Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

25 Books Every Christian Should Read. Plus A Few More They Forgot.

I have a soft spot for guides like 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, which has been reviewed by multiple bloggers recently as part of the Patheos Book Club Roundtable. I tend to like books that direct me to other books, a happy rabbit trail of recommendations that can keep me in blissful bibliogeekdom for weeks, months, even years.


However, I didn’t have such a positive response as my fellow bloggers Tony Jones and Carl Gregg, despite the fact that two of the members of the Renovare board that compiled this list are Richard Foster and Phyllis Tickle, whom I basically worship. In a totally non-idolatrous way of course.

My initial response to this guide, in thumbing through the impressive table of contents, was:

Where the hell are all the women?!

Of the 25 spiritual classics recommended and excerpted here, precisely two are written by women: Teresa of Avila’s trippy The Interior Castle and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. (I’ve never read the latter, but I have enjoyed other snippets of Julian.)


So women get 8% of the list . . . seriously? What’s particularly surprising about this is that by the editors’ own explanation of the kinds of books they wanted to include here, the list is supposed to be a guide to Christian living, not an exposition of theology. It also includes contemporary as well as classical texts, and fiction and poetry as well as non-fiction. It is supposed to have a practical bent:

This book is not the list of the best Christian books ever written or a list of the top twenty-five devotional books; it isn’t even the list of the top twenty-five classics, although we believe all of the books on the list are or will be considered classics of their respective genres. The books we have chosen to include are, instead, the books that the board judges served as the best guides for living life with God. Cumulatively, these books embody a rich treasure of wisdom and counsel for how to live the Christian life.


Surrender Dorothy!

So the book is a guide to how to live the Christian life, but doesn’t include The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day? I’d take her scathing honesty over smarmy Brother Lawrence any day. And sweet Jesus, we’re including fiction in the list, but not Flannery O’Connor? What is up with that?


That’s not to say that this guide doesn’t have some absolute gems: Bonhoeffer, Merton, The Philokalia (which I only discovered two years ago), Dostoevsky, Chesterton, the Rule of St. Benedict. It also features wonderful sidebars in which the editors offer their personal top five, including some als0-rans that I wish had edged out the likes of Calvin to make The List.

Please axe John Calvin’s Institutes from the list. For heaven’s sake, get rid of Blaise Pascal. Give the more than half of people in the Christian tradition who are women something they can relate to. Give us Madeleine L’Engle and Kathleen Norris and Fae Malania’s Quantity of a Hazelnut. Give us the Desert Mothers with the Desert Fathers. I think Theodora can teach us a thing or two.



  • http://Thesilent51%minority... Anjel Scarborough+

    Thank you for proclaiming the obvious! We seem to be taking our proverbial “two steps backward” right now as far as inclusion of spiritual women (and how about adding Evelyn Underhill to your list?).

    • Jana Riess

      I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read Evelyn Underhill. I know I need to . . . it’s on the list . . . .

  • Lois Tverberg

    Maybe this is too un-literary, Jana, but The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom would be on my list. Her heroism and intimacy with God were amazing.

    Nice seeing you at SBL, by the way.

    • Jana Riess

      I love that book, too, and it certainly points to Christianity in action. How many people have that kind of moral courage when the stakes are so high?

  • Carl Gregg

    Thanks for linking to my post. I completely agree with you about the gender imbalance. I increased the number of women to seven on my alternate list, although you (rightly) stated the problem much more bluntly than I did. And I did not go far enough. Your addition of Dorothy Day is a particularly good one.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Wendy

    Don’t believe that the fact that at least half of Christians are female has any relationship to the number of books by females that should have made the arbitrary list.

  • Lyle SmithGraybeal

    Thanks for this entry, Jana. Much appreciated, and needed.

    I was involved in the project as the managing editor.

    Another unstated goal of the list was to span the centuries of the Church and, to put it bluntly, there are not nearly enough women’s voices that have been preserved in a way that has contributed to the “technology” of devotion–the word technology being used as a term for the systematic transfer of ideas over time. Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila are two happy exceptions, as are Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena. But not all of these have had the historical and devotional impact of books like like THE IMITATION OF CHRIST and THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD, nor do they enjoy as broad reading in our own day. This is unfortunate.

    As Bruce Reyes-Chow commented, non-European voices did not get a fair shake in the list (link below) and, I would add, neither did Reformed points of view.

    Thanks for your helpful input and help in making women’s voices more prominent in our own day and in the Church of days ahead.

    • Jana Riess

      Lyle, thank you so much for taking the time to reply! I can understand some of the complexities of such an undertaking. Onward and upward for the next time.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shirley Barron

    Yeah, the women! Men have been forgetting we exist almost since Day One. I have some suggestions of women to add to the list, in addition to Dorothy Day, Madeleine L’Engle & Kathleen Norris: Hannah Whithall Smith!!, Corrie ten Boom, Hannah Hunnard, Agnes Sanford!!, Katherine Bushnell!!, Phoebe Palmer, Anne Graham Lott!!, Amy Carmichael! (Lyle, if you’re listening, check these out for the next edition.) For a non- Western view, Pandita Ramabai. Jana, you should read Dame Julian, & probably Teresa A, as well. I can’t believe that “25” book didn’t include Hannah Smith’s classic, The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life. I agree that lay Christians shouldn’t mess with Calvin; heck, I can hardly read him myself, & I’m an academic! Save him for seminary students! Thanks for the interesting post.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Carl Youngblood

    Jana, what would be top on your to-read list?

    • Jana Riess

      Carl — It’s always so hard to recommend favorites to people until I know them well. One thing I’ve been learning about spirituality is how idiosyncratic the path is. For example, someone recommended Thomas Keating’s book on centering prayer to me as the best thing going and I had a ridiculously hard time with it. I think a successful recommendation depends on your interests & goals. What are those?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment paul cannon

    Thanks for the article – well said. My own list of influential Christian writers includes Amma Sincletica (along with all the extant Desert Mothers), Margery Kempe (Book of Margery Kempe), Hadewijc, Gertrud the Great (Messenger of Divine Guidance), Clare of Assisi, Jacqueline Pascal, Hannah Moore, Simone Veil, Mother Maria Skobtsova (Essential Writings) as well as those you have already mentioned and not including living and contemporary writers!

    • Jana Riess

      Wow. A couple of these I had not even heard of (Gertrud the Great? Really?), so thanks for the recommendations!

  • PB

    Good points. I would at least include Joni Erickson Tada, Dorothy Sayers, Amy Carmichael, and perhaps Mother Teresa as well.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Seamus Spira

    Wow, now that’s the most refreshing bit of writing I’ve read in a long time – honest, direct and devoid of all the flowery bits normally thrown into the spiritual blender! Please, please, post your list (and make it 92% female writers?

Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Flunking Sainthood. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 3:12:01pm Jul. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Thank You, Flunking Sainthood Readers!
OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert on the title Flunking Sainthood, so that the search engine lets me know when there are new reviews or discussions about the book. In the last few weeks it has been exciting -- and humbling -- to see the many ...

posted 12:41:10pm Jan. 25, 2012 | read full post »

NYC Conference on Mormonism & American Politics, February 3-4
"First Mitt won Iowa, then he lost Iowa? That's a classic Romney flip-flop." --Stephen Colbert     Working with the theory that there hasn't been nearly enough attention to Mormonism and politics this year, what with it being ...

posted 11:09:19am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »

Writing Retreat
Friends, I will be offline until January 23 for a writing retreat. I'm bringing my computer, ...

posted 8:47:20pm Jan. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Fun with the Book of Lamentations
Actually, no. That title was just a ...

posted 11:33:13am Jan. 13, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.