The Most Influential Book of My Life
Once I was invited to speak to a gathering of people in the publishing business. I accepted the invitation because I thought it an excellent opportunity to publicly express my gratitude to people who had been kind to me as an author.
Accepting the invitation was easy. Selecting an appropriate topic was not. I would be talking to men and women who were experts in the business of communication and who worked with some of the finest Christian communicators in the world. What could I say that they'd not heard, and heard better, a hundred times?
Then I had a breakthrough. Why not, I asked myself, began my speech like this?
Ladies and gentlemen, as I anticipated this event and what I might say to you, I began to toy with this question: In all of my reading experiences, what book has most influenced me and set the direction of my life? Perhaps my answer might interest you.
Now I realize that this question is not really a novel one. Almost every week in the New York Times Book Review section, an interviewer asks it of some famous author. They often name books I've never heard of such as—let's say—Sigmund Trilovicholaski's Poems from a 17th Century Mongolian Barbershop.
The time for my speech to the publishers came. I began with the question I'd asked myself during my time of preparation: What has been the most influential, the most life-directing, book I have ever read?
I felt the members of the audience spring to attention. Would the book I was about to name be one that had been published by their company? Maybe each VP of marketing and sales was imagining a full-page advertisement that proclaimed, "Read the book that Gordon MacDonald described as the most …"
I confess I enjoyed this moment as everyone awaited my disclosure of the most influential book of my life. I admit to teasing the audience for a moment, just like they do on Dancing with the Stars when they prepare to announce the winning couple.
To heighten the suspense, I listed categories of possible books—biographies, spiritual life books, theological studies, instructional pieces on how to cast great visions and develop great leaders.
Then I dangled the names of a few classic authors. C.S. Lewis, for example. Doesn't everyone have him on their A-list? Dostoyevsky? Some people think you're really deep if you mention him. I named Thomas Merton because serious thinkers adore Merton-readers. Oh, I also added Annie Dillard, the darling of the edgy crowd.
I added some specific titles that might or might not be on my most-influential book list. Augustine's Confessions, for example, and Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, and Bonhoeffer's Life Together.
Suddenly, a guy in the back of the banquet hall stood up and shouted, "For crying out loud, get on with it! What is the most influential book you have ever read? Our jobs may depend on your answer." (This didn't really happen, but it should have).
Leaving the question unanswered for a further moment, I related a story from my childhood.
"One day," I said, "when I was nearly five years of age, my mother banished me to my bedroom because I had done something bad. What my mother didn't know—and I never told her—was that being sent to my room was hardly a punishment. It was actually a gift. I was an introvert—even at the age of 5—and my room was a safe and quiet place where I could explore my interior world without the intrusion of extroverts who, like my mother, often trespassed on my treasured privacy.
"Once in my room," I told the audience, "I began rummaging through a box of books someone had dropped by our home. I guess I was looking for something that might appeal to a child—a picture book, perhaps.
"Only one book in the box turned out to pique my curiosity, and I've sometimes wondered if this was one of those moments when the Holy Spirit initiates a beautiful, life-changing thing in a person's (even a child's) life? Taking the book from the box, I examined it. It had a deep maroon cover, and the title embossed on its face in large golden letters read: "Bible Stories by Elsie Egermeier."
"When I thumbed through the pages, I soon discovered that Ms. Egermeier's book recounted every Bible story in chronological order from Genesis to Revelation. Many of the stories were accompanied by black and white illustrations. On one page was an illustration of Joshua at Jericho. On another: Jesus pacifying the storm on Galilee.
"Now, I was not yet able to read the stories on my own," I told the publishers, "but I was captured instantly by those illustrations. In the months that followed, I taught myself to read (with some help, of course) and finally reached the time almost a year later when I was able to read every story in Elsie Egermeir's book.
"Thanks to this book, my core knowledge of the Bible took a quantum leap, and my nascent Christian faith began to form around those stories."
I went on to point out that while there are those who build their understanding of the Christian life around the propositions in the Pauline letters, mine was built around the stories of disparate people who, through the biblical generations, obeyed or disobeyed God.
"What does it mean to obey God?" I asked the audience. "For me the answer springs from the story of Abraham ascending a mountain to offer his son back to the Heavenly Father.
"And how to you define faith? I came to understand it from the adventures of Gideon, David and Goliath, and Elijah on Mount Carmel.
"How does God call people to his service? You'll find the answer in Moses' moment at the burning bush, in Esther's challenge from Mordecai, and in Mary's response to the angel when she was told she was to be the mother of Jesus.
"Prayer? You learn about it from Jesus in the garden or from the small group that interceded all night for Peter in prison.
"Compassion? Watch the father of the Prodigal son, and imagine the efforts of the Good Samaritan.
"Courage? Zoom in on Stephen. Integrity? Read about Daniel. Failure? Observe Solomon going downhill as he becomes full of himself.
"Grace? Listen to Jesus restore the humiliated Simon Peter at the shore of Galilee.
"Stories! How they lodge in the deepest parts of a person's soul like haunting tunes that will not go away. How inter-generational they are: fascinating to the inquiring child, assuring to the adolescent, a source of wisdom and grit for the adult who finds him- or herself in a daily battle for spiritual direction."
Then my speech to the publishers reached its crescendo.
"The most influential book in all of my life? It has to be that collection of Bible stories Elsie Egermeier compiled in 1922 and that I discovered when I was exiled to my room for misbehaving in 1944. That book had a greater impact—proportionally!—upon the course of my life than anything else I have ever read. It caused me to define reality according to biblical specifications."
In all my years as a preacher, I have rarely ever constructed a sermon that did not reach back into one of the great scriptural stories for its foundation. As a father, I tried to make sure that our children were well-acquainted with the principles of life as illustrated in the Bible's heroes. In all my years as a Christ-following man, I have tied my personal perception of faith in God to those events where he is described as being utterly faithful and redemptive.
Elsie Egermeier gets a lot of credit for this.
I have written about this because I can't help but worry that a new generation of boys and girls are growing up with only a scant awareness of those same stories that I once pressed into my mind and heart as a five-year-old.
Bottom line: our faith in the God of Jesus Christ is built on the stories. Read them. Tell team. Learn from them.
PS: Thankfully, Elsie Egermeier's Bible Story book remains in print. Talk to the people at Warner Press in Anderson, Indiana, or search Amazon.com.
Oh, by the way: no one asked me to write this.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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