On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Jake Meador—vice president of the Davenant Institute and editor of Mere Orthodoxy—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction and biographies, the last great books he has read, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
Too many things. A few highlights include:
The Great Transformation by Carl Polanyi is a history of how Western nations embraced market economies in the 19th century.
Faith. Hope. Love: The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace by Mark Jones. This is one of the richest devotional texts I’ve ever read. Jones is a specialist in the Puritans and, in terms of the themes, style, and power of his writing, he’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to a living heir to their tradition.
So even when he wades into the weeds a bit on some difficult theological subject, he’s always drawing out how the issue at stake relates to how we see God and follow him in our day-to-day lives. He’ll jump from a seemingly obscure debate about whether or not our faith is our righteousness to a conclusion like, “God could bar us from heaven only if he were prepared to excommunicate his own Son from heaven.”
And the best part is because he has such a great command of the issue, by the time you’re done reading you understand the connection between the seemingly abstract topic and the rich devotional conclusion. I’m not sure I’ve come across many books that blend theological themes with sound counsel regarding Christian piety as well as Jones does.
What are your favorite fiction books?
I’m afraid all the terribly cliché young Reformed dude books probably apply to me: I read Lord of the Rings at least once a year, am extremely fond of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, and admire Robinson’s Gilead. That said, I do branch out a little, though not as much as I used to: Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is still a favorite of mine and still strikes me as one of the richest conversion narratives I’ve ever read. Anthony Esolen has noted that Jayber is Berry’s take on Dante, and that’s exactly right. It’s the story of how he goes from being in the dark woods of error to being bathed in the light of God’s love. And it’s beautiful.
Richard Llewelyn’s How Green Was My Valley is sentimental at times but still good. I devoured Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as well as Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo and Hugo’s Les Miserables have also been significant for me.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
Martin Greschat’s Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times is high on that list. Bucer is a singular figure not only in the history of the Reformation but in broader church history as well. He’s a great movement organizer in the early days of the Reformation, a sharp political mind, and someone who at bottom believed that the most important points of the Christian life are to love God and love neighbor—and that shaped every aspect of his life, from how he preached to his congregants to how he handled ecumenical disputes with the Lutherans, Anabaptists, and other Roman Christians. I’ve never encountered anyone else quite like him in my reading.
The other big one is probably Duriez’s biography of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer is a hero of mine (our second son is named Austin Francis), and that biography is one of the most balanced treatments I’ve ever encountered of the man. It avoids both the dangerous and sadly common hagiographic treatment Schaeffer is sometimes given in the Reformed world (though never at L’Abri, where they all knew his weaknesses quite well!) while also avoiding the deplorable treatment Schaeffer often receives from non-evangelicals, including, sadly, his own son.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
Two series I reread fairly often are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Tolkien’s probably isn’t a surprise, and I suspect enough other people share this habit that it doesn’t require much explanation. Potter is fascinating to me and is something I’ve read probably six times, most recently in 2015, so most of my reading happened before people started appropriating it in really bizarre ways during the 2016 election. (Rowling’s Twitter habits, sadly, have done nothing to discourage such obnoxious treatments of the books.)
What I find so compelling about them is that even though I’m not sure Rowling is necessarily going for it, what she ends up doing is creating a world that elevates self-sacrificing love above everything else and that ruthlessly criticizes an overly institutionalized, bureaucratized world as being the enemy of that kind of love. In other words, it is a profoundly Christian critique of much of what passes for modern life.
The most beautiful places of love in the books are Hogwarts and the Burrow, the Weasley family’s home. Both places resist the kind of regimentation and corporatization of place that’s so common in the modern world and, indeed, so beloved among most of the politicians that Rowling and her less observant readers regularly support. I’ll likely go to my grave thinking “King’s Cross” near the end of Deathly Hallows is one of the more beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. (The chapter that tells Snape’s tale is also lovely.)
What’s the last great book you read?
Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots is a good recent treatment of humility. I just read Marshall Berman’s Politics of Authenticity and found it helpful as an explanation of modernity and, particularly, our contemporary obsession with “authenticity.” But it’s going to be hard for anything I read last year to top Jones’s Faith, Hope, Love.
What’s one book you wish every pastor would read?
So I think there’s an easy answer here and a more complicated one: my easy answer is That Hideous Strength. The book has everything—we get to see Lewis’s remarkable skill as a satirist, which is only really apparent in Screwtape among his other books. More importantly, the book combines a pervasive and profoundly Christian critique of modernity with a quite robust hopefulness. I don’t think anyone would regret the time they spent with That Hideous Strength.
The more complicated answer is that when I think about my own growth as a writer and thinker, the role of my friends and their reading has been every bit as important and often even more important than my own. It’s that scene in Lord of the Rings when Frodo says he wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam. That’s how it is with good friendships.
So more than having a short-list of “must read” books for pastors, I would say the best thing they can do for both their heart and mind is to cultivate strong, mutually edifying friendships with other Christians who read well. I’m blessed with such friends through both my time in Reformed University Fellowship in college (there are 10 of us who still get together once a year for a weekend retreat) and also through my work with Mere Orthodoxy and the Davenant Institute.
The conversations I’ve had with those friends have been deeply formative for me and have allowed me to read many, many books vicariously, if I can put it that way. So I don’t actually want to say “hey, go read these three books,” because there will always be “must-read” books and pastors will always be pressed for time and, perhaps even more important, mental energy. I think the better counsel is “give yourself to good friendships and benefit from what your friends are reading.”
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
Dumas ends Count of Monte Cristo with a penitent letter written by a chastened Edmund Dantes in which Dantes tells him that all human wisdom is summed up in two words: “wait” and “hope.” Life for our family has basically been hard and painful for most of the past two years. My dad suffered a traumatic brain injury in December 2015 that has transformed his life, my mother’s life, and the lives of myself, my wife, and our kids. Alongside that great suffering has been a number of other things, none of which is small but none anywhere near the magnitude of dad’s injury. When you link up these personal difficulties with much of the anxiety and fear one can reasonably feel about the future of the Western world, it’s easy for me to become despondent.
This is most of my last two years: you’re already down because of hard personal circumstances. And then you hear news about another shooting or you read a story about the opioid epidemic or another instance of police brutality or you get anxious that your parents are going to lose their insurance because of what’s happening in Washington or you see another story come out about a Christian business facing legal challenges because of its commitment to orthodoxy . . . all these things take a mental toll on you.
So I’ve thought a lot about Dumas’s words, and I spent a great deal of time working my way through the “hope” section of Jones’s book. I’m an eager person, which means I’m not given to half-measures or patience. I’m always ready for revolution, always ready to fight, and when the path toward revolution doesn’t seem clear to me I can give into despair easily. Much of the past two years has been about learning to slow down, trust God, remind myself of what is true, and place my hope in the return of Christ and the coming of the eternal city and my citizenship in that place, which is secured for me by Christ and Christ alone.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Glen Scrivener • Cherie Harder • Zane Pratt • Russ Ramsey • Jason Allen • Jason Cook • Mack Stiles • Michael Kruger • Tony Merida • Robert Smith • Andy Crouch • Walter Strickland • Hannah Anderson • S. D. Smith • Curtis Woods • Mindy Belz • Steve Timmis • David Mathis • Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • Randy Alcorn • Tom Schreiner • Trillia Newbell • Jen Wilkin • Joe Carter • Timothy George • Tim Keller • Bryan Chapell • Lauren Chandler • Mike Cosper • Russell Moore • Jared Wilson • Kathy Keller • J. D. Greear • Kevin DeYoung • Kathleen Nielson • Thabiti Anyabwile • Elyse Fitzpatrick • Collin Hansen • Fred Sanders • Rosaria Butterfield • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler