Giving in to a fad which I strongly resisted for awhile, here’s a list of 20 books which have shaped my personal intellectual development. It was frustrating but enlightening to do the introspection necessary to accumulate and then pare down to 20. All such stand-alone lists are probably sterile, unless (as they were with me) they are integrated into broader reading in conversation with an extensive web of other classical and “Great Books” authors. But these were “first introductions” to a protracted corpus of similar works, or provided multiple significant “aha moments” in their own right. Many of the specific titles are representative of a “train” of comparable works by the same author and/or others who interacted with them in an intellectual engagement. In more or less chronological order as I encountered them, this list omits MUCH (and, yes, it has notes at the end!)
1 – Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past
2 – Earl West, Search for the Ancient Order (multi-volume)
3 – E.L. Jorgenson, Great Songs of the Church
4 – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
5 – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
6 – The Diary of Anne Frank
7 – William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale, Blackford Oakes novels
8 – Homer Hailey, The Minor Prophets, John, Isaiah and other commentaries
9 – Ed Harrell, Social History of the Disciples of Christ, 2 volumes
10 – Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority
11 – John RW Stott, Christ the Controversialist
12 – John Warwick Montgomery, Where is History Going? and The Suicide of Christian Theology
13 – Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
14 – G.A. Kerkut, Implications of Evolution
15 – Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
16 – Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament
17 – Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and Voyagers to the West
18 – C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and so much more
19 – Gordon Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth
20 – Ronald Numbers, The Creationists
Other “honorable mention” influences would certainly include G.K. Chesterton, Richard Hofstadter, N.B. Hardeman, James McPherson, George Marsden, Everett Ferguson, Stephen Ambrose, D.A. Carson, Mark Noll, George Will, N.T Wright, Fred Craddock, Rick Atkinson, and Fleming Rutledge, among others. This list of 20 could easily become 50 or even 100, especially if older classics were included. Three other works are significant, though in somewhat different ways.
A – The Geneva Bible – I omitted the most continuously-formative work (”the Bible”) but I’ll single out the Geneva, a 1599 copy of which (as well as several more recent replicas) has been in my family for generations. Purchased from a Chicago bookdealer by my great-uncle, who lived here following his discharge from the US Navy in WWI, it then passed to my grandfather, James Otto Wolfgang, and upon his death in 1975 to my father, James Harold Wolfgang, and thence to James Stephen Wolfgang. Not only the text, but the marginal notations, the typography, the woodcut illustrations, and even the paper contain lessons in their own right.
B&C – Two works for which I served as a “knowledge contributor” rather than simply a “knowledge consumer” are the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, 2004), and the new hymnal Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Sumphonia Productions, 2012). Working on the “other side of the page” provided new insights, and these works continue to teach me afresh.
1 – A part of my early teenage intellectual awakening, Finegan’s LFAP was on my grandfather’s bookshelves, and I spent many fascinating Sunday afternoons trying to wrap my developing brain around its contents. In this text, and several to follow, Finegan introduced me to the worlds of Biblical archaeology and chronology, and the world of Ancient Near Eastern texts and Biblical manuscripts.
2 – Earl West was a multi-generational family friend (performed my parents’ wedding ceremony), whose multi-volume history of the “Restoration Movement” (also on my grandparents’ and parents’ bookshelves) taught me at an early age the basic plotline and biographical storyline of the movement and its controversies – and ignited a passion to learn more.
3 – Jorgenson was one of several hymnals I sang from as a child, including L.O. Sanderson’s Christian Hymns #2, which often contained simple melodies and harmonies which sounded good when everyone sang their part. But Jorgenson took things to a new level. I was singing from his hymnal during the same time I was playing in high school and regional music groups under a very good conductor (a graduate of the world-class School of Music at Indiana University – as were several of the song leaders at church, who in turn instructed other song leaders, including my father, in the basics of leading a congregation in the worship of God in song, skillfully and with insight). Great Songs helped integrate what I was learning at school in music and English composition, including poetry, with what was happening “in church.”
4 – Began to help me confront the reality of evil, both as an act and as a power – as well as the power of story.
5 – C. S. Lewis’ classic (and others, read later) opened up new and different ways of “explaining” Christianity, as well as modeling excellent writing as the Brits do it.
6 – Ditto # 4 – Began to help me confront the reality of evil, both as an act and as a power – in other contexts outside the USA.
7 – Buckley introduced me to the world of the “public intellectual,” the confusing maze of academic discourse and pretensions, the wonders of arcane vocabulary, the importance of intellectual rigor in political discourse, and the power of fiction to expound truth with an impact sometimes lacking in non-fiction. I have read most of his books.
8 – As with other authors on this list, Homer Hailey’s influence on my life was not limited to his books, or even as a preacher, professor, and counselor, but also as mediated through other influential figures in my intellectual development, including but not limited to Ferrell Jenkins, Melvin Curry, and Phil Roberts. As with Buckley and Harrell and Montgomery below, I have consumed nearly everything he wrote.
9 – Probably the closest thing to a formal “intellectual mentor” in my life (I once called him “the surrogate older brother I never had”), Ed introduced me to the stubborn fact that theological issues are not merely theological. There are “layers of the onion” which must be peeled back to reveal how social forces, including class, race (and gender), and many other factors influence theological ideology and religious behavior, and the necessity to integrate the study of religion into the broader descriptions of political, economic, social, intellectual, military, and other aspects of the human endeavor. Ed once said that I was perhaps the only person who had read everything he’d ever written (adding, “but Steve even reads cereal boxes and the phone directories” – too true!)
10 – Ramm, whose book on authority came to me by way of Harry Pickup, Jr., (another profound influence in my life as a young preacher), was one of the bright stars in the early evangelical constellation; this foundational work led me to a string of others.
11 – John RW Stott, first encountered through his book on Christ as a controversialist, was introduced to me by John Clark, a self-educated intellectual and formative influence on my early spiritual development. In many ways, it replicates themes in Stott’s other works, expounding “Basic Christianity,” the gigantic paradox of the cross of Christ and the scandal of worshiping a crucified man, murdered by state sanction as a common criminal or worse.
12 – Montgomery, like Stott, served as both an introduction and a bridge into the worldview of evangelicalism, at once alike (not least in its rejection of both modernist and post-modernist ideologies) and different from the “restorationism” I have written about myself. As with many other works on this list, what I found most attractive was JWM’s broad, interdisciplinary background in classics, philosophy, library science, Biblical studies, history, and modern theology.
13 – Kuhn is often at the head of “Most Influential Books,” especially of the 20th century – and deservedly so as one of very few works which has had widespread cross-disciplinary impact. Read with fascination as I began a doctoral program in the History of Science at Emory University (along with his Copernican Revolution), Kuhn was, as for many, one of the most formative influences on my thinking, surpassing even many on this list and opening up a long list of related works.
14 – Kerkut’s compact but tightly argued monograph taught me not only important distinctions between “general” and “special” evolution (“macro-“ and “micro-“) but also to challenge prevailing assumptions and “received wisdom” – and that doing so is not always received well by others. To actually meet and interview him (and be “served tea”) in his laboratory at the University of Southampton while I was working on my own dissertation, was a special treat, putting a human face to a respected scientific name.
15 – Braudel demonstrated with staggering breadth how much of the human enterprise can and should fall under the historian’s gaze and pen, describing it in a single (and yes, again, multi-volume) work. Despite its title, this work surveys everything from demography to warfare to numismatics to zoology and nearly everything in between, from the Bronze Age to modernity, as well as confronting concepts of stasis and change over time with which every historian must grapple.
16 – From AO&OT to his “magnum opus” On the Reliability of the Old Testament, the breadth of Kitchen’s output is stunning, ranging from the scholarly translation of ancient texts to academic works on Egyptology and “popular” books on Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical history. I first encountered his work (in the library but not on the reading lists) at the seminary where I earned my MDiv. There, his “conservatism” was ridiculed and snickered at by small-minded faculty and grad students – none of whom could carry water for Kitchen, intellectually. Legends in their own minds, they seemed intent on demonstrating their own snobbish “superiority” – which attracted me to his work, first out of curiosity and then with respect.
17 – Bailyn is one of the the most influential American historians of the 20th century, not only for his own Pulitzer- and other prize-winning works, but also as the advisor of a long train of Harvard PhDs who became influential (on me and many others) in their own right, including other Pulitzer Prize winners like Gordon S. Wood (my favorite and, yeah, the guy Matt Damon cites in Good Will Hunting), Mary Beth Norton, Richard Bushman, Jack N. Rakove, Pauline Maier, Philip Greven, Michael Kammen, and MANY others.
18 – Woodward, the dean of a whole corps of Southern historians, introduced me to the thicket of questions of how race, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and a host of other related issues have played out in American history – at a time when this Midwesterner, recently married to a lovely Southern lass, engaged in graduate studies at Emory University in Atlanta, was preaching for a church in a racially “transitioning” neighborhood in the midst of racial tensions only three years following the King assassination. An intriguing and challenging read, it was not only formative in its own right, but lead down numerous other worthwhile rabbit trails.
19 – It is difficult to single out one book in a whole cluster of important works on crucially important questions of hermeneutics and interpretation of texts, but this one stands out and has become a classic.
20 – A path-breaking, even-handed, award-winning monograph on an important subject previously ignored by historians and other segments of academia (and an area I’ve worked in, and published a bit myself), this is a model of following the evidence where it leads. If there is “a book I wish I’d written,” this might be it.