This is a list of influences. I call them influences and not heroes because they all have issues. I don’t want to be any of these people. I do not completely agree with everything each of these people believe. But that’s okay. Because we don’t have to agree with everything and everyone in order to find the value in them. But for me each of these people, though some are very different from one another, speak a unique and prophetic truth that has influenced me and created a desire to spread these truths to others. I believe our world today desperately needs to hear the voices of these people.
Here is my list of the ten people (in no particular order) that have impacted me the most in my life, and a brief description as to why:
Brian Zahnd – Pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Has written several books and is a prophetic witness against empire, militarism, and a violent portrait of God. He offers a traditional take on Christianity while uniquely applying it to the world today. Listen to his sermons, check out his blogs, or read his books. They are transformative and offer a unique take on what it means to be a Christian in America.
Seen in the light of the Easter dawn, the cross is revealed to be the lost Tree of Life. In the middle of a world dominated by death, the Tree of Life is rediscovered in the form of a Roman cross. The cross is the act of radical forgiveness that gives sin, violence, and retribution a place to die in the body of Jesus. The world that was born when Adam and Eve in their shame began to blame, the world where violent Cain killed innocent Abel, the world of pride and power that tramples the meek and weak—at the cross that world sinned its sins into Jesus Christ. And what happens? Jesus forgives. Why? Because God is like that. In the defining moment of the cross Jesus reveals what God is really like. God is love—co-suffering, all-forgiving, sin-absorbing, never-ending love. God is not like Caiaphas sacrificing a scapegoat. God is not like Pilate enacting justice by violence. God is like Jesus, absorbing and forgiving sin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) – Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930’s. Founder of the Confessing Church, which was a powerful resistance against the Nazi regime. Was caught and executed by hanging in 1945, just before the collapse of Nazi Germany. His book Discipleship is a radical call to embody the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount and to live not with the Cheap Grace of lukewarm Christianity but with the Costly Grace of true transformative Christianity.
In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts…
Dorothy Day (1897 – 1980) – Dorothy Day experienced a troubled young adulthood which led to several failed relationships. She also became involved in the socialist, anarchist, and feminist movements. After an abortion and two failed suicide attempts, Dorothy Day converted to Catholicism. With it she found a new perspective on what it means to be a Christian in the secular world. While she discovered a new lifestyle she didn’t lose her vigor. She started the Catholic Worker movement, and for the rest of her life, she lived in abject poverty, serving not only the poor, but what she called “the undeserving poor.” Day was arrested and beaten numerous times for protesting wars, nuclear weapons, poverty, and hunger, and was a fierce advocate of nonviolence. She believed the world would be saved by beauty. And if anyone in all of American history truly embodied the beautiful, it was Dorothy Day.
It is easier to have faith that God will support each House of Hospitality and Farming Commune and supply our needs in the way of food and money to pay bills, than it is to keep a strong, hearty, living faith in each individual around us – to see Christ in him.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) – Russia in the mid-19th century was undergoing an incredibly rapid change from basically a medieval, Orthodox Christian society to a people of socialism and atheism. Fyodor Dostoevsky was no exception to this reality. That is, until his band of revolutionary intellectuals were caught, drug from their beds in the middle of the night and sentenced to execution by firing squad. Just seconds before the shots fired, Dostoevsky’s death sentence was commuted to four years of harsh labor in Siberia. Given nothing but the Gospel, Dostoevsky began to fall in love with the man of Christ. He would go on to write five of some of the greatest novels ever. He became a champion of Russian conservatives and perhaps the first and greatest existential philosopher in history. His literary works are truly transformative.
Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If you love each thing you will perceive the mystery of God in all; and once you perceive this, you will then grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until you come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.
Jesus (c. 4 B.C. – c. 30/33 A.D.) – I pondered putting Jesus on here because, well, he is God. But I think we have a tendency to view Jesus chiefly as a divine figure. We confess the creeds and never would actually say that is all he was, but I don’t think we often realize what it means that Jesus was fully human. He was limited in knowledge. He didn’t understand the complex inner workings of the way the world functioned. Jesus would get sick, tired, hungry, and thirsty. Even in his last moments suffering on the cross he didn’t really understand why everything was happening the way it was. And he longed for it to end. He was a poor, peasant carpenter and Jewish rabbi that had a unique and keen understanding of scripture, particularly the prophets, and he used that to call everyone to denounce the wicked ways of the flesh and shift their vision towards the Kingdom of God. Jesus brought a gospel of hope to the suffering and a radical call of devotion to the poor and needy for those who are thriving. Jesus’ defining moment suffering on the cross represents the true beauty of Christianity: love expressed in forgiveness. He reveals to us that there will be a constant battle between humble peacemaking and love in opposition to the proud, violent empire. But on the third day, Christ defeats the death that was scorn upon him by the principalities and powers. The story reveals to us that only by embodying the true message of Christ can we defeat death.
What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973) – I became fascinated with J.R.R. Tolkien first from his fantastic book Lord of the Rings and later became interested in how his beliefs and life experiences were reflected in his books. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and is the man that C.S. Lewis credited for his conversion to Christianity. Tolkien fought in World War I, and his experiences there gave him a strong hatred for war. Tolkien was a simple man who always rode a bike, refusing to drive a car, and had a strong distaste for industrialism, futurism, and technological advancement. He held to the idea that technological advancements are paradoxical in that they seem like they will solve all our problems, but they always end up becoming more destructive. He was very fond of nature and saw happiness in the simple things of this world. In The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard explains to the hobbits that no one cares for the woods anymore, as they have minds that are nothing but metal and wheels. Is that us?
Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be so quick to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – Early on in his life Gandhi was a lawyer, but eventually he decided to give himself up in service of the Indian people, who had been under British rule since the 1700’s. He was tremendously influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” and believed that freedom would never be achieved through violence. When the Indian people resorted to violence in protests, Gandhi would begin to fast, refusing to stop until the violence was ended. He nearly died of starvation a couple times, but it always worked. While he was Hindu, he saw the beauties of other religions and envisioned an India of religious plurality. He was assassinated by a right-wing advocate of Hindu Nationalism in 1948.
Jesus is ideal and wonderful – but you Christians, you are not like him.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) – We all know Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in the Civil Rights Campaign. And we all know his dream. But King was so much more than a Civil Rights leader and powerful speaker. Influenced heavily by Leo Tolstoy and even more so Mahatma Gandhi, King preached a message of change through nonviolence to the suffering African Americans. He opposed what he understood as the three evils of society: racism, poverty, and war. He was assassinated in Memphis after supporting workers on strike for better wages and better treatment for black employees of the sanitary public works. King frequently fought against the “pointless war” in Vietnam and desired a world where all the effort man put into military and technology would go towards social programs to help people who are struggling.
The first question the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop for this man, what will happen to him?’
Richard Rohr – Richard Rohr is a Franciscan Friar who has written several books and is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He focuses heavily on the meaning of prayer as formation and the transformation of humans from the “false self” to the “true self,” or, from “who you think you are” to “who you are in God.” He also has done significant work on male spirituality.
Truth is not always about pragmatic problem solving and making things “work,” but about reconciling contradictions. Just because something might have some dire effects does not mean it is not true or even good. Just because something pleases people does not make it true either.
St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) – Francis of Assisi was born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. Early in his life he was a rowdy troublemaker. After joining the military and succumbing to a terrible illness, Francis had somewhat of a conversion experience. He completely lost touch with all worldly desires and gave all he had away. From then on he lived with and served the poor. He lived in poverty, begged alongside the poor, protested against the crusades, and eventually collected a large amount of followers. He composed a simple rule for his followers known as the “Primitive Rule,” which meant to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps. By the end of his life he had a great following. He died when he was 45 from an illness.
Grant me the blessing of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging.
Here are some that just missed the cut but are quickly creeping up:
David Bentley Hart – Orthodox Christian theologian who is considered one of the great theologians in America. Author of The Beauty of the Infinite, Atheist Delusions, The Experience of God, as well as many others.
All great religions achieve historical success by gradually moderating their most extreme demands. So it is not possible to extract a simple moral from the early church’s radicalism. But for those of us for whom the New Testament is not merely a record of the past but a challenge to the present, it is occasionally worth asking ourselves whether the distance separating the Christianity of the apostolic age from the far more comfortable Christianities of later centuries — and especially those of the developed world today — is more than one merely of time and circumstance.
John Muir (1838 – 1914) – Environmental philosopher and Father of the National Parks, who was known as “John of the Mountains.” Muir became enchanted with the Yosemite Valley after living in it for some time and fought successfully for it to be preserved. He loved trees. Perhaps too much. At times he would climb to the very top of a tree during a violent storm, hanging on for dear life, just to see what the trees felt like during such an storm.
The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning, it seemed to be favored above all other wild parks and gardens of the globe.
Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) – Russian novelist. Author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kingdom of God is Within You, and many more. Christian pacifist who lived a radical life. Gave away almost all his possessions and deeply believed that materialism corrupts people. Foundational influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as others.
If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.
Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) – Neil Postman was a professor, author, and cultural critic, best known for his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). This book and all of his work in general is a profound critique of the way Americans worship entertainment above all else, and this desire has crept into all aspects of our life, whether it be religion, politics, education, or anything else. Postman believed the desire to be entertained above all else will only lead to a sad state of a shallow, weak, ignorant, and unintelligent people.
Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.
Terrence Malick – Filmmaker best known for Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The Tree of Life (2011). Malick has perhaps the most recognizable filmmaking style in all of Hollywood and refuses to conform to regular forms of storytelling. His films are artistic, philosophical, beautifully shot, and often open-ended, which can frustrate people. To me, they are unique and deep and offer so much more depth than the action-packed films that regularly blowup the box offices today. His films aren’t the most popular and don’t make the most money, but Malick doesn’t care. And I think that is pretty cool. I wish more people had the desire to watch a movie like The Tree of Life and be transformed by its depth rather than watch a bunch of dudes blow stuff up in the ever-popular and seemingly never-ending super hero films and action packed thrillers of today. Neil Postman and J.R.R. Tolkien would probably agree with me. And my guess is so would the next guy on the list.
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
Wendell Berry – A farmer, writer, poet, and activist who advocates for environmentalism, the small farmer, traditional values, appropriate technology, and community, Wendell Berry has devoted his life in an effort to restore the ideals of the small farmer and traditional Christianity. His book (one among many) Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ Teachings about Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness is a call to Christian pacifism with regards to violence against others and violence against nature. Rod Deher, a writer with The American Conservative, writes about Berry: “his unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”
But even in the much-publicized rebellion of the young against the materialism of the affluent society, the consumer mentality is too often still intact: the standards of behavior are still those of kind and quantity, the security sought is still the security of numbers, and the chief motive is still the consumer’s anxiety that he is missing out on what is “in.” In this state of total consumerism – which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.
This concludes my list of influences. Of course the most important influences in my life have come from real relationships that I have had (my wife, family, friends), but in all likelihood, you have no idea who those people are and do not have access to their thoughts. So for that reason, I kept them off this list.
I hope you check out some of the writings, films, speeches/sermons, etc. of the people on this list. This is by no means a comprehensive list. I am young, and I am sure that I will have many more influences in my life. But as for now, these people have been very important to me in my growth as a man, and I really feel strongly that they have important messages for our society.
Please feel free to comment with people that have influenced you!