Groucho Marx once said, “Outside of a dog, the book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.” Books, or written communication of some sort, essentially make the world go around. They are the stuff of big ideas, paradigm shifts, and the basic core of life. Whether story, non-fiction, or scientific, in our modern world… the written word, and by extension its most common form, books, create the basis of Western culture and society. Even if we go back before the time of writing, narratives and stories were the common form of communicating ideas, if not paintings on the walls of caves.
Thusly, Melvyn Bragg makes the case for the twelve most important books in Western culture in his text, 12 Books That Changed the World. Of course, any such list is going to be open to a fair amount of criticism and pot shots. So Bragg’s exercise is purposely and consciously aware of its limitations in choosing to focus on Western progress and then especially England’s particular contribution. Jolly good stuff, and all that. Probably a wider scope would be near impossible. You’d have a pretty hard time not hitting your limit of 12 by 1000 AD, what with Plato, the Bible, the Koran, and Augustine. Certainly, there is some important stuff here in Bragg’s tome. Darwin’s On The Origin of Species still sends shudders through scientific, philosophical, theological, and religious non overlapping magisteria. Moreover, Bragg covers all his bases, from science to major advances in human rights, to sports, and even the beauty of literature found in Shakespeare’s First Folio, which lucky for Bragg contains some of the greatest literary works of drama, comedy and tragedy all rolled into one.
Humans have a strong need to communicate, to tell stories, and even to write down rules and laws. Last September, on a trip to the British Museum I lined up and patiently waited to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone. Why would anyone want to look at an old stone with some indecipherable writing on it? Well for one, by looking back at how previous generations communicated and thought, we come to a greater understanding of who we are and where we came from. It ties us all back into the grand stream of humanity. That is what books do, they propel us forward, opening up new horizons and creating new possibilities, while also becoming a recollection of what was, and how things were. It is simply amazing that in early June the world will celebrate the most watched sporting event in history, that traces its global reach to a simple codification of rules in 1863. Shakespeare himself could not have envisioned how such a low class game could become the sport of kings, as he derogatorily quipped: “Nor tripped neither, you base football player (from King Lear).”
Recently, in my D.Min. studies we have been talking about media and its effects on culture and history. Bragg’s point is that books matter, or more to the point, the written word expresses new ideas which can drastically alter the course of history. This is not mere hyperbole, men and women create ideas, stories, and beauty that create paradigm shifts. With that in mind here are the 12 books that changed my life.
- The Bible. Ok, well you knew that had to make the list.
- Transforming Mission by J. Bosch. The central missiological text of the postmodern, post-Christian missional era, in dialog with theology, culture, and history. God is a God on a mission who sends the Son the Holy Spirit and the church.
- Silence by Shusaku Endo. An intense meditation on God’s grace in the face of God’s silence in a suffering world. Endo tells the story of the Japanese persecution of Christians in the 17th century and a Portugese priest trying to make sense of it all.
- After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity by Miroslav Volf. This book radically changed my view of theology, the church, and the importance of the Trinity for all Christian thinking.
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. A taught thriller about a young Texan’s passion for horses and a woman caught against the chaos and violence of the world.
- What is so Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey. This book taught me about grace and how incredibly powerful it can be transform our lives, our churches, and the world.
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Just a great work of fiction that helped me appreciate story and literature.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. See above.
- To End All Wars, Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon. A powerful true story of how Christianity, love, and grace transforms men in a Japanese POW camp. Probably one of the greatest testimonies to the power of Jesus in our modern era.
- Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church by John Zizoulas. Another important work in how or being is rooted in the Trinity. God is ultimately relational, so we are as well.
- In The Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. A tiny little volume that has more to say about leadership than most of the tens of thousands other volumes.
- Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World by Richard Bauckham. This book tackles the predicament that Western society finds itself in and injects new confidence in the Gospel to address the ills of a postmodern world.
There are probably 15-20 other books that could make this list for me.
What are the books that have changed your life?