Stories change us, either for better or worse. If you think about it, the Gospel is a story, and it has the radical power to transform lives and souls. Christians have the responsibility of filling heads and hearts with stories that help us grow. Everything we do is for the glory of God, and reading is no exception. I have quoted Philippians 4:8 in other articles, but it continues to stand true: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (NLT).
I recently stumbled across an old article in the GUG files called “5 Novels That Will Change Your Life.” Its author lays out five books that impacted him and changed his outlook for the better. Reading one person’s list from 2015 made me wonder about our current reviewers’ lists. What have other Geeks Under Grace writers been reading that challenged and changed them? What would they recommend to people who want to walk away from a book different than when they started?
That said, reading is an intimate activity. Everyone’s experience with a particular book will be varied. However, works recommended by friends or trusted advisors hold weight. If I hear a certain narrative changed someone’s life, I want to read that story for myself. If it changed them, maybe I will have a positive experience with it, too.
Many GUG writers came together to create their own list of books that changed their lives. I hope these thoughts from other Christian readers will encourage you to consider how your reading life is affecting your day-to-day. Perhaps you will begin to see some books in a new light. Or maybe this list will add to an ever-growing To-Be-Read pile. Regardless of how it happens, I hope these books and their ideas will change your life as they have changed ours.
Nathan – The High King by Lloyd Alexander
I don’t remember the first time I was introduced to high fantasy – worlds where mythic monsters met and mingled with mankind. For years, my father read me stories before bedtime – The Boxcar Children series was a personal favorite – so my first brush with the fantastic may have happened during one of our many reading sessions. To this day, my favorite novels include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. The former features an unlikely hero thrust into an unknown world by circumstances he cannot control yet must overcome. The latter features a young man’s coming-of-age story as he is involuntarily put in a position of growth and maturity far before his age and station should allow.
Published between these two novels (yet, I would guess, considered a contemporary of Tolkein’s work more than Rothfuss’), Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain marks the first fantasy series I genuinely fell in love with. I fondly recall an evening in Florida, lying on a bed, Alexander’s first novel, The Book of Three, laid in front of me. Yet it’s Chronicles’ final volume, The High King, which has captivated my imagination for years. For four books, readers have been treated to the adventures of Taran, a former Assistant Pig-Keeper (imagine having that job title!) who has steadily grown into a warrior and man. You watch him make friends, duel evil, slowly (and with no little amount of uncertainty) fall in love with a princess, travel to far-off lands, and learn the truth behind his enigmatic past.
Winner of the 1969 Newbery Medal, The High King represents the culmination of Taran’s journey. To this day, it remains perhaps the best “last book” in a series I’ve ever read. The High King checks all the boxes: desperate situations with seemingly no escape, epic conflicts against vile villains, and a courageous, redemptive sacrifice which is still one of the most emotional moments I’ve read in a novel. Taran fully assumes a role of responsibility and heroism, striving to rise above his lowly birth. He comes face-to-face with an arch-villain for the final conflict. He finds out who he really is and who he was always destined to become (but does he get the girl? You ask. I’ll leave you to find that out yourself!).
Alexander’s final book in the series thrilled me as a reader and inspired me as a writer. Recalling my early stabs at fantasy, I can think of no other fictional work which influenced my writing as strongly. Alexander’s engaging, memorable characters impressed upon me the importance of a strong protagonist and remarkable supporting cast. Readers whose only knowledge of Chronicles of Prydain is the nightmare-inducing animated Disney film The Black Cauldron (a hodgepodge of a couple of books) should not allow such a poor adaptation to sully the series’ potential. The film is nowhere near as simultaneously wondrous and mature as Alexander’s novels. Whether you love the movie or want to throw it into a black cauldron of its own, you should do yourself a favor and become immersed in the world of Prydian as Lloyd Alexander always imagined it. The finale is worth it. The payoffs are beautiful. The High King awaits.
Courtney – Iscariot by Tosca Lee
Growing up, I only wanted happily ever after. My book choices were simple and white-washed, ignoring problems or wishing them away Disney-style. The only exception to this was historical fiction. If a historical fiction book had a sad ending, that was alright because “those types of things happened back then.” Young characters died of the plague, and I responded with statistics from the real event.
When I got older, I found myself drawn to books about Biblical characters. I grew up in a Christian home and read through the Bible many times; I thought I knew it forward and backward (spoiler alert, I do not!). But the idea of using a biblical character to tell an extra-biblical story intrigued me. Seeing Jesus from the perspective of Lazarus or watching David through the eyes of Bathsheba…this was fascinating stuff!
The first book I picked up was Tosca Lee’s Iscariot. It follows the titular Judas Iscariot, infamous betrayer of Jesus, as he follows the Lord and eventually leads his friend Jesus to His death. The book doesn’t take anything away from the biblical account but manages to make Judas a sympathetic character. Lee’s narrative gives valid, even good, reasons for each questionable action by painting Judas as a revolutionary. He does what he does for the good of Israel. Like many, he thinks Jesus is the Messiah who is supposed to overthrow Rome, and his efforts support that cause. He expects Jesus to be pleased.
Before this book, I had little sympathy for Judas Iscariot. He was the betrayer, murderer, and coward who took his own life (younger me had horrible ideas about suicide and very little grace for people!). Now, I see Judas as a man. As human. As flawed. He had wishes and desires. He was one of Jesus’ best friends. We often don’t consider Judas’ status as one of the Twelve, but he was in Jesus’ inner circle. They were practically family!
Besides Judas, this book also painted a picture of Jesus I never considered. We watch the Savior through Judas’ eyes. Eyes that see a tired man who falls asleep on a boat after feeding multitudes. Eyes that notice how Jesus wept when His friend died. We see the miracles, but we also see the aftermath. Jesus was fully human, as well as being fully God. Until Iscariot, I couldn’t begin to grasp what that meant. Now, I have a clearer picture.
Tosca Lee paints a portrait of Jesus the Man, perfect and humble. He works miracles and grows weary. He heals the sick, and His stomach growls. This reminded me Jesus really could understand my struggles. After all, He suffered through them Himself.
Spencer – Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guinn
I’ve been reading Ursula K. Le Guinn’s Earthsea novels. They are fantasy, but they focus more on the human experience and soul than on wars and fighting, which I find refreshing. I’ve always admired her as a writer; I think she’s wonderful, vulnerable, and specific. I started reading these during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m still reading them.
The first novel in her series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is about an ambitious but poor young boy named Ged who seeks his glory as a mage; however, the pursuit of his own glory leads him to cast a spell he shouldn’t have. This unleashes a terrible evil on himself and the rest of Earthsea. Here are four ways this novel has shaped me.
First of all, I love that Ged’s ambition causes him to do many things he regrets. I have found this to be true in my own life over and over again. God shows me how, when I sought my own glory, I end up hurting others and myself and drifting apart from him. My ambitious, sinful self is good at glorifying me instead of God. Ged serves as an entertaining, painful, and pertinent reminder that seeking my own glory is harmful to those around me, including myself (Luke 14:11).
Second, this terrible evil Ged unleashes chases him across Earthsea, striving to claw at his flesh and possess his body. Ged runs from it in fear and loneliness; it is only after being encouraged by a friend that he realizes he must turn and face this creature. Here’s what’s great – when Ged turns to face the creature, it runs from him. The pursuer becomes the pursued. Ged exercises power over his fear by confronting it, even though he is terrified. I needed to hear that. I often fear myself and the evil that wells up within my heart, but when I acknowledge that the evil is there, that I need a savior, and that there indeed is a willing, loving, and powerful Savior for my soul, I find I am quite free (Mark 2:17).
Third, the wizards of Earthsea model patience and intentionality. They are powerful beings but recognize they shouldn’t use their power willy-nilly, lest they upset the balance of the world. Therefore, wizards are often content to spend time in nature. They see the futility in rushed busybodiness. During COVID-19 quarantines, I found myself striving for meaning, cleaning the bathroom over and over until my hair smelled like bleach, or checking my email repeatedly, clicking on the spam folder to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I was trying to convince myself that I was still busy, therefore still important. What was really going to bring me peace, though, was resting in the fact that I am one of God’s children and my name is written in Heaven’s book (Luke 10:20).
Fourth, wizards often say to themselves, “Everything happens to me for a reason” because they know two things. One, there are powers beyond their control working in Earthsea. Two, wizards play an important role in all the world’s happenings. In the boring, dull days of quarantine, I needed to remind myself everything happens for a reason. As God says in Romans 8:28, He is working everything that happens for the good of those who believe in Him. Sometimes what happens is nothing, which leaves space for resting and meditating on God’s faithful promises, like how He will give me a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19) or that He will provide all I need (Matthew 6:25). Sometimes what happens is something, but regardless, I can rest in His love, knowing I am His child.
Mike – Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
The choice of book for this “GUG Reads” was extremely challenging for me. I immediately narrowed it down to two books. One changed how I viewed theology, and the other how I approached my relationships with the Church, work, and my family. I ultimately landed on the latter because it had a near-immediate effect on my life. I picked up the book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” on a whim, thinking to myself, “I think this book could help me, but I don’t really have a boundary problem.” Yeah… I was wrong. I realized soon after the first few chapters I didn’t have proper boundaries with my work, family (notably my parents), and church.
At this particular time in my life, my co-workers would talk me into taking on more projects than I could handle, forcing me to work late at night. I quickly became a less productive worker and less adept at handling my job. Additionally, my church was asking a lot of my wife and me to help in the church’s youth ministry, leading us towards more stress and near burnout. On top of this, I had parents with substance abuse problems, and I was just sitting down and tolerating their behavior.
I believe God brought this book into my life at this particular time not just to learn how to say “no” more, but how to truly manage how people treat my time, feelings, and me in general. I learned how to say “yes” to certain projects but then tell my co-workers I’m beyond my bandwidth. I learned how to tell my church I was close to burnout and needed to step back a little. I also learned how to put boundaries on my parents, and while I still love them, I wouldn’t tolerate their behavior just because they are my parents. It was truly freeing for me, and the change was almost immediate. My co-workers started to respect me more as a professional. My productivity also improved markedly. My church started listening to me and respecting my energy and time, making me more effective in the things that I was still doing. Sadly, it hasn’t all been perfect; it’s created tensions with my parents, at times, but that is okay. We are working our way to a better place in our relationship, and I’m no longer stressed by their behavior.
This book changed my life in so many ways, and I think it’s worth a read for any Christian. I want to be perfectly clear, this book is written by Christians for Christians. However, I think Christians can use its principles to help non-Christians, presenting a powerful Gospel opportunity. Can this book be read and interpreted in a legalistic manner, to the point that you are no longer doing anything and just saying “no” constantly, demonstrating zero flexibility? Absolutely, you can 100% take these principles and make them legalistic. However, I encourage you to read this book and not create hard and fast “walls,” but gracefully create “boundaries” with those around you. I also encourage you to just try this book out. Even if you don’t think you have a boundary problem, you may just find out you do.
Andrea – Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I remember finding A Wrinkle In Time while I was browsing through the library in the 6th grade. I only picked up the book out of curiosity. After seeing the cover and reading the description of the story, I was intrigued and decided to check it out after looking through a few pages. Admittedly, this first go at reading A Wrinkle In Time went over my head. I had a hard time understanding its scientific theories in the context of the story. I tried reading it again sometime later, however, and the message and science finally made sense to me. As a socially awkward teenager who had a difficult time fitting in, I could deeply relate to Meg’s struggles and negative views of herself. In fact, I think most people will, especially if it’s something they had to go through as a young person.
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time showed me it was possible to create engaging science fiction presented with strong Christian themes. I was encouraged by L’Engle’s expression of her faith and the breadth of her imagination. All of these years later, it remains a favorite book of mine and one that continues to inspire me time and again. I’ve since explored L’Engle’s other works as well, and can only hope one day I’ll be half the writer and storyteller she was. I’m eternally grateful to A Wrinkle In Time for all of this.
Maurice – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I read books like The Diary of Ann Frank, Lord of the Flies, and even To Kill a Mockingbird because I was required to do so for class. They were interesting, and I was good at language arts. However, these texts did not capture my attention enough for me to continue reading as a hobby or an entertainment choice.
Then, in 10th grade, my teacher Mrs. Julie Barbosa, required us to read a novel I mentioned by name in GUG Reads Banned Books. I name-drop Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God everywhere I can because it holds a special place in my heart. It changed my life. Through protagonist Janie’s life, I experienced an epistemological revelation that propelled me inevitably into the trajectory of Black studies.
Born in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurson’s family moved to Eatonville, Florida, during her childhood. She would eventually earn a B.A. in anthropology. She utilized her field’s methodologies to reproduce in her literary works what is now known as African American Vernacular English – Black dialect, slang, idiomatic expression, ebonics…the name for the language has undergone many forms. Her pursuit of authenticity in Black language drew criticism among her Black (male) peers who were concerned about what we now call respectability politics.
I, however, along with most modern scholars, am grateful for Hurston’s reproduction of Black culture. Without her, we would have less evidence of how generations upon generations of Black people managed to salvage spirituality, food, education, child-rearing, relationships – life itself – through oppression. The art lies in as much the poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and music as the improvisation that was necessary in their forging to undermine and overcome the many forms white supremacy takes.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a fiction that reads familiar to me, like a reminder of the ways in which my extended family sounded in my childhood. After all, Hurston’s anthropological quest was to illustrate humanity’s similarities rather than differences. So, Janie’s story is a conventional one – a quest for true love, but through the lens of a Black girl. She begins with a tough-love lesson from her grandmother concerning the role of black women that is unprintable here. Janie’s grandmother subsequently abandons her through a loveless arranged marriage from which she eventually escapes, leaving her husband for another man who is actually charming. As they age together, he grows old and fat, while Janie ages gracefully.
The theme, then, concluding with her third and final husband Tea Cake, becomes one of liberation from the abuse of normative patriarchy. Janie is a formidable woman finding herself repeatedly matched with mediocre men. They are intimidated by her talents and otherwise would have had no chance with a woman like Janie in the present day. Their flaws would eliminate them from contention. In other words, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a lesson for my wife, daughter, and any other woman who reads it, to never settle for less.
Since reading Hurston’s most famous novel, I have been a voracious reader!