There have been some thinkers who have had a tremendous effect on me and my understanding of the world. I think sometimes one comes across an idea or system of ideas that just seems to make everything else “click.” Often, those ideas, once you understand them, seem so glaringly obvious that you wonder how you never saw that before. Or, you realize someone has found a key to something that has always been there, but few other people are aware of it.
For example, I remember reading C.S. Lewis’ biography in high school. That book was a major intellectual awakening in me that made me start reading his nonfiction books. From there I was set on a trajectory to reading more serious books on theology, spirituality, and culture. My favorite book of Lewis’ is, The Problem of Pain.
In college, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose theology, ethics, and personal story have profoundly shaped my own thinking. I’ve read and studied enough Bonhoeffer by now to be highly irritated whenever anyone starts invoking his name to back their cause, whether its a politically conservative or progressive one. For me, Bonhoeffer has helped me think seriously about what it means to live faithfully as a Christian in a world where things simply are not black and white. I love Ethics, but would suggest someone new to Bonhoeffer to check out A Testament to Freedom, which is a collection of his sermons and excerpts from his major writings.
Victor Frankl has helped me immensely in the way I think about suffering, evil, and finding meaning in life. His experiences in the holocaust helped him develop a therapeutic method that enables us to find purpose in suffering. He’s a good reason for some of my own existentialist leanings. Man’s Search For Meaning is the account of his experiences and the method he developed afterward.
N.T. Wright is sort of my “go to” biblical scholar. His work on Jesus, Paul, the resurrection and the hope for new heavens and new earth has been groundbreaking. He is someone who is thoroughly in love with God and knows the Scriptures thoroughly. I would suggest starting with Surprised by Hope.
Rene Girard was a thinker I was introduced to in college and his theories relating to scapegoating, mimetic rivalry, victimization, and sacrifice drastically re-shaped how I understand human cultures and the biblical stories. His work opened up my eyes to the ways human beings love to organize themselves as “all against one” as a way of maintaining peace in their communities. His work on the gospels helps illuminate certain aspects of the atonement when Jesus takes us this role of the scapegoat who is driven out by the crowd. The Girard Reader is a great text to start with, but so is I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.
Over the last year, Jordan Peterson has emerged as another one of those thinkers. He’s a psychologist who has hundreds of hours of lectures online. I’ve been working my way through them and have learned an incredible amount about psychology, mythology, and human behavior. He also helped me articulate my biggest concerns with postmodernism. I’ve just finished listening to an amazing series of lectures on the psychological significance of the early biblical stories. As I’ve listened to them, I’ve repeatedly thought, “Why can’t biblical scholars and theologians speak about the Bible in such an interesting way?” I would recommend just checking out his Youtube channel.
These are some of the major people who have shaped my thinking and continue to do so. I could have included a lot more, however. These are just some of my favorites!