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Indelible Ink: 22 Prominent Christian Leaders Discuss The Books That Shape Their Faith by Scott Larsen, General Editor

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Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2003, 321 pages.

The underlying truth that serves as the foundation for every word in this book is that books exercise an incredible influence over us—they play a significant role in the process of our continual, lifelong creation (page vii).

And with this comment as the first sentence of the Acknowledgments section, Scott Larsen sets the tone for this book, which is nothing less than a rich feast for all librophiliacs (book lovers, a term cited by Calvin Miller in his essay, page 32).

In his Foreword, popular author Philip Yancey quotes Thomas Merton:

Reading ought to be an act of homage to the God of all truth. We open our hearts to words that reflect the reality He has created or the greater Reality which He is. It is also an act of humility and reverence towards other men who are the instruments by which God has communicated His truth to us (page xii).

Then in his Introduction, Scott Larsen goes on to further build his case for the importance of books and reading.

Books shape us, dynamically molding our minds and souls. You are never the same person when you finish a book…A.W. Tozer has aptly stated that “the things you read, will fashion you by slowly conditioning your mind”… The decisions we make about what we read are vital…As Christians who are called to continuously chew on the wonders of God, our reading diet is nothing to take lightly… What it means is that what we read matters and directly affects who we become (page 2).

Larsen warns against limiting our reading to only contemporary writers: Writers of old share with us our humanity and our foundation on Christ and the Scriptures. But how often do we sit at their feet and find ourselves absorbed in their stories and teaching? We ignore the written works of the fathers and mothers of the church to our own spiritual impoverishment. We cannot limit ourselves to reading only contemporary writers, as great as some are, and truly plumb the depths of our Christian heritage.

Contemporary writers understand this and often quote from older writings, including the wisdom of largely forgotten writers who span the gap of time to feed our souls. Unfortunately, these are the books that long ago lost their place on the shelves of most bookstores, the authors and saints and thinkers who aren’t known to the average Christian today (page 3).

So, in his conclusion to the Introduction, Larsen says the question becomes clear:

Which books will you choose?” (page 4).

And Larsen helps us to make that choice by seeing which books others have chosen, leading us to the structure of this fascinating book. Larsen chose 22 prominent Christian leaders, and asked each the same question: “Which books (limiting it to three if possible), other than the Bible, have most influenced you?” (page 4). He gave no further parameters, not even limiting it to books expressing a Christian worldview. He wanted to know (and share with us) those books that left “indelible ink” on their souls.

So the main portion of the book consists of essays written by each of the 22 Christian leaders to both set forth and give the basis for their choices. Some of the contributors are: Joni Eareckson Tada, Calvin Miller, Dallas Willard, J.I. Packer, Kenneth N. Taylor, Phillip E. Johnson, John R.W. Stott, Edith Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, and 13 others.

Following the main section of the book is Appendix 1: The Books That Shaped Other Christian Leaders (beginning on page 227). This list comprises 136 other Christian leaders “who share more briefly about the books that have shaped them” (page 4). Included are such names as William Bennett, Jerry Bridges, Bill Bright, Elisabeth Elliot, Carl F.H. Henry, Michael Horton, John MacArthur, Mark Noll, Janette Oke, John Piper, N.T. Wright, and many others. Since some of the titles mentioned may no longer be in print, Larsen did his readers a great service by listing 17 sources for out-of-print books at the end of the first Appendix (page 292).

When I read the book in September 2003, I decided it would be interesting to keep a tally on the book’s flysheets of which authors and which titles received the most mentions. Then when I began writing this book review in March 2004, I took a look at some of the reviews done by readers of the book on the website of Amazon (www.amazon.com ).

I was surprised to find that one of the reviewers (identified as FaithfulReader.com) had the same idea, at least to start out. He said that he eventually decided to settle for a less formal method of accounting, “something between a guess and a hunch”. Like me, he recognized early on that C.S. Lewis was clearly the frontrunner among the authors and Mere Christianity was leading the books. But he said that then he found the link to the Indelible Ink website and learned that the tabulating work had already been done for us.

So I went to www.indelink.com and found a wealth of helpful information. First the webpage has a Bonus Appendix which contains yet another 23 Christian leaders who give their three most influential books. Contributors to that section include Joel Belz, William Lane Craig, David Dockery, Gene Edward Veith, and others.

Then I went to the Top Tens section of the website. The statistical data is compiled from both the book and the Bonus Appendix on the website. According to their count, there were 181 total contributors who on a combined basis cited 353 titles and 258 authors. So they compiled charts of the top ten books, the top ten authors, and the top ten authors with the most titles.

For those who are as intrigued as I am by these types of lists, I would refer you to the Indelible Ink website to get all of the details. But just to whet your curiosity I will give the top five in each category and the number of times each was selected:

Top Five Books

# of Times Cited

Mere Christianity (Lewis)

20

My Utmost for His Highest (Chambers)

12

Knowing God (Packer)

10

Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin)

9

The Brothers Karamazov

8

Top Five Authors

# of Times Cited

C.S. Lewis

39

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

12

J.I. Packer

12

Oswald Chambers

12

Augustine

11

As I mentioned, there was also a listing of Top Ten Authors with the Most Titles. I won’t give a list, but I found it interesting that of the top four, C.S. Lewis had 12 different titles cited, Francis Schaeffer had 7, and Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther had 5 each.

Finally, the website has a list of Contemporaries, that is the Top Ten Contemporary Authors, which excludes those no longer living. In that list the top five authors are J.I. Packer (12), Dallas Willard (7), Philip Yancey (7), John Stott (5) and Elisabeth Elliot tied with John Piper (both with 3).

The Indelible Ink website also has a Reader’s Appendix where readers are invited to go in and post their three most influential books and give the reasons. To date, 14 individuals have taken them up on that offer.

Back to the book itself, my two favorite essays were those by J.I. Packer (Calvin, the Institutes and Me) and John R.W. Stott (Bishop J.C. Ryle and the Quest for Holiness).

Packer, in citing Calvin’s Institutes as the most influential book in his life, gave five reasons. He said that in that classic work, Calvin 1) showed him “how to think to the glory of God”, 2) confirmed him in his view of Holy Scripture, 3) changed him “from a sectarian into a churchman”, 4) formed him as “a Bible-led rather than a system-driven systematist”, and 5) set him “claiming, and reclaiming, all life for God in Jesus Christ, and valuing all goodness and beauty as his gift” (pages 81-85). Packer said that Calvin’s was a “mind for the ages, not just for the sixteenth century, and his teaching is still out ahead of us to an amazing extent” (page 86).

In his essay, John Stott said that one of the most formative books in his Christian pilgrimage was Holiness, by J.C. Ryle. He said he came upon that book at a time when three types of holiness teaching were jostling around in his mind: a “death to sin”, a “let go and let God”, and a “second blessing” (page 156). He said Ryle clarified the issues for him by demonstrating conclusively that “the New Testament depicts us as thoroughly active in fighting against sin, pursuing after righteousness, and laboring to be holy” (page 157). He said “Bishop Ryle clarified for me the differences between justification and sanctification…one of them is that, although we are justified by faith alone without works, we are sanctified by faith and works” (page 157). Stott said that he also collected and read a number of Ryle’s other books, such as Knots Untied (statements on some disputed points in religion), Principles for Churchmen (positive statements on some subjects of controversy), Light from Old Times (sketches of 16th century reformers and martyrs), and The Christian Leaders of England in the 18th Century (biographical pictures of Whitefield, Wesley, Grimshaw, Romaine, and others) (page 157). I am not sure about Principles for Churchmen, but the other titles have recently been reprinted in attractive hard cover editions by Charles Nolan Publishing.

But all of the essays were a joy to read. So I heartily commend to you Scott Larsen’s book (and the related website). You should come away from it with a list of books you want to read that will keep you busy for a long time to come. As Larsen asked in a question that was quoted earlier in this review: “Which books will you choose?” (page 4)

Additional Note: As a church librarian, I habitually make a note of any quotes I come across that emphasize the importance of books and of reading, particularly Christian literature, and periodically compile them and post them on our church web site. Not surprisingly, I found a great many quotes in Larsen’s book, and if you would like to see them, go to our church web site at www.communitybible.org , then to the Library section, and click on Notable Quotes on Reading. Then locate Quotes on Reading, No. 11, dated March 3, 2004. Quotes numbered 82 through 92 were taken from Indelible Ink (some of which were used in this review).

Related Topics: Library and Resources, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership