Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

[Note: Every Friday on First Thoughts we host a discussion about some aspect of pop culture. Today’s theme is influential books. Have a suggestion for a topic? Send them to me at ]

Earlier this week economist Tyler Cowen started a meme by asking bloggers to list the top ten books that have influenced their view of the world. (See the lists by Peter Suderman , E.D.Kain , Arnold Kling , Michael Martin , Niklas Blanchard , Bryan Caplan , Will Wilkinson , and Freddie deBoer .) Because it combines three things I love—lists, books, worldview analysis—I thought it would be interesting for our Friday pop culture discussion.

Like Cowen’s, mine is a “gut list” rather than the “I’ve thought about this for a long time list.” I also chose to leave out the Bible and other classic works that are a bit too obvious. For the same reason, classic works on political conservatism didn’t make the cut (we’ll save those for another day).

Because I couldn’t narrow it to ten, I cheated by listing ten pairs of books:

1. How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture | He is There and He is not Silent by Francis Schaeffer — I stumbled upon HSWTL at the New Boston, Texas library at the age of fifteen. After that, my life was never the same. Schaeffer made me realize that a Bible-believing evangelical could be—should be—interested in culture, philosophy, and the life of the mind. Schaeffer used to say that he was an evangelist rather than a scholar and it often shows in his work. Many of his claims are misguided (he was completely wrong, for instance, about Thomas Aquinas) but these books—along with his collected works —have had a significant influence on my thinking for twenty-five years.

2. Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think by James Sire | In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition by Hugh Hewitt — Sire taught me how to shape my mind as a Christian while Hewitt taught me how to put it into practice. Every few years I return to Sire’s book and find new ways to “think Christianly.” It’s proven to be an invaluable vade mecum. The same is true of Hewitt’s book, which he says he wrote as “an attempt to encourage people under the age of forty-five to take seriously acquiring influence so it can be used for good purposes.” “It’s a very practical guide,” he says, “I like to describe it to people as Dale Carnegie meets Chuck Colson.” The advice ranges from the obvious but often ignored (#36 - Be slow to show your knowledge) to the practical but often ignored (#9 - Tatoos: Don’t). Because of the book I started a blog and moved to Washington, D.C., both of which changed my career trajectory. No other book—aside from the Bible—has had as much of a recognizable impact on my life as this one.

3. Modern Times by Paul Johnson | The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas — The two books that sparked my interest in intellectual history.

4. From Bauhaus to Our House | The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe — The best book on modern architecture and the best book on modern art by the best essayist in the modern world.

5. The Defense of Duffer’s Drift by E.D. Swinton | Enders Game by Orson Scott Card — I read both of these books as a young Marine (they are both on the Marine Corps Professional Reading List ) and it opened my eyes to tactical thinking. Swinton’s book uses an intriguing series of dreams to teach a tactical exercise. Armchair warriors can learn a lot from this brief tome. (An online version can be found here .) Card’s book also provides lessons on tactics in one of the best science fiction books ever written. (Another I’d recommend is the U.S. Marine Corps manual on Warfighting . A premier example of that most rare genre: the literary government publication.)

6. Technopoly | Conscientious Objections by Neil Postman — Postman was not only our most astute media critic but one of the most prophetic voices of the last forty years. Essential reading for understanding how our culture is shaped by media and technology. ( Amusing Ourselves to Death would be a third choice.)

7. The Mad Scientists Club by Bertrand R. Brinley | The Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol — TMSC was the ubertext for pre-Atari Gen-X nerds. It taught me to appreciate the tinkerer/maker ethic. Encyclopedia Brown taught me—for better or worse—to be a generalist and to love a broad range of subjects. (Note: Joseph Bottum wrote an essay about TMSC for First Things in April 2006.)

8. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith ? by R.C. Sproul | Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem – The books that most shaped my view of Christian doctrine.

9. Flatland by Edwin Abbot | Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff – Two very different, but equally interesting, works that helped me to see math and language from a new perspective.

10. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters | Plowing in Hope: Towards a Biblical Theology of Culture by David Bruce Hegeman – While Schaeffer laid the foundation for my becoming a Kuyperian/Neocalvinist, these two short books built upon it and helped me to understand the creation-fall-redemption theme that shapes Reformed thinking. I can’t recommend these two highly enough for all Christians (even if you’re not a Calvinist).

What books would be included on your list?

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles