Three secular books for the Christian spiritual life

October 27, 2010 | 23 comments

Recently I’ve come across a few books that I picked up just for fun but that ended up having a very positive impact on my spiritual life. In general, I prefer to read books for Christians and by Christians if my aim is spiritual growth. However, these three books taught me valuable lessons that I hadn’t seen covered (or, at least, not covered in quite the same way) in the Christian market. Since each of them has had a lasting, positive impact on my spiritual life, I thought I’d share.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of ArtThis is a powerful book. It’s a field guide to spiritual warfare, written by bestselling author Steven Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire). In it Pressfield lays out everything he’s learned about fighting what he calls Resistance, that mysterious force that tries to prevent you from creating anything great (which Christians would call the Devil). Pressfield points out that whether you’re trying to craft the Great American Novel, start a business, or simply begin a new exercise routine, “any act that any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity…[will] elicit Resistance. He starts by describing what it feels like:

A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.

Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing.

Pressfield emphasizes the importance of work. Just do it. No excuses. Once you’ve discerned what you’re called to do, stay focused on getting the job done. Resistance is a powerful, cunning force, and you’d be a fool to mess around with it. Referring to someone who’s committed to overcoming Resistance as a “professional, ” he writes:

The professional…respects Resistance. He knows that if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.

He then offers a wealth of practical tips, such as this one on taking criticism:

The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.

Remember, Resistance wants us to cede our sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.

In the end of the book, he muses about the source of the inspiration for all great endeavors. “Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us, ” he writes. “This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.”

Needless to say, as a Catholic, I saw a few parts where I thought Pressfield missed the mark. I kept thinking that I’d love to sit down over a cup of coffee and tell him all that I’d learned about the role of grace and the power of Christ in the spiritual life — I couldn’t help but think that he’d find that it jibed amazingly well with what he’s experienced in his battles against Resistance. All in all, though, this book is fantastic. It is an absolute must-read.


Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan MadsonI actually discovered this book through Steven Pressfield’s excellent blog, and I’m so glad I did. I read the slim little volume over one weekend, and it really inspired me to make some positive changes in my life. Madson is a theater professor at Stanford, and shares what she’s learned from her decades as a teacher of (and participant in) improvisational acting.

In one chapter, for example, she talks about how important saying “yes” is in the improv world — if you’re up on stage and your acting partner starts taking the show in a new direction, it’ll ruin the whole thing if you fold your arms and refuse to go along with it. Applying that to life, she writes:

Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin — blocking. Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation rather than accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. The critic in us wakes up and runs the show. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future. […]

The spirit of improvising is embodied in the notion of “yes and.” Agreement begins the process.

(Was any one else reminded of Ann Voskamp’s year of Yes?) At the end of each chapter Madson offers practical exercises for putting these ideas into practice. I loved the one at the end of the Say Yes chapter:

Support someone else’s dreams. Pick a person (your spouse, child, boss), and, for one week, agree with all of her ideas. Find something right about everything he says or does. Look for every opportunity to offer support consider her convenience and time preferences ahead of her own. Give him the spotlight. Notice the results.

The book is full of gems like this one. I found it to be a great source of inspiration to work on paying attention to the present moment, cooperating with others, and, ultimately, trusting in the Holy Spirit to work stuff out when we let go of control. Like with Pressfield, there were moments where I thought that her advice could be even more powerful if she know about the work of grace, the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ, etc. But, overall, I think Madson hit the ball out of the park with this book.


Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi

Never Eat AloneThe author of Never Eat Alone is a dear friend of ours, so it’s hard for me to separate what I learned from the book from what he’s taught me in person. Keith is a master at networking, and his view of building social networks and involving other people in your projects has had a huge impact on the way I see the world. The three biggest principles I’ve taken from him, which he details in Never Eat Alone, are:

  • When you discern something you’re supposed to do, think of the path to get there in terms of other people: As a typical American, when I used to set out to accomplish something, I’d think of it in very isolationist terms: I am going to do this all by myself. Keith encouraged me to involve other people in my projects, to look around and see whom I know who might enjoy helping me through this process. Since my conversion, this advice has really helped me embrace being part of the Body of Christ, all of us working together to support one another.
  • Don’t hoard your personal connections: Too often, when people know someone who might be able to help someone else, they hesitate to put the two people in touch — especially if the person whom they’re asking for a favor is in a position of power. “I don’t want to bother Mr. Important, ” the thinking goes. “I need to save my connection with him for a time when I really need it!” Keith’s view is that building a social network and getting to know people isn’t about hoarding impersonal connections so that you can amass more power for yourself — it’s all about generosity, and getting to know people on a personal level. Be generous with your Rolodex, and everyone will benefit.
  • Don’t be afraid to connect with people who seem “out of your league”: Over the past couple of years I’ve had wonderful conversations with a few well-known authors (one of whom had recently been on Oprah), simply because I emailed them and asked if they’d mind sharing their wisdom with me. I saw each of these folks as way out of my league, but, thanks to what I’ve learned from Keith, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot — after all, the worst case scenario is that they’d say “no.” In these conversations I was able to get some excellent advice about my book, as well as to offer these authors encouragement in their own work. In the end, I think we both benefitted.

Never Eat Alone is written for ambitious business professionals, and the specific advice Keith gives often makes me feel like I need to go take a nap — the fast-paced way he lives his own life is way more than I could ever take on. However, underneath it all are solid principles for breaking out of an isolationist mentality and learning to involve other people in your life and your dreams. Definitely worth a read.

What about you? Have you found any surprising gems that helped you in your spiritual life?


  1. Margo

    These look great, thank you for sharing! I am currently reading a little 110 page treatise about finding peace of heart called Searching for and Maintaining Peace. It is written by Father Jacques Philippe and it’s the perfect read for someone who is in a constant state of hustle bustle which can lead to unhealthy anxiety. I am only 1/3 of the way through it, but I love it so far!

  2. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    I love this topic! There’s so much to inform faith that isn’t faith-centered.

    Two excellent reads this year:
    The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Iyengar’s research grew out of work with Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism, and the twists and turns she’s explored over the years are fascinating. She’s researched topics like whether arranged marriages are as happy as ones where people choose their spouses, and how much choice is too much, and whether parents of a dying child end up recovering faster if given the choice over when to remove life support. While pro-life issues are not covered in the book, it’s a must-read for anyone who is interested in how people make choices.

    Iyengar is from a Sikh family, and the book has fascinating insights into the differences between decision making in a collectivist culture and in an individualistic culture like ours. I found this particularly helpful in understanding the context in which scripture was writtern; in collectivist cultures like those of the middle east, an ‘It’s me & Jesus’ mentality would clearly come across as alien, whereas the idea of the church as a collective body of believers makes complete sense.

    The second book I’d recommend is RAPT by Winifred Gallagher. This is about the research on attention, and how what we pay attention to influences our lives more than the actual events we live through. Think about it: when we remember something, we really remember a narrative *that we chose* rather than a documentary of what happened. There’s a bit of overlap in the research with Art of Choosing, but about 80% of the book covers different ground. Great read if you have a child (or spouse) with attention issues, too.

  3. BettyDuffy

    Loved The War of Art. I read it a couple years ago, became all serious, hired a girl to come to the house a couple mornings a week so I could write, did my thirty minutes a day, and then some–filled three journals and went over some old manuscripts, and then quit. I can’t think why. Maybe I need to revisit it.

  4. Jaimie

    Donald Miller (my favorite Christian author) says he reads The War of Art at least once a year. I think I’m due again. Wonderful book.

  5. Lisa

    Jen– the “out of your league” part makes me smile because I would have thought you were “out of my league” now but totally didn’t back when I e-mailed about scorpions. Now you’re famous! AND fun to talk with. 🙂 Whoo-hoo– back in my league!

  6. priest's wife

    Love these suggestions!

  7. Amelia

    Hi Jennifer! As a Christian who reads all types of books constantly, I often find myself reading from the point of view of my faith. This happens in secular books as often as religious books. Sometimes I find gems that help my own faith journey, while at other moments I am able to glimpse a bit how the rest of the world sees God. That is one reason I began a blog to review secular books from a faith perspective. I encourage other Christians to read secular books that people are talking about from their Christian viewpoint. Thanks for these suggestions!

  8. Diane

    The Shape of Illusion, by Willam Barrett. The story revolves around a painting of Jesus at some point during His Passion, (I haven’t read it for a long time). He is surrounded by the crowd demanding His death. The artist comes under attack from the people who view the painting, because each one sees his or her own face on the people jeering Jesus. Everyone who views the painting, sees himself somewhere in it, but the rest of the faces are strangers to the person viewing it. The message I receive everytime I think of the book is that Jesus suffered & died for all of us. We were there in His mind when he died for us. It’s an old book, but very moving.

  9. kristina


    I can not wait to read the War of Art…recently I told a really good musician that I was not a creative person because I didn’t sing or play an instrument or write music, or draw well….and he scoffed at me saying “um that does NOT define creativity”…since then I’ve been trying to push back the barrier to creative outlets…I’m currently working to figure out the blog world, and once school is less demanding of my “not at work” time, I will read the book!

  10. Wendy

    Mindset by Carol Dweck and Switch by the Heath brothers have both had a big impact in my life regarding making changes, growth and self improvement. I too find I view things through my faith lense and thought these two were very intersting to read from a Christian perspective.

  11. Brittany

    Have you ever read “Words that Work” by Frank Luntz? He’s coming from a purely political/business-sense perspective but, from a spiritual standpoint, it’s powerful information. Words carry tremendous weight spiritually not only in our positive or negative prophecy over ourselves but in the lives of those we communicate with. Every speech class will teach you to consider your audience but it’s rare to see communication portrayed as an act of selfless consideration.

    This makes sense to a believer committed to unity in the Body of Christ. If we’re thinking about the need of the other person (or people) instead of simply trying to meet our own need to talk, a lot more can be accomplished. “Words that Work” made me think a lot more about how I’m coming across even when I’m sharing my conversion experience and love for Jesus Christ with friends.

  12. Danielle

    The book I am suggesting is fiction, but I laughed and cried and it made me love Jesus. And it is also my favorite book of all time.

    “Lamb: The Gospel of Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore.

  13. ellen

    Hi Jennifer

    this is exactly what I needed – currently in a complete block and procrastination and cant get started on something I promised myself I would do – I have just ordered the war of art….thanks!

  14. deanna

    The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, read excerpts in year 1 of my Masters program, in year 4 I ended by reading the book for my final paper.

  15. Julianne Douglas

    Thanks for the great suggestions! Improv Wisdom seems like a book I could benefit from reading, as I usually fight trying/doing new things with an onslaught of “What ifs?” I’m definitely not the improvisational type. I read WAR OF ART after you blogged about it and I found it amazingly insightful. My husband, a scientist, read it too and even bought a copy for us to keep. I have a feeling Improv Wisdom might offer a similar experience…

    The commenters have made some interesting recommendations, too. Too bad there aren’t more hours in the day just to read.

  16. Jennifer Fulwiler

    Thanks for all these great book suggestions! Can’t wait to check them out!

  17. Lisa

    Great suggestions! Thank-you!
    The book that touched me deeply this year was Tuck by Stephen Lawhead. I gained a terrific understanding of some of the O.T. battles, when God’s people are severly outnumbered and yet gain victory. I felt like I’d been immersed in God’s word, when really it’s a re-telling of the Robin Hood story. Lawhead is a master story weaver.

  18. Stephen

    Hi Jen,

    I’ve been lurking around your blog for a few months — I’m going through the RCIA process right now, and your writings were very influential as I came to the decision to become Catholic. I will write a formal introduction on you introduce yourself prompt soon enough, but for now I had to tell you that I ordered Improv Wisdom (straight to my kindle) on the basis of your review/excerpts. I am a high school English/Drama teacher in NYC. The Drama position is new to me (my second year now), and I’m a week away from teaching Improv — which terrifies me (Improv itself, not the teaching of it) for all of the reasons you bring up in the post — a fear of saying yes, a desire to control, blocking the gifts presented to me by God and by the people in my life. Ever since I’ve begun to pray, I’ve prayed for the ability to let go, to let God take control, to not live with the stress of thinking that I can — and MUST — guard every outcome. Improv terrifies me because it hasn’t been the way I’ve lived my life, especially in the last few years. Reading your post, I realized that this book is exactly what I need to read professionally AND spiritually. Thanks so much for mentioning it…just when I needed it. 🙂

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Wow, that DOES sound like the perfect book for you, Stephen! And thanks for your kind words!

  19. Patricia Ryan Madson

    It pleases me so much that you have mentioned my book, Improv Wisdom in your blog. How wonderful that you were able to find utility and inspiration in the work. I am very grateful to you for taking the time to talk about it. Thank you so much.
    Patricia Ryan Madson

  20. MyFeminineMind

    I’ve never had a problem with my weight, but on the rare occasion that I watch “Biggest Loser”, I find their determination, willingness to sacrifice, perseverance and all that serves as a good inspiration for me in my spiritual life.

  21. Gene Edwards

    Reading can soothe like no other. Given that I’m a pretty high-energy person, reading forces me to sit and be still. This daily act of making myself be quiet and still has been nothing short of miraculous for my anxiety and my fidgety factor.

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