Lucas Rice came to Georgetown College with two years of academic credit. He wanted to study at Oxford University, so he signed up for a tutorial with me. The subject was History of Christian Thought, and the syllabus of reading began with Tertullian and ended with Tillich. He read each book, wrote an essay, and came to see me every other week; we talked about it, and he moved on to the next book. He was a good student, and I enjoyed the dialogue.
Two years after his graduation, he called to say, “I’m getting married. Will you come to the wedding?”
When and where, I asked. It was a summer wedding, if I recall, at St. Michaels Orthodox Church in Louisville, which I do remember because of what followed.
“So, you are marrying an orthodox girl?” I asked.
“Yes and no” He replied. “She is my high school sweetheart from southern Illinois.” I knew that meant she had grown up in the same Baptist culture he had.
“We have both converted to Orthodoxy,” he explained, then continued, “I am entering the Orthodox ministry and will matriculate at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York.”
“Wow,” I said, thoroughly surprised. “Where did this come from?”
I was not prepared for what he said next, but surely it is the most wonderful thing a student could ever say to a teacher.
“You know that book you gave me to read?” he asked, then continued: “The Orthodox Faith by John of Damascus. When I read the book, I discovered myself.”
I had no idea of the impact of that book on his life. But I certainly knew how reading a book, a single book, the right book, can have a transformational effect. It happened to me once upon a time.
Several times, in fact. Minorly, with Les Misérables, Mere Christianity, and Historical Geography of the Holy Land. But majorly with volume two of James William McClendon’s trilogy of Christian theology. It is called Doctrine and follows Ethics and precedes Witness. It came to my attention during the Baptist battles that commenced in 1979 and did not die down sometime after 1990. It was a struggle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention and focused on the identity and mission of Baptists. I was a student at the premiere center of Baptist learning in all the world, a wonderful place of intellectual vigor and exploration. My teachers were the best, especially the late, great Dale Moody, without peer among theologians in the world of Baptists.
But not even his big book, The Word of Truth, could address my discontent about my Baptist heritage and identity.
Then came McClendon, and his peculiar way of being a little b baptist. When I read his book, I discovered myself: as a believer, as a baptist, as a minister, and as a theologian. It was published in 1994, and I was 45 when I read it, already ordained, doctored, and installed as pastor of a small Baptist congregation in Pittsburgh.
One book is enough to make all the difference. Here are two of us with just that sort of testimony.
Make that three.
His name is Worth Baker, and I led the dedication service when he was born; I was pastor to his family in Owensboro, Kentucky. Years later he transferred into the University of Louisville to prepare for their dental school. He must have been the talk of the campus: every day dressed in a kilt; curly, red hair flowing half way down his back; an exquisite handle with ornate silver blade protruding from his book pack; all adorning the most winsome, sweetly disposed student on campus. He must have been curiosity number one.
My daughter Kate, his one-time baby sitter, asked him once: “Worth, where did all this come: this kilt, the hair, the fascination with Medieval-looking knives, this calling to create these unique knives?
“I will tell you,” he replied. “Your dad!”
“My dad?” she replied, incredulous.
“Yes,” Worth explained. “It all started when he handed me a book, The Hobbit.”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” I quoted from memory when years later Kate told me the story. One of the great opening lines in all western literature.
Yes, introducing a book capable of taking the reader in a whole new direction. Such is the power of books, the right book, a single book. Thanks be to God.