Have you ever had a book influence your life?

I have. And I think it’s such an astonishing phenomenon that I’ve decided to dedicate an annual column recommending a handful of influential books that I’ve read about faith.
“Gilead.” By Marilynne Robinson ($14, 247 pages. Picador, 2006)

At the very top of my list is this Pulitzer Prize-winning book in which the main character, a 76-year-old minister with a terminal illness, writes a letter to his 6-year-old son. Sounds kind of dull, but it’s not.

In one section of the book, the Rev. Ames cautions his son: “Those people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are. Which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

If you’re looking for plot, you’ll hardly find one here. This is a poetic storytelling of forgiveness and grace.

“A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey.” By Brian D. McLaren ($14.95, 320 Pages. Jossey-Bass 2008)

This book made me mad at first, so if you don’t like your presuppositions about faith challenged, don’t read it.

According to the book jacket, the author fictionalizes “a lively and intimate conversation between a pastor and his daughter’s high school science teacher, in which they reflect together about faith, doubt, reason, mission, leadership and spiritual practice in the emerging postmodern world.”

McLaren uses these conversations as a background to grapple with his own dissatisfaction with modern Christian thought. At one point, the character Neo says: “I firmly believe that the top question of the new century and new millennium is not just whether Christianity is rational, credible, and essentially true (all of which I believe it is), but whether it can be powerful, redemptive, authentic, and good, whether it can change lives, demonstrate reconciliation and community, serve as a catalyst for the kingdom (of heaven), and lead to a desirable future.”

“Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” By Anne Lamott ($15, 275 pages. Anchor Books, 2000)

If you’re not ready for some colorful language describing the faith journey, don’t read anything by this recovering alcoholic. But if you get the fact that faith can be messy and doesn’t always come in neat packages, Lamott will challenge you.

Big on the subject of forgiveness, Lamott says: “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare . . .”

“In fact,” she writes, “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”
“Blue Like Jazz.” By Donald Miller ($14.99, 256 pages. Thomas Nelson, 2003)
In this New York Times bestseller, Miller struggles with some “non-religious thoughts about Christianity.” He’s Lamott without the language.

Miller says: “God risked Himself on me. I will risk myself on you. And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Him, unto us.”
Miller and I have something in common. (Warning: shameless plug approaching).We have the same publisher.

If you like my column, you may want to read this compilation of my columns called “No Small Miracles: Heartwarming, Humorous, and Hopefilled Stories from a Pediatric Chaplain” ($12.99, 192 pages. Thomas Nelson 2009).

Finally, with the exception of Lamott, I can recommend nearly every book these authors have written.

Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write norris@thechaplain.net or visit thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.