Top Ten Books

Top Ten Best Books

T. David Gordon


1. Humanists (I teach Humanities) cannot count.  I refuse to remove any of these from my “top ten,” even if the precise number is not ten, in the arithmetical sense of the term.  Why should something so arbitrary as a number impoverish one’s top ten list? 

2. I do not rank these in any order (fibbing a little here--I may impose a generally-chronological order).  The criterion of selection is merely that these works not only provoked a profound re-assessment of my understanding of life when I first read them; but they continue to disturb me and provoke new re-assessments on subsequent re-readings or remembrances.  In some (almost all) cases, they have introduced me to an entirely new category of questions, an entirely new paradigm.

3. The criterion of selection is entirely personal.  You may be itching where I’m not scratching.  These are works that have disturbed/exhilarated/shaped me profoundly, both when I first read them and since then (and not many books have such continuing influence). 

4.  One or two of these may be essays or articles, rather than books.  Sue me.

5.  I do not include technical works in my arena of biblical studies (unless they are also more generally relevant).

6. I do not include literature, because it is too vast. 

My List

Plato, Apology of Socrates.

            The Greek text of this can be a tad annoying in places, but in English it floats along quite well.  The title of this brief work itself has lovely ambiguity in it, because while on the surface it is a record of what Socrates said to the Athenians before they condemned him to death, it is also, surely, Plato’s defense of Socrates the man and the method of candid (and annoying) inquiry Plato had learned from him.  Richly artful, tartly humorous, and tragic (yes, we Americans got the substance of our prized form of government from the bastards who put Socrates to death), this must be read several times to be appreciated.  On the first reading, one is wondering if Socrates will produce a successful defense and be spared.  Once one realizes, after several readings, that he will indeed drink the hemlock, one reads it more as Plato’s defense of the mode of inquiry that characterized Socrates’s life.  The part that most discloses his method, and his artful reply to the charge of atheism, is when he records his shock and discomfort when he learned that the oracle at Delphi had declared no man wiser than he.  On the one hand, Socrates did not wish to be impious, and dispute the gods who spoke through the oracle; but on the other, he was fully convinced that he knew nothing, and could hardly imagine that no one was wiser than he.  You must read how this conundrum is solved.  You may find yourself becoming a Socratic, if you come to believe, as I do, that it is not what we do not know that injures us; it is what we do know (which is partly or entirely wrong) that harms us.

John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church.

            Forget the Institutes; read this brief treatise of less than a hundred pages and you will know more about what is important to Calvin than you will by slogging through the Institutes (and then, when you finish, go slog through the Institutes).  Calvin, in this letter/essay, argues that two things must be reformed if the church is not to die entirely, and two things in this order--how to worship God rightly, and how we are made right with God (justification).  Personally, I wouldn’t want to live without the Institutes (though Edwards got along fine without them; they weren’t published in the colonies before or during Edwards’s lifetime), but as someone who lives among the conservative reformed communions, if I had to choose which I wish other people read, I would choose this over the Institutes.

Jonathan Edwards.  Charity and Its Fruits.

            This work is ostensibly merely an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13.  But it also discloses an ethical methodology that continues to resurface in Christian history, an ethic of imitation.  While Edwards may not have been self-conscious of his method (methodological self-consciousness was just beginning to appear in his day), his method is the right method and the best method, and the most consistently biblical method:  We learn what God is like and what He does, and we imitate him.  Far too few students of Edwards have known enough about ethics to perceive the significance of this work.


James Henley Thornwell, Discourses on Truth.

            In a series of what were originally given as public lectures in the mid-nineteenth century in Columbia, SC, Thornwell discussed the morality of the intellect--the reality that every act of knowing is a moral act, for which we are morally accountable.  His theory, elegantly argued, is that in every engagement of the mind, we must not only seek, but love, the truth.  The mind is not created to defend the opinions we do hold, but to discover the opinions we ought to hold.  Thornwell not only relocates thought in the ethical arena (where it belongs), he implicitly sets us on the path of a solution to modernity’s approach to epistemology, by suggesting that an opinion may be ethically justifiable (“morally certain” was the term of his day) even if it turns out to be wrong.

J. Gresham Machen.  “Christianity and Culture.”  The Princeton Theological Review,  vol. II, 1913, pp. 1-15, reprinted in several places.

            This was Machen’s rallying cry for an intellectual (as opposed to sentimental or activist) and culture-affirming Christianity.  Still a great read, a stirring read, albeit brief. Machen faced the activist/moralist Christianity of Protestant Liberalism, on the one hand, and the sentimentalist/individualist Christianity of Pietism/Evangelicalism, on the other.  Though he is commonly known for his opposition to the former, in this essay, we perceive how ardently opposed he was to the latter.  For Machen, if I may put it in my own words, “Me and Jesus” is scarcely better than “Me and the Devil.” 

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.

            The great essayist here argues against Darwinism by a thorough discussion of creativity as belonging exclusively to humans (among creatures), as a trait that reflects God’s image and makes them different from all other animate life

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.

            I’ve always been surprised by how few people have read this, considering that almost everyone who reads it says it’s probably the best or second best thing he wrote.  Ostensibly, it is a critique of what Lewis calls “evaulative” criticism (when someone says that a given book is a “bad” or “good” book), but what Lewis actually discusses is not good and bad books, but good and bad readings of books, and possibly good and bad readers.  Lewis divides the literate world into the “literary type” and the “unliterary type,” and argues that the literary types “experience” books whereas the unliterary types “use” them.  The unliterary almost never read a book twice, and are almost never changed by one.  The literary types are altered profoundly by what they read, and often re-read important books many times.  For a brief book (about 150 small pages), it’s one of the most insightful of any I have read.

Richard Hofstadter.   Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.   New York: A. A. Knopf, 1979.

            The first edition of this was in the early 1960s, and Hofstadter won a Pulitzer for it.  Especially disturbing/interesting are the two chapters on the contributions of evangelical Christianity to American anti-intellectualism.  Like all would-be philosopher/kings, Hofstadter expresses some “sour grapes syndrome” here, but as an exposé of some of the sources of anti-intellectualism in our culture, it is very helpful.

Daniel Boorstin.  The Image:  A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America.  1961 (and later editions).

            Daniel Boorstin, who died in the Fall of ’05, was Librarian of Congress for many years, and was the immediate predecessor of Dr. James Billington, the current LC.  While this book covers several things, it is one of the early media ecological works dealing with the replacement of language by images (beginning with the photograph in the latter part of the nineteenth century).  Part of what is remarkable about this volume is Boorstin’s prescient view of television, which only appeared in its commercial form five years before the publication of the first edition of this book.  Boorstin was the first to observe that William Howard Taft is inelectable today, because a man who weighs close to 400 pounds just doesn’t look that good on television (nor do those of us who weigh about a quarter of that, but I digress...).  In this volume Boorstin also deals with news (whether newspaper, radio or television) as a consumer commodity to be sold (and, to that end, created) as frequently as possible.  Thus the news industry has no commercial interest in truth, nor in informing Mr. Jefferson’s republic; as an industry, it is only interested in manufacturing and sales.  What it manufactures, in this case, is “news” (and hence the subtitle of the second edition-- “A Guide to Psuedo-Events...”).  This work anticipates by forty years the later work (1999) of Prof. C. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb, and follows, both chronologically and intellectually, Walter Lippmann’s 1922 Public Opinion, in which Lippmann talked about “psuedo-environment” as a product of news-reporting.

Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word.

            Ellul traces the movement from typographic culture (language-based) to image-based culture, and talks about the unforseen consequences of the triumph of the latter.  Language deals with truth; image with mere reality.  Language deals with true and false; image merely with accurate/inaccurate.  Language, the only means by which God discloses himself, has become debased and devalued, with the consequence that we know God less well, and also our selves, culture, and neighbors less well.

--------.  The Subversion of Christianity.

            Ellul argues that when Christianity employs the same propagandistic, coercive, or manipulative power as the culture in the effort to extend Christianity, it actually subverts Christianity.  This is a brief, but disturbing work, that could put the brakes on the theocrats, culture-warriors, and Theonomists, if they would stop their coercive activities long enough to read it.

Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

            Written before she had been canonized, and before feminism had become orthodox and cultic (excluding all but the truly orthodox), this is a collection of a variety of essays Ms. Steinem wrote in her early career.  The essays are, in turn, humane, disturbing, insightful, and hilarious (the essay about if men had menstrual periods--each would brag about how long his was--remains one of the finest satiric pieces in the history of American literature).  If you wish to understand feminism (not necessarily embrace it or refute it, but understand it), and understand what made it/makes it so attractive to so many people, you must read this book.  Indeed, if you wish to understand life in the West after the Sixties, you must read these essays.

Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book.

            I keep trying to find a way to make this required reading at Grove City College, or better yet, by all High School seniors.  Adler describes purposeful reading, and introduces us to how different books must be read differently, to profit from them.  Adler was chief editor of Encyclopedia Brittanica, and wrote about 55 books, so he knew something about reading and writing books.  Although in some sense this is not a great book, it makes accessible all of the great books, and therefore must be on the list.

Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania” (Journal of Biblical Literature 81 [1962]: 1-13.)

Prof. Sandmel was a Jewish student of the New Testament, and wrote many important and interesting things.  But this essay was a virtual bombshell, in which he critiqued the ambiguous usage of the term “background” in New Testament studies.  He deftly demonstrated that the term “parallel” has almost no legitimate usages, and many illegitimate ones (such as suggesting that because two ancient texts exhibit some similarity, one influenced the other in some way).  In some senses, this essay also has the effect of being a critique of some aspects of the so-called "inter-textual" interpretation of the New Testament.

James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: University Press, 1961).

            This book debunked many cherished errors often found in biblical studies, including the alleged distinction between Greek and Hebrew thought, the common confusing of words and concepts (especially in Kittel’s TDNT), “illegitimate totality transfer,” and others.  Rarely read outside of academic circles, many ministers commit the errors Barr discussed on a weekly basis.

Leland Ryken, Culture in Christian Perspective: A Door to Understanding and Exploring the Arts.

            Prof. Ryken (Wheaton College, English Literature) has a number of thoughtful works on culture, recreation, labor, and aesthetics, and this is a nice introduction to his thought.  Prof. Ryken has persuaded me that our exposure to beauty is not a morally neutral thing; it is our created duty to discover it, to appreciate it, to enjoy it, and to to promote it.

George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture:  The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925.  Oxford: University Press, 1980.

            A stunning description of Fundamentalism as a product of the twentieth century.  Too valuable, and too insightful in so many ways, to summarize.  But anyone in the conservative Christian tradition must read this in the effort at self-understanding.  Especially remarkable is Marsden’s thesis that, although fundamentalists perceive themselves as anti-modernists, they are actually modernists in their epistemology.

David F. Wells, No Place for Truth.

            The first in several volumes addressing the current state of evangelical Christianity and the cultural forces that have shaped it, this work by a former colleague demonstrates how a cultural indifference to truth permeated the evangelical churches without their knowing it, causing them to change their understanding of Christian faith and life profoundly.  What Machen feared would occur in his 1913 essay, Wells has documented to have occured.

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.

            Hatch is happier about the democratization of Christianity than I am, but the book is a terrific description of the fact that such democratization (lamentable, as I judge the matter) has taken place.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

            Perhaps Postman’s most widely read book, this is the most accessible work on media ecology available.  Postman, who recently died (October 5, 2003), convincingly argued that the typographic era (he calls it “The Era of Exposition”) created a high level of rationality, though it did so uninentionally, and that television does not and cannot perform the same function, because as a medium it is dynamic rather than static.  Television is incapable, as a medium, of dealing with what is significantly humane, and so it necessarily trivializes and de-humanizes the lives of those who are exposed to it in a significant amount. 

Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. 

            While not all aspects of this are equally readable, the book is accessible for any thoughtful person.  Myers distinguishes “high” culture from “low” culture (I don’t use this language; I use the more-neutral “classical” and “pop” and also talk about “folk”), and the implicit values that reside in each, and warns about the danger of assuming naively that no such values reside therein.  If people read, understood, and agreed with Ken, they would never again sing one of the contemporary praise choruses (I won’t--I will live in a world without music before I will sing “Shine Jesus, Shine”), even though he never addresses such a matter directly in the book.

Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties.

            The standard intellectual history of the twentieth century from a conservative perspective.  Very engaging, though not quite as engaging as his history of the United States.  It is the more important read, however, as he provides a fairly unified thesis for the movement from the cutural belief in timeless truths (e.g., virtue, justice) to relativism.

Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden, The Search for a Christian America.

            A brief, articulate, and timely refutation of the common notion that we were founded as a Christian nation by Christian scholars of the highest academic caliber.  Proves conclusively (in my opinion) that while there were many Christians in the culture, they were not necessarily the majority, and the Republic never intended to establish or even promote a particular religion.