Sunday, December 13, 2015

10 Books That Have Had a Deep Impact On Me

I want one...

I love books.  I have a bit of an addiction to books at this point.  I'm constantly devouring them.  So I had this idea to make a list of 10 books that have really had a deep impact on me - books that have radically changed my perspective.  I did this, but then I wanted to write about why these books are in my list.  So I'm going to list them here in chronological order of when I read them, because I don't want to even attempt to try to order these by importance or how deep of an impact they had or anything like that.  And I'm going to cheat a bit - I'm going to list my 10 most influential books, but you'll see me mention a few others that are related in there.

Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus

Twice in my life I have gone through what St. John of the Cross calls a "Dark Night of the Soul".  The second time, I felt that the faith I had grown up with had been exposed to me.  The god I had believed in had been unmasked and this god was Moloch.  I felt I needed to question everything - but I was terrified.  After my first dark night, I had left the church for a number of years and had been very lonely.  After coming back, I had experienced some healing.  I didn't realize at the time of this second dark night that I still had a long ways to go towards healing - but I knew at this point that I needed to question, and I was scared that I was going to lose so much.  Then the pastor of my church at the time preached a series of sermons inspired by this book during the Christmas season - and I was absolutely certain of one thing and one thing alone: I loved Jesus and wanted to follow him to the best of my ability.  This book made Jesus human for the first time in my life - I had really grown up with a docetic view of Jesus, and this book brought Jesus back down to earth for me in a way that I could relate, and in a way that made me want to follow Jesus, not just "believe in" him (in the sense of claiming ideas about him).  One of my favorite chapters in the book - which said something I especially needed to hear at this time - was a chapter where Ortberg explores the impact of the fact that when Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 ("love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength"), Jesus changed the phrase "all your strength" to "all your mind" (note that in some places, both phrases appear - but the idea is that "all your mind" wasn't in the original command).  So Ortberg explores how the track of history seems to have changed after Jesus - prior to Jesus, the common practice of a conquering nation was to wipe out all the literature of the conquered.  But after Jesus this seems to have changed - Christian monks actually felt it was their duty to preserve the literature of what might be considered "rivals".  So Ortberg writes:
To love God with all my mind means following truth ruthlessly wherever it leads.  It means cherishing truth whether it comes from the Bible or from science or from an atheist.  It means anti-intellectualism is anti-Christian.
This was exactly what I needed to hear at this point, and it freed me to pursue truth in a way I'd never done before.  That perspective changed my life forever. 

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

After committing to "loving God with all my mind" as Ortberg describes above, I decided I was going to explore perspectives I was unfamiliar with, and ask questions I hadn't asked before.  I wasn't exactly sure how to go about doing that, though.  I really kind of stumbled onto Brian McClaren by accident - I had this thought that went something like this: the pastor of the local Vineyard likes N.T. Wright, and reformed presbyterians (PCA - where I was raised) don't (mostly because John Piper is their big hero, and Wright demolished all his arguments regarding justification - but they wouldn't put it that way).  So I thought I should find out more about this Wright guy, and I was googling him and stumbled on this interview where Brian McClaren was mentioned.  From there, I ended up reading some of his stuff on Huffington Post that was promoting what was his latest book at the time ("Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?"), and I felt this peace and love just radiating out of the words of those articles.  So I looked up some of his books, and found that this seemed to be the one of his that everyone was talking about.  And it was immensely helpful to me - McClaren gently led me to ask questions I hadn't dared to ask before.  Some of those questions really scared me - but I had determined not to let fear keep me from asking questions, so I decided to ask them anyways.  It was hard for a while - I really didn't know how to reconcile some things.  But I was determined to keep exploring.  So while I wouldn't say that this book is full of all kinds of detailed, scholarly information, and it didn't answer many questions - it will always be one of my favorite books because it led me to the questions I needed to ask and changed my life forever.

Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God

One of the questions Brian McClaren led me to ask that just would not go away was the question of how to understand hell.  That question obsessed me for a while - I've probably read more about hell (and the related subjects of Satan, demons, and heaven) than any other subject.  And while I'd list other books as more scholarly references on the subject of hell (one of my favorites would be the very thorough "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem" by Brad Jersak - which blew away my expectations), this book is the first hell book that really impacted me as a friend pointed me to it when I was right in the midst of wrestling with this issue.  This book simply and thoughtfully explains the concepts of sin, hell, and the love of God in a way that really helped me to heal and to trust.  Changing my views on hell was a very important step in my faith, and I believe it's a very important question for the Church to discuss at this stage if it wants to remain relevant.  Salvation is not about holding a golden ticket into heaven, or fire insurance.  Salvation is about living life to the fullest.

The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction

The central theme of this book explores the idea that a common view of the Christian God is really just another form of idol - the idea that God is meant to be the object of our desires and gives us satisfaction, as if God were some sort of cosmic genie, and we cannot be whole without obtaining Him as if God were another possession to have. But Rollins contends that, rather, Christianity is meant to challenge and demolish the whole system of idolatrous desire - of seeking wholeness through obtaining our idols. Wrapped up in this is the concept that we avoid all doubt by creating idolatrous concepts of God that we refuse to challenge - but that real faith is not hiding from out doubts but facing them without fear. This book was a moment of enlightenment for me, and has been for many other Christians who have struggled with doubt or unknowingly avoided it.  I feel this should be considered a modern theological classic and a must read for every Christian

Living Buddha, Living Christ

After latching onto the Augustinian idea that "all truth is God's truth" as Ortberg had led me to do with "Who Is This Man?", I had decided to explore what Buddhism was really all about because I had a friend who was Buddhist (I have written about this here and here).  So I started asking him about Buddhism without any pressure - I just wanted to understand him better.  Strangely enough, what he was saying really resonated with me, and actually led me to think about some Biblical teachings in ways I never had before.  As I expressed excitement about this, he eventually lent me this book by Thích Nhất Hạnh.  And it might sound strange, but I would say that I never really understood the Holy Spirit until I read this book.  Just as a note, I wanted to say that if you want to explore a more scholarly view on the intersections between Buddhism and Christianity by a Christian scholar, I would recommend Paul Knitter's book "Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian".  But I have to list this book as it was my introduction to Buddha, which strangely led me to think of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in new and powerful ways.

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

I was terrified to read this book (I kind of laugh about that now).  Before reading it, I had caught the N.T. Wright bug - I had read a few of his books, including my favorite, "Surprised by Hope", which led me to think of heaven and salvation in new and powerful ways ("Kingdom Theology", as some theologians would say).  And somewhere along the lines I became aware that there were people who challenged the perspective of my hero, Wright.  Since I had decided to question everything and let the chips fall where they may, I decided I needed to find out what these challengers had to say and what their defense might be.  But I was scared to do this - what if I found their ideas convincing and lost the hope I'd found?  Nevertheless, I felt I had to do this and face my fear - and I found out about the existence of this book.  Well, surely Wright will demolish all of Borg's arguments, eh?  Surprisingly, I found out two things that I didn't expect to find: 

  1. Borg was more convincing to me than Wright, and 
  2. there was nothing to be afraid of.  I actually found peace through Borg's challenges in a way that I really didn't expect.

New Seeds of Contemplation

This book has probably impacted me more than any other - it is very probably my favorite book.  I quote it more than any other book.  My profile signature on this forum comes from this book.  I had a good friend of mine - an avid reader - give me a copy of this book, and when he did he told me that while reading it he felt as if he'd never read another book before this one. I could understand his sentiment. When I read this book, I was reminded of the Tolkien picture of the elvish lembas wafer - one bite was enough to sustain a traveler for a day. Each paragraph in this book is so rich and wondrous, and it would often take me a few days to get through a single chapter of this book - not because it was difficult to read, but because it was so wonderful and thought-provoking that I felt I shouldn't rush through.

Predictably Irrational

I fell in love with psychology because of this book, and it has helped me immensely in the area of challenging my own biases.  This book simply explains psychology in a way that anyone can understand, and that is super fun.  If you haven't read this book, by all means pick up a copy!

Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence

This is the second book of Walter Wink's "Powers Trilogy" (with "Naming the Powers" and "Engaging the Powers" being the first and third) - and I think that series should be required reading for every theology student.  I was absolutely enthralled with the perspective Wink brought to the table regarding spiritual warfare, and it had a huge impact on my own thinking.

God Is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism

Before reading this book, I had both become fascinated with Christian Mysticism, and had decided that if I really wanted to understand Jesus I needed to start trying to understand Judaism (because Jesus was, quite obviously, a Jew!).  I don't remember how I stumbled on this book, but it seemed the perfect starting point for me because it was a Jewish mystical view!  I found this deeply impactful - Rabbi Cooper challenged me to think of God in a very powerful way that captured my imagination: God as the Ground of all Being.  God as Being means that God is the force behind creation itself - not creation in a static sense, but creation as a continual growth.  There is a Jewish story that says that every blade of grass has an angel standing above it whispering "grow!"  Rabbi Cooper challenged me to think of God as Be-ing itself which continually calls all things to grow.  I've been fascinated by both Mysticism and Judaism since, and have focused much of my reading on those subjects (hence, my series "Judaism and the Mystical Christ").

Well that's my list - there are plenty of other books I wish I could have snuck in here, but these are the ones that I stuck with.  What are yours?