Writers who have influenced me
The writers who who have had the greatest effect on me are those who bring wisdom and delight.
James K.A. Smith has helped me see that human beings are not, in his words, “brains on a stick.” While cognition is important, at a deeper level we are moved toward what we love.
Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings. His “teaching” doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation; he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart… And yet we often approach discipleship as primarily a didactic endeavor— as if becoming a disciple of Jesus is largely an intellectual project, a matter of acquiring knowledge. Why is that? (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit)
John Calvin has become one of my favorite writers, but for many years I had a prejudice against him without even reading him. Calvin has opened up for me the glory of God revealed in creation and the comfort of God’s providential care. I joke that, “John Calvin lowered my blood pressure.” One of my favorite passages from Calvin’s Institutes reads,
“In grasses, trees, and fruits, apart from their utility, there is beauty of appearance and pleasantness of odor. For if this were not true, the prophet would not have reckoned them among the benefits of God, “that wine gladdens the heart of man, that oil makes his face shine” (Ps. 104). Has the Lord clothed the flowers with great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor? Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use? Away, then, with that inhuman philosophy which, while conceding only a necessary use of creatures, not only malignantly deprives us of the lawful fruit of God’s beneficence but cannot be practiced unless it robs man of all his senses and degrades him to a block. (Institutes 3.10,2-3)
Biblical authors Moses, David, Isaiah, John, Paul, and Peter. God is a creator and master writer. He is a father, a king, a teacher, and an artist. He wrote to us through diverse people in diverse literary genres. Jesus spoke in parables and used vivid imagery. John Piper notes:
The Bible is filled with every manner of literary device to add natural impact: acrostics, alliteration, analogies, anthropomorphism, assonance, cadence, chiasmus, consonance, dialogue, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, paradox, parallelism, repetition, rhyme, satire, simile— they’re all there, and more.(Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, 31)
God’s writers do more than inform and command. They help us imagine God as he has revealed himself. They help us see ourselves as as we really are and and as we can be as his glory transforms us. They help us imagine the world as it will be when his kingdom fully dawns. I have missed so much of this, as my mind has not been trained to appreciate visual language, but to master abstract concepts. We are told in Psalm 1 that the blessed person delights in the God’s word, not merely knows it. Here are some beautiful examples of God’s artistry from Isaiah:
Fear not, O Jacob my servant…
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring…
This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’
another will call on the name of Jacob,
and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and name himself by the name of Israel.” (Isaiah 44:5)
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (Isaiah 49:15,16)
I will make you majestic forever,
a joy from age to age…
..the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory…
….the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified.(Isaiah 60:15, 19,21)
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. (Isaiah 62:3)
C.S. Lewis has had a profound effect on me, especially his fiction. It was Alan Jacobs in The Narnian, his biography of Lewis, that identified for me what it was: his ability to give himself over to delight and resist cynicism.
Lewis’s mind was above all characterized by a willingness to be enchanted and that it was this openness to enchantment that held together the various strands of his life—his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and (in some ways above all) his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story… [There is]an openness to delight, to the sense that there’s more to the world than meets the jaundiced eye… (Alan Jacobs,The Narnian, xxi)
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment... The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” (Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms)
Jonathan Edwards has way of writing about the glory and beauty of God in a way what is itself beautiful and moving. It’s as if Edwards wrote in order to worship more fully. He has also shown me that knowing about God is not the same as knowing God by “sweet” experience.
All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who has an infinite fullness of brightness and glory. (The Nature of True Virtue)
There is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A person may have the former who doesn’t know how honey tastes; but a person cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. (A Divine and Supernatural Light)
When I first read John Newton, I felt as if he knew a different God than me. I was stuck by how assured he was that God was faithful and in good in all our difficulties–even self-caused trials. He perceived the marriage of obedience and beauty:
Our pleasure and our duty,
Though opposite before,
Since we have seen his beauty,
Are join’d to part no more.. (The Olney Hymns)
Newton’sletters have given me a stronger confidence that God is always at work, even when I fail.
[The mature believer] is content with his situation because the Lord chooses it for him; He is not eager for additions and alterations in his circumstances. If Divine Providence points out and leads for a change, he is ready to follow… (Letters of John Newton, 182)
Every circumstance is under the direction of the Lord; chastisements are a token of his love; the season, the measure, and continuance of his sufferings are appointed by infinite wisdom… [The one who trusts the Lord] knows his interests are safe, he is not greatly afraid of evil tidings, but enjoys a stable peace… For, though he cannot tell what a day may bring forth, he believes that he who invited and enabled him to cast all his cares on upon Him, will suffer nothing to befall him but what shall be made subservient to his chief desires, the glory of God in the sanctification and final salvation of his soul. (Letters of John Newton, 92,93)
Eugene Peterson has a way of helping me contemplate and imagine the beauty of God’s loyal and patient character. I sense so much joy in his heart. His memoir, The Pastor, embodies a life that brings glory to God.
Inappropriate, anxiety-driven, fear-driven work would only interfere with and distract from what God was already doing. My “work” assignment was to pay more attention to what God does than what I do, and then to find, and guide others to find, the daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that would get this awareness into our bones. (The Pastor, 45).
Bruce Waltke has helped me love the Bible more, and especially the beauty of the Old Testament. His lifetime of scholarship conveys not just academic depth, but a passion to respond with our whole being to God’s richly diverse revelation–the variety of literary genres and the warmth of the language. I highly recommend his Old Testament Theology. His work on Ecclesiastes from that volume has had a profound effect on me, encouraging me not be threatened by perplexing circumstances and the seeming absence of God. God’s glory is there, too.