Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson
Agents of Influence
"Influence" is a rather vulgar notion, widely invoked and largely unexamined. It has been on my mind lately because I have been reading James Davison Hunter's To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, just published by Oxford University Press and reviewed in this issue by Andy Crouch. Hunter's book—likely to be one of the two or three most discussed of the year in Books & Culture circles—skewers what he regards as naïve and misguided accounts of how Christians should exercise cultural influence and offers an alternative, which he terms "faithful presence."
While I was reading Hunter, the theme of "influence" surfaced from another direction. On the Marginal Revolution blogsite, the polymathic economist Tyler Cowen responded to a reader's query asking for a list of "the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world." Tyler's response (prefaced by the important qualifier that "books are by no means the only source of influence") inspired many others to follow suit, and it provoked me to think about the question as well.
I'm not sure if we are well equipped to assess what all has influenced our view of the world. When I was about 15, I read Len Deighton's novel The IPCRESS File (the movie, memorably starring Michael Caine, came a couple of years later). I found the book absolutely intoxicating, and a lot of that exhilarating effect—though I couldn't have articulated it at the time—had to do with the way the sentences worked, and the spaces that Deighton left in the narrative for the reader fill in (or not: when I first read the book, I didn't get everything).
Around that time, though I didn't mention it to anyone else, even in our very close family (my mother, my grandmother, my younger brother, and myself), I resolved that I was going to be a spy, an ambition (if it merits that label) I carried into college. The Deighton book wasn't the only spy novel I read as a kid, nor was it a reading of this particular book that suddenly put the idea of becoming a spy into my head, but it and its companion, Funeral in Berlin, made the most intense impression.
Why? In part, as I have already suggested, it was Deighton's elliptical style. And of course I loved the insolent attitude of the unnamed narrator and protagonist. But also there was something deeper in the book that rang true, beneath the fantasy: a sense of the twistiness of our lives and an acute awareness of absurdity. (In this it was akin to Notes from the Underground, which I'd read shortly before, where sin and the burden—and gift—of consciousness are inextricably intertwined.)
People often talk about the influence of books on minds as if describing a chemical reaction with predictable results. Such is not my experience. Without any false piety, I can say the Bible has influenced my view of the world more than any other book. From the Bible comes my understanding of who we are, what ails us, and what hope we might share. But apart from what matters most—first and last things—reading and listening to this mighty book of books turned out to prepare me for a lifetime of reading. (If you turn the page, you'll find Mark Noll reviewing a book by Robert Alter about the influence of the King James Version on the prose of six American writers.) It was far and away my most formative job training.
Reading the Bible taught me to hold two truths in tension. On the one hand, there was the conviction—imparted to me by my mother and grandmother, by pastors and teachers, by a community of believers—that the pieces of this complex, many-sided Text, like the great big world itself, fit together. I could place my unwavering trust in that. On the other hand—and this I had to learn for myself—the Text was often enigmatic, and I must not do violence to it simply for the sake of reducing my anxiety, my uncertainly, or conforming to someone's pronouncement. There would always be more than I could understand, more than I could grasp.
Elsewhere in this issue, Roger Olson reviews Randall Balmer's book The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. In the book, Randy speaks of growing up in an evangelical subculture almost hermetically sealed from outside influences. Roger says that this resonates with his own experience. But this account of evangelicals in the mid-20th century differs strongly from my own experience, and I would love to know to what extent it really was representative, or if instead it was merely one point across a broad range.
I grew up in an evangelical household where we frequently hosted missionaries. After her graduation from Moody Bible Institute, my grandmother had been a city missionary in Aurora, Illinois, and then a missionary in China (where my mom lived until she was ten years old). I can see Grandma's heavily worn Scofield Reference Bible in my mind's eye. She listened regularly to The Old-Fashioned Revival Hour and similar radio programs. We attended conservative evangelical churches, mostly but not exclusively Baptist (and during many Sunday meals, Mom and Grandma would critique the sermon we'd just heard). And so on. By any measure, we were evangelical.