Jonathan Merritt writes books and articles that change people. He’s a senior writer for the Religion News Service and just last week, he won the 2014 Religion Commentary of the Year from the Religion Newswriters Association. I had the pleasure of asking Merritt a few questions about books that have influenced him.
Then & Now
Religious historians take on the present
In my copy of Elmer Gantry, one sentence is underlined six times: “He had, in fact, got everything from church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.” That sums up Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 satire of scandalous fundamentalist ministers pretty well. None of the underlinings are mine, though. I have a Kindle version of Elmer Gantry, so this is a “popular highlight,” a sentence noted by other readers, on other e-devices.
Francis Schaeffer has changed thousands of lives, including mine. This other, earlier “Pope Francis” might not bear the same weight he once did. However, a Christianity Today readers’ poll once placed him above John Calvin in influence. Following World War II, Schaeffer had left behind separatist fundamentalism to help Billy Graham and the Jesus Movement usher in a golden age of evangelical conservative prestige.
In the last six weeks police officers have killed at least five unarmed African American men: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, and Michael Brown. This does not include Kajieme Powell, who was carrying a steak knife when two officers gunned him down just a few miles away from the site of Brown’s death. As much as some commentators might want to dismiss the protests as the cynical work of “screamers” and “race hustlers,” there is no doubt that the unrest sprung in large part from a righteous indignation at this nation’s long and persistent record of state violence against black men.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison comes under the category of “Books to Be Read on an Annual Basis”—like Augustine’s Confessions, King Lear, or anything by Flannery O’Connor. In general, we read too many books and return to too few.
In August 1994, I was an introspective, brainy 16-year-old, fresh from a summer in Israel with a busload of other 16-year-olds. On my last morning in Jerusalem, I had watched the sun rise: cool breezes over ancient golden stones. I heard church bells ring and the Muslim call to prayer, whispering my own Hebrew dreams into fuzzy pink air. As a Jewish teen who went (reluctantly) to Israel for the Roman ruins but stayed for the prayers, when we chanted under desert stars I was suspended somewhere in between Reform Jewish teenagerhood and a future as a religious studies professor—plus my always evolving, complex relationship with Jewish adulthood. This was when I first encountered Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Jimmy Carter, first as an emerging national politician in the mid-1970s and then as a biographical subject decades later, was the similarity of our backgrounds. Both of us were reared in evangelical households, he in rural southwest Georgia and I in Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa. We are both the oldest in our families: Carter had three younger siblings, and I have four younger brothers. We had “born-again” experiences at an early age, Carter at age 11 and me initially at, well, three years old—but that is another story.
Not long after graduating from college, I found myself editing Christian History magazine, a richly illustrated quarterly where most of the contributing writers were academics but most of the readers were not. Honestly, I had more in common with our readers than with our authors. On my way to a B.A. in English literature, I had taken one class in Christian thought, one in Western civ, and zero in church history. I also had basically no exposure to Christian traditions other than evangelical Protestantism.
When I am not involved in matters religious or scholarly, one of my favorite escapes is science fiction and fantasy literature or media. My favorite series is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The series focuses on the actions of four friends, pushed by circumstances from their little village into the larger world. They discover along the way that they are meant to play central roles in the coming Last Battle of the Ages.
Books change. They change us individually and collectively. Tom Paine’s direct style convinced countless colonists that it was Common Sense to become an independent nation. Henry David Thoreau lectured New England college students that they were better off hand-crafting knives than they were sitting in stuffy classrooms. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Books are also changed.