On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Greg Thornbury—president of The King’s College in New York City and author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism (Crossway, 2013) and Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? (Convergent, 2018)—about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, books that have shaped his understanding of leadership, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
What are your favorite fiction books?
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I consume memoirs; it’s probably my favorite genre. In that vein I particularly loved Roger Scruton’s Gentle Regrets
When I first started reading him back in college, he was a Kantian, and most likely, an agnostic. But there’s this wonderful moment in Gentle Regrets
where his wife, Sophie, convinces him to play the organ in their little local Anglican parish in the country, because the church’s longstanding organist had passed away. It was on that bench, taking in the texts of the classic works of English hymnody, that the sublimity of the doctrine of the Trinity really hit him. It was a turning point for him, as I remember.
I also really loved Julian Green’s Diary: 1928–1957
because I’ve long been interested in the lives of doppelgängers—the struggle between the old self and the new self in Christian biographies.
For the record: I don’t think you can beat the sheer intellectual heft and moral courage of Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s My Battle Against Hitler
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
I’ve re-read much of the main corpus of both Kierkegaard
on many occasions: two fathers of the existential project, one who sojourns with God and one who doesn’t. Those volumes are dog-eared. To that I would add Augustine’s Confessions
They’ve been life-giving texts to me.
And then there’s Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love
I’m not sure what I’d do without that book.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
I’ve read Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
with a lot of friends over the years. I mean, c’mon, what an opening line: “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest?”
Lost in the Cosmos keeps leaders on their toes, and doesn’t let religious authorities get away with anything. It’s all about seeing the truth as transcendent from the sometimes absurd lives we lead, even as believers.
I’ve also been influenced by Douglas Hyde’s little book, Dedication and Leadership
. Hyde served as a leading journalist for the Communist party in London for some 20 years before resigning from the party and joining the Roman Catholic Church. Although Hyde came to see the ways in which Marxist communism mitigated against the dignity of the individual over time as it veered into totalitarianism, he also admired the discipline and commitment that the party demanded of its members. Could the church learn a few things about how to organize itself to have a real effect on society? Hyde thought so, and believed the church had a lot to learn.
As the president of a Christian college in New York City, I’ve thought a lot about Hyde’s analysis. If some of us find ourselves in the center of locations that shape society, places from which “the powers go out”—as Bonhoeffer so memorably once put it—then we must learn to punch above our weight. Hyde’s book is inspirational to me along these lines.
What’s the last book you read that astonished or profoundly moved you?
Everyday Saints and Other Stories
, by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the abbot of the Sretensky Monastery in Russia. I was gobsmacked after reading the first couple of chapters, and the whole book is filled with Father Tikhon’s stories of miracles and remarkable providences—many of which took place during the oppressive years of totalitarian Soviet rule. The entire volume shines with illustrations of what walking in the kingdom of God looks like, even during times of suffering. This is, simply stated, a God-intoxicated book. Read it this summer. You won’t regret it.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I recently joked on Twitter that it seems like every time you get a message from an acquaintance these days that begins, “Hey! . . .” it’s a surefire signal that the correspondent wants a favor from you. Social media and email have effectively scotched the endearing touches of correspondence from bygone days. So I’m always fighting against cynicism, which is the the lingua franca of the internet.
In this environment, I’m especially grateful for colleagues doing scholarly work that’s helping me understand our life with Jesus and what it means to follow him. In particular, my colleague at King’s, the philosopher Joshua Blander, has done significant research on a philosophy of humility. He finds that our modern notions of humility stem from theologically insufficient notions of the self.
Instead, he argues that texts like the kenotic passages such as Philippians 2 aren’t rooted somehow in divine weakness, but in a genuine univocity between the divine character and action in human virtue. It comes straight from Hebraic thought. As Carl F. H. Henry once observed in his definition of divine revelation, God “forfeits his own personal privacy” in order to speak to us in Scripture. God stoops. So, if the Creator does it, gladly and willingly, can’t we? Be humble.