Vol 7, Num 18 :: 2008.10.10 — 2008.10.24
“This book changed my life.”
It’s a common statement in Amazon’s customer reviews, and it was frequently heard when I worked at a Christian bookstore. Upon first encountering this short phrase my interest was piqued, but after enough half-hearted usages it soon lost its meaning.
There are hundreds of thousands of books in print, how could someone possibly find the one needle in the haystack that will change their entire existence? Even if they did find books that changed their lives, wouldn’t they be doing more than just writing Amazon reviews or telling bookstore clerks? Wouldn’t they be pushing copies into the hands of every friend and family member they have, imploring them to read and hoping, even praying for as momentous a change in their loved-ones lives?
Wouldn’t they become an evangelist for this book? The book changed their lives, that’s huge.
After reading enough reviews like that I made an unspoken vow that I would never say any book “changed my life.” The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced it was a good decision and, drawing on my roots, even convinced myself it was probably more holy not to say “this book changed my life” about any book aside from the Bible. After all, if any book should change your life it should be the Bible, right?
In college I rejected my denominational roots. I still went to a school, and still had lots of friends within that community, but somewhere amidst the worldview training and life experience that college brings, I abandoned what I understood of the denomination. I balked at the cynicism and legalism that seemed commonplace, even within myself, and wanted a change.
Many have experienced similar changes from their denominational or conservative roots. My experience was perhaps not as dramatic as Jon Sweeney’s for instance, but it was significant. I no longer thought of Christianity as a relationship that I struggled to maintain through devotional platitudes and strict living, but began to see the Christian life in a more complete and Sprit-filled way. In short, legalism gave way to acceptance of freedoms with discernment, and the Bible stopped being a judge’s gavel over the damned but “the Book of Life” for fallen people.
With this newfound understanding I wanted to know God even more. I started digging into the Scriptures and (though subconsciously at first) began to re-evaluate every part of my faith and still do today. It was during one of these re-evaluations that I was thumbing through a small paperback series and was surprised to find a book that changed my life.
The “Counterpoints” series is a collection of short books that each focus on a debated topic in Christianity and allows scholars from multiple sides of the issue to write essays on why their view should be believed. For someone like myself who is still in the process of re-evaluating the legalist tendencies that are so thoroughly bred into me, this series is an inexpensive way for me to get hip deep into subject matter that was never discussed in the Sunday school classes and Wednesday night prayer meetings of my youth.
My wife-a beautiful woman in pursuit of an MA in Counseling-attends seminary. We’ve been amazed at the varied reactions we receive when people find out she’s in seminary and I am not. I won’t go into all the details here, but you can imagine what two people with conservative roots encounter when the woman goes to seminary and the man does not.
These experiences led us to re-evaluate what we were taught about gender roles in the Church and to the book Four Views on Women in Ministry, a part of the Counterpoints series. The life changing moment came when I read:
One can build a credible case within the bounds of orthodoxy and a commitment to inerrancy for either one of the two major views we address in this volume.
That was it. It’s not arresting prose or vivid poetic imagery, just a single line that expresses all of the confusion, re-evaluation and occasional anger that I’ve felt since I gave up on my denomination. This simple statement of acceptance of completely opposing views (a truer sense of “agree to disagree” than I had ever encountered before) gave more shape to my Christian faith and allowed me a greater understanding of “orthodoxy” than I could have expected.
This statement hints at a framework for understanding our faith that separates the core values we must espouse to be called a Christian (one example: that Jesus is who he said he was) and those views that can be put in another category; a big category that holds all the things we can quibble over without excommunicating each other (like women in ministry).
This book changed my life – or more accurately – this book articulated the change in my life.
I have since carried to every discussion, to every thorough reading of any text, the mindset this simple sentence outlines. This has opened my eyes to a larger vision of the church. A vision that includes people who dance and don’t dance, drink and don’t drink, immerse or sprinkle, have women pastors or who believe it should only be men, and on and on.
But back to the Amazon reviews and bookstore customers; it is there that this new framework became most valuable. I carry it with me and in a lot of ways I am an evangelist for this series. I showed it to many during my days at the bookstore and listened more thoughtfully when someone told me about a book that changed their life. I’ve chatted-it-up with my pastor and now I’ve even written this article.
The phrase is still abused and overstated on Amazon and in the aisles of bookstores everywhere, but now that I have this experience I try to be more forgiving. I don’t push the book into the hands of everyone I know, but I do hope that God will work as powerfully in their lives even if not in the same way. And I hope I’ve laid down my cynicism along with my legalism.
Through this new framework for understanding I have even grown to appreciate more of my heritage despite its flaws. Rather than look down my nose when legalism rears its denominational head, I’m blessed to remember that “one can build a credible case within the bounds of orthodoxy and a commitment to inerrancy for either one of the two major views…”
That’s a change in my life.