October 19, 2017

iMonk Classic: The Post-Evangelical Bookshelf—A Beginner’s Reading List For Finding Your Way In The Evangelical Wilderness

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted July 30, 2008

I’ve been doing an interview on “Post-Evangelicalism,” and I thought it would be a good time to list some of the books that define post-evangelicalism for me.

First of all, a brief definition:

Post-evangelicalism is a way of relating to the present seriously compromised, perhaps terminal, condition of evangelicalism by accessing the resources of the broader, deeper, more ancient Christian traditions that contemporary evangelicalism, in its pragmatic idolatry, has largely abandoned as sources and influences.

Please note that post-evangelicalism isn’t a rejection of evangelicalism, but a rejection of the current way of doing evangelicalism and being evangelical.

It will surprise- and probably offend- some of my Southern Baptist Founder’s movement influenced, reformed Baptist brothers to know that I consider them to be first class post-evangelicals. They remain evangelicals, but they have turned back to sources deeper in Baptist and church history to rediscover and repractice that evangelicalism. Like me, their approach to contemporary evangelicalism is highly suspicious and critical. Their openness to other traditions regularly earns them the ire of those who have defined being Baptist as narrowly as possible, and are incapable of taking a critical look at their own fundamentalism and dispensationalism.

So when certain truly reformed brothers refer to “post-evangelical” as synonymous with apostasy, I think they are deeply mistaken. I understand that they are responding to any approach that moves toward Catholicism with anything less than guns drawn. So we agree and we disagree.

Many readers have asked me to have more to say about post-evangelicalism. What needs to be said, however, has been said by some of the best writers in evangelicalism. Here is my first attempt at a basic post-evangelical bookshelf. I won’t be reviewing these books or even summarizing their content as much as I will simply relate them to the post-evangelical conversation and journey. In the interests of time, no links today. You can easily find all these books through Amazon and most are plentiful at used prices.

All post-evangelicals are in deep debt to the life’s work of Robert Webber. All of Webber’s books relate to post-evangelicalism, but in his Ancient-Future Series, he unpacks the entire post-evangelical vision under his own preferred rubric. Essential reading: Ancient Future Faith, Ancient Future Worship, Ancient Future Time.

Webber’s rather dated Evangelicals On The Canterbury Trail is still a good post-evangelical introduction. I was brought on board by The Majestic Tapestry, which is out of print and survives in the Ancient Future books.

Obviously influenced deeply by Webber is Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells. This is an introduction to liturgy for evangelicals. It is short, but the writing is passionate and communicates the sense many of us feel for what is at stake in returning to the more ancient Church.

D.H. Williams from Baylor Univerity is the scholarly point man for the recovery of the early church fathers by evangelicals. William’s contribution is only now beginning to get the attention it deserves. Three books are essential: Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, and Tradition, Scripture and Interpretation: A Sourcebook.

There are a myriad of books where evangelicals go all weak in the knees for monasticism or Catholic spirituality. Post-evangelicalism isn’t a fan club, and most of these books lack any read critical engagement. Two recent books, however, are more useful.

Jon M. Sweeney’s Almost Catholic could be about as purely a post-evangelical book as I could recommend, but it is almost entirely about personal spirituality and not the church. Subtitled An Appreciation of the History, Practice and Mystery of Ancient Faith, it’s a good popular survey, with a balance of appreciation and creative, critical engagement. Sweeney is less critical toward Catholicism than I would recommend, but the book is still extremely helpful for those who like to wade in, but not swim across, the Tiber. (You will note that I do not recommend books by converts to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Many of these are excellent and contain very important insights, but I haven’t heard the order to abandon ship yet, so I’m not going to recommend books by people who found the lifeboats and left anyway.)

Sweeney has also written about the good things he received from the fundamentalism he abandoned. Born Again and Again: The Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood is worth your time. (Today’s he’s an Anglican.)

Brian McLaren’s current book on ancient spiritual practices is called Finding Our Way Again. In many ways, McLaren is an effective and provocative thinker. I do not view future evangelicalism in anything similar to his extremely mainline-liberal vision, but this appreciation of the resources of the ancient church is also a fine introduction.

My own post-evangelicalism has a strong Lutheran/Reformation “solas” bias, and I got this from Michael Horton. His questioning of the state of compromised evangelicalism in Made in America was seminal in my own journey, and serves as a good introduction to other assessments of evangelicalism, such as D.G. Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism. (There are many good critiques of evangelicalism that have a post-evangelical bent, but which resort to an endorsement of one theological approach as “THE ANSWER.” I understand the value of these- David Wells is an example- but they simply don’t engage the broader, non-Protestant tradition in the way I personally believe we must do. And I say that as a thorough Protestant. I just don’t believe you can even understand Luther until you understand his catholicism.)

Horton has written two books that are must-reads for post-evangelicals. Both deal with worship and Christian spirituality, and both dig deep in the wells of a Biblical/Reformation understanding of these troubled waters. Read A Better Way on worship, and absolutely stop whatever you are doing and read In The Face of God for a thorough going corrective to evangelicalism’s vapid and hollow attempts at spirituality. Both are silver bullets to the Osteenization of evangelicalism.

There are other books that should be mentioned in particular contexts, such as David Fitch’s The Great Giveaway and the superb work by Os Guinness, The Call.

What I am looking for in this list is a strong balance between contemporary evangelicalism and the broader, deeper, more ancient sources of Christianity. There are good critiques of evangelicalism everywhere, and writing that is rooted in the better Christianity of other eras, but this is an introductory list of books to get you started in what post-evangelicalism means, how it approaches evangelicalism in your context and instructs you in a hopeful path to walk with others on the same journey.

Comments

  1. I would also encourage the reading of pure fiction works by people such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams. The Inklings, and their predecessor G.K. Chesterton took the concept of Ancient/Future before there was even an “inkling” of an idea about such a thing. Part of many evangelicals’ attraction to the Inklings is the recognition of a faith that clearly matches anything in the most evangelical of writings, but it is couched in trappings that are anything but.

    • Agreed, and I would add George MacDonald, who influenced Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton so much. In fact, I suggest reading George MacDonald’s ‘Getting To Know Jesus’ along with ‘The Great Divorce’. The influence is significant.

    • “Part of many evangelicals’ attraction to the Inklings is the recognition of a faith that clearly matches anything in the most evangelical of writings, but it is couched in trappings that are anything but.”

      There is a lot of truth to this statement, especially in my own autobiography. I am not sure if this will really make sense to anyone but me, but I was deeply moved by the Lord of the Rings in a way that I was not quite moved again until encountering Catholic forms art and liturgy a few years later. The same terrible, crushing, sweet longing after some elusive Beauty, both times.

      • Speaking of Tolkien, what he said in his letters regarding the Blessed Sacrament as the devotion he recommended to his son Michael, and this piece of advice in a letter from 1963:

        “Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”

        Good for all of us to remember the next time we’re mentally critiquing whatever service we’re attending 🙂

  2. Interesting – Brian McLaren got a right pasting in the comments section of a previous iMonk article

    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/convince-me#more-10777

    Would Tom Wright fit into that list anywhere? I can’t recommend Surprised by Hope highly enough.

  3. Dan Allison says:

    Agreed. My own journey through the post-evangelical wasteland has been guided by Wright, Tim Keller, Brennan, and Eugene Peterson. But I’m anxious to read these other people.

  4. br. thomas says:

    What about some of the works by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Brennan Manning & Henri Nouwen? Not all of them address specific “Evangelical” issues, but their writings have helped me move beyond a fundamentalist outlook.

  5. “The Seven Story Mountain” is very interesting to read. It feels a bit like a twentieth-century version of “Confessions.”

    I love and am haunted by this books first two paragraphs:

    “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nonetheless a prisoner of my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was a picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.

    “Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses and the ruined seventy-fives, in a forest of trees without branches along the River Marne.”

  6. Anything by Eugene Peterson especially ‘The Contemplative Pastor’, ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’, and ‘Working the Angles.’

  7. Postevangelical by Dave Tomlinson

    Anything by Lesslie Newbigin, but especially The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Foolishness to the Greeks.

    • Anything by Lesslie Newbigin is right–especially the two books that Ben mentioned and also Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth.

      I like anything by Phillip Yancey too, if he qualifies. When I was reading his stuff I had never heard of the term “post-evangelicalism”.

      And that book by Michael Spencer ain’t bad…

  8. Not all of us in the post-evangelical wilderness are wandering back in the direction of ancient or medieval forms of church. Some of us have left institutional evangelicalism on a quest for a simpler, more relational way of being the church. And when we do look back into the past, we are drawn primarily to those first few decades of the church. The paradign changer for me was Jim Rutz’s “Megashift.” From there, I started reading authors like Frank Viola (though I’m not as big a fan as I once was), Donald Miller, Jim Palmer, and Brennan Manning. Lately, I’ve been nosing around into some of the latest scholarship on first-century Judaism, its connections with early Christianity, and the factors that ultimately led to the parting of ways between the two religions. “The Jews in the Time of Jesus” by Stephen M. Wylen has been my latest read in that area — and while this book was very informative and eye-opening, I’m still chewing on his post-supercessionist views regarding Judaism and Christianity.

  9. Dennis Ockholm’s “Monk Habits for Everyday People: benedictine spirituality for protestants” is a perfect addition to this list.

    He was one of my theology proffs at Azusa Pacific, a very evangelical school but also has lot of interest in Christian tradition.

    Weslayanism for the win!

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

      Similar to this is Spirituality for Everyday Living by Brian Taylor, an Episcopal priest. It’s a really neat adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict for us regular folk.