How Now Shall we Live? by Chuck Colson has been one of the biggest influences on my thinking. That book opened my eyes to all that Christians can do in the world to make an impact for the Kingdom.

  2. by Tim on December 22, 2009  9:07 am Reply

    Great list! Thanks! Some I have read, and many are now on my must read list. Thanks for reminding me of "My Name Is Asher Lev." It is a powerful book as are all of Potok's!

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  4. by Kyle Reed on December 22, 2009  10:18 am Reply

    First of all I amazed that you were able to do this. When I read that you were trying to do this I started my own list and then just gave up because there were so many books.
    I have read some books on this list and have never heard of some of the books on this list. I think that is what makes this an awesome list.

    Nouwen has completely changed the way I read and think. I have tried to read everything by him and those books you have listed have all been read and have shaped me in different ways.

    As well, to see that Introvert book on there makes me really want to read that. It was released this year right? If that is the case it must be pretty good to make it on an all decade list.

    Good work
    .-= Kyle Reed´s last blog ..The Wow Factor =-.

    • by Rhett Smith on December 23, 2009  3:53 pm Reply

      Kyle,

      That's the beauty about people's reading tastes--they can vary greatly and we all are learning things from different authors.

      Nouwen is great...I have tried to read everything he has written also. I could have actually put about 10 of his books on this list but was also trying to vary it up a bit also.

      And yeah, the Introvert book was great.

      Rhett
      .-= Rhett Smith´s last blog ..30 Books That Spiritually Transformed My Life This Last Decade =-.

  5. by John on December 22, 2009  11:37 am Reply

    Nice list.

    I got 1/2 way thru Brothers Karamazov and gave up. Didn't have the stamina.

    Bonhoeffer - yes. Add to your reading list Letters and Papers from Prison. Reconsiders his life's work, and takes a number of unexpected turns. Gores sacred cows. Has both shaped and validated the ways I view new ecclesia. Perhaps one of the most important 2oth century writings on theology and ecclesiology.

    Kierkegaard - yes. He would be writing smart, critical religious satire today. A personal hero.

    Merton and Nouwen - very influential in my life. Thanks for the tip on Nouwen's leadership book. I've ordered it.

    Shirky and about 10 other writers on participatory systems. It's the new ecclesia, my friends.

    Volf E&E - a masterpiece. Every page marked up. Sort of like all my books :-)

    Thanks for sharing this.
    .-= John´s last blog ..Absolutely Convinced or Radically Uncertain? =-.

    • by Rhett Smith on December 23, 2009  3:56 pm Reply

      John,

      It looks like we have similar reading tastes. Brother's Karamazov is long and dense, but worth the read. I almost put Letters and Papers from Prison on the list also. I love that book, but need to spend more time with it. And he does "gore some sacred cows "as you state.

      What books do you recommend on participatory systems? I've only really read Wikinomics, Starfish and the Spider, and a few others.

      Rhett
      .-= Rhett Smith´s last blog ..30 Books That Spiritually Transformed My Life This Last Decade =-.

  6. by Kristi on December 22, 2009  2:03 pm Reply

    Have not read one of those on the list. This last decade I have been more in the Skippyjon Jones, Brown Bear, Wodney Wat genre. Here towards the end of the decade we are finally moving into the Nancy Drew & American Girl level. I think I'll go make my list of favorite kids books on my blog now.

    • by Rhett Smith on December 23, 2009  3:56 pm Reply

      Kristi,

      Well, it seems like you have your hands full. And you probably have a great reading list of books I haven't read either. That's the beauty of seeing what books influence people...realize how different all of our tastes can be.

      I will be to some of the books you mention soon enough.

      Rhett
      .-= Rhett Smith´s last blog ..30 Books That Spiritually Transformed My Life This Last Decade =-.

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  8. by Josh Rhone on December 23, 2009  11:54 am Reply

    Rhett,

    You have some incredible, life-changing, paradigm-shifting books on this list.

    Glad to see the Nouwen, Merton, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer on your list. These are classics texts on spirituality, discipleship, and community that hopefully every generation will take the time to read and wrestle with.

    Was also delighted to see that you included the long, but masterful Brothers Karamazov. Apart from the incredible story, one can spend years mulling over Dostoyevsky's use of imagery and the various layers of meaning which characterize this text.

    I think that Peterson was also a tremendous person to include. I was surprised, however, that you didn't include Working the Angles or any of the books from his anthology of spiritual theology.

    A couple of books that I would add to your list are Money and Power and The Subversion of Christianity, both by Jacques Ellul; I and Thou by Martin Buber; and The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.
    .-= Josh Rhone´s last blog ..Rediscovering the ‘Good News’: the problem of colonial Christianity and Western evangelism methods =-.

    • by Rhett Smith on December 23, 2009  3:58 pm Reply

      Josh,

      Looks like we have similar reading tastes :-)

      And I agree, BK has so many layers, one could spend their life reading and analyzing it. And I'm sure many people do. It's time for me to read that again soon.

      I love Ellul, but am more familiar with Propaganda, The Technological Society and the Meaning of the City. He is amazing. Blows my mind everytime. I will check out Money and Power. Also, Buber is awesome. I and Thou was great, but I need to read it again. It was a tough read and I need to take another look at it.

      And isn't it true that the tough reads are really the books worth reading.

      Rhett
      .-= Rhett Smith´s last blog ..30 Books That Spiritually Transformed My Life This Last Decade =-.

  9. by Rodlie Ortiz on December 28, 2009  9:19 pm Reply

    You've got some great literature there. I really loved The Stranger. And Kahlil Gibran is quite awesome as well. Funny how a lot of the favorites of mine as well I first read in high school. Go lit class!
    .-= Rodlie Ortiz´s last blog ..The Best Definition of a Missional Church? =-.

  10. by John Alexander on January 9, 2010  7:59 pm Reply

    Rhett:
    First time I've read your blog. Thanks for sharing the top 30 books. Very insightful. In 2009, I read well over 100 books. Now, you may be thinking, John, you're bragging. I'm not. In fact, I'm upset with myself and ashamed. For 2010, I want to ponder a few books deeply. Out of these 30, what would be your top 5? Thanks for responding...
    .-= John Alexander´s last blog ..When People Hurt… =-.

  11. by Todd Stepp on January 27, 2010  4:36 pm Reply

    Hi Rhett

    Happy New Year to you! I trust you are having an enjoyable day. My name is Todd Stepp and I work for BooksChristian.com, here in Franklin, TN. We are a Christian owned & operated company that sells over 200,000 Christian products.

    I have visited rhettsmith.com and have noticed that you post book reviews on your blog. I wanted to see if you would be interested in partnering with us, enabling visitors to your blog to purchase books that you review, as well as other books that you may suggest to them (books of the day etc.). In return we would pay you 9% on every sale made. There is very little work that would need to be done on your end, as we provide all the tools to create links and codes that you can post on your blog.

    I would love to discuss this further with you at your earliest convenience. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Regards,

    Todd Stepp


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