Thinking Out Loud

June 11, 2020

Cookie-Cutter Book Recommendations

Two days ago I watched a YouTube video with a title something like, “Top Ten Books Every Christian Should Read” that had been posted two or three years back by a popular Christian blogger. It came up in the YouTube/Google algorithm as something recommended for me, but I also considered the possibility that Google is being paid for search engine optimization.

As I scrolled through the list, my reaction, to use the words of a well-known climate activist was, “How dare you!”

As someone who has been blessed by Christian books since my pre-teen years — which is a long time ago — I have books that I’ve enjoyed on a personal level. They’re part of my story, and if people ask, I share what some of them were, but not to the degree of recommending that they need to read them.

And as someone who has spend a lifetime working in Christian publishing at both the wholesale and retail level (and on the fringes of the acquisitions and author development level) I don’t think I have ever recommended any of these books to the people with whom I’ve been in contact.

Mind you, seasoned Christians, veteran Christ followers, whatever you call them, usually know what they’re looking for. The people looking for advice are often wanting to get started at going deeper and for that I have suggestions. (As I’ve stated recently, keeping up with those means there were times my own reading wasn’t as deep as it could have been. If starting over, my library would be more InterVarsity Press and less Thomas Nelson/Zondervan, but what do you do if the former isn’t cooperating and the latter actually knows how to market books?)

My wife suggested I simply publish my own list.

I also know that any ‘Top Ten’ lists are considered clickbait, and when you are a very successful blogger the pressure to publish is immense. I say that as a once moderately successful blogger who felt compelled to produce new content every day for more than ten years.

I guess that, although I’ve poked at this topic repeatedly, what was printed was simply a list of ’10 Books Every Reformed Christian Should Read.’ That would describe it, right?


It wasn’t even that. It was a list of ’10 Books Which One Reformer Thinks Every Other Reformed Christian Ought to Read.’

1. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
2. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul
3. Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur
4. The Disciplines of Grace by Jerry Bridges
5. Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
6. Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore
7. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
8. Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
9. The Pleasures of God by John Piper
10. The Cross of Christ by John Stott

Yes, there’s a woman on the list, but honestly, until two days ago, after the aforementioned lifetime in Christian publishing, I had never heard of her or the book, or had an inquiry about it. Perhaps she paid for search engine optimization, too.

Lists like this need to be subjective. It reminds me of an instructional article that shaped me years ago as to how to respond when someone asks what is the best Bible translation. “Best for whom?” we were taught to say.

Not knowing where this list is going to land, I would not begin to recommend these books, nor assume that the recipient fits into the “Every Christian” mold that is presumed. People are unique. Their journey with Christ is personal.

“How dare you!”



  1. Hey Paul… of course I’m coming from a more sympathetic camp… but do you have an issue with any of these books in particular?
    I’ve read 8 of these and been very encouraged/ helped by them… in various ways, and the Nancy Pearcey book was very helpful in looking at the things that impact our world view.
    Is it the books themselves you object to… or the “every Christian should read” that you object to?
    Because honestly I think you might be reading a tone into Challie’s words that isn’t there. I read, “I’m going to suggest ten books that I think every Christian ought to read, or at least try to read, at some point in your lifetime.” And the preamble is that it is in response to people asking him, “what would you suggest I read?” So these are people who are seeking his recommendations.
    Anyway, I know we all need to be leery of the “this book will change your life” recommendations… we’re all at different places on our pilgrimage with different circumstances and focuses… but I was happy to look at his list just as I’m happy to look at your recommendations.
    Grace and peace, Deborah

    Comment by dgraceofgod — June 11, 2020 @ 1:08 pm

    • I really should read Knowing God by Packer. Pretty sure it’s already on my shelf. And no beef with Jerry Bridges, though I would have picked Pursuit of Holiness, which I think is his signature title.

      For #6, a biography, I might have included a collection. Or a classic missions story like Peace Child or the story of Nate Saint, Jim Elliott, etc. But as I said, I would never consider doing a list quite like this one.

      James MacDonald had a 5-year reading plan for members of Harvest Bible Chapel. I have several copies of it and have adapted from it for various uses, but the list is huge and that allowed for people to be selective if they couldn’t get through a particular year’s choices.

      A friend wrote me direct today,

      None of those books would have been on my top 10, though I own a few of them. Must admit, I don’t know of one book, other than the obvious one, that every Christian should read. [My wife] and I read totally different lists, very rarely will we both read the same title.

      So what do I object to? It’s the purported authority to speak into the lives of various people.

      How would I do it? If asked, “What do you suggest I read?” I’d get to know the person; find out a lot of where they’re coming from spiritually; then recommend one or two books and let them choose one, and then, based on feedback from their reading of that book, go on to recommend another. I do the same when recommending a church. “What’s been your church experience?” I’ll then recommend two and two only. Tell them to choose and then let me know about their experience to see if we want to recommend something else. Using that formula I’ve referred some people to house churches b/c the brick-and-mortar churches in my area would not have been a good fit.

      Also, as you probably realize, MacArthur and Piper would not be on my list, nor on my bookshelves.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — June 11, 2020 @ 3:48 pm

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