On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Brett McCracken, a film critic for Christianity Today and the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty and Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, about what’s on his nightstand, books that have helped him better understand culture, his favorite fiction, and more.


What’s on your nightstand right now? 

I’m trying to catch up on some recent releases like Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God [review | interview | 20 quotes] and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy [review], both of which are on my nightstand now.
 
I recently finished Yuval Levin’sThe Fractured Republic [interview], which was tremendously insightful as to our current American political situation, and Carl Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism [article], which is nearly 70 years old but has great relevance today.
 
I’ve just finished two wonderful books on early Christianity in the Roman Empire: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider [review] and Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart [review]. I’m taking a group of young adults from our church on a trip to Rome in December, and I’m having each of them read these two books, which present contrasting takes on the “Constantine moment” in early Christian history. Should be a fun discussion!
 
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel? 
 
One that comes to mind is John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. It’s such a monumental work, so beautifully comprehensive and unapologetic in its analysis of the cruciform center of the Christian faith. Stott just throws it down, page after page. I’ve found Stott’s book, alongside Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, so helpful in embracing rather than being embarrassed by the uncomfortable aspects of Christianity. These books remind me of the Charles Spurgeon quote:

Hide not the offense of the cross, lest you make it of none effect. The angles and corners of the gospel are its strength: to pare them off is to deprive it of power.

Other shaping books for me include N. T. Wright’s After You Believe [review] and Richard Hays’sThe Moral Vision of the New Testament [review]. Both have been critical for me in understanding and articulating the beauty of the salt-and-light mission and ethical vocation of the people of God. I’ve seen holiness and sanctification downplayed in some corners of evangelical culture recently, as I wrote about here, so books like these are essential.
 
Finally, the “cultural liturgies” books by James K. A. Smith, and most recently his You Are What You Love [review], have been immensely helpful in my writing and discipleship, particularly to young adults navigating the complexities of contemporary culture. 
 
What three books have helped you the most in your understanding of culture? 
 
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is the most prescient and helpful book I’ve read for understanding our mediated world, the rise of infotainment and the overall Huxleyan dystopia we’re living in today.
 
C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism has probably been the single most influential book for me in my approach to culture. His distinction between “using” and “receiving” art has been helpful for me as a critic and lover of culture.
 
Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film is a book that has inspired me to think deeply about form and content as relates to religious aesthetics and expression. Is there an aesthetic of the holy? That’s a provocative question I’ve been mulling since first reading Schrader’s book. If there’s one overarching idea that drives my understanding of culture, it is that form mattersMarshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message. Christ’s incarnation is proof of it, too. 
 
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why? 
 
I think it’s more of a memoir than an autobiography, but I really loved N. D. Wilson’s Death by Living [review]. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that was specifically about someone else’s story but connected so deeply with me. I could say similar things about Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, another memoir that resonated with me in part because of its focus on placeBoth of these books are funny and sincere, theologically visceral and in awe of the spare beauty of flyover country, which is one reason they connect with me (I grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas). 
 
What are your favorite fiction books? 
 
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is my favorite contemporary novel. Much like turning to any given scene of a Terrence Malick film, you can turn to any page of Gilead and just bask in the beauty and catharsis of it. I’ve loved Robinson’s other novels too: HomeHousekeeping [article], and Lila [review]. I also have a peculiar love for The Great Gatsby. I try to read it once a year, usually in April. 
 
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
 
I’ve been thinking a lot about limitation and the counterintuitive gift that it is, both in the Christian life and in existence generally. We so want to believe that we can do anything and that our freedom is infinite; that being “boxed-in” by external rules or circumstances is a bad thing. Ours is a culture that understands freedom in terms of total self-definition and lack of restraints. But following Jesus requires us to give up unrestrained autonomy and resist the cultural urge to look within ourselves for identity, hope, and purpose. That’s a gift. In closing off options, in saying no to some desires (both bad and good), in committing to an authority beyond the self, true freedom is found. The practical realities of this as worked out in relationships, jobs, church, and so on have been showing me new aspects of the gospel and how radical God’s unmerited gift of grace actually is. 

Also in the On My Shelf series: Mez McConnellErik RaymondSandra McCrackenTim ChalliesAnthony MooreSammy RhodesKaren EllisAlastair RobertsScott SaulsKaren Swallow PriorJackie Hill PerryBruce AshfordJonathan LeemanMegan HillMarvin OlaskyDavid WellsJohn FrameRod DreherJames K. A. SmithRandy AlcornTom SchreinerTrillia NewbellJen WilkinJoe CarterTimothy GeorgeTim KellerBryan ChapellLauren ChandlerMike CosperRussell MooreJared WilsonKathy KellerJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti AnyabwileElyse FitzpatrickCollin HansenFred SandersRosaria ButterfieldNancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.

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