What books have changed your life? I hear Tim Keller’s Prodigal God and Francis Chan’s Crazy Love are excellent, but I’ve read neither. For me, D. G. Hart’s biography John Williamson Nevin: High-Church Calvinist was more influential than one might expect; equally influential has been the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
John Acuff, at Stuff Christians Like, comments on the difficulty of telling people that their favourite book didn’t change your life:
We make wildly powerful statements about the wisdom shared between the pages of a book. And that’s great. Passion is a good thing, but it does create a potential problem. What do you do if you read the book too and didn’t have the same experience?
My middle brother is experiencing that right now. Just the other night he called and asked, ‘How do I let someone know that the book that changed the fabric of their very soul, didn’t change mine?’
That’s a legit question, because when you believe that a book changed your heart, you tend to take it personally when someone else didn’t have the same experience. You’ll get riled up if you loved Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell and someone else thought it had
Think I’m exaggerating? Today on Twitter, tweet, ‘The Shack didn’t really do it for me. I don’t see what the big deal is.’ And then prepare for the firestorm.
A delicate matter, a legit question, to which Acuff humorously proposes four possible approaches (and yes, read them).
The problem, as far as I can tell, has a lot to do with the tyranny of personal opinion over public discourse. The same problem emerges in book reviews, favourable and unfavourable. Discussing the long decline of book criticism in Canada, André Alexis says,
If, under the supposed tyranny of academic criticism, the literary object disappeared under a mountain of methodology, nowadays it vanishes beneath the ego of the reviewer or the reviewer’s desire to create talking points. It vanishes beneath the tyranny of someone else’s pleasure.
When the criteria for judgement become slaves of personal taste, the impervious judgement of one person, by not operating on a level that allows real critical engagement in society, establishes itself tyrannically over all other dissenting judgements. From that point on, it’s ego versus ego, power play versus power play. This lack of conversation – lack of the very possibility of dialogue – is unacceptable.
Nevin and BCP revisited
With this in mind, I’ll attempt to say something objectively about the two books I said had been important for me. I may or may not succeed, but if we talk in public, we must try to say something that doesn’t air our odours in others’ faces. Here goes.
I must fully recognize that Hart’s Nevin biography will not change everyone’s life. This is because the issues presented, while important, are necessarily presented on a pretty intellectual level. This book doesn’t have popular appeal, and perhaps it isn’t intended to. That it has been very important in my spiritual development certainly has its own importance, because the issues raised have spoken to me with great force at just the right time – and the issues do matter very much – but it’s unreasonable for me to extrapolate my own experience onto my judgement of the book itself. Though a solid and timely biography, one that Mark Noll has called ‘well-researched and engagingly written’, Hart’s book was good for me but not great for everyone, important to me but not seminally great. Still, maybe Hart can be happy that his book was good for me.
The classic Book of Common Prayer, in contrast, has only one way to be tested: actual use. This is because the book doesn’t exist meaningfully except as an expression of the Church’s worship of God. It’s a quiet, unassuming book, drawing no attention to itself and drawing all the attention, if one will listen, to the crucified and risen Christ. More than any book but the Bible, I think, it’s a window to the glory of God – J. I. Packer seems to think so, too.
And if you look at the picture above, you see that the traditional marriage ceremony comes from the BCP as well. That’s a clue.
But then again, isn’t my attempt at objectivity still biased? After all, I can’t really tell when my biases are clouding my vision significantly. Or are we all inside my dream?