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Formative Books

By March 21, 2019 13 Comments

Let’s talk about books again, only this time as a doorway into history—your own history, I mean. Which five books were most influential in forming you as a person, in setting you out upon life’s path, in revealing or shaping your (sorry Debra Rienstra!) vocation, or however else you might like to put the question?

I’m not thinking here of the ur-texts that saturated your childhood and are still lodged, willy-nilly, on the ground floor of memory and identity. For most of us reading this, #1 on that list would be the Bible. For me, #2 is probably the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnal, blue version. For one of our sons, it turns out to be The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room (1983). My wife and I for sure didn’t hammer at that issue or read the kids this volume more than the others in the series. He just happened to have strong uptake receptors for this one. His wife remains bemused and (usually) grateful.

My focus here, though, is on the books you encounter at a more mature level, when you’re consciously taking on big issues, trying to sort out your world as you set out upon it. Say the years from age 15 to 25. Here’s my list, with the what and why.

No doubt first is H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (1951) which I read as an 18-year-old in Calvin College’s then-gateway course, CPOL (Christian Perspectives on Learning). The problem announced in Niebuhr’s title was one I immediately recognized from my own struggles over faith and life and how, if at all, those two terms might connect with each other. The answers around me to date had ranged from Obey to Keep Clean to Ignore, but it was 1968 and none of those options was real anymore. In this book I also discovered my love for typologies, recognizing that they were abstract and simplified but great for working through theoretical issues. The mood in the air at Calvin those days elevated Niebuhr’s Type 5 to the top: “Christ Transforming Culture.” As it happened, this also served to transform—quite mistakenly, as it turned out—Abraham Kuyper’s project of Christian cultural activism. On that, more next time. Niebuhr’s book has run into very rough sledding over the last thirty years, but for me it proved to be a classic case that setting the right question is more important than setting forth the right answer. A whole lot of my professional and personal life has been devoted to pursing this question.

My second nominee has to be James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1954), although I’m not sure it’s the very first Baldwin title I read. That might have been The Fire Next Time (1963) or Notes of a Native Son (1955), both compelling contributions to the civil rights struggle as I apprehended it in the mid-1960s. But the prose in Baldwin’s essays was so complex and allusive that I struggled to understand all that he was trying to say. Go Tell It, as a novel, was much more accessible. Plus, it followed a teenage boy wrestling with his religion while opening up to his environment. Something of a mirror for me. Still, a distant mirror by virtue of its Harlem setting—white kids didn’t walk in that part of town in my boyhood Grand Rapids. Baldwin’s essays struck so hard at the wide gap between black and white America, and put the moral debt so forcefully on the white side of the ledger, that I needed the more familiar circumstances of the novel to find some common ground for understanding. That agenda has also endured.

The third entrant is American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Noam Chomsky’s first collection of political essays. This was a searing critique of American war-making in Vietnam and the role of Cold War liberal intellectuals in conducting and promoting it. For me, the volume struck three enduring blows at once. It educated my growing opposition to the war; it exposed the pretense of objectivity that academic social science liked to parade at the time; and it deconstructed the Cold War consensus that the United States was the land that all other countries wanted—or should want—to be like, and that we might force them to be like, like it or not. For the American historian that I eventually became, an invaluable lesson.

My fourth title worked out a similar lesson on the natural-science side of the street. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) came up late in college for me and deliciously took down the textbook bromides I had read to the effect that the natural sciences were an objective, endlessly progressing body of knowledge based on “the scientific method” of pure observation and neutral rational reflection. And smugly marginalizing the domain of belief in the process. Kuhn showed how dependent scientific warrant was on preconceptions, and that the interpretive grids derived from these axioms (with this book the term “paradigm” came into common use) had undergone radical alterations over time rather than unbroken linear “progress.” Later I read Immanuel Kant talking about it sometimes being necessary to suspend knowledge to make room for faith. Not the same point as Kuhn’s but it felt the same.

Title #5 came in my first year of grad school when I read Michael Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies (1972). We were spending a lot of hours in seminar demolishing notions of a single normative American “mind” or way of life, and the pluralism that Novak promised in this book was another contribution to that argument. A contribution, moreover, that fed my dawning interest in exploring my own Dutch-American chip in the kaleidoscope. Alas, Novak soon fell prey to the very syndrome his book decried in then vice president Spiro Agnew. Alas for me, Dutch Americans have done so as well. But it launched my journey investigating how and why that eventually proved to be the case.

I’m going to have to cheat and add two more titles to this list next time. One by Abraham Kuyper, the other by Raymond Chandler. What does hard-boiled detection have to do with Calvinism? Much, my friends, not least their connections with the brothers Niebuhr. For now, three more observations. (1) No women authors on this list, and nobody but Americans…. Times have changed. (2) Maybe in college I was kinda living in my head? (3) For all my push-back against religious authority, I seem to have had it in for the scientific type, too–maybe even more?

So what are your top five, and what do they say about you–then and now?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks Jim, this explains a lot. Off the top of my head, Mont St. Michel and Chartres, by Henry Adams, Christianity and Classical Culture, by Charles Norris Cochrane, When the Gods Are Silent, by K H Miskotte, The Technological Society, by Jacques Ellul, The Mystical Presence, by John W. Nevin.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      I am reminded by a comment below how important for my young mind was Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    1. The Law by Bastiat
    2. Economics in one Lesson by Hazlitt
    3. The Closing of the American Mind by Bloom
    4. The US Tax Code by Various Charlatans

    The first two books helped me frame a political and economic worldview that allowed the Kingdom to be paramount. The third book explained to me why Western culture was decadent, and why higher education wasn’t my thing so much.

    The fourth (ok, I’ve never read any of it) was my textbook for my post-collegiate education. From it I learned that the beautiful ideas contained in the books I read (particularly the Bible) could be defeated if government becomes supreme.

    By the way, how is the search for conservative or classical liberal or orthodox contributors to this blog coming along?

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    5. Bonfire of the Vanities by Wolfe. The Left has been looking for the Great White Dedendant long before English Professors jumped on the Covington bandwagon.

  • Randy Nyhof says:

    1. Mere Christianity by CS Lewis
    2. The God Who is There by Francis Schaeffer
    3. Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? by James W. Sire
    4. The Politics of God and The Politics of Man by Jaques Ellul
    5. Christian Anarchy by Vernard Eller
    Later I got more into the Anabaptists; John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink. Which later brought me to authors; Tony Campolo, Greg Boyd, Jim Wallis etc. I discovered Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn also around this time. Today I have been reading along with others Shane Claiborne, Benjamin Corey, Stanley Hauerwas and especially Peter Enns.

  • Sean Lucas says:

    I love these kind of thought experiments:
    1. Defending the faith by D. G. Hart
    2. The Southern Tradition by Eugene Genovese
    3. Reforming Fundamentalism by George Marsden
    4. What are People For by Wendell Berry
    5. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

    Most of these I read during graduate school. The first two shaped my understanding of the historian’s craft and the era in which I was working (19th and 20th century American South). I still think that Darryl’s book is one of the best books that I’ve ever read in terms of the crafting of the book. Marsden’s book showed me (as a Bob Jones graduate) a different world of intellectual endeavor. Berry’s essays in “What are People For” and his novel “Jayber Crow” shaped my imagination about place and people–which is why I spend most of my time trying to figure out my place and my people.

  • Daniel R Miller says:

    1) Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I encountered in graduate school. I grew up in a Fundamentalist home and church that left me with a deep suspicion of cities (i.e., downtown Los Angeles) as places of sin and degradation. Jacobs allowed to me to see what I actually encountered when I traveled to Europe and Mexico: cities as places of excitement and delight and wonderful, spontaneous human community.
    2) Reinhold Niebuhr, everything from Moral Man and Immoral Society to The Irony of American History. Again, for someone steeped in Fundamentalist suspicion of “politics” (i.e., vote Republican at every opportunity) and pessimism (the world is going to Hell, literally), Niebuhr opened my mind to the possibility of progress in our collective life–not the hope of creating a millennial kingdom, but at least addressing some of the injustices in our society.
    3) C. S. Lewis, also multiple but especially The Great Divorce and Screwtape Letters. Kate and I have talked many times about how Lewis’ common sense descriptions of human relations have helped us to avoid the killers of marital happiness such as passive aggressiveness and victim-hood and to pursue joy and delight instead.
    4) C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. It was introduced to me by a provocative Political Science Prof at Westmont College (he also introduced me to Niebuhr). It got me to look critically at the American society for the first time and realize that it was far from perfect.
    5) Joel Williamson, After Slavery: the Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction. Williamson opened my eyes to the history of racism and got me to realize that US History looks very different depending on who is telling the story.

  • William Harris says:

    Thinking back 35+ years….

    Boss, Mike Ryoko. Taught me how to write.
    Norton Anthology of Poetry, Shorter Edition. 1970. I got bored and randomly started reading poems and in turn discovered a world of wonder.
    Technological Society, Jacques Ellul. An antidote to all the 60s futurism of Toffler et al.
    To Prod the Slumbering Giant, James Olthuis, ed. 1972. pointed to a third way outside of the Fundie v Liberal battles I had grown up with.
    Christ and Culture, H Richard Niebuhr. The central challenge in college was how to put together engagement with culture learned in my family’s (lliberal) Methodist church, and a new-found evangelical conviction. Thankfully, the Calvinists came to the rescue.

  • Claudia Beversluis says:

    A few that come to mind:

    Irrational Season – L’Engle – Introduced me to the liturgical year in everyday life
    All We are Meant to Be – Hardesty and Scanzoni – first forays into Christian Feminism
    Cry the Beloved Country – awakening to global injustices
    A Way in the World – Boyer, Jr. – the sacramental nature of everyday life
    Resident Aliens – Hauerwas – the formative nature and possibility of community life

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    With such a limited box/shelf of books—“those that influenced you from age 15 to 25”— I have to reject 40+ years of subsequent reading, which influenced reflection, growth, change in experience and perspective, not an easy task. Back to h.s./college years, which books did I keep and carry with me, boxed or shelved, either at home or in my various classrooms?
    (showing my hand as a h.s. English teacher: all are paperbacks, dog-eared, yellowed, with decades of teacher marginalia)
    1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    2. To Kill a Mockingbird
    3. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
    4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    5. Cyrano de Bergerac
    Later in my teaching I developed a World Literature course, adding to the Eurocentric canon works from Latin America, Africa & Middle East, India/Asia. Those years were fantastic for discovery and sharing. As Bratt mentions ur-texts, I suppose one for any teacher coming out of Calvin in the 70’s would be Henry Zylstra’s A Testament of Vision.

  • George E says:

    Conscience of a Conservative, (more or less) by Barry Goldwater
    Suicide of the West, (the original) by James Burnham
    Peace with God, by Billy Graham
    Our Vietnam Nightmare, by Marguerite Higgins (who was embedded)
    The Art of Conjecture, by de Jouvenal

    Honorable Mention goes to The Strawberry Statement, written by one of the students who took over Columbia back in the 60’s. Actually, not so much the book as a couple of memorable lines I’ve applied over the years.

  • Jodie says:

    Five is too few:

    Niebuhr’s Moral Man, (read in independent study with you) —he helped me to clarify what I did believe about the world (that it continues to crucify) and what I didn’t believe (that it was it irresponsible to literally follow the example of Jesus.)

    More recently Marilyn Robinson’s three books on Gilead, but maybe especially Lila— altogether the books helped me work through themes of election in Scripture: God always elects the rejected. This is also a major argument in the CD 2.1 which I might also include …

    Lewis, The Great Divorce

    Moltmann, The Crucified God

    and more recently Charles Payne’s, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.

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