On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Jonathan Parnell—lead pastor of Cities Church in Minneapolis–St. Paul and author of Mercy for Today: A Daily Prayer from Psalm 51 and Never Settle for Normal: The Proven Path to Significance and Happiness—about what’s on his nightstand, favorite fiction books, his favorite re-reads, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
It’s been my practice to always keep a short stack of books close by, which means they rarely stay on my nightstand. It’s more a cycle from shelves to stacks to the few books I have wedged open by highlighters.
As of right now, I’m in five books: The Common Rule, Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate, Augustine’s Confessions, Stran
I’m also reading an incredible series of graphic novels with my kids, if we can count those. Next to the Bible, currently these graphic novels are the only thing I’m reading everyday, because they’re that good. The series is Nathan Hale’s Adventurous Tales—they’re fictional stories from American history, everything from Lafayette’s involvement in the Revolutionary War to Doolittle’s raid after Pearl Harbor to the best explanation I’ve ever read of World War I. Right now we’re breezing through The Abductor, the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
What are your favorite fiction books?
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is my favorite.
Also, The Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck—I have to mention this one because it’s the first book I remember that really affected me emotionally. My standard for a good book probably wasn’t high when I read it back in elementary school, but I still remember it to this day, and that says something.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I’ve read several good biographies over the years, but I think the biography from which I’ve learned the most enduring lessons is Rosalind K. Marshall’s biography of John Knox. It’s been several years since I read it, but I think back on it more than any other, mainly in regards to Knox’s imperturbability. If one thing is true of Knox, it’s that he feared God more than man, and I need a little bit more of that in my life—don’t we all? I believe Knox had an unusual self-awareness in a time of cultural upheaval and confusion. He was among the many giants of the 16th century, but he seemed to know who he was not, and he stayed in his lane. I believe his influence corresponded to his clarity of calling. He mainly wanted to be faithful. I reflect back on that aspect of his example with a simple “Same, please.”
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
The book I re-read most is John Webster’s Holiness. I use a different pen and highlighter each time, which has created some colorful pages. More than any other book I’ve read, Webster writes with depth and concision that stirs the soul.
Originally delivered as a series of lectures, Webster basically gives a dogmatic overview of holiness, beginning with a God-centered epistemology and then tracing it through the holiness of the individual Christian. There’s not a wasted word in the book, and often you have to read each sentence a couple times to grasp its full worth.
If I ever feel stuck, or maybe a little hungover by ministry disappointment, I’ll open Webster’s little book and breathe in the truth. I’m reminded that my main mission in life is to be a witness to the realness of Jesus. That’s really it. Seriously.
I exist as a witness to the real person Jesus Christ who was and is and is to come. Nothing else ultimately matters.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
Desiring God by John Piper, and not a close second. The ministry of Piper changed the course of my life when I first read Desiring God back in college. I knew, while reading that book, that good ol’ boy ministry in the status quo Christianity of America’s Bible Belt was not where I wanted to pour out. And I knew that wherever God would ultimately lead me to give my life, that giving would be for his glory and the joy of all peoples. I really believe that God intends for his people to be happy in him. Really. And in that happiness, that serious joy, God’s glory is most magnified.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
Besides the previously mentioned Piper’s Desiring God and Webster’s Holiness, I’m going with Lewis Allen’s The Preacher’s Catechism. The book is what it sounds like, and one worth dipping back into again and again. It’s a wonderful companion guide for pastors along the way.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
Over the last few weeks there have been two things standing out from my Bible reading through 2 Kings. One is the pride of Hezekiah, which, I think, is demonstrated in his short-sightedness and negligent stewardship. He neither thanked God for his blessings nor sought to protect the blessings for future generations. Put positively, one of the best ways to express gratitude now is to ensure that future generations receive the same blessings we have received and know we don’t deserve. Humility, we might say, looks at the long view in love. Then there’s also the reforms of Josiah in 2 Kings 23. It’s interesting what repentance for Israel must have felt like on the ground. It was destructive. God was sending revival, and it meant Josiah tearing stuff down, burning it to the ground. Who would have guessed that sometimes grace smells like smoke?
Who would have guessed that sometimes grace smells like smoke?
That has been the last couple of weeks, but I think the more crucial thing I’ve been learning over the last few months, and in God’s mercy, has more to do with the rhythms of true discipleship. The Common Rule has been helpful here, right along with The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, The Jesus Way, and The Spirit of the Disciplines. In sum, though, I’m not convinced that we’ve thought critically enough about how incompatible modern life is with truly following Jesus. This place is a nefarious home for those traveling the cruciform road, but sometimes I wonder if we’ve tried to make it too comfortable. Discipleship is going against the grain of society, after all—at least our society today, and other societies throughout history. To cut to the chase, I think true, going-against-the-grain-of-