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What’s on Mark Brians’s Bookshelf? 13 Must-Reads

An image of a bookshelf with book titles on spines using books mentioned in the list of Mark Brians's favorite books.

Mark Brians is the rector of All Saints Anglican Church in urban Honolulu. He has written for various digital and print publications, including Reading ReligionThemeliosChristianity & Literature, Canadian Journal of American Studies, and the Theopolis Institute blog.

He is a contributor to the recent Theology and Tolkien (Lexington, 2023), edited by Douglas Estes, and a co-author with Drew Knowles of a forthcoming Theopolis Exploration volume, Hospitality (Athanasius, 2024). He lives in Liliha with his wife and five children.

Lexham English Bible

1. The Lexham English Bible (LEB)

The Bible. Is this too easy of an answer? I think not. It is the Book. It does fully what all other books do in approximation: it speaks. It is the Book by whose light I read all other books, the plumb line against which all other interpretation is adjudged, and the living iron by which literary sensibility is sharpened.

All too easily do we fall into the falsehood of believing the Bible to be a dull thing. We allow it to gather dust, we allow the pages of long-unread sections to stick together. But then, all of the sudden, we have these unexpected encounters with Scripture in which we find it startlingly alive and ponderously brilliant: as when Jules Winnfield quotes the book of Ezekiel in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994); or when Kevin Mallone reads from the Song of Songs at Dwight and Angela’s wedding in the final season of The Office (USA); or when we stumble upon a reading from the Gospel of John in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; or when a priest chants Psalm 88 in an intensive care unit at Kapiolani Hospital; we suddenly remember the strength and the life in the Book of all Books. I have begun reading it from start to finish at the beginning of each year, and every year, upon completion, I feel I have only just begun to read it.

The Space Trilogy

2. The Space Trilogy, by C. S. Lewis

Lesser-known and holding something of a cult position in the larger Lewisian corpus, Lewis’s masterwork of science fiction never ceases to amaze and delight me, and its hauntingly prophetic nature not merely endures but ripens with time. I cannot keep enough of these on my shelf—I keep giving them away to friends, colleagues, neighborhood baristas, family members, etc.

I can think of at least two pastoral counseling sessions which I have concluded with the gift of Out of the Silent Planet. As much as I love them, however, I find it increasingly difficult to crawl out of the story in order to answer the question, “What is the trilogy about?” I always fail, but it goes something like this:

“You know the guy who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity? Well, he wrote a sci-fi series which is part speculative fiction, part space travel, part body-horror, and part medieval fantasy. It begins just after an English downpour with an Oxbridge don on a walking tour, goes into space (where each heavenly body is ruled by archangels), features the crushing of Satan in a new prelapsarian paradise, and concludes in a small university town which has been taken over by an evil organization who desperately want to resurrect Merlin—yep, that’s right, Merlin. Scattered throughout are conversations with angels and devils, boring reports by college bursars, torture scenes that, if filmed, would make even David Cronenberg uneasy, and the recapitulation of the destruction of the Tower of Babel. Oh yes, and the bad guys reanimate the decapitated head of a francophone murderer.”

It is, without exaggeration, possibly the best opus of modern fiction I have ever read and one of the best contemporary theological treatises on Love.

The Book of Common Prayer (2019)

3. The Book of Common Prayer (2019)

This edition is produced by the Anglican Church in North America.

We are shaped by the way we worship. The true treasure of the English Reformation lies not in its catechisms nor its treatises, as good as those may be. The simple and radical idea of Anglicanism is that what most deeply shapes the people of God is worship.

Here is one book, a handmaiden to Holy Scripture, with offices for morning, noon, evening, and night-time prayer. Whether prayed privately or with others, the BCP helps us pray in common—by which I do not mean the enforcement of a kind of static homogeneity in our prayer life, but a living way to pray as a member of the body of Christ.

I pray these prayers, along with some “free will offerings” of my own, in unity with the church of which I am a part. I chant these psalms today, knowing that they have already been chanted earlier today in a previous time zone and will be chanted later today in a time-zone beyond me.

I remember spending a lot of time and money purchasing the latest thirty-days-to-a-better-prayer-life type books in my youth and early adulthood. As grateful as I am for some of those, I realized that a masterful devotional guide had already been crafted, published, revised, bled for, revised again, civil-warred over, revised again and again and again, and was available to my use.

Its applicability is far-reaching: Need to structure a baptismal service? It’s got that. Want to faithfully administer Holy Communion? That too! Bringing oil to someone who is sick? Go to page 227. Want to know what Anglicans do for last rites, burial, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday? Grab a BCP. Want to know what Anglicans believe about holy matrimony? Read pages 198–214. Mine is weather-worn from outdoor services, dog-eared along all of the pastoral services, salt-crusted from a beach baptism, and mud-stained with earth from kalo mala at the place for rogation prayers.

Note: This resource is in the Logos backlog (no ETA yet for when it will be available).

Through New Eyes by James Jordan

4. Through New Eyes, by James B. Jordan

Before there was a representative in the legislature named James Jordan, there was a theologian named James Jordan. They are very different people. After the Bible itself, the creeds and liturgies of the church, and the Inklings, Jordan’s work has done the most to shape the way in which I read Scripture.

First-time readers may be startled by their first contact with Jordan. Some of his jokes sound “boomer-ish,” and he doesn’t bat an eye breaking some of the conventions of established theological discourse.

Here is a man who can quote a Puritan theologian positively while simultaneously calling his readers to reclaim the sacramental system of medieval Catholicism. He can both speak glowingly about the benefits of “free trade” while also condemning consumerism and the contemporary free market. He can, inside of fifty minutes, unlock Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, use the phrase “gravity angels” meaningfully, explain certain metrical systems of medieval folk dances, and go on a long excursus about Islam and donuts. Beyond these surface-layer idiosyncrasies (which I have come to enjoy) is a depth of biblical richness and theological rigor largely unrivaled.

Jordan’s commitment to Scripture’s soundness, beauty, and truth is compelling. His “hermeneutical maximalism” is not willy-nilly—it is careful and masterly. I give this book away less because of what it says (for Jordan and I disagree on some things) and more because of how it teaches one to read the Bible.

Expositions on the Psalms

5. Expositions on the Book of Psalms (6 vols.), by Augustine of Hippo

Confessions is excellent, and The City of God is breath-taking, but I think Augustine’s best work his book on the Psalter. Augustine is a model of reading and teaching Scripture imaginatively and faithfully.

Expositions on the Psalms is, in my very small opinion, where we see Augustine at his finest. Central to his approach is the idea that these songs are both the songs of the people of God and the songs of the Messiah of God. When we sing them, we sing them in him and he sings them through us. As much have I learned from this book about the psalms, I have learned even more about how to read the Bible and do theology from it. Much do people write and speak about being conformed to the Image of Christ. Less do we approach that journey through the Psalter. I might phrase Augustine’s general thesis as a question: “How do we expect to be conformed to the Image of Christ if we refuse to make his songs our own?”

The Oresteia

6. The Oresteia, by Aeschylus

Apart from Scripture, the second most helpful book in my understanding of the human psyche is the tragic cycle which begins with Agamemnon and concludes with The Eumenides.

Here is the tragic pre-Christian world in a nutshell: houses that reek with blood, webs of conflicting obligations from which we cannot escape, doom we foresee but cannot forestall, and furies which dance upon the rooftops of the sons of Adam demanding propitiation. And yet all this dread and sorrow points beyond itself; all that is true in ancient paganism is proleptic. Will there be a house which does not end in bloodshed? Will there be a son of man who makes all the wrong things right without making more things wrong by consequence? Will there be a true and better Apollo who will make justice to roll like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending fount?

As Christians, we have the key: That of which devout Aeschylus was ignorant has been proclaimed to us, and God has set a day for the judgement of the world through a man whom he has appointed.

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The Lord of the Rings

7. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Another fiction piece in the list? Absolutely. Be careful of limiting your theological reading to theological commentaries (as much as I love them), or you hazard becoming the kind of person whose reading and writing sounds like a commentary. The point here is this: The Lord of the Rings, like the Space Trilogy above, is not only good literature, it is great theology.

I personally read Tolkien’s trilogy every four years, at minimum, during each presidential election cycle. Enchantment is not merely used to cast spells, it is used to break a spell as well, and there is much in the theopolitical imagination on offer today that needs strong magic to break it.

Whenever our country descends into election season, and we become more shameless about our base affection for naked power, and grow more orcish towards our neighbors, and stop praying for those we call our enemies, I up my Bible reading, increase my time spent in prayer, and follow Frodo’s journey to Mordor.

In the face of empty campaign promises which are rarely given with the intent to keep them, when I feel helpless, it is good for my soul to remember that I am only “quite a little fellow in a wide world.” (I know, I know, the quote is from The Hobbit, but you get the point.)

Lancelot Andrewes Collection

8. Sermons on the Nativity, by Lancelot Andrewes

One of the best collections of sermons out there. Lancelot Andrewes manages to combine the gifts of an exegete with the flame-tongued brilliance of a poet. This collection is a model for deep exegesis and powerful preaching. Contemporary Christianity has drifted into a kind of over-familiarity with the Nativity. The cure on offer everywhere is to replace wonder and mystery with gimmick and hype (e.g., our church’s upcoming Christmas production). Andrewes’s preaching shows us another avenue: biblical preaching, done artfully and creatively, aimed at the whole conversion of the person and sacramental participation, is enough. The festival of the Nativity—or any eucharistic service for that matter—needs no grand accoutrements, winsome production-value, or smirking show-tune to see it well kept. Proclaim the Word made flesh, and lead people to his table.

Selections from Revelations of Divine Love

9. Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich

When I was a sophomore in college, I heard A. W. Tozer make a passing reference to Julian of Norwich, and I was curious: Who was this medieval anchoress whose mystical writings inspired the great evangelical preacher who was, at the time, a hero of mine? I had to find out.

Reading Revelations of Divine Love was both terribly exquisite and world-shattering. It wrecked me, and I have never recovered from that dolorous goodness.

The book, in brief, recollects the “showings,” which Julian was granted from the Lord and the attendant theological reflections. The work is both humble and magnificent. The language is both delightful and uncomplicated. Though there are places where I disagree (and where children of the Reformation might disagree) with the theological applications of some of the showings (e.g., practicing a high Roman Catholic Mariology), I do not find myself disagreeing very much with the revelations themselves. If love is, as Andreas Capellanus puts it, a willingness to suffer for the sake of the beloved, Julian’s work shows Jesus as the truest picture of this willingness to lay down life for those he loves.

The Year of Affections

10. The Year of Affections, by Jean-Baptiste Avrillon

The premise is simple: Avrillon guides us through the Song of Solomon over the course of a year, reflecting on, turning-over, and ruminating upon the way in which each verse speaks to our union with Christ. The book’s majesty is in its slowness and carefulness, for speed always tends to make things on the periphery of our field of vision blurry. At such a pace, I am bound to miss things, especially those finer details which are the food of love. Instead, Avrillon reins us in, de-hastening our pace, and allows us to spend days, sometimes weeks, (re)discovering each angle of the Song, and finding Christ glorified in its dappled facets.

I am glad for an aid which comes to assist me in the pursuit of not forgetting my first love (Rev 2:4). This book is among the heartiest of companions in that pilgrimage. I’ll note just briefly that among Anglicans the mere presence of E. B. Pusey on the title page of a text—even if he was only the translator or editor—can be something of a shibboleth, the mark of an imaginary fealty to one of two artificially entrenched positions in a petty hostility between churchmen. But don’t you worry about all that, be at peace. The Lord sits enthroned above the flood of our intra-communion antipathies and commands the winds and the waves to be still. Therefore, I say to you, whatever your theological tradition or denomination, this is good food and lasting treasure. Tolle, lege!

For the Life of the World

11. For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann

Some people use the phrase “best friend” too frequently. I hazard being guilty of using the phrase “greatest contemporary theological treatment of—” too frequently. But if I am permitted one more use of the phrase, I’ll use it here.

Schmemann’s For the Life of the World is one of the greatest treatises on sacramental theology written in the past two centuries. Two things make it particularly commendable:

First, unlike other treatments of sacramental theology, it is not written for a strictly sectarian audience. Though it is explicitly Eastern Orthodox in its assumptions, one does not have to be Eastern Orthodox to be blessed by it. I cannot say the same for other treatises on the sacraments.

Second, it is written with an eye for the conditions of modernity and shows how the sacramental vision of the church is not only still viable today, but how it is the only viable response to the problems posed by our contemporary times.

It is not a naive retreat to a mythologized Carolingian epoch, but a robust vision for the way in which the life of the church is itself the means of engaging with the present.

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

12. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

This is a most helpful exegetical tool. Many Bible dictionaries and reference texts, while helpful, tend to atomize the fibers of the weave of Scripture and miss the intricate patterns of its tapestry. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery avoids this precisely by focusing on the “images” in which Scripture speaks. Its entries therefore engage the full length and breadth of the canon to trace motifs, themes, and modalities that inform a deeply rich biblical theology. “Tree” is an entry, along with “household” and “kiss,” but none of these are limited only to unique words used in Scripture. They bring each of these images into relationship with other images and thereby establish relationships that shed light on verses which glow with a new luminosity.

This serves manifold preaching styles: The expositional preacher can look beyond the superficial syntax and lexical definitions to see the way in which this or that image resonates with the whole of Scripture. The biblical–theological preacher, who preaches along the lines carved by the medieval quadriga, can ensure that the lines of typology he is tracing have a real foundation in biblical patterns and not merely his own personal fancy. And the thematic preacher can martial the fullness of the Word of God to trace single themes in all their various applications to the life of God’s people.

On Earth as in Heaven: Theopolis Fundamentals

13. On Earth as in Heaven: Theopolis Fundamentals, by Peter J. Leithart

This collection of four books aims to renew the local church by reflecting on the themes of Vision, Reading, Liturgy, and Mission. Deeply formative in my own life, I give copies of these out regularly with the hope that they continue to bear much fruit in the lives of others.

If Leithart generally does a masterful job at producing writing that is both profound and delightful to read, he does an especially excellent job in this series. Punchy without being goofy, exhortative without being preachy, theologically brilliant without being jargoned, and personal without being campy.

I not only give them out frequently, I give them out indiscriminately: to doctors, homeschooling mothers, construction workers, teachers, YWAM-base directors, junior wardens, and seminary professors alike.

What is unique about the general thrust of these books is the way in which they approach the questions of Vision, Reading, Liturgy, and Mission through a deeply biblical and typological lens. Leithart takes the way of seeing “through new eyes” developed by James Jordan and applies it to the way we think about being the church. The Liturgy volume has nothing about liturgical manuscripts or musical orchestration, but it does have a lot to say about creation and dialog. The Mission volume does not have much to say about “developing teams” or “outreach events.” Instead, it speaks of “making” and has a chapter mysteriously titled “Pilot.” This difference does not result in obscuration, but in refreshment.

Don’t miss these other book recommendations

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