The People in My Ear
Posted by Tyler Kirkpatrick | 10/7/2019
“As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people.” – Henri Nouwen
Over the past few months I’ve had a several different people ask me, “Tyler, you quote a lot of people in your sermons… Could you please create a list of your most-quoted authors?” Well… at the risk of leaving some voices out (or the greater risk of saying too much, because this list is already longer than I intended it to be!)… here’s a shot at some of the authors I frequently quote, or authors who inspire me in pastoral work and in sermon writing. In other words… here are the people who keep jumping off the bookshelves in my office and finding their way into my ears as conversation partners as I seek to prayerfully and thoughtfully engage scripture.
Maya Angelou – Her poetry challenges and stretches me. It deepens and widens my vision of God’s world.
St. Augustine – In many ways considered the father of Christian theology (or at least Western Christian theology), Augustine wrote copious amounts of theology. But the story of his conversion, Confessions, remains one of the greatest all-time works of Christian writing.
Karl Barth – The world of Karl Barth is daunting to enter because he has written so much! I include him on this list because he has perhaps had more of an impact on how I think theologically than any other theologian. A good intro to his theology is Dogmatics in Outline (a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed), and his collection of sermons he gave on regular visits to the local prison, Deliverance to the Captives, is a good devotional read.
Wendell Berry – Berry has an interesting perspective, and has written a voluminous number of essays on the topic of neighboring well in one’s local context. He has also written a number of short stories and novels, but if I were to recommend one Wendell Berry book it would be his collection of poems written on his Sabbaths titled This Day. I find Berry to be in the tradition of John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden), and I try to think like these two writers whenever I’m reading and exegeting the Old Testament.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Perhaps led a more interesting life than anyone on this list (German pastor who opposed Hitler and was part of a plot to assassinate him, eventually put to death by the Nazis in a death camp), so Renate Wind’s biography A Spoke in the Wheel is well worth reading. Life Together is short and a helpful look at what it means for Christians to do… life together. Cost of Discipleship is also a great read.
Ta-Nehisi Coates – The only book of his that I have is Between the World and Me, but I find myself going back to this short little book, as well as many of the pieces he has written for The Atlantic quite often.
Annie Dillard – Dillard helps me cultivate a sense of wonder about the world God created, and the vastness of the living, holy God. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is maybe her best work but may be utterly strange to someone who has never read anything by a mystic. Holy the Firm is a short, remarkable work that is actually set on an island in Puget Sound. And The Writing Life is, I think, the best book I’ve ever read about preaching (it’s not really about preaching, and it applies to vocation in general).
Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy – I’m grouping these two Russian novelists together though I probably shouldn’t. If the size of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment or Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina are daunting, try reading the “Grand Inquisitor” by Dostoevsky (which is actually part of The Brothers Karamazov) or the wonderful short story by Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Illych.”
Anne Lamott – One reviewer said Lamott “is walking proof that a person can be both reverent and irreverent in the same lifetime. Sometimes even in the same breath.” Yep, that’s Anne Lamott. I’d probably recommend Traveling Mercies as a first jump into her writing.
Madeleine L’Engle and Denise Levertov – I’m grouping these two together only because I’m listing them here for their poetry (though, as many of you know, L’Engle of course has remarkable works of fiction). Both have small collections of poetry that explore the complexities of faith, and I’ve quoted both a number of times (and/or used their phrasing for sermon titles!): L’Engle’s The Weather of the Heart and Levertov’s The Stream and the Sapphire are absolutely fantastic.
C.S. Lewis – Lay theologian? Scholar? Essayist? Fiction writer? Children’s author? All of the above. I’ve read plenty of C.S. Lewis, and I keep going back to works of his that I’ve read multiple times, always finding fresh insights. For an intro into his world, I’d recommend: Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and of course, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Federally-mandated curriculum requirements ensured I learned about MLK every year in school, but it wasn’t until after college that I really discovered MLK the pastor. All of the social activism of his life was rooted in a robust theological foundation. MLK was quite the theologian, and I’d heartily recommend Strength to Love as a devotional read.
Henri Nouwen – An excellent perspective on spirituality. He has written a lot of books; Life of the Beloved is a fantastic look at his thought (and would work as a small group study). As a pastor I was helped greatly by the books Creative Ministry and Wounded Healer. I’ve also gifted his devotional collection Bread for the Journey on more than one occasion.
Flannery O’Connor – I’m always cautious about recommending O’Connor because she has a strange perspective on the world (actually, if you read enough of her, you might start to see that we have a distorted perspective and she has a lot of truth that initially strikes us as strange, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd,” she once quipped). Mystery and Manners is a good introduction to how she thinks and what she’s looking to accomplish in her stories, and A Good Man is Hard to Find is a good first step into her fiction.
Eugene Peterson –The moments when I am most faithfully fulfilling my vocation as a pastor are probably the moments when I am paying closest attention to Peterson’s words on pastoral ministry. I’ve personally been helped/challenged/encouraged by his memoir The Pastor, as well as Working the Angles, and The Contemplative Pastor. He also has some great stuff on spiritual theology, like Christ Plays in 10,000 Places. And his Biblical commentaries would be a great aid for small groups: Under the Unpredictable Plant (Jonah), Run with the Horses (Jeremiah), and Reversed Thunder (Revelation).
NT Wright – Wright has, in my opinion, helped reshape the landscape of New Testament scholarship in a positive (and challenging!) way. He is a prolific writer, but I found Surprised by Hope and How God Became King helpful. Whenever I’m preaching from a New Testament text, I always make sure to check what he has to say in his New Testament for Everyone commentary series.
Lastly, two books I’d strongly recommend: Tattoos on the Heart by Father Greg Boyle, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (I didn’t recommend them as authors because Stevenson has only published the one book, and Boyle recently published his second, but I’ve not read it and heard mixed reviews).