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The Top 50 Books
October 14, 2006
You may have had opportunity by this time to browse through Christianity Today’s “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals.” “These are books that have shaped evangelicalism as we see it today—not an evangelicalism we wish and hope for. Books that have been published since World War II—not every book in the history of Christianity. Books that over the last 50 years have altered the way American evangelicals pray, gather, talk, and reach out—not books that merely entertained. We asked dozens of evangelical leaders for their suggestions, and they sent in their nominations. Then we vigorously debated as a staff as we ranked the 50 books. (We’re still debating.)”
The list has, as we might expect, generated a bit of buzz within the blogosphere and beyond. Justin Taylor asked a group of friends, most of whom are well-known pastors or authors, to submit to him their top 10 list of what most influential and what should have been most influential in the last 50 years. I assume he sent this email to me as well, but that my spam filter rejected it. It must be. Regardless, it is still worth reading through the suggestions that were sent to him.
I looked over Christianity Today’s list and made a few observations.
First, a list of this nature is, in some ways, a guaranteed losing proposition. No one in all of Christendom will read this list and agree with it exactly. The criteria are sufficiently subjective that the staff who compiled the list clearly had to make a great number of judgment calls. I believe these lists are created as much to create buzz or to create controversy as anything. They are, at best, moderately useful.
Second, the book that was declared the most influential, Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker, was a very strange pick. I think it unlikely that most people reading the list would know of the book. Not many more would know of the author. CT says this of the book: “In the 1950s, evangelical prayer was characterized by Elizabethan wouldsts and shouldsts. Prayer meetings were often little more than a series of formal prayer speeches. Then Rosalind Rinker taught us something revolutionary: Prayer is a conversation with God. The idea took hold, sometimes too much (e.g., “Lord, we just really wanna …”). But today evangelicals assume that casual, colloquial, intimate prayer is the most authentic way to pray.”
Third, the influence of a book can really only be known or measured many years in the future. Many books generate a lot of interest in the short-term, but have little lasting influence in the long-term. There are some whose influence is felt even generations later. I would suggest this is likely to be the case with a title such as Understanding Church Growth by Donald Anderson McGavran (which was, properly in my opinion, ranked at the #2 spot in the list). This book, for good or for ill, changed the way many people understand church. It has led to the rise of Warren and Hybels and countless other Church Growth leaders. I think a title like Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? (#17) is unlikely to have the long-term, church-changing impact. Subsequently, if it makes the list at all, it ought to be far higher up.
Fourth, a book that definitely should have made the list is The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson. This book was awful in its content, but sold millions of copies. Sam Storms added it to his list of books that should have made the list, saying “I listed Wilkinson’s book last, given that its influence was due less to its content and more to the way that its commercial success revolutionized the Christian publishing industry.” This book was one of the first major commercial successes for Christian publishing and its success has contributed to the later success of titles such as The Purpose Driven Life. It showed marketers just how ripe for the picking the Christian market really is. This has led to mainstream publishers purchasing Christian publishers which will in turn lead to increasingly-awful books being published in the name of God. I suspect the ramifications will be felt for a long time.
Fifth, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church should likely have made the list. Without that book, The Purpose Driven Life would never have been such a success. PDL sold so many copies only because of the past relationships between Purpose Driven and the thousands of pastors who had been introduced to Warren’s programs through the earlier book. Without The Purpose Driven Church there would be no The Purpose Driven Life. PDL sold many copies (the vast majority of which, I am convinced, were never read), but I think PDC was more influential.
Beyond these five points, I have little to say. I will not even attempt to create a list of my own.