People often ask me what books have most influenced me in my intellectual journey. While I have a list ready in my mind to draw upon in giving an answer, I have come to think that the inquirer can learn even more about me if they would ask about particular passages in what I have read that have had a formative impact on my thinking.
Folks who know me fairly well will not surprised, for example, when I report that H. Richard Niebuhr’ Christ and Culture has been an important book in my intellectual development. But they would learn more about me if I told them that reading these two sentences in that book was a formative experience for my theological understanding of cultural phenomena: Niebuhr observed that under fallen conditions “culture is all corrupted order rather than order for corruption. . . . It is perverted good, not evil; or it is evil as perversion and not as badness of being.”1 Niebuhr insisted that while God’s original purposes for our cultural lives have been perverted by our sinfulness, the damage is not irreparable. The Fall did not result in the total obliteration of God’s creating designs for our cultural lives. We can hope to discern those designs, then, by exploring how our human sinfulness has done its distorting work.
Another brief comment that significantly impacted my Christian thinking came in an insight from the Argentinian theologian Jose Miguez Bonio in his 1976 book Christians and Marxists. I had studied Marxist thought in graduate school, but now, early in my teaching career, I was concerned about teaching about it effectively in my political philosophy course at Calvin College. How could I get my students seriously to engage the Marxist perspective while not making it an exercise in deconstructing their Christian conviction? Miguez Bonino’s book was the published version of lectures that John Stott had invited him to present to an evangelical audience in London, and he carefully developed his account of his Christian engagement with Marxist thinkers and activists. I learned much from what he wrote, but my “Aha!” moment came when I read his brief comment about why we Christians need to pay careful attention to Marxist criticisms of Christian thought and practice. Christians cannot allow Karl Marx to sit in the judgment seat, he said. God alone is our judge. But we should at least allow Karl Max to take his turn sitting on the witness stand.2
As was the case for me in studying Niebuhr’s and Miguez Bonino’s detailed discussions, good books typically influence us through our careful reading and re-reading. But specific passages, even short ones, sometimes jump out and grab us, creating moments that then have a long-lasting impact on how we understand a specific topic.
Here I want to report on an “Aha!” experience that had while reading an essay in the Christian Scholars Review. When as a teenager I read Bernard Ramm’s 1954 book A Christian View Of Science and the Scriptures. I read it mainly because I had heard it condemned by a fundamentalist preacher, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I was glad that I read it. I was impressed by Ramm’s willingness to wrestle with some tough questions about the relationship between faith and science, and his openness to some evolutionary ideas had a lasting influence on me.
All of that was of the book-influence variety. I did not come away from reading Ramm, though, with any quotable comments that would reassure my parents and others that my embrace of elements of evolutionary thought was compatible with a faithful submission to biblical authority. Nor have reading other helpful books on faith and science produced any “Aha!” moments for me. I have long pondered how to get through to Christians who simply distrust the “godless evolutionism” of the scientific establishment and who have no patience with my niceties about the kind of hermeneutical principles that we need for biblical interpretation.
I became convinced that the young earth advocates have the rhetorical advantage over folks like me. I can recommend books and articles that believers should read, but I have lacked the ability to match the effectiveness of the confident affirmation that “the Bible says that he did it all in ‘six days’ and I believe it!” I have sensed the attractiveness in my own soul of that way of appealing to the Bible’s authority, and I have not been surprised when people roll their eyes when I argue that it all depends on what we mean when we affirm that the Bible “says” something.
How do we set forth the vision of a God who guided the development of his creation for millions of years before we humans appeared on the scene? Can we make that vision exciting, even inspiring? Then I actually had an “Aha!” moment a couple of decades ago, in reflecting on this challenge, when reading a paragraph that inspires me every time I return to it.
In the September 1991 issue of CSR, the Notre Dame philosopher of science Ernan McMullen offered a friendly critique of Alvin Plantinga’s essay on “special creation.” Father McMullen observed that over a period of millions of years, there have been “uncountable species that flourished and vanished [and] have left a trace of themselves in us.” The Bible, he said, sees God as preparing the world for “the coming of Christ back through Abraham to Adam”; but is it too much of a stretch, he asked, “to suggest that natural science now allows us to extend the story indefinitely further back?”
And then this wonderful passage:
When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.3
I find those sentences to be both convincing and moving. They stir a spirit of wonder and gratitude in me at the awareness of God’s loving care in the ongoing work of creation. I can even imagine a preacher making McMullen’s point effectively in a sermon on John 3: 16-17. God so loved the world that he prepared it through the ages for the day when he would send his own Son into the world, not to condemn the world but to redeem it in all of its marvelous complexity. That long process of preparation, beginning in “the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas,” was not wasted time. It was what God saw as a necessary preparation for the One who would not only come to redeem all who trust him as Savior but as the Lord who will someday make new the “all things” whose ancient marks he bears in his own person.
I said that I found McMullen’s comments to be both convincing and moving, and I can say the same for what I found in the books by Niebuhr and Miguez Bonino. For me, the combination of the cognitive and the affective is important for my teaching and scholarship in the Christian community. When I come across an insight that engages both my mind and my heart on a given subject, I am compelled to share it with those whom I teach.
And what these kinds of examples have in common is that they are theologically reassuring. Is it safe to look carefully at a cultural practice or product that is an expression of “worldly” thought? Yes, in attempting to see what it is a distortion of, we may discern something of God’s good purposes for his human creatures. Can anything positive come from the Christian study of Marxist thought? Yes, Marx may point us to ways in which we have failed to honor the biblical call to justice. Do we really need to explore the implications of the idea of an ancient earth? Yes, because doing so may help us to grasp more fully the redeeming work of the Son of God.
Needless to say, there is more to learning than having brief inspiring experiences. The study of diverse cultural spheres, trying to get clear about dialectic views of political-economic history, examining fossils under a microscope—all of this is the kind of painstaking work that the Lord calls some of us to do. We can be grateful, though, that in the midst of that work, there are those occasional moments when we surprise ourselves with a one-word prayer that we direct heavenward in gratitude: “Aha!”
- H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951), 194.
- Jose Miguez Bonino, Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans , 1976), 58.
- Ernan McMullen, “Plantinga’s Defense of Special Creation,” Christian Scholars Review 21, no. 1 (September 1991), 55–79.