Two days ago, Michael Patton’s post at Parchment and Pen was on the Top Ten Most Influential Books I have Ever Read (Beside the Bible). Besides finding his post interesting just for its content, it also made me think about what books I would put on my own list. As I started to compile it, I wondered what influential books I might have read decades ago that I wasn’t thinking of, and decided to see if I could find anyone else’s list of the same nature.
It turns out to be a very popular theme for blog posts. I won’t even try to link to any; just type “books that changed me” in any search engine and you’ll get more hits than you’ll ever get through reading. I was amazed at the wide variety of books that people have found life-changing – and especially how many of them are fiction. I admit there are a few novels on my list, but I thought of that as rather the exception.
I read Fahrenheit 451, for instance, and I think it was a reasonably good book, but I cannot imagine in what way it would be life-changing – unless one had never thought of books as valuable (a view so foreign to me that it’s hard to remember some people think that way). I read Slaughterhouse 5 because I had to in high school, and I actually did copy out a few lines from it and keep them in my wallet for a long time. But that was mostly because I was amazed to find someone express a sentiment express which, unhappily, I fully understood – which was that he resented his mother for having given birth to him. I eventually decided I no longer was unhappy I had been born, and threw out that slip of paper.
I greatly enjoyed reading Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. I learned a good deal about math, art, computers, music, and I don’t remember what else. But about the only revelation it gave me about myself or about life was that there were actually books that appealed to my intellect that were actually fun to read. I eventually decided to give myself permission to read books that were fun to read even if they weren’t so intellectual, but that was a few years later.
Even among non-fiction books, and on topics where I have common interests and values, it surprises me to see how many books other people have found life-changing that were merely interesting to me. I’m sure that they would have the same reaction to books on my list. I’m sure there are many books I’ve read that I don’t think of as life-changing that nevertheless did change my thinking, but only incrementally, so that I don’t associate one book in particular with a significant change in my perspective.
I’ve also tried to limit my list to books whose influence changed my thinking in some fundamental way, leaving out books that are more of a “how-to” – even if it is how to do something as broadly significant as relating to other people. As it is, the list is long enough that I need to break it into multiple posts – at least if I want to include some explanation of how or why I think the book changed my thinking.
Joni by Joni Eareckson
I read this book as a teenager, probably a year or two younger than Joni had been when she had the accident that paralyzed her. Like other biographies of faithful Christians, it inspired me. Unlike some of those others, though, it depicted someone who struggled with depression and doubts and disillusionment with God. It showed how God could use someone who had in a sense brought her problems on herself (by not checking to be sure it was safe to dive), that having made some wrong choices did not keep God from making good come of it – but that the way God made good come of it might be very different from how we think He would or should.
I have many times thought of Joni, lying in a hospital bed unable to do a thing for herself, when I feel trapped in a particular situation. God didn’t free her by making her able to use her arms and legs again, but He freed her from the prison of depression and self-pity. I don’t know that I can point to specific times when this has made a difference for me, but it has certainly provided the context in which I reflect on issues of pain and suffering, God’s power and grace, and what it means to learn, as the apostle Paul did, to be content.
Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips
I read this also as a teenager, but unlike Joni I found it not in the church library but on my parents’ bookshelves. This made it somewhat suspect, as my parents’ beliefs were vastly different from what I was taught at church. The message of the first half of the book was not to put God in a box, that when we think God is not worthy of our belief and trust it is because we have imagined a caricature of the true God. My parents would have certainly agreed with that, as they thought the church I attended most certainly confined God in a box of narrow-minded fundamentalism.
I wasn’t sure to what extent that criticism of my church was valid, but I recognized that my own concept of God, as it had been re-formed at that church (after growing up in the very liberal church my father attended), was certainly deficient. I also found the second half of the book very helpful to my faith. Phillips asks first how an infinite God can communicate effectively with finite mankind, and asks what would such a God look/act like if He made a way to enter our world as one of us. Then Phillips shows how the Gospels show exactly that sort of picture.
It is a short book, and I have reread it occasionally over the years. Each time I find it liberating, reminding me that what so often gets in the way of faith in God is not either the nature of God or of faith, but a deformed mental picture of God.
I Love the Word Impossible by Ann Kiemel
I bought this because it was a Christian book. When I read it, though, it sounded very different from other Christian books I had read. I remember virtually nothing of it now, except that it was overflowing with excitement, and that did not seem to have focus on sin that seemed to be so common at church and in other Christian books.
It’s not the Kiemel denied sin, or that she didn’t mention sin and forgiveness. But it wasn’t her focus. Everything I heard at church seemed to be about confronting people with sin and their need for repentance. Non-Christians needed to repent and become Christians. Christians needed to repent of whatever was keeping them from following God more closely. But Kiemel seemed to be following God, and she did it without looking for sin all over the place.
I felt somewhat uncomfortable reading the book. I wasn’t sure why there was such a contrast between Kiemel’s approach and what I was accustomed to. I wasn’t sure which was the better one, though I certainly knew which was more appealing. But it told me there were other ways of being a Christian besides what I knew personally.
Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand
My older sister loaned this book to me. It was not news to me that Communists in the U.S.S.R. persecuted Christians, but I found the details shocking. I still cringe at the thought of some of the horrible tortures they inflicted on Wurmbrand and others Christians. (Having a good memory for details is not always pleasant.)
I asked myself many times whether I would be able to endure even a small portion of what Wurmbrand did without begging for release. If I couldn’t manage to spend ten minutes kneeling by my bed praying, without falling asleep on my folded arms, how could I possibly remain faithful to Christ when a real trial came? I’d never even had a broken bone – did I have any idea what real pain felt like?
Some Christians talked about how persecution was always good for the church, and how we in America could benefit spiritually from a bit of persecution. But I couldn’t find it in myself to pray for even a taste of what Christians in the Soviet Union faced. Wurmbrand’s experiences became my mental measuring stick of what faithfulness to Christ could require. But I hoped I would never have to find out if I would be faithful in those circumstances.
More than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell
I continued to struggle with doubts, wondering how I could really have confidence that anything I was taught to believe at church was really true. The summer after my high school graduation was a particularly low time for my faith. I was already registered to start Bible school in the fall, in order to prepare to be a missionary, and I was spending the summer – as I had the year before – working on the staff of the Christian summer camp which was also where I would attend Bible school in the fall. (Today they have some modern buildings, but in the 1970’s we sat through lectures on the Bible and theology in Council Hall, where a stuffed bear and opossum shared the platform with speakers brought in from churches and seminaries across the country.)
Yet I found myself doubting more than ever, and seeing little evidence in my own life that my faith made a difference. The previous summer had been a high point in my life, but then I had gone home to all the same struggles with my parents and with myself as before. This summer, whatever had made the previous summer so wonderful and so enriching was missing.
Then I came across this short book by McDowell in the campus bookstore. I had looked at MdDowell’s much longer Evidence that Demands a Verdict, and found some of his arguments less than satisfying. But More than a Carpenter convinced me that, whether I could be sure of the rest of the Bible or not, the Resurrection had solid evidence behind it. This is what I held onto when my doubts seemed to overwhelm me sometimes.
Something had changed Jesus’ disciples from fearful men to confident evangelists who faced death for what they believed. The most reasonable explanation, based on the Gospel accounts, was that seeing their Master alive again, triumphant over even death, had transformed them. And if it transformed them, it could transform me – even if I never seemed to see such dramatic evidence in my own life.