July 20, 2012

The 16 (or 22) most influential books in my life


How do you measure the impact that a book has on you? There have been many times that I've finished a book profoundly moved, impressed, or otherwise feeling that I have just read something significant, but looking back later could not identify any substantial influence that the book had on me in terms of my life, thought, beliefs, or actions. At the same time, there are countless things that I've read whose ideas have, over time and without any conscious realization on my part that it was happening, become my ideas and contribute to the way in which I view and interact with the world. In fact, I suspect that happens more or less with everything I read, either in adopting or rejecting certain ideas put forward by the author.

All this is to say that it would be very hard, if not impossible to truly identify the most influential books. Instead, what I have done below is identify the books (outside of the Bible) that I remember and recognize as having an influence on who I am today, each in their own time and in their own way. This is not a list of my favorite books, or even necessarily ones that I would recommend first on a given subject (though some are both). It's hard to rank them, so they are listed in roughly chronological order based on the time they reached me.

World Almanac and Book of Facts - Growing up, I was a geek for statistics, geography, sports, history, and lists on every other possible subject. For this reason, I ingested almost as much of the World Almanac as I did McDonald's Big Mac cheeseburgers growing up. It's hard to overstate how important this little oddity has been in my life. A large number of those facts and statistics have stuck with me over the years and contribute greatly to my understanding on issues in the world, even in areas (like sports) where I don't keep up like I used to. I actually ended up buying a new edition last year because I was began to notice that my information bank was becoming outdated. Now, whether I'll be able to actually consume this information like I did as a child remains to be seen. 

The American Experiment (3 Vol.):
The Vineyard of Liberty
The Workshop of Democracy
The Crosswinds of Freedom
by James MacGregor Burns
This was the first complete history of the United States I ever read, and it was enjoyable and enlightening. Written from a somewhat liberal/progressive perspective, Burns covered all of the major events of U.S. history, with enough personal close-ups and in-depth analysis to keep it interesting. It was this series that gave me a thorough "big picture" which subsequent historical books would enlighten and revise. 

"Life had been hard enough during the Revolution, but independence had first brought a flush of prosperity, then worse times than ever. The people and their governments alike struggled under crushing debts. Much of the Revolutionary specie was hopelessly irredeemable. People were still paying for the war through steep taxes. The farmers in central and western Massachusetts felt they had suffered the most, for their farms, cattle, even their plows could be taken for unpaid debts. Some debtors had been thrown into jail and had languished there, while family and friends desperately scrounged for money that could not be found. Out of the despair and suffering a deep hatred had welled in the broad farms along the Connecticut and the settlements in the Berkshires. Hatred for the sheriffs and other minions of the law who flung neighbors into jail. Hatred for the judges who could sign orders that might wipe out a man’s entire property. Hatred for the scheming lawyers who connived in all this, and battened on it. Hatred above all for the rich people in Boston, the merchants and bankers who seemed to control the governor and the state legislature. No single leader mobilized this hatred. Farmers and laborers rallied around local men with names like Job Shattuck, Eli Parsons, Luke Day. Dan Shays emerged as the most visible leader, but the uprising was as natural and indigenous as any peasants’ revolt in Europe. The malcontents could not know that history would call them members of "Shays’s Rebellion." They called themselves Regulators." - Vineyard of Liberty

The Great Dream by Just Another Christian
Although I have ultimately come to reject the approach that this book takes and disagree with much of the content and conclusions that the author reaches, there is no denying that it had a big influence on my early life. By far the most important was forcing me to face the Scriptures on their own terms and be willing to adjust and change my life and views to fit them rather than the reverse. That, and the idea that the Christian faith has a history that extends back 2000 years so we would be wise to learn from and get to know these earlier Christians, are ideas I took away from this book that have had a profound impact on me.


"Theological debate is treated like a game with no stakes: a game, that is played by people who are more concerned with feeling like they won an argument than with learning or proving any Truth. There is no fear of God in these people: they obviously don't believe there is a real God "out there" somewhere Who is looking in and judging the matter, and Who will eventually get around to vindicating somebody and repudiating somebody else. This apparent delay in the vindication of the Truth has given men the courage to despise the idea of truth, altogether." - The Great Dream

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan
This autobiographical piece by John Bunyan was a gift from God to me at the right time. As a young Christian, facing various spiritual pressures and conflicts and not being connected to a church body which exists for the purpose of strengthening believers against such things, reading John Bunyan's very similar account in his own life was a comfort to my soul.
"I was often much cast down, and afflicted in my mind therewith, yet could I not let go my sins: yea, I was also then so overcome with despair of life and heaven, that I should often wish, either that there had been no hell, or that I had been a devil; supposing they were only tormentors; that if it must needs be, that I went thither, I might be rather a tormentor, than be tormented myself." - Grace Abounding


The Freedom of the Christian by Martin Luther
Again as a young Christian, struggling and floating between the Charybdis of an antinomian ethic and the Scylla of a legalistic Pharisaism, it was in Martin Luther's well-known tract that I first found a resolution to the tension of faith and works, obedience and legalism, freedom and lawlessness. At this point in life, I probably would not describe things in the terms that Luther did and I don't believe the apostle Paul did so as well, but it was just what I needed at the time. Moving on to a more robust view of grace and works may not have happened without it.
"A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one. Although these statements appear contradictory, yet, when they are found to agree together, they will be highly serviceable to my purpose. They are both the statements of Paul himself, who says: "Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all" (1 Cor. ix. 19), and: "Owe no man anything, but to love one another." (Rom. xiii. 8.) Now love is by its own nature dutiful and obedient to the beloved object. Thus even Christ, though Lord of all things, was yet made of a woman; made under the law; at once free and a servant; at once in the form of God and in the form of a servant." - The Freedom of the Christian

Systematic Theology by Augustus Strong
This book constituted my first theological education and laid a very firm foundation for what followed. The very thorough discussions and cogent argumentation made this Systematic Theology one of the best available for most of the 20th century and is still a valuable reference today. Even at the time I did not accept all of his positions, but I learned more from him about positions he opposed than from many of those who advocate them.
"Christ’s omnipresence makes it possible for him to be united to, and to be present in, each believer, as perfectly and fully as if that believer were the only one to receive Christ’s fulness. As Christ’s omnipresence makes the whole Christ present in every place, each believer has the whole Christ with him, as his source of strength, purity, life; so that each may say: Christ gives all his time and wisdom and care to me. Such a union as this lacks every element of instability. Once formed, the union is indissoluble. Many of the ties of earth are rudely broken,—not so with our union with Christ,—that endures forever.
Since there is now an unchangeable and divine element in us, our salvation depends no longer upon our unstable wills, but upon Christ’s purpose and power. By temporary declension from duty, or by our causeless unbelief, we may banish Christ to the barest and most remote room of the soul’s house; but he does not suffer us wholly to exclude him; and when we are willing to unbar the doors, he is still there, ready to fill the whole mansion with his light and love." - Systematic Theology

Internetworking with TCP/IP by Doug Comer
Routing TCP/IP Volume 1 by Jeff Doyle
These two books (in combination with much study and hard work!) contributed greatly to the development of my career, and I have very little doubt that I could have progressed as far as I have without the knowledge gained from them. I still tell any aspiring IT professionals today that one of the most valuable things you can do is learn TCP/IP and IP routing inside and out.  It has paid back dividends over time. 


Economics in one lesson by Henry Hazlitt
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell
Henry Hazlitt's superb little book Economics In One Lesson is one that I wish was mandatory reading in all Junior High Schools. He sums up the lesson as: "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups." The rest of this book is spent fleshing this out with examples of how it is constantly ignored. Sowell's book is a much more thorough introduction to Economics but takes the same principle to heart. 




"The very thing that makes a modern industrial society so efficient and so effective in raising living standards--the constant quest for newer and better ways of getting work done and more goods produced--makes it impossible to keep on having the workers doing the same jobs in the same way." - Basic Economics


Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
Outside of the Bible, no other book in my life has been so influential in learning about and engaging in the constant struggle against sin. It is a difficult book to read (though the modernized edition help a lot), but is worth every minute spend slowly working through it.
"Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head. Men may come to that, that sin may not be heard speaking a scandalous word in their hearts—that is, provoking to any great sin with scandal in its mouth; but yet every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villainy: it is like the grave that is never satis?ed. And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin, by which it prevails to the hardening of men, and so to their ruin (Heb. 3:13)— it is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presses on to some farther degrees in the same kind." - Overcoming Sin and Temptation

Desiring God by John Piper
Not so much this book itself, but the ministry, preaching, conferences, and ideas that have emerged from it have been the source of much spiritual nourishment to my soul. I still remember the first message I heard from John Piper (How My Pastoral Ministry Shapes My Pulpit Ministry) and it was a watershed moment in my own spiritual life for a number of reasons. The overarching theme of Desiring God is: "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him."





The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne
Basics of Biblical Greek by Bill Mounce
Deep Exegesis by Peter Leithart
Osborne and Mounce definitively shaped my approach to reading, understanding, and applying Scripture. That, combined with the Leithart's insights into how the Biblical authors made powerful use of language and our tendency to underplay it, makes up my current method of study.
"For translators, commentators, preachers, and theologians, the idioms and cadences, the rhetoric and the tropes, the syntax and the vocabulary of the original have been reduced to mere vehicles for communicating that message. If the vehicle fails to reach its destination, we change vehicles. We substitute, add, or subtract words to make the Bible sound normal. We change idioms to be more familiar. We turn God’s names into generic terms of divinity. We fiddle with the Bible’s rhetoric so that it fits our rhetoric, rather than letting the Bible’s rhetoric shape ours. Once we think we have found the spirit of the text, we feel free to mold the letter as we will.
As the comparison of the two translations indicates, students of the Bible have not always treated the Bible this way. Older translators recognized that no translation can completely capture all the features of the original text. But the goal of Reformation and post-Reformation Bible translators was always to carry over as much of the original text as possible into the target text. When Tyndale found no word for a Hebrew concept, he invented one–atonement–which is having a remarkably fruitful career in the English language, not to mention English theology, psychology, anthropology, and political theory. When the KJV translators found the Hebrew redundant, they made the English redundant: ‘dying, you shall die.’ When they found a vulgarity, they (sometimes) kept it in English: a vulgar man is one who ‘pisseth against the wall.’ For most earlier translators, and for commentators, preachers, and Bible scholars, the original Bible set the agenda, while the target language and the target culture were expected to make room for it. They did not believe that the Bible needed to adjust to our prior concepts and institutions.  
Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency. It no longer shapes our imaginations, our poetry, or our politics, because it is not allowed to say anything we do not already know." - Deep Exegesis

The Epistle to the Romans by Douglas Moo
This is a biblical commentary on the book of Romans, and I certainly couldn't say that reading through it on its own had a major influence on me, but it was the in-depth study of Romans that forever changed my view of the world, of Scripture, of the Old Testament, of Sin, of the Law, of Justification, of the Resurrection, of Israel, and so on. Moo's meticulous analysis, commentary, and engagement with other commentators made him it a very helpful guide during the course my study.
"Confessing the gospel in our own day requires that we subscribe to Paul’s exalted view of Jesus; it is failure to do so that spawns many heresies.  But Paul’s attention, as we have also seen, is especially on the activity of this Jesus:  his coming to earth as the Messiah; his exaltation through resurrection to Lord of all; his dispensing power as the Son of God.  It is what Jesus has done, not just who he is, that makes the gospel the “good news” that it is.  But make no mistake: what Jesus has done cannot be severed from who he is.  Ours is an age not too much interested in theology; but correct theology- in this case, the person of Jesus- is vital to salvation and to Christian living." - The Epistle to the Romans

Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen
If there were a non-biblical book that I wished every Christian would read it would probably be this one or something like it. So many times I see Christians in such turmoil about the decisions and circumstances they face and their struggle to know God's will. I think this book addresses the issue in the most biblical and practical way. The personal impact it has had on me is yet to be fully accounted for, but there have already been numerous (very important) occasions in my life where I have been forced to put my money where my mouth is and work out in daily life the theological found in this book.



Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
What can I say? If only I had met you earlier, Jane, I would not have had to wait so long to experience such reading enjoyment. I've read every Austen novel and loved them all. Through this I learned the deep power of fiction and how a seemingly simple story can provide deep insight into human nature. For those who question the choice, you must understand - "Real Men Read Austen."
"“If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?”
“Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.”
“These are heavy misfortunes,” replied Elizabeth. “But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.”" - Pride and Prejudice 

Who Made God? by Edgar Andrews
This delightfully humorous and quite scientific book made it into my hands as I was stressing over the debates - scientific, philosophical, or otherwise - regarding the questions of macro-evolution, intelligent design, human origins, creation, etc. This book decisively settled many issues for me and taught me much in the process. The author's bio says, "Professor Edgar H. Andrews (BSc, PhD, DSc, FInstP, FIMMM, CEng, CPhys.) is Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and an international expert on the science of large molecules." This book is written by someone who knows what he's talking about, and knows how to explain it well.
"My own speech centred on the thesis that, by their very nature, certain things cannot be explained by purely material causes. If we want to explain such things, I argued, we must look beyond and behind science to God, and this applies not only to the physical world but even more strongly to the human spirit and human experience. The four scientifically inexplicable things I raised were: (a) the origin of the universe; (b) the origin of the laws of nature; (c) the origin of life; and (d) the origin of mind and thought. As recently as 2007 Richard Dawkins on his web site accused me of ‘duplicity' at the debate because, instead of presenting the arguments he had expected, I set out my stall on this higher philosophical ground. I think it rather put him off his stroke — though at the time, I must say, he was quite nice about it all (which may surprise those familiar with his more recent utterances). At various stages in the chapters that follow we are going to revisit my four points, beginning with the origin of the universe itself.
If the God of the Bible does indeed exist, the first consequence we would expect is that the ultimate origin of material things will never be explicable in material terms. In chapters 2 and 3 I fed you with the seeming impossibilities of modern physics, but we must now start looking at some things that really are impossible to explain without invoking non-scientific causes.
Of course, atheists (and even some theists) will immediately cry foul, declaring that just because scientific explanations are not currently available it doesn't mean they never will be. Science is progressive and new discoveries are being made all the time, so that what seems scientifically impossible today may be scientifically explicable tomorrow. I recognize the force of this argument but intend to stand my ground. The claim that, given time, science will explain everything is simply the atheist's version of the God of the gaps. The gaps in our knowledge can be plugged, they say, by future (but as yet unknown) scientific advances. Thus the ‘God of the gaps' is simply replaced by the ‘future science of the gaps' — same gaps, different deity. It's what philosopher of science Karl Popper called ‘promissory materialism.'" - Who Made God?


 Communion with the Triune God by John Owen
This book is last in the list but possibly first in importance. Another one of Owen's, and another that can be difficult to read (not near as difficult as some of his other writings), but one whose sole purpose is to take the reader by the hand and guide them into the loving arms of the Triune God. It has been my experience that many Christians (myself included) spent far too much time dwelling on themselves than on the only One who can bring true peace, joy, and rest.
"And on this ground it is that if all the world should (if I may so say) set themselves to drink free grace, mercy, and pardon, drawing  water continually from the wells of salvation; if they should set themselves to draw from one single promise, an angel standing by and crying, “Drink, O my friends, yea, drink abundantly, take so much grace and pardon as shall be abundantly sufficient for the world of sin which is in every one of you;” — they would not be able to sink the grace of the promise one hair’s breadth. There is enough for millions of worlds, if they were; because it flows into it from an infinite, bottomless fountain. “Fear not, O worm Jacob, I am God, and not man,” is the bottom of sinners’ consolation. This is that “head of gold” mentioned, Cant. v. 11 , that most precious fountain of grace and mercy. This infiniteness of grace, in respect of its spring and fountain, will answer all objections that might hinder our souls from drawing nigh to communion with him, and from a free embracing of him. Will not this suit us in all our distresses? What is our finite guilt before it? Show me the sinner that can spread his iniquities to the dimensions (if I may so say) of this grace. Here is mercy enough for the greatest, the oldest, the stubbornest transgressor, — “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?” Take heed of them who would rob you of the Deity of Christ. If there were no more grace for me than what can be treasured up in a mere man, I should rejoice [if] my portion might be under rocks and mountains." - Communion with the Triune God

July 10, 2012

Some Random Memory of a High School Crush (A Writing Exercise)

It’s strange how a word, a picture, a smell, can bring to the front of your mind a memory that had long been filed away. All of us have a novel-worthy story wrapped up in the recesses of our memories, with details, plot lines, and drama that would leave Dickens impressed. Just now I’m reminded of a momentary high school crush, forgotten long ago but apparently forever seared into my memory. Not that my retelling itself would impress Dickens, but the story nonetheless.

Oh, how much I adored her, and how much I wanted to be with her - though I had never left so much as a hint that it was so. Very outgoing, yet terribly shy is the only way to describe me at fourteen. In this case, my crush and I talked all the time since we shared many classes together. Yet it was hard to even imagine having the courage to ask her out, though I worked diligently at thinking about it. It crossed my mind that Valentine’s Day would be the ideal moment to make my love known and find out once and for all if my dreams would come true or be forever crushed in disappointment and rejection. That was it – I would buy her a Valentine and write my heart into it. Shortly after making this decision, I convinced myself that I was being delusional. I knew very well that I wasn’t going to buy her the Valentine, and I sure as sugar wasn’t going to give it to her. Who am I kidding, right? Right.

So Valentine’s Day came, and I proceeded to school empty handed. Partially relieved, and partially regretful, I worked my way through my classes until it was time to come to the first one with her. I wish I had a Valentine, but I’m so glad I don’t. It would be great to give it to her, but I know that I won’t. I guess I was still conflicted, but there certainly wasn’t any pressure. I just needed to keep my cool. We engage our normal pre-class banter and she looks extra bright, cheerful, and engaging with me today. Wait! Could she be expecting a Valentine from me? It’s not possible. As class goes on, her brightness and cheer seems to be fading. By the middle of class my sweet is nothing of the sort. Oh no! She was expecting something from me and she’s disappointed I didn’t give her anything. I know, right? Right.

Thankfully (or so I thought) my mouth was working faster than my brain and I whispered over to her, “Hey, I got you a Valentine…” She smiled and held her hand out expectantly. Oops!

“I forgot to bring it today.” Nice cover.

“Sure you did,” she grinned and went back to paying attention to class.

“I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“Ok.”

Now what have I done? For the rest of the day I felt the pressure that I thought I had successfully avoided. Of course, it was possible that I could just buy the Valentine and give it to her without exposing any other feelings. I just couldn’t let myself do that. I really liked her. How could I possibly get that close and then chicken out. Somehow I made it through the rest of the day, but now I had another dilemma. I don’t actually have a Valentine’s card. Easy enough – I’ll go to the store and buy one. The only problem is that I was 14 and don’t have a way to get to the store. I’m not sure I remember correctly, but I think I persuaded my sister to take me at the cost of giving up my deep secret that I was buying a Valentine card.

One thing I’ve failed to mention is that Valentine’s Day fell on a Friday during this year, and I couldn’t muster up the courage to get a ride to the store until Saturday or Sunday. It seemed reasonable to me at the time that, given the amount of effort they put into promoting and selling Valentine’s paraphernalia that there was bound to be some excess stock waiting for me at the store. To my surprise - and terror – all of the displays had been removed and updated for the next marketing holiday. Finally, I tracked down a small stack of remaining cards in a corner. And – more terror – there was nothing left that was not gushy and romantic! Oh well, there was no going back now so I selected the one that had the greatest possibility of being stretched and construed as completely platonic should the need arise.

Now what was I to do? Should I write something to express my love, pour my heart out and hope for the best? Should I just say, “Happy Valentine’s Day” and carry on? I’m not sure exactly what I wrote anymore, but I think it was something truly cheesy along the lines of, “I like you. Would you be my Valentine?” I certainly wasn’t channeling Shakespeare or U2, but it was sincere.

And now, the day of destiny – my life would forever be changed, for good or for worse (or so I thought – and apparently so given the permanence of the memory). I don’t remember anything else about the day and I’m certain that if I did it would be that I didn’t learn a thing in class. As I arrived to the first class I had with her, I panicked. I can’t do this. I don’t need to do this. She never asked about the Valentine, and something seemed different. Something wasn’t right. I waited and waited, not listening to class and only lightly talking to her. Then the bell rang. Oh no!

“Here’s your Valentine.” Way to go, mouth!

“Oh, thanks ,” she grinned and headed out.

Whew! Relief and ecstasy! All of my cards were on the table, and I could put away that goofy poker face. It was up to her now. I hadn’t backed down and that by itself was an accomplishment. It certainly didn’t evidence any “game” on my part, but - as they say - you play the hand you’re dealt, not the one you wish you’d been dealt.

The next class I would have with her was after lunch. It was a delightful few hours. The feeling of making your love know to another, even if you’re not sure it will be returned, tends to lift the spirits. The expectation and excitement continued to build until we met again – and she handed me a note. A note! And it was long one, probably a whole page. This was height of my joy.

But something was not right. That sinking feeling in the gut, the one that tells you what you should be thinking even though your mind is not quite ready to admit to it yet – that’s what her demeanor caused for me. The note confirmed my fears. She was flattered by my interest, but she was already involved with someone else (who, incidentally, happened to be an old friend of mine from a different school, much cooler, much more attractive – small world, big heartbreak). And that was that. It certainly made things awkward for a little while, but I played it cool – no problem, just thought I’d ask. Right? Right.

This wasn’t the first time I had garnered up the courage to make someone of the fairer sex privy to my feelings for them, but perhaps the first time I’d done so without getting many hints in advance that the feeling would be mutual. So that pressure, along with the rejection undoubtedly contributed to this being a lasting memory. Such a minor incident, but for someone prone to shyness, it likely contributed to me being a bit gun shy going into my later high school and college years.

Thinking back to this time, and all that has transpired since, all I can say is, “Thanks be to God!”