The other day Scot McKnight posted this:
What is yours?
Here is my list:
Martin Buber, I and Thou
Dante, Divine Comedy
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
It got me thinking. I responded in the comments with a list right off the top of my head, and limited the books I included to contemporary ones that had shaped my faith in various ways over the years. But the more I have thought about it, I believe this idea would form the basis for a good series of posts here on IM reflecting on the various people, experiences, books, movies, music, etc., that have been influential in my life.
Today, we’ll start with five books (or groups of books) I read before I went to seminary.
No works have shaped my imagination like Tolkien’s masterpieces. I loved them so much that I had a great deal of hesitation about whether or not I wanted to see the films. Great literature not only creates worlds upon the page but in the reader’s mind, and I was afraid what I saw on the screen would not fit the Middle Earth of my imagination. In the end, I came to appreciate the movies as a complementary vision of Tolkien’s saga, great in their own way, but incapable of matching the creative genius of the master storyteller.
Thinking back, I think these books gave me not only a set of thrilling adventure yarns and unforgettable characters, but they also did for me what C.S. Lewis and Tolkien said good fairy tales do — they sound forth echoes of other worlds and shape our moral vision for this world.
The writings of Watchman Nee were extremely popular in the 1970’s, when the Jesus movement was growing and fresh winds of the Spirit seemed to be blowing across the land. I think I first heard of him in a recorded message by Larry Norman, the pioneer of contemporary Christian music. Nee died in 1972 after a twenty-year imprisonment in China for his faith.
Nee’s books were the first “serious” devotional writings I read as a young adult Christian. They breathed the spirit of primitive, apostolic Christianity. He wrote of deep spiritual experience, the Cross, unity and love in the Body of Christ, simplicity of life, and suffering. His most popular book, The Normal Christian Life, introduced me to the epistle of Romans, and my favorite, Changed into His Likeness, had as its thesis that the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are foundational for understanding God and his ways with people. It was my first in-depth exposure to Genesis and the patriarchal narratives, and I carry spiritual lessons from his book within me to this day.
Tozer ministered in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, most notably as pastor of Southside Alliance Church in Chicago for thirty years until 1959 and as editor of the Alliance Weekly magazine. He was idiosyncratic and an iconoclast, who spoke and wrote with simple directness to issues of the faith and the church. Tozer was the prophetic voice who challenged me while in Bible college, warning me against religiosity and churchianity, urging spiritual authenticity and a deeper knowledge of God.
One night at a flea market bookstall in Lancaster County, PA, I found a hardbound copy of The Pursuit of God, which I treasure to this day. Tozer had a way of integrating theological depth, mystical insight from the spiritual classics, prayerful personal reflection, and a prophet’s zeal for holiness that made this book and his other writings essential reading for me.
During my first year in Bible college, I took an introductory missions class that was dreadful. The professor had been a pioneer missionary in Papua New Guinea and I’m sure he was outstanding in that setting, but teaching in a classroom was not his thing. However, he did one thing in that class that changed my life. Every week, we were to read a missionary biography and write a report on it. And so I entered the worlds of people like Hudson Taylor, John and Betty Stam, and most importantly, Jim Elliot. I first learned of him by reading Through Gates of Splendor, which told the story of the five missionaries killed in 1956 as they sought to reach a remote tribe in Ecuador.
That book was eye-opening, but Elisabeth Elliot’s companion book focusing on her husband Jim rocked my world. Here was the story of a passionate, Christ-centered, yet thoroughly human and flawed young man, with intimate excerpts from his personal journals, who died for his faith while giving Jesus to others. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” were his most memorable words. Much of the book records his college career, which made it immediately applicable to what I was thinking and experiencing during those days. I had found a hero and role model.
After Bible college, I served as a pastor in a small village church in Vermont for nearly five years. I read many books that were important to me during that time: books by Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and others. But when it comes to books that caught my imagination as a preacher and teacher and student of the Bible, nothing can compare to the influence Lloyd-Jones’s studies of Romans had on me. I bought the set when it contained seven volumes, I believe, from Romans 1-8, and I devoured them.
For thirteen years (!) Dr. Lloyd-Jones had led his London congregation at Westminster Chapel in a Friday evening Bible expositional study of the epistle to the Romans. Those are the studies captured in these volumes, and they are deep, passionate, and edifying. A “Calvinistic-Methodist,” he struck me at the time as having a wonderful balance of solid Reformed theology and Wesleyan piety. Mind afire with the Spirit! Heart rejoicing in profound truth! He taught me to think, to reason. Lloyd-Jones was literally a doctor — a trained physician — and he was as thorough as they come in examining and analyzing and thinking through the text. But he also remembered the Welsh Revivals of the early 20th century and believed that the only hope for the church and the world was that God’s Spirit would once more fall in power to awaken his people.