It struck me recently that I can easily list the most formative books I’ve ever read. I was surprised to realize how significant a gulf exists between these four books and any other competitor. I’ve been interested, affected, and challenged by many other books, but when it comes to the formation of my basic worldview, there are no close competitors. (With the exception of Scripture itself, which ought to be awarded pride of place in the ranking, but which I’m excluding in the interest of brevity.) The following books are listed chronologically, based on the first time I read them.
Orthodoxy, by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, a man who could say more with an offhand witticism than some authors manage in a whole book. Chesterton’s brilliant mind combined with a slightly madcap passion and deep appreciation for life to create an unusual apologetic that reminded me of the appellation “Happy Warrior,” a title that has always held a peculiar appeal for me since I first read it years ago in some forgotten article. On an intellectual level, his defense of his faith offered a more organic compliment to the formal arguments with which I was familiar. (I heartily recommend anything else written by Chesterton, in particular St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.)
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Though written as an apologetic, this book has influenced my theology more than any work other than the Bible itself.
Iron John: A Book About Men, by Robert Bly. It’s a mythology-filled book by a non-Christian based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and anyone who wonders why men aren’t showing up on Sunday morning needs to read it (and then go watch Fight Club).
Existentialism and Human Emotions, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Before I am stoned as an infidel for including one of the 20th Century’s foremost atheists on my list, allow me to offer a quote in my defense:
But when the existentialist writes about a coward, he says that this coward is responsible for his cowardice. He’s not like that because he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain; he’s not like that on account of his physiological make-up; but he’s like that because he has made himself a coward by his acts… [A frequent complaint is] as follows: “After all, these people are so spineless, how are you going to make heroes out of them?” This objection almost makes me laugh, for it assumes that people are born heroes. That’s what people really want to think. If you’re born cowardly, you may set your mind perfectly at rest; there’s nothing you can do about it; you’ll be cowardly all your life, whatever you may do. If you’re born a hero, you may set your mind just as much at rest; you’ll be a hero all your life; you’ll drink like a hero and eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic.
We are the product of our choices. When I choose to look at that pornographic popup ad, when I choose to gossip, when I choose to dwell on bitterness, I am creating the person I will be tomorrow. While Sartre’s atheism yields only a fumbling in the dark, pointless choices creating meaningless men, our choices are made with Jesus Christ as both means and end; but we are shaped by those choices nonetheless.