Indelible Ink

Just today, I got an email from a new mail-order customer. He seemed quite happy with our prompt service, complimented us on a personal touch (I had emailed him just a bit about the book), but he was most struck with what he found unique: we carry both Christian and non-Christian books, celebrate a true diversity of authors and try to guide customers towards choosing high-quality, lasting books. (As I am listening to the new Bruce Cockburn, You've Never Seen Everything, and an old David Gray CD -- we've stocked him for years -- I realize our love for good words and provocative ideas. We listen to all sorts of music and read all kinds of books, but both words and ideas matter.) As one author put it in a lovely postcard he sent us: "Imagine! Booksellers who actually read!"

We don't claim to be alone in this venture. But we do get frustrated sometimes. I recently heard of a Presbyterian bookseller who had never heard of Calvin's Institutes. A fellow bookseller at a huge and acclaimed store didn't stock the brand new paperback Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in the Matrix by Chris Seay because he had never heard of the film. (Shouldn't I put an exclamation point after that?) Last week, a customer turned up her nose at the very, very useful Preaching That Connects To Women by Alice Mathews (Baker, $14.99) because she didn't think one of the endorsers on the back-cover blurbs was adequately feminist, I suppose. (By the way, in a quick aside: even though it is about preaching, any men in ministry ought to consider this as a helpful resource.)

Some days, I feel like most religious folks (those who care about reading at all) have a very limited and narrow interest. And we are poorer because of it -- thinner, more doctrinaire, less than what we could be. Books sure can't save us, and reading is not the only good thing. But it is a shame that we don't take more joy in being life-long learners with a natural curiosity to struggle with ideas, sentences, words.

Well, then, let me sound out a vigorous "hip-hip-hooray!" for a spectacularly encouraging and wonderfully interesting new book about books. Published in hardcover by Waterbrook, it is called Indelible Ink and has 22 great chapters (each quite different, actually) with various contributing authors explaining which books have most shaped their faith. These essays are a huge reminder of the joy and importance of serious reading, and I cannot recommend this book enough -- for the very reason that I cite above. These significant Christian leaders have read widely, cared deeply about authors and books, and here describe their journey, accompanied by authors old and new.

From J.I. Packer telling of his working through the Institutes of Christian Living by John Calvin to Luci Shaw, splendidly, achingly describing "Living With Longing and Mystery" (first on Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress and then on Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm), these are all excellent articles. Listen in as Dallas Willard tells of a fairly obscure book that rocked his world. Read the interview with Walt Wangerin and imagine his animated thoughtfulness. Or hear Joni Eareckson Tada, in a stunning chapter about her struggling with God's sovereignty after her accident, tell about repeatedly reading the hard, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Lorraine Boettner -- with a stick in her mouth so she could turn the pages. Smile along with Philip Johnson as he describes role-playing Tolkein excerpts with a soul-mate science buddy.

An added feature -- equally as fascinating as the bulk of the book -- is a long appendix, where over 130 other Christian leaders list their most significant reads. Who wouldn't want the top few named by Fred Buechner, T.M. Moore, N.T. Wright or Brennan Manning? A few of these short lists are surprising. Richard Mouw lists The Hiding Place, and Sheila Walsh (of 700 Club co-host fame) speaks movingly of The Brothers Karamozov. Some are charmed -- I just grinned when heavyweight feminist scholar Mary Stewart Van Leuween names Anne of Green Gables. Becky Pippert tells why The Fall by Camus had such an impact on her, and those who have read her truly great Hope Has Its Reasons will understand. Tony Campolo, not surprisingly, describes Buber's I and Thou. I can't decide whether or not I am surprised that Books & Culture editor John Wilson tells of reading Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground at age 15.

I could go on, as nearly every list is intriguing. You can read it yourself to find which Wendell Berry book most haunts Mars Hill audio guy Ken Meyers. You might guess that Marva Dawn lists the Lutheran Hymnal, but do you know which children's book? What are the most important books to Stan Hauerwas, John Piper, George Gallup, Martin Marty or Alister McGrath? To what novelist does Fernando Ortega attribute his good songwriting skills? These almost 75 pages are chock-full of good reading ideas and make the book that much more useful. If you are in ministry, especially, you will want to draw on these proven works, and will want to show this list around. Did you know that Ron Sider was a Luther scholar? Do you know which C.S. Lewis book shows up in the top three books for N.T. Wright? And how about the listings of Pittsburgh's own John Guest? This is trivia worth knowing!

A few of the long chapters that make up the heart of the book are fascinating narratives, more about the person's life (and their love of reading) than an argument for their particular titles. A few are a touch more polemical, making a good case for why the books that had an impact on them are so important. It is hard to pick my favorite chapters, as most are great. I must say, I was very taken with Charles Colson's now well-known telling of how he was brought to Christ before going to jail (after being convicted of Watergate crimes) when a friend gave him a copy of Mere Christianity. Those who follow Colson's recent work know of how he has been influenced by 19th Century Dutchman Abraham Kuyper, whose work invites serious reflection on whole-life discipleship, applied spirituality and uniquely Christian theories in the big areas of public life. As has happened with many of us, we have been led to Kuyper's incisive perspective via the voluminous writings of Francis Schaeffer. I just loved hearing Colson tell that story once again!

The impeccably erudite Ravi Zacharias has a stellar chapter as well. He dramatically tells of two authors -- he mentions a rather intense book about revival by Leonard Ravenhill and the serious-minded work of one G.K. Chesterton. Indeed, he suggests that Orthodoxy may be one of the finest books ever to be written in the English language. Ravi titled his chapter "Reading: The Fingerprints of Your Soul." Indeed.

Time doesn't allow for me to highlight Larry Crabb on St. John of the Cross, Michael Card on The Count of Monte Cristo or Donald Bloesch's chapter on "Prayer, Mysticism, Faith and Reason." We invite you to dip into this fine resource, enjoy these testimonials of lives deepened by good books. Help keep alive the nearly counter-cultural practice of paying attention to books. I do wish there were more people of African American descent represented in this denominationally diverse collection. Where is John Perkins, Vashti McKenzie, Tony Evans, or Bill Pannell, at least? (Ah, wouldn't it have been great to get Harold Dean Trulear's reading advice?) It is a glaring omission, of course. Still, buy this book. Pass it around. Tell others the stories. And, of course, consider your own.

For a bonus appendix and other interesting features, including a place to post your most influential books, visit www.indelink.com. (If you're posting any there, why not forward your list to us, as well?)

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A gentleman who is not included in Indelible Ink is Lewis B. Smedes, who went to be with the Lord in December of 2002. How can I briefly describe a book that means so much to me? I have hardly started it, but I've been carrying it around for days like some healing totem. It is the memoir entitled My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir by the beloved Smedes: author, ethicist, Reformed theologian. It was finished shortly before his untimely death.

I first became familiar with Smedes' solid yet creative Reformed worldview -- he had books on love, ethics, sex, union with Christ -- when Wes Seerveld (Calvin's younger brother) promoted him in CCO circles in the mid-'70s. Books that passed Radix Books' specialized muster in those years were very special indeed, and Smedes -- then teaching at Calvin, soon to move to Fuller Seminary -- had somewhat of a cult following. I don't recall, but I would imagine that Pete Steen knew him.

One of our best friends (and a mentor who had a big influence on me in those years as my CCO staff person), Jennie Korn Geisler, traveled to Fuller in the late 1970s, in part to study with Smedes. She would sometimes send his tapes back; as we heard the voice and heart and prayers and lectures of this godly man, we knew his books would become important to us. Like his good friend Richard Mouw, he represented a rigorously thoughtful Dutch neo-Calvinism, graced with unusual kindness and ecumenical verve. A decade or so later, he was being read by millions in Reader's Digest and seen on Oprah as he expressed -- sans Bible prooftexts, in well-crafted prose -- the joys and graces of a life well lived. Books such as Forgive and Forget or A Good Enough Person (recently reissued as A Distinctive Life) and Keeping Hope Alive have been life-giving blessings to many. After a close friend died, he penned How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? It is one of my all-time favorite books.

Phil Yancey shocked Lew a few years ago with an odd revelation that he thought God wanted Lew to write his life story. Smedes was properly humble and worse: the old demons from a harsh childhood plagued him with self doubt. (He has described this painfully and powerfully in some of his recent books.) Happily, the Spirit and the editors of his first publisher, Eerdmans, convinced him to tell his story. The result is the very precious God and I: A Spiritual Memoir (Eerdmans, hardcover $25.00). The evening after we unpacked it, I gathered Beth and my oldest daughter and read out loud, choking back tears, the very moving forward. Smedes tells of his life's story, his ongoing friendship with God, his sense that God has remained faithful, through thick and thin. Reading his gentle but evocative words posthumously is itself healing and hopeful.

Let me close with a lovely portion by Eerdman's editor, Jon Pott, from his very moving introduction. After playfully telling of Lew's highly associative mind and creativity as a writer, Pott reminds us,

But of course style is mere artifice and not style at all without substance, and Lew the writer had substance. In fact, this is where the real wrestling went on: Lew struggling hard -- so very hard -- to be true to his subject and to its intractable difficulties. He came at his task with a splendid mind splendidly schooled by the likes of G.C. Berkouwer and Karl Barth and his beloved Henry Stob. He also came at his task from a tradition. The trouble with a lot of people, the writer Flannery O'Connor once said, is that they "ain't frum anywhere." Lew was. You can read in this memoir about his Friesian grandparents, Wytse and Tjitske Benedictus, one Mennonite and one Reformed. You can read as well about how Jakie Vandenbosch of the Calvin College English department sold the young Lew on the beauties of Calvinism by championing a God who so affirmed his creation that he cared intensely about the well-being of the English sentence. "Jacob Vandenbosch," says Lew, "introduced me"¦to a God the likes of whom I had never even heard about -- a God who liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers"¦I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition 101."

Smedes found the joy of the Lord in English Composition 101. Now that's a great line. Written, perhaps, with indelible ink.