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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?