I was probably (spiritually speaking) at my lowest point around January of 2013. That was a couple of years after I used critical theory, biblical scholarship, and postmodern philosophy to critique the fundamentalism of my own personal religious beliefs. About two years in, I began to realize that I had arrived at the logical conclusion of the liberal theology I had embraced. In my mind, humans couldn’t know anything (especially God), the Bible was primarily a historical document that reflected human culture but that could be “inspired” for individuals but not objectively, that the crux of the message of Jesus of Nazareth was liberty and freedom, and, though I remained a convinced theist, “God” as we discussed him was a discursive construct that reflected back our own individual and cultural biases.
And when I got there, when I had taken the reductionist idea that all that God requires of us is love of neighbor and filtered it through my political perspectives, what I discovered was that I had no need of God. I didn’t understand why I continued to go to church or pray or whatever when, in the end, the point of it all, the central message of Jesus, was that I should love my neighbor. Of course, I was under tremendous familial and social pressure to continue being a Christian (my best friends and my family were and remain committed Christians), but that did not explain the value I found in spiritual practices. I remember one time talking at length with Amanda (this was awhile after I had begun my journey back to orthodoxy, but before I knew I was on the journey) in which I tried to justify my participation in spiritual practices on sociological grounds–that religion has benefits quite aside from its truth.
In any case, I got to the point where I tried to not have faith in Jesus; in the Gospel. I tried to not believe. I don’t mean, by the way, that I tried to not assent to the existence of God; belief in an orderer of the universe seems fundamentally intuitive to me. I have no idea how intellectually rigorous people get out of the “unmoved mover” argument, but that is for another day. Anyway, I tried to not believe. But it didn’t work. No matter how much I said “I don’t want to be a Christian; I don’t want to believe that God intervenes in the world,” nothing changed. I continued, in my heart and mind, to follow Jesus and to sense the Holy Spirit.
And so, over the course of time since that Dark Night of the Soul, I have moved from a theological liberalism (with the almost essential attendant political and social liberalism) to small o-orthodoxy. It has taken awhile for the assumptions I had about the way the Bible works or what love is be affected by God’s call to me to come home, but I think I am getting there (you can read more about that journey here).
Along this journey, of course, I have had many conversation partners mostly in the form of books. For what follows of this post, then, I want to share a (necessarily incomplete) list of some of the writers and thinkers that have influenced me.
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J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the most influential voice in my life aside from the Bible. I’ve been reading Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion since I was a child. My father read LOTR to me first and then I read them for myself. Tolkien, more than any other author, has stayed with me from my youngest days all the way to the present. I have never tired of him and I have never repudiated him. The Christian Imagination at work in his stories and his characters is, frankly, more valuable to me than all of the sermons I’ve ever heard put together. If you want to understand my relationship with Jesus, look at Aragorn calling Faramir out of the darkness or watch the hobbits who are apostles of the King scour the Shire and enforce the King’s laws. It surprises me not at all that Tolkien was a traditionalist Catholic.
Les Miserables (the musical, not the book) takes second place for influence on me. I’ve been interested in Les Mis since I was in seventh grade. My brother and I used to listen through the soundtrack as we cleaned the kitchen after supper. While there is so much for me to say about Les Mis (redemption, love, justice), I will content myself with this: Les Mis recognizes, and affirms, the awful tension between what is and what should be: it trumpets that love has overcome the world. Les Mis proclaims the Gospel. Rejecting violence, revenge, and hatred Jean Valjean embodies that cruciform life as he loves all those around him, especially his enemy Javert. The musical rejects violent revolution as a means to success even as it affirms the ideals of the revolution. The finale subverts the song of the revolution. In this, the eschatology of Les Mis proclaims the coming Kingdom:
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Other Influences (in no particular order):
G.K. Chesterton–Traditionalist Catholic; man of letters; co-founder of Distributivism; author of such amazing works as The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy
William Faulkner–Southern Writer extraordinaire; wrote some of the best novels ever written in English; had a brilliant insight into what makes people human; author of Absalom Absalom and As I Lay Dying
Alan Jacobs–Anglican; English professor at Baylor; brilliant writer on culture, faith, and literary theory; author of A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love
Thomas Oden–Methodist pastor and theologian; founder of the “paleo-orthodoxy” movement; author of Classic Christianity:
C.S. Lewis–Traditionalist Anglican; medieval literature scholar; popular Christian apologist; author of The Chronicles of Narnia
Tamar Adler–Chef and proponent of holistic cooking; author of The Everlasting Meal
Michael Pollan–Journalist and writer; apologist for holistic and sustainable food practices and pathways; author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked
Wendell Berry–Farmer and man of letters; environmentalist and social conservative; anti-machine crusader; author of Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community and The Art of the Commonplace
Peter Kreeft–Traditionalist Catholic; philosopher and theologian at Boston College; Tolkien and Lewis expert
Madeleine L’Engle--Episcopalian; young-adult fiction writer; enthusiastic interest in science; author of A Wrinkle in Time
Marilynne Robinson–Congregationalist; writer-extraordinaire; professor of writing; author of Absence of Mind
Kathleen Norris–Presbyterian and Benedictine Oblate; poet and writer; author of Amazing Grace
The Book of Common Prayer–-The prayer book of the Anglican Communion; outside of the King James Version of the Bible, it is the greatest repository of prose written in English
Douglas Jeffers–My brother and a Catholic seminarian (he will be ordained a priest in May 2017); brilliant thinker and the one I turn to when I need help understanding philosophy or theology
The American Conservative–A magazine and blog devoted to Traditionalist Conservativism; the focus is mostly politics, but they get into faith and culture quite a bit too.
The Imaginative Conservative–A blog devoted to Traditionalist Conservativism; the focus is pretty evenly focused on religion, politics, and culture
Rod Dreher–Eastern Orthodox; public intellectual writing at The American Conservative; author of Crunchy Cons
Russell Moore–Southern Baptist; Chairman of the SBCs Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; author of Onward