Agonizomai: Books That Helped Me

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Books That Helped Me

Books That Helped Me

As Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun." If I know anything at all it is because I have heard it, seen it or read it somewhere, sometime. And that "somewhere" was when somebody else uttered something I found wise, insightful, interesting or useful.

Of course, all Christians would agree that God alone is the source of all that is wise and good - and that the Bible is the complete and final authority on life and faith. But I have read many other things over the course of my life SOME of which have been helpful in my Christian pilgrimage. Occasionally, there have been some really harmful things, too. And then there are authors I have read who have brought into focus one or other particular aspect of the faith with great clarity, but who later on seemed not to be completely orthodox in other areas.

Since then, I have learned that there isn't an author anywhere with whom I could completely agree on everything. We've all got our blind spots and our heresies - especially me. So hopefully we all keep going back to the Bible to check not only our own beliefs, but also those of the authors we are reading. It's called being a good Berean.

So, without further ado, here is a list of books I have found helpful over the years, with some contextual explanation as to why.


I was introduced to this book well before I was saved by a well-meaning school fellow who was looking for the worst kid in the whole school to invite to church. He chose me. You can fill in the blanks yourself.

In the end, going to church with him at this stage of my life was not helpful. But he was caught up in his own sort of rebellion against the religion he found in his church, and decided that Calvinism was the bees knees as far as his purposes were concerned. The elders universally hated Calvinism and this gave him every opportunity to butt heads with them.

I read the whole book (the unabridged version - not the Banner of Truth Trust revision) and almost all of it went right over my head. But the one thing that stuck was the nagging idea that if there was going to be a God then it would have to be one who was in charge of everything. If nothing that existed had existence apart from Him, and if He was truly God then all things would ultimately have to be reconciled through His sovereignty. No accidents; no competing powers but those that he permitted to struggle like flies on fly paper; no superior mind or will. He would have to ACTUALLY be the beginning and the end.

This was so unlike any Christianity within the realm of my limited experience that I just blew the whole thing off and got on with making a train wreck of my life.


Having been brought up in a family that was not a part of any church, and by a father who became progressively more cynical about things spiritual, I absorbed much wrong information as a youngster. I had "learned" that the Bible was a bunch of fables, utterly without historical support and cobbled together by an interest group for the control of the weak minded. Whoever "they" were, they were both incredibly dumb and fiendishly clever at one and the same time.

When I at last began to rebel - not yet out of conviction, but more out of that perversity which accompanies adolescence - I stumbled upon this book and found out that a reasonably sane person with a better education than me could contradict my father in ways I had not dreamed of. Though this discovery did not immediately lead to a right faith, it did teach me to question every authority in my life - which very thing I was eager to do. I am still somewhat of a contrarian.

But Bruce made a good case for the historicity, not only of the NT Writings, but of the characters and the teachings that they espoused. Imagine that! Historicity as a foundation for belief! You'd never get that past the average evangelical today! Nosiree! Today many people crave personal experience and tout that as the basis of faith. At least I was spared much of that error by the twin anvils of my father's cynicism and my own contumacy.


You might call McDowell "F.F. Bruce on steroids"! Here was somebody who was NOT in my father's generation and certainly not in that of F.F. Bruce. McDowell was a reasonably young person at the time, but still somebody who had taken the trouble to track down lots of historical information regarding the veracity of the the Bible, both OT and NT.

Here was man ready to defend the Bible from the very history that my father had said had once for all DISproved the Christian religion and exposed it for the sham that it was. This was an educated person! This knowledge grated against the avowal that I had been indoctrinated with - that the more educated a person was the less he was inclined to believe religious drivel.

With Bruce and McDowell I was still in the realm of history. Philosophy and theology were not yet really a part of what I was awakening to. I was discovering facts that had previously been denied any existence at all - but I had no clue as to the the import of those facts, or why my father and, for that matter, most of the people I knew either denied or didn't care about those facts.


Having been edified by the first McDowell book I read, I made the sometimes logical (and sometimes dangerous) connection that other works by the same author would be every bit as good. In McDowell's case this was sound assumption.

This second book built on the historical case for the believability of the facts of the Christian religion by dealing with some very difficult (to me) material about why people like my Dad thought the way they thought. Through McDowell I discovered how the Christian church was poisoned by liberal scholars in the 19th Century - most notably the Documentary Hypothesis of the Higher Critics of the Graf-Wellhausen school and the Form Criticism of the Bultmannian schools. These had been people who, in the name of scholarship, brought humanism and humanistic philosophy into the learning institutions of the church.

From there it filtered down into practical religion, art, media and - eventually - descending like black rain upon the unschooled and unsuspecting culture in which my father grew up. I began to understand why I thought the way I did and to develop an interest in finding out more. All of this was still the merely pretentious intellectual curiosity of somebody whose hormonal acne had barely cleared up.

Well - a man's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps, right? I was saved from a purely intellectual and philosophical pursuit of religion by a very frightening introduction to the reality of the the spirit world.


It was about this time that I was genuinely converted. Having absorbed much of my father's humanistic cynicism about anything non-material I naturally thought that coming to believe was simply a matter of getting enough information to make a conclusion; and this is partly right. But my purely human way was to set myself up in judgment of God as if MY believing would give Him a legitimacy He otherwise lacked. At the very least, I would get great kudos from a grateful God for the time, effort and natural intelligence spent on getting to the truth. In other words, I was quite ready for a "natural" religion with a tame God Who could be conformed to my ideas.

Well, many of you will immediately recognize the sort of comeuppance which immediately ensues from this mindset, leading to very great fall. And mine was about to happen. It was the other side of conversion I'm talking about; the side where the Holy Spirit does a completely unaided and unbidden work in the heart, revealing the beauty and truth that is in Jesus Christ.

Now, this did not happen APART from the facts I had been learning. But it did not take place in any way because of ME. There are many people who know the facts and don't believe. (I'd venture to say that most of the Higher Critics fall into such a category). The facts are means. They are the means God uses to draw people to Christ - but, absent the Holy Spirit regenerating the soul, the facts could go a-begging for ever.

In my case, by the grace of God, I was knocked off my intellectual horse and introduced to spiritual forces of which I had previously denied even their existence.


And to show my perversity, I actually pick up with an author who did me great harm at first, but eventually was used for my good. I read this book right after discovering Hal Lindsey's other book of note, "The Late Great Planet Earth". When I read Lindsey's view of premillennial, dispensational Christian eschatology and spiritual warfare I had just been spiritually awakened. Prior to that my indoctrination from childhood in rationalistic, deterministic humanistic nihilism viewed all religious and spiritual matters as hopelessly naive constructs. They were, I had been told, just mankind's way of dealing with the hopelessness of a meaningless existence. Lindsey's dispensational views and his linkage of Biblical imagery to past and present history opened up to me a whole new understanding of the spiritual realm; for me, he connected the spiritual and the religious world with the tangible world. Finally I had found a framework in which the spiritual could be interpreted as interacting with the physical.

I could say a lot here about my state of mind and my stage of life - but I will just summarize by saying that this book led me to a spell in the lock-up of a mental hospital. The world (and the very qualified doctors) all saw a mental breakdown; pressure in the job; overly serious attention to religion; emotional instability. Whatever. I was carried over the hospital threshhold in an apparently catatonic state, yet I was completely aware of everything. To this very day I am convinced it was a demonic oppression.


The works of Francis Shaeffer came to me after my mental state had stabilized and a few years had intervened. My ardor for Christ had waned but was never utterly extinguished. Schaeffer's works such as the one listed introduced me to an understanding of what he called "the line of despair" - a place of inevitable nihilism that followed the erosion of belief in the absolutes of God. He showed me, using the names and words of a succession of "thinkers" - many of them arising form WITHIN the church - how the philosophy of men leads to greater and greater folly until eventually, all meaning is lost and the despair of nihilism takes hold.


When I later found that the man I had been forced to read in Grammar School as a science fiction writer ("Out of the Silent Planet", "Perelandra", "The Hideous Strength") was actually a professing Christian I began to devour his non-fiction religious works.

In Lewis I discovered a man from another social class who sprinkled his material with Latinized phrases at the drop of a hat, and spoke in informed terms about nuances of the Greek Classics that I had never read, such as Homer (or the Latin ones like Virgil). I was impressed and intimidated at the same time. But, as I read more and more of Lewis I discovered the man behind the words.

He had both an uncompromisingly logical and a sensitively spiritual take on things. He had humor (The Screwtape Letters), honesty (Surprised by Joy) and a humilty and depth of feeling (A Grief Observed). In other words, Lewis was a flesh and blood human being who had honestly struggled with the implications of faith in Jesus Christ throughout a life which, like all our lives, was far from an even ride. And he was a man - an intellectual man - who persevered in and to the end. He found not ALL the answers, but sufficient reason to trust in Christ no matter what.

Lewis helped put the last nail in the coffin of humanism for me, dispelling the dregs of that rationalistic and unbelieving poison which I had absorbed from childhood.


My life was far from ideal obedient service to Christ, even though I had been stripped of much of my self-reliance and my historical prejudices. I had a foot in the world, so to speak - which Christians are not to do. Maybe I wasn't yet one of the true professors.

But I read this Bunyan book in what I can only describe as a "state of grace". The Holy Spirit just overpowered me and, from the copious and ubiquitous scripture in the text of the book, showed me the endless spiritual warfare that made up the life of Christian. I saw that Christians have good and bad days. I saw that they stumbled and fell - often grievously (Castle Despair) or that they came within an inch of losing (the fight with Apollyon) or that they sometimes displayed a weak and wavering faith (crossing the river at the end). But what I saw most of all was that God was at work supplying guidance, reproof, chastisement and loving correction almost DESPITE the dumbness and perversity of our wonderfully human friend, Pilgrim. He was me in spades.

Finally I read Book Two and saw how a submissive and obedient attitude, listening to the Paraclete, enabled Pilgrim's wife, Christiana, and children to endure the very same journey with none of the trauma. That is a lesson I'm still learning.

And so - for what its worth - these are some (not all) of the books that helped me. They aren't systematic theologies and they are absolutely no substitute for the inspired and infallible Word of God. I'm not saying that reading books should take the place, nor even priority over reading the Bible. But I am saying that God made other people who learned things from Him that they share with the saints and the world. And I am saying that, wherever we find these things to be in accord with what God had said, there is benefit to be found, to the praise of His glorious grace.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Book reviews can be boring, but yours aren't. It is very interesting to read about the spiritual journeys of fellow believers and to hear personal testimony of how a book was instrumental in revealing God's truth. God uses many means to get us where He chose for us to be, and thank you for sharing some of your journey with us.

1:04 pm  
Blogger agonizomai said...


You are welcome.


1:09 pm  

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