Our interaction with others changes us. Our parents, teachers, family, friends, and random walk-ons upon the stage of life alter our story, and affect our daily conduct. Some of our fellow actors we remember with fondness, some not so much. Many we barely recall. Perhaps we have a favorite teacher who gave us greater insight, a friend who rescued us in a time of need, a father we looked up to.
An elderly man in our church always responded, “I’m too blessed to be stressed” or “I’m blessed all over” when asked how he was doing. A widower, he was well-respected and noted for his strong faith; he devoted himself to helping the poor, disadvantaged, and troubled, striving to help the homeless and those just out of prison, putting them to work, letting them live in his house, and seeing to it that their lives became better. His attitude and outlook on life affected not just the poor that he cared for, but each and every one of us who knew him.
Besides the remarkable people I’ve known in the flesh, there are those I’ve met only vicariously: the authors of the books I’ve read.
The cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
If you are a reader, there are books that you know have changed your life. There are others that you can’t remember, that you have no conscious awareness of, that nevertheless turned your course, perhaps in profound ways—just as nameless extras have crossed your path and made you the person you are: a police officer who noticed a mugger and arrested him before he could attack you. A stranger who saw a smoldering cigarette butt and stomped it out, preventing a brush fire that would have burned down your home. The soldiers who gave their lives on distant shores to keep you free.
Some of the transformers are obvious. For those of us who are Christians, the Bible is an obvious life-changer. Even if you’ve never read it all the way through—or even at all—its words in the lives of those around you have had their impact.
Not all the books that touch us are necessarily profound or deep. As a third-grader in a tiny school library I stumbled upon a science fiction novel, Space Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein. It began a life-long fascination with science fiction. Not only have the other works of science fiction I’ve read provided me with entertainment, relaxation, and escape, they opened my mind and gave it flexibility. Science fiction has affected how I think about the world. It has even had an effect on my theology.
My mother introduced me to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The words of his poem The Song of Hiawatha still echo in my mind. Combined with an English teacher in junior high who made us read Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and a host of others, I developed a life-long love of poetry. Because of that, I was open to the works of Kipling, and his classic poem If. Discovering that poem in junior high changed me.
A religious tract I read in high school convinced me that reading the Bible every day would help me. It laid out a simple schedule that made it easy to read through the entire corpus of scripture in a year. My sixteen year-old self was so strongly swayed that that every year since I have read the Bible through. Another religious tract with a character boasting of his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew led me to learn those languages for myself. Not only has the daily Bible reading and the learning of ancient languages been positive influences on my own spiritual development, I ended up becoming a professor of theology and Bible, an expert in Semitic languages, an adult Sunday School teacher, and a professional author of four books on the Bible.
In my senior year of high school, not only did Mr. Ketchum, my English teacher, influence me with his teaching and encouragement, he also exposed me to works of literature I might not otherwise have found: the stage plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, especially his Enemy of the People and A Dolls House; one spoke to me about standing up for what’s right, even if it isn’t popular; the other reaffirmed for me the importance of women’s rights.
So many people hidden in books have molded me. Even now, as old as I am, “dark pigmented squiggles” regularly worm their way into my head and redirect my path.