Writers who influenced me

Sally Coleman has tagged me on Facebook in one of those meme things – in this case, listing fifteen authors who have influenced you.  As it happens I don’t do memes – there are so many of them floating around on the Internet that once I started it could very easily turn into a full time job, and I already have one of those, plus a family and a very enjoyable other life as a folk musician too! However, Sally’s post got me thinking about writers who have influenced me. I’m not sure I’ll come up with fifteen, but I’ll mention a few, and say a bit about how they’ve influenced me, too – which is always more interesting to me than a list.

My initial difficulty is to know what’s meant by ‘influence’. There are many authors I enjoy – J.R.R. Tolkien, John Grisham, George Eliot, Dante, Homer, Rudy Wiebe, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom – but I’m not sure if they’ve influenced me. Perhaps I’m not the best person to judge; maybe it would be more honest to ask others – people who know the authors I read and who know me – to tell me if they see the marks of a particular author’s writing in my life.

Still, here we go.

Dennis Bennett influenced me to become a committed Christian. When I was thirteen my Dad lent me Dennis’ book Nine O’Clock in the Morning; it was the first Christian book I read all the way through, and when I finished it I was hungry to know more. Dennis was one of the first Anglicans to ‘come out of the closet’ about speaking in tongues and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Before I read his book my default image of God was rather remote, but Dennis introduced me to a God who did real things in the real lives of real people. Today I would probably not go along with much of what he taught, but he definitely influenced my early years.

I know that C.S. Lewis influenced me, because a friend told me so. In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. I went on to read pretty well everything Lewis had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Adrian Plass had a huge influence on me; he helped me believe that God might actually like me. Of course I always believed (in theory) that God loved me, but in 1987 along came Adrian’s hilarious book The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4, in which I discovered the life-changing phrase ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It took a few years for that phrase to work its way down from my head into my heart, but when it got there, it helped set me free.

Philip Yancey influenced me not to be afraid of difficult questions and not to be afraid to admit that I didn’t have all the answers. I first ran across him in the early 1980s when I was a subscriber to ‘Christianity Today’, in which he wrote a regular column; I then read his early books Where is God When it Hurts? and Disappointment with God. His writings about grace and discipleship (especially The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing about Grace?) had a pretty formative effect on my worldview. In one of his books he talks about certain authors being, in a sense, his ‘pastors’; I know just what he means, and would include him in that category in my own life.

Grace and discipleship also figured highly in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – Tolstoy in his high ideals of what Christianity was all about, Dostoevsky because of his strong sense of human failure and God’s forgiveness. Their big stories – The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, and especially Anna Karenina – were hugely influential to me and remain some of my all-time favourite books.

Jane Austen influenced me because, as well as being such a fine and entertaining writer, she is (as C.S. Lewis once observed) ‘a sound moralist’. She has a common-sense, down to earth attitude toward duty and the good life; she understands sentiment but she is not in the least sentimental, and she’s merciless toward spoiled, self-indulgent, self-pitying types. I particularly like Sense and Sensibility, where I resonate far more with the sense than the sensibility!

Speaking of literature, I hated Shakespeare in school but loved him once I started watching him on stage, and now never a summer passes in our house that we don’t go to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival here in Edmonton. I love Shakespeare’s characters, so human and so up front about it, and I love his use of the English language and his love of invention (how many words and figures of speech did he coin?).

Thomas Cranmer has had a huge influence on my devotional life and my approach to theology. Funnily enough I didn’t grow up on The Book of Common Prayer (my Dad was an early promoter of modern liturgies), but in later years I grew to appreciate it, with its balanced approach (Word/Sacrament, Catholic/Protestant, Grace/Faith) and elegant language. I like Cranmer’s books on the Eucharist, too; even today, his theology of Holy Communion still makes more sense to me than anyone else’s, ancient or modern.

The two writers who have influenced my pastoral style the most are definitely Eugene Peterson and David Hansen. Peterson’s books on pastoral work (especially The Unnecessary Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant) have helped me focus on the big issues in pastoral ministry and given me a healthy skepticism about fads. He emphasises prayer, Scripture, relationships – and also patience; Peterson has not given up on the institutional church although he is well aware of its flawed nature. I don’t care for his translation of the Bible, though – The Message – I find it far too interpretive, to the point that at times I can’t really see how it’s related to the original text at all!

David Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring is without doubt the best book about pastoral ministry I have ever read, but once again it’s not rocket science – it’s about prayer, holiness, love, and all those other difficult things that we like to escape from into the latest gimmick.

Two authors made me a much better preacher – John Stott and Donald Coggan. I read Stott’s I Believe in Preaching in the 1980s and it definitely changed my practice and made me much more disciplined in my biblical exegesis and sermon preparation. Not long afterwards I read Coggan’s little 1958 book Stewards of Grace, which I still say is the best book on preaching I’ve ever read (and only about 120 pages too!). Among many other things, Coggan prompted me to start writing my sermons out in full (for clarity of thought) and then reducing them to short notes which I place in my preaching Bible for the actual delivery of the sermon.

N.T. Wright definitely changed the way I read the Bible and especially the gospels (particularly in The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God), but I think he didn’t start the process. The one who got the whole process started for me was A.E. Harvey and his book Jesus and the Constraints of History, which was where I first encountered the idea that in the religious culture of his day there were certain categories that were available to Jesus in his self-understanding, and we ought to see him in the light of those categories before turning to ones imported by later theologies.

John Howard Yoder has been a huge influence on me; he has helped form the whole Anabaptist side of my Christian life (especially in The Politics of Jesus and The Royal Priesthood). The revolutionary idea that we are actually supposed to do the things Jesus said (including loving our enemies, which means not killing them) is of course never far from the surface in Yoder’s writings; also other ideas, such as the first responsibility of the Church being, not to manage the world, but to truly be the Church (the city on the hill, a distinct community with its own characteristic lifestyle shaped by the teaching of Jesus), and the idea that Christian ethics are meant to be ethics for Christians, not a lowest-common-denominator system that you can reasonably expect of the nominal and the unbeliever. Through Yoder, the 16th century Anabaptists have entered my life (I think his teaching is really a 20th century application of the thought of Michael Sattler and Pilgram Marpeck).

My approach to writing has definitely been influenced by Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing. Funnily enough, I don’t actually care for a lot of what King has written (I’m not a big fan of the horror genre) although I did enjoy The Stand and The Green Mile. But I liked his common sense approach to writing (things like ‘second draft equals first draft minus ten percent’, or the insight that if you think you’re a writer and you’re constantly saying that you just can’t describe or explain something, you might just be in the wrong job!).

I’m a lover of history and have particularly enjoyed Alison Weir’s fine books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty. Robert Massie’s Dreadnought shaped my understanding of the period 1870-1914 more than any other book. I’ve enjoyed Thomas Cahill’s books (especially The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages). The historical novel is probably my favourite form of fiction and in that regard I especially enjoy Patrick O’Brien, Mary Renault, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom, and Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance have had a huge influence on me).

Finally, I haven’t been influenced by a lot of poets (except possibly Robert Frost and Wendell Berry) but I have been deeply influenced by the vast body of work produced by that incredibly prolific songwriter, ‘Anonymous’! His (or her) songs have been the mainstay of my music for the past few years and have definitely shaped my own songwriting and performing in more ways than I can fathom.

Okay – I think I’d better stop there!

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