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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.

But in no way were we hermetically sealed off from the "culture" at large, whose "influences" we absorbed in countless ways, for good and ill, not least via books and magazines and television and music. I don't say this because I think it was extraordinary in any way—on the contrary, I suspect it was quite common. In being "influenced" by comic books, National Geographic (especially the stacks of back issues from the '30s and '40s), the noirish movies my brother and I watched on TV, the Kingston Trio, Chopin, Segovia, Muddy Waters, The Saturday Evening Post, The Mickey Mouse Club, those many volumes of condensed books published by Reader's Digest (where for instance I first encountered the man in the gray flannel suit), the cheap volumes of classic American lit on my mom's bookshelves cheek-by-jowl with Charlie Chan and Perry Mason and Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart (where I first read Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe), the Dodgers on the radio, and much much more, I think we had a lot of company among fellow evangelicals.

I can imagine certain tone-deaf readers citing this as yet another example of evangelicals' pitiful lusting after acceptance. ("We watched The Mickey Mouse Club, just like all the neighbor kids. We were normal!") No, the point is to suggest that most of us, evangelical or something entirely different, have emerged from a hodgepodge of circumstances, that reality is typically much messier than standard narratives about "influence" imply.

Which reminds me that I have only managed to come up with two entries for the required list of ten: The IPCRESS File and the Bible. Following Tyler Cowen's example (I'll go with the "gut list," rather than the "I've thought about this for a long time" list), here are eight more entries, roughly in the order in which I encountered them: 3. Ross Macdonald, the Lew Archer series. 4. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (and many other books and essays and reviews and columns by Kenner, and countless books his books sent me to). 5. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle (now In the First Circle); Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (and the poetry and prose of Osip Mandelstam); and Andre Sinyavsky, A Voice from the Chorus. 6. Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle. 7. Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly (my introduction to Tranströmer); and Czeslaw Milosz (whom I discovered around the same time): everything he wrote. 8. Muriel Spark, Memento Mori. 9. Philip K. Dick: everything except the awful books at the end (Valis, etc.). 10. Raymond J. Nogar, OP: The Lord of the Absurd. With the exception of the Bible and the final entry, I first met all of these between my mid-teens and my early thirties. I have returned to them all over the years since. Send me your own lists.

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