This is obviously a very idiosyncratic compilation and not meant to be a ‘best book’ list. I’ve done one of those before, and none of the books below are on it. This is more a look at what influenced me, decade by decade. I’ll start the tour with Superman comics. Silly I know, but given I was just 7 or 8 when I came across them, you’ll forgive my naïveté. This of course was the pre-Spiderman, Silver Surfer, ad nauseum craze, which I was just either too broke or too busy to get into. No, this was more out and out childish hero-worship. I read Batman as well, and England’s Dan Dare. But Superman with his corny idealism struck a chord that no other superhero could match. I traded him in on Captain Kirk when I got a little older, but I still have a soft spot for the Man of Steel.
In the Sixties my favourite book wasn’t a book either; it was the songs of Bob Dylan. It may seem like a long leap from one to other, but at heart they were both idealists. Superman hauled the bad guys off to jail on his invincible shoulders; Dylan expanded my understanding of who the bad guys were. He didn’t jail anyone, but his acidic jibes cut to the heart of a system I was already beginning to sicken of and nailed its hypocrisy to the wall. When he became a Christian towards the end of the decade, it sent shock waves through my cynical little world and woke me up to the logical consequences of my thinking. Yes, the world was sick with sin; but there was in fact a Saviour, and like Dylan I went off in search of Him.
The Seventies were full of philosophers and dreamers, and I read my way through many of them: Zen, Buddhism, Taoism, Bhagavad Gita, Khalil Gibram. But one writer towered above all the rest: C.S. Lewis. His Mere Christianity was powerfully convincing and irrefutably sound. I understood instantly why his radio broadcasts were more faithfully listened to than those Churchill during the war years. I dare anyone to read him and not have your atheism undermined by logic and reason. Reading Lewis was for me a pre-gospel experience.
In the Eighties I read Daktar: Diplomat in Bangladesh. This was the book that started me thinking seriously about missions. When author Vic Olsen came to St. Thomas to present his work, the Lord turned a key in my heart. I knew I had to go to Bangladesh, whatever it cost me to get there. Our kids were barely more than babies at the time. Pam wasn’t working and we were not only flat broke, we were so far in mortgage debt we couldn’t put drapes on all the windows. We went anyway. The mission hosed us for money we didn’t have and Canada Revenue taxed us for money we didn’t earn. But the experience changed our lives, and many years later brought us back to Asia again. That’s a powerful book.
In the Nineties there were a clutch of books that grabbed my attention: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box went a long way towards demolishing any lingering authority that science held in my thinking about existence/creation/evolution. But it was Rare Earth, a book written by two atheists that weren’t even interested in these issues that was truly liberating. Authors Ward and Browlee argued that for at least two dozen reasons – that they painstakingly explore in their tour de force – complex life on earth is not only extremely rare in the universe, but quite probably unique (they use the word ‘uncommon’ in their subtitle so as not to scare off the timid; the book’s argument is far more powerful). Having suffered for years under the odious and depressing Copernican Mediocrity Principle (we are an unimportant planet attached to an unimportant star in an unimportant part of the galaxy, yada, yada), it was like someone just opened all the doors and windows and let the fresh air of scientific validity come howling in. What a rush!
In the 20-oughts there have been any number of books clamouring for my attention. But it was a little book that I just stumbled on that has had the greatest impact. It is called Sacred Marriage and reading it has been a paradigm shift for an understanding of my relational universe in the same way that Rare Earth was a paradigm shift in my understanding of the physical universe.
The central thesis of author Gary Thomas’ book is disarmingly simple. He asks, “What if God’s purpose in marriage is not to make you happy, but to make you holy?” This simple question, and its obvious, “Duh, of course, why didn’t I think of that” answer overturns centuries of social conditioning. This is especially true in the West, where we are nurtured in ideology, songs and stories that teach us that the proper ending to the marriage narrative is ‘they lived happily ever after.’ Of course they didn’t. They fought, stayed up late to look after sick kids, went without holidays so their children could make up in summer school what they were too disinterested to learn during the year, invested thousands in sports equipment, piano lessons and computers so that their kids could have a chance at life and watched their marriage slowly dissolve under the weight of too much responsibility and not enough resources; most especially time for each other.
The antidote to all that is Sacred Marriage. In it Thomas argues for a loving God who lets all of this come through His careful hands in order to make us into His image. All that stress has a purpose. All that stretching is leading somewhere. We just have to trust that He does in fact know what He is doing and He will accomplish His purpose in us if we give Him a chance. Our proper response to our own inadequacies is to patiently learn what He wants to teach us through the other we have married. I wish I had read it thirty years ago; I urge you to read it now.
There you have it; the most influential books of my life by the decade. I would be interested to know what yours are, by any measure and method you chose to share.