Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Reading for Discipleship

I was asked recently for a booklist on developing our relationship with God, and my first reaction was to say that the list would be so long that it would be unhelpful. That seemed a cavalier response, so I decided to see if I could write a blog, bearing in mind people’s different learning styles, personalities and Christian traditions.

This then isn’t a comprehensive approach, but one that might help the search. My early adult years as a Christian – University years – saw me introduced for the first time to evangelical theology. I knew myself to be ‘in Christ’ but I fear it didn’t make much difference to my daily life. It wasn’t that I was a notorious sinner, but somehow there was a disconnect. In that setting, writings influenced by a forceful and sometimes severe Holiness impulse challenged me: Roy Hession’s Calvary Road and Watchman Nee’s Sit, Walk, Stand on Ephesians immediately spring to mind. More Victorian and a little long-winded, JC Ryle’s Holiness remains a classic in the field.

For those who prefer their discipleship by imitation, it would be no bad thing to rebuild the classical Protestant library of the 18th century with Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress and John Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs. The Anabaptist equivalent, The Martyrs’ Mirror is harder to find, but shares Foxe’s concern to encourage a new church to hold firm to the principles of obedience even to death.

Handbooks of prayer and spirituality are good for those who value a structured approach, or who need to be fed with new disciplines. In this genre, Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, David Runcorn’s Spirituality Workbook and John Pritchard’s How to Pray: A Practical Handbook are recent and valued additions to a minister’s library. I guess that most people are familiar with the series, but it’s always worth trawling the Spirituality series of Grove booklets for particular disciplines. Now that they are also available as downloads, the process is even easier. Load them on your i-phone!

It’s a commonplace that the language of discipleship is the grammar of scripture, and the reading of scripture is a less practised discipline than it used to be. I have mixed feelings about them, because they don’t always do justice to genre or historical progression, but there are dozens of them around. The International Bible Society has the NIV Soul Survivor Bible in One Year and most readers of this will know of Selwyn Hughes and CWR’s Cover to Cover Every Day. Alternatively, and I think more helpfully, collections of devotional commentaries lend themselves to growing disciples. They may be dated, but William Barclay’s commentaries can be picked up for a song, and they’re full of thoughtful scholarship of the age from a man of prayer. More recently, much of Tom Wright’s more popular writing fulfils this purpose. The For Everyone series, and individual books like Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship all belong to this approach.

In the hope that some at least will find detailed study of a more academic kind bears fruit in the spirit as well as in the mind, it’s worth mentioning that the rather silly dichotomy between study and prayer in the Western church needs to be subverted. Giants of the Christian life like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott have shaped generations of disciples. I’m aware, sadly, that the author list so far is much too masculine, and Paula Gooder is a welcome antidote to this. This Risen Life: The Spirit of Easter and A Way Through the Wilderness: God’s Help in a Time of Crisis spring to mind.

Which leads me to the particular question of dry times, times of struggle, dark nights of the soul. Books on periods of darkness and absence are a mini-industry, a reminder (if we need one) that for many people much of the time, our relationship with God is ambiguous, and we need not shy away from this. The most engaged are those written by people who have themselves struggled. Ones that stand out on my bookshelf are Carlo Carretto’s Why? O Lord, Frances Young’s Face to Face and Brokenness and Blessing, and most of the writings of Jean Vanier, including From Brokenness to Community. Henri Nouwen’s pilgrimage from academic glory to downward mobility in community reflects a different approach to this, and The Wounded Healer is his classic text.

In a word-filled world, the disciplines of silence and the Jesus Prayer have captivated a Western audience over the last 100 years. Thankfully, Protestants are now not so afraid of the mystical tradition. In this corner of the library, the classic is The Philokalia, but it’s not easy to read or use. Better are the anonymous Way of a Pilgrim [I like Helen Bacovcin’s modern translation], Simon Barrington-Ward’s The Jesus Prayer, and Anthony Bloom’s School of Prayer. Rowan Williams is probably the best Anglican interpreter of the tradition. Start with Silence and Honey-Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert.

Post-Christendom, the Radical tradition of the 16th century, carried on by Mennonites and Hutterites, Baptists and Anabaptists, has become a rich source of teaching for disciples. In a way, these loop back to my starting point on holiness. The radicals too – while believing absolutely in the grace of God to save and transform – recognize our collaboration in the work that Christ is doing through his Spirit in us: ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you.’ Dissident Discipleship: Hearing the Call to be Subversive in Spirituality, by David Augsburger is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but it’s good to be shaken. In my reading, it ranks with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as books to discomfit the comfortable, the admirers of Jesus, in Stanley Hauerwas’ words. You could also try Gregory Boyd’s The Naked Anabaptist or C Arnold Snyder’s Following in the Footsteps of Christ.

I mentioned earlier Frances Young’s Brokenness and Blessing, which is a reflection on patristic spirituality. I wonder whether, in view of the significant presence of early church mothers as well, we could have matristic literature? My spellchecker doesn’t like it, and ‘early church spirituality’ doesn’t do it for me. Oh well! I think the language does matter hugely, but the literature matters even more. And here there are certainly some outstanding writers for you to look up. Benedicta Ward on the Benedictine tradition and Desert spirituality, Evelyn Underhill on Mysticism and on The Cloud of Unknowing both immediately spring to mind.

Aelred Squire’s Asking the Fathers has just been republished by SPCK. It’s a good introduction, but books about books about books eventually tire. Why not, for a change, go back to some of the original texts, like Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias (for me one of the most accessible medieval texts) or Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. This was very formative for me as I prepared for my ordination.

I could go on, pretty well for ever. Of the writing of books there is certainly no end. But I was brought up on prayer books, not just the public liturgies of the church. These prayer books were books of personal prayer and meditation, to form young Christians and nurture mature ones. Most come out of a Catholic stable. My first was The Centenary Prayer Book, produced in 1933 for the centenary of the Oxford Movement, followed by The Anglo-Catholic Prayer Book. More recently the prayer books of David Adam have been refreshing my prayer life in the vacations, when the daily office in College chapel is no longer my bread and butter. One reader has suggested also Ruth Etchells' Just as I am: Personal Prayers for every day, saying that 'she talks to God as a friend and is honest and encouraging.'

Protestants fear such ordered patterns, and sometimes criticize them as vain repetition. It’s worth remembering that in the early 17th century, the English Baptist John Smyth wrote a whole treatise on the value of praying the Lord’s Prayer, and clearly saw the point of structured personal devotion. Many modern books are simply collections of prayer, which don’t build discipline. A web search brings up some really interesting finds, mostly Orthodox and Catholic. I have in my collection Archbishop Laud’s private prayer book, which could be used easily in this way. More familiar perhaps is Lancelot Andrewes’ Preces Privatae, which some might value. I think, though, that it might be a model for a new spiritual discipline, that of doing the same in a contemporary way for yourself. And here I have to end.

For in the end, discipleship is about faithfulness, and reading may nurture faithfulness. It is in prayer that faithfulness is practised. It is in church that faithfulness is nourished in community. And it is under discipline, in stability and obedience, that we find faithfulness possible. May God bless not just your reading, but you with him and in him, through his Word and his Spirit, for life and for eternity.


  1. Great list, Adrian. I'd add A W Tozer's The Pursuit of God and his The Knowledge of the Holy, together with Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. But as you say, there are lots more!

    Mike T

  2. Christine Woods of the Simeon Community says: I would like to add Discipleship by David Watson and a verse from scripture I have been drawn to in the last few days "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him" John 14:21.

  3. A few more books on 'the call to discipleship', and Jesus' method of discipling', to add to Adrian's list:-

    James Dunn 'Jesus' call to discipleship'
    A.B Bruce ' The training of the twelve'
    David Watson 'Discipleship'
    Dallas Willard 'The spirit of the disciplines'
    Dallas Willard 'The Great omission'
    Graham Cray ' Disciples and citizens'
    Coleman 'The master plan of evangelism'

    Andrew Taylor

  4. Mary Amendolia added:

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer 'Cost of Discipleship'
    AW Tozer 'Knowledge of the Holy'(characteristics of God)
    Simon Chan 'Spiritual Theology' (for mature Christians - I'm a huge fan of Chan!)
    Bruce Demarest 'Satisfy Your Soul' (may help the more "academic type" be open to the Holy Spirit)
    Hannah Hurnard, 'Hind's Feet on High Places' (allegorical)
    CS Lewis 'Chronicles of Narnia' (I know they are children's books, but it really does make you think about the Christian life as you read)
    Pete Greig 'God on Mute'(more about healing/suffering, but very helpful for those wrestling with suffering and why God answers some prayers and not others)