Five Books That Have Rocked My World (Or At Least My Boat)

I love to read, but it hasn’t always been like that.  Growing up, I preferred to spend my time outside with some kind of ball, throwing, kicking, hitting, or shooting it.  It has only been in the last five or so years that reading has become a near obsession.  Now, I won’t go so far as to say that books have changed my life (well, maybe some have) but they definitely have prompted me to think in new and interesting ways.  Believing, of course, that everyone should enjoy reading as much as I do, I wanted to share with you five books that have rocked my world or, as the title of this post says, at least rocked my boat (by the way, I completely ripped off the title of this post from an article my pastor once wrote — sorry, Aaron).  These aren’t necessarily my five favorite or even most influential books, but each has played a significant role in my life.  So, in no particular order…

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee — This book is exceedingly cool on so many levels.  It is the only book that Harper Lee ever published and she has routinely refused to talk about it in public.  It’s a great story about relationships — a girl with her father, a black man with his racist persecutors, law with society, a pariah with his community, right with wrong.  Set in the segregated South, To Kill A Mockingbird tells the story of young “Scout” and her father Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (yes, lawyer and “well-respected” in the same sentence) and man of integrity who represents an African-American man wrongly accused of assaulting a young white woman.  The book is infuriating, inspiring, thought-provoking, fun, and convicting all at the same time.  Sometimes we need to feel convicted.  This book fits the bill.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll — This book opens with, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  As a long time church-going, fried-chicken eating, committee-sitting, business meeting-attending, Bible-believing Southern Baptist Christian, I was told for most of my life that Bible was the gold-standard measure of how to live my life.  I believed it then and I believe it now.  Unfortunately, the baggage that often came with that advice was a rabid anti-intellectualism, a distrust of academia, a suspicion of any question.  This attitude, prevalent among many Christians (though, thankfully, not within my immediate family), has never sat particularly well with me.  In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll discusses what he perceives to be the proper role of what he calls the “life of the mind” in the Christian life.  He outlines Christianity’s rich intellectual history which has, of late, been abandoned by the church at large in favor of what I call the poor man’s piety — a faith that doesn’t want to be explored.  Lamenting the anti-intellectualism that has often pervaded U.S. churches and pointing out the often dire consequences of these attitudes, Noll explores the rise of anti-intellectualism, its causes, and recent responses on the part of Christian scholars.  This book is, in large part, why I am in graduate school at the age of 38.  Christians need to reestablish themselves in the world of thought and ideas.  This book is a call to do just that.

Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco — This book changed nothing about my life.  I’m not a better person for having read it.  It didn’t inspire me to make the world a better place.  It didn’t kindle in me a fire to live a life of significance.  What this book did was to show me that it was possible to write a novel that was entertaining, engaging, complex and intelligent in a way that weaves together philosophy, theology, science, history, art, psychology, all in an impossible-to-put-down book.  Until I read Foucault’s Pendulum, I saw no value in reading fiction.  A lot of it was trite, unintelligent and formulaic.  Granted, some of the 19th century Russian authors wrote some pretty intricate stuff, but when I finished reading it I just wanted to jump off of a bridge.  And sure, there are some “classics” that engage me now but, honestly, what young adult whose main interests lie in college basketball and classic rock really enjoys reading Dickens’ cockney English or Mark Twain’s ramblings about a trip down river?  It’s only because of Foucault that I can now read some fiction without rolling my eyes.

Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard — Would you be willing to plunge a knife into your son’s heart as a sacrifice if you were certain God told you to do so?  Would you tell anyone what you were about to do?  Do we have a duty to God that transcends the ethical?  What is the nature of faith?  Is it the end or something to move beyond?  These are all questions that Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, addressed in Fear and Trembling.  Starting with the narrative of the aged Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, the son through whom God promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations, Kierkegaard makes us think about ourselves and the nature and strength of our own faith in God and, indeed, the nature of God, himself — is He just, is He ethical, is He capricious?  While I don’t agree with all of Kierkegaard’s theology nor do I recommend this book to any Christian without a strong grounding in the faith, I highly recommend it for the mature Christian who wants to think deeply and carefully about this word we hold so dear and that is so central to our theology — faith.

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis — “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”  Imagine sitting by a fire, sipping hot chocolate, listening to your father tell you about the meaning of life.  Now, imagine your father is an Oxford professor who used to rub elbows with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Culled from a series of radio addresses, Mere Christianity is Lewis’ conversational defense of Christianity.  While sophisticated in its reasoning and eminently logical in its structure, its tone is that of an old-time Saturday night radio program or a winter’s fireside chat.  Beginning with an exploration of innate knowledge and ideas, such as how we know it is wrong to take someone else’s piece of fruit or why two things are equal, Lewis builds the case step-by-step for a creator, then God, and, eventually, Jesus the divine son of God.  Apologetics tends to be a field rife with subtle philosophical points and nuanced arguments that can easily escape those who aren’t geeky enough to become familiar with the terminology and structures of philosophical reasoning.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis unpacks the Christian apologetic for the lay audience, explaining very complex ideas in very simple terms while sacrificing very little in the way of precision.  Ultimately, Lewis, a one time atheist, concludes that Jesus was not a “madman or something worse,” but “was, and is, the Son of God.”  In addition to its generally edifying nature, this book has shown me the importance of combining razor-sharp reasoning with clear communication, because no matter how great our ideas, they are of no use if no one understands them.

I would love to hear from any of you about books that have influenced you in some way.  Leave comments, let me hear from you.  Until then, be well.

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