By Lee Karl Palo
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo
Something making the rounds on social media is a question about what your “top ten books” are that you have found to be the most influential. I don’t tag people to get them to compile a list of their own, but it is a good exercise. So without further ado…
1. The Bible
Easily the most influential book for me on this list has been and continues to be the Bible. I am very fond of Genesis in particular (I am writing a book on Genesis 1-11 in its Ancient Near Eastern literary and rhetorical context).
I took a World Religions course in college from Michael Lodahl which introduced me to The Tao Te Ching, and I fell in love with it. I own more than 30 different English translations (when you read it you’ll know why). This is also the shortest book on the list, as you can easily read it in much less than a day. This has always struck me as more of a philosophical text than a religious one.
In Seminary I was told by one of my fellow students, “What you are saying sounds a lot like Michael Polanyi.” So I obviously had to check it out. I asked Professor Truesdale for advice on which of Polanyi’s books to start with and this was the one he recommended. After having read Polanyi’s other books, I would agree with Dr. Truesdale that this is the best place to begin. If you want to understand how people learn then Polanyi is must-reading. He is like a cross between William James and Thomas S. Kuhn: he sees a lot of the same things as Kuhn, but has the positive outlook of James. It is also interesting to compare James’ concept of habit with Polanyi’s concept of indwelling.
Speaking of William James…
William James is my favorite philosopher. There is so much good stuff in his works. I highly recommend reading the essay, “The Will to Believe” in particular. James is great at finding common-sense solutions to intellectual problems. Can a man ever go around a squirrel if the squirrel always remains on the other side of the tree from you? The essay, “On Some Hegelisms” is also a gem. I love the metaphor of Hegel’s philosophy being like a whirlpool that can suck you down to the depths of the sea (I’m not a fan of Hegel).
I started reading Nietzsche because I wanted to know what serious atheists were saying about Christianity so that I could defend the faith. I ended up agreeing with Nietzsche a lot more than I expected to. The Portable Nietzsche contains selections from all of his writings including the entirety of a few of them like Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is a good place to start if you are interested in reading Nietzsche. You see famous quotes in-context like “God is dead” and “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” (from The Gay Science and The Twilight of the Idols respectively). The latter quote is typically misquoted—it actually reads “Out of life’s school of war: what does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
The psychological genius and imagination of Lewis is just amazing. In my opinion, The Great Divorce showcases his profound psychological insight the best. “The Screwtape Letters” is similarly full of insight. The title “The Great Divorce” is rather misleading. It is a work of fiction that tells the tale of a journey where people from Hell visit Heaven—and they have the option to stay in Heaven!
I am a huge Sci-Fi fan, be it Babylon 5, Star Wars or the various iterations of Star Trek. Thus Herrick’s book was very helpful in illuminating many ideological presuppositions that have a significant influence on people (often without Sci-Fi fans being aware of them). This book also gave me more appreciation for C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and the unfinished work The Dark Tower).
Rob Bell is able to use the Bible to question many Evangelical Protestant theological traditions that may not have as much scriptural support as Evangelicals think they do. In this case he asks some probing questions about what the point of the Christian faith really is. Can it really be reduced to a question of where you go after you die? Rob would seem to say, “no.” I would have to agree with that. It is unfortunate that most of the critics of this book get stuck on whether or not Rob Bell believes in Hell, when I’m not sure Rob really cares about whether there is or isn’t a Hell in the afterlife. I suppose what I admire most about Rob Bell is his epistemological humility and his method for communicating the Gospel. When I read him I feel like I am reading a book by someone who really cares about people and doesn’t want to tell them the answers so much as show them the way.
11? There are certainly some honorable mentions to this list. N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg have also had a significant influence on me. Reading Rachel Held Evans is like an “amen” experience. The fiction series “The Liturgical Mysteries” by Mark Schweizer is very humorous and a lot of fun!
So the question is now, what books or authors have influenced you?
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo