This blog post was originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of The College, a magazine of St. John’s College. The College asked alumni to describe a book that was important in their lives.
To the shock of every Johnnie, no book has changed my life! I believe only authors are capable of changing our lives. St. John’s was a transformative experience for me because the institution facilitated an intimate encounter between reader and author, an encounter that crosses time and culture. I read in search of resonant voices. To borrow an insight from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a resonant voice is “spoken over the round world” but comes “home through open or winding passages.” It is a voice that I ought to hear, that belongs to me, that vibrates on my ear, consoling me when I am downtrodden and guiding me when I am lost. It is a voice of inexhaustible pleasure and needful wisdom, never flattened by the tyranny of time or the vicissitudes of life. It is a voice that treats my dark inertia, risks my securities, heals my hidden wounds, deepens my faith, awakens my somnolent imagination, expands my imperfect sympathies, and shapes my “final vocabulary.”
I am tempted to mention other favorite authors—Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Pascal, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Dickinson, and Frost—but I will discipline my list to include only the resonant voices:
Jesus: His subversive wisdom and edifying teaching inaugurate an upside-down kingdom—both in my soul and in the world—where the low is brought high and the high is brought low.
Saint Augustine: When the Bishop of Hippo authored his autobiography, Confessions, he authored the biography of every Christian. His prayers and tears are my prayers and tears. His conversion is my conversion. He reminds me of a terrible truth, “Without God, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” Consequently, “nothing is nearer to God’s ears than a confessing heart and a life grounded in faith.”
Søren Kierkegaard: In Fear & Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Works of Love, Kierkegaard goads me, against my own sheepish obstinacy, to enter the prodigious paradoxes of the Christian faith and to live the scandal of the Gospel.
C.S. Lewis: I read the apologetic works of Lewis—Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, and The Abolition of Man—not as an “outsider” who surveys the landscape before undertaking a difficult journey, but as an “insider” who leaves the familiarity of the boat for a thrilling, albeit scary, deep-sea dive. The Christian faith becomes intelligible, challenging, and winsome thanks to the analogical imagination of Lewis. No one has done a finer job of holding the Fact and Myth of Christianity together. His translation of theology into the vernacular is magical, leaving me with goosebumps of wonder, just as Lucy experienced when she first beheld Narnia.
Eligible resonant voices:
- John Calvin
- Blaise Pascal
- Karl Barth