I’m fascinated by the way books have the power to shape us. I say “have the power to” because clearly not all books succeed in this mission (or even want to. Don’t think Danielle Steele ever wanted to change the world!) But certain remarkable books sweep across a culture with tsunami force. Some leave a wake of destruction that persists over the decades (Lolita?), some permeate a culture subtly and ever-so-slightly change the dominant worldview (Vonnegut, maybe?), and a few give a startling smack-down to the group conscience (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, say).
But ask any random person if any particular book has rocked their world, and you’ll usually get “Yes, absolutely. Let me think. Ummmmm…….” They may have read all of Jane Austen twice, and adore her, but did she change them? Hard to say. They may have read a list of great philosophers in college, but can they remember what any of them said? A few.
It’s tricky, because it’s terribly hard to quantify how a book has shaped your thinking, even if you know it has. It’s tough to remember after you’ve read it what you ever thought before you picked it up. Truth seems awfully obvious after you accept it.
And when a book is read often enough to affect an entire culture, it’s almost impossible to track its impact. Say 100 high school history teachers all read the same book, causing them to lean a little off the pacifist side of the fence. That year, they make numerous asides about the stupidity of wars through the ages, and all 1,000 of their students, by year’s end, are questioning when a war ever did anybody any good. None of those hormonally-charged teenagers ever read the book in question, but all of them were indirectly impacted by it.
Of all the writers who’ve ever influenced me, two rise to the top of the heap. I’ve always been a little shy to say it, because they’re trotted out so often. But they good and truly have changed my thinking, layer upon layer, year after year. They have the curious distinction of speaking to young and old alike, so if you meet them in 4th grade they are able to follow you up to the Depends years. And though they made a splash about 70 years ago, they still have a surprising message in the 2000s.
I made my first pass through C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series almost 30 years ago, finding the complete set on the family bookshelf. (A little like finding a stack of $100 bills just waiting for you in a dresser drawer.) Narnia was delicious, can’t-stop-eating-it Turkish Delight to my 10 year old soul. One Sunday, sitting bored in church, swinging my legs, I had an astonishing thought. “Jesus is like Aslan,” I scribbled in amazement across the top of the first page of Acts, an exclamation that I saw every time I flipped through that old Bible for the next few years. Well, duh. But it was something no one had pointed out to me, a mind-blowing moment. You see, I loved Aslan. I mean really loved him. And suddenly that love was transferable. Thankfully, Lewis was prolific, and I am still plowing through his legacy, which just seems to be more beautiful as you go “further up and further in.”
The other author who continues to teach me is Lewis’s good buddy J.R.R. Tolkien. Full disclosure: I have read but three of his books. The Hobbit was a fun read back in elementary school, and although my father attributes his faith in part to his incredulous discovery that such a writer could possibly be a Christian, at the time, hobbit-lore seemed a happy fairy tale. (Dad maintains that he always expected every Christian to be a weakling, an idiot, or a hypocrite, and Tolkien was the first to challenge this assumption.) While I always thought Tolkien was a great story-teller and an innovator, that’s about it. In my twenties I decided I really ought to tackle Lord of the Rings. I read the first two before full-time motherhood hit, and I’ve yet to go back and finish the third. (Lame, I know.) But Peter Jackson’s film version plays at our house many times a year, and can I just say that every time I see it, it moves me again, elves and goblins notwithstanding. In weary trenches of vocational ministry, in the “dark night of the soul,” in all the uphill battles of life, I hear Samwise Gamgee cheering us on against the odds, I foresee a day when evil will be vanquished and goodness win.
Lewis and Tolkien are extraordinary not only because of their talent and intellect, but because they wrote in a time of great darkness, and they chose light. Lots of people have mined their work over the decades, and you wouldn’t expect there to be much left to say. So I am super-excited about a new book exploring their influence as it worked against the backdrop of the World Wars.
In a time of ISIS, Ugandan and Somalian horrors, sex trafficking rampant around the world, it’s easy to think those in the Leave it to Beaver era couldn’t possibly speak to our times. To think so is to miss it: Lewis and Tolkein are perfectly poised to speak to us. I hope they aren’t forgotten any time soon.