Monday, February 6, 2017

Five People

Question: If you could have a small dinner party with five people (living or dead) who have impacted your faith deeply (who aren't from the Bible) who would you invite?

It's a trivial question of no lasting import and, yet, when I thought of it, I began to ponder just who would be the three I invited. This was difficult since there have been so many writers, poets and theologians who have impacted and shaped my beliefs. There are the saints (Francis, Therese, Teresa, Ignatius), then there are the great minds (Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Soren Kierkegaard,Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, Abraham Heschel), poets (William Blake, George Herbert, John Donne, T.S. Eliot), authors (Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, Dostoevsky), artists (Van Gogh), singers (Rich Mullins, Sara Groves, Audrey Assad, Sandra McCracken, Carrie Newcomer), spiritual writers (Dallas Willard. Richard J. Foster, Walter Brueggemann) and so forth. Like setting out a table on who should sit next to whom, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again and again the list in my head. 

Yes, I would love to invite Emily Dickinson, but she wouldn't come and would it be right of me to even ask? Because I love and respect her privacy so much, I would never dare intrude upon her. (Yes, I literally thought this as I composed my list of imaginary invitations).

Would G.K. Chesterton or George MacDonald be invited? Henri Nouwen? Frederick Buechner? Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (language would not be a barrier for this dinner party because, at this imaginary one, all would be able to understand each other as if we were inside the Doctor's TARDIS). Kathleen Norris? Social justice activists like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day? What about Anne Lamott? Eugene Peterson?

What if I could make the list more than just five? Why not? It was my imaginary dinner party, right? But if I do that, then will I continue to keep adding new names as they occur to me? And you know how much stress you feel when you invite people to your home as it is . . . 

No. Five is the number. It stays at five. 

But who would my five be?

Here is my list and the reasons I chose them:

One of the greatest Christian minds was that of C.S. Lewis. His works have had a huge impact on so many and one cannot cite influential Christians without him being on that list. Yet, I chose Lewis for a more personal reason: The Chronicles of Narnia. I cannot stress how important that series was in creating a love for reading in me. I read and reread those books repeatedly as a child. I recall the absolute disappointment I felt when I discovered that the closet in my house did not lead to another, more magical world no matter how much I called out for Aslan. Nor did it abate as I pestered my mother to buy me an actual wardrobe so that I could at least have a fighting chance to test and see if that would open to Narnia. It was Narnia where I discovered that theology could be deftly worked into literature and that he made me long for a world beyond this one. It was Narnia that would open the door to his other works like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces. I also hoped that he would add his intelligence and his humor to the conversation as he once did with the Inklings. 

It should come as no surprise then, that the second person I would invite would be another author I discovered in childhood but who has never ever left me. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time had nearly as big an impact on me as Narnia. This work made me see the universe as something bigger, grander and more miraculous. She opened me to the theology of science. Like Lewis, L'Engle's children's literature would be a gateway into her adult works, especially her Crosswicks Journals. All of her writing has a gentle wisdom that has strengthened my faith. She is a person of questions and, more importantly, the insight to realize the answers weren't as necessary. 

My next guest was someone who's work I didn't discover until I was in college. Flannery O'Connor's short stories were like nothing I had ever read before as she dealt with the "Christ-haunted South." If anyone understood "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" it was Flannery. Her short stories, her novels (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away) and her nonfiction (Mystery and Manners, Habit of Being, A Prayer Journal) have deepened not only my appreciation of her writing ability but also my faith. I appreciate her honesty, her sly wit, and her insights on faith that show how theologically sophisticated she really was. I know that she could be both shy and sharp-tongued, so I definitely think she could bring a lot to this dinner party.

I was completely unprepared for what I encountered the first time I read A Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek after a friend recommended it to me. This is one of those books that profoundly changed how I looked at the natural world around me. Since then, I devoured everything that Annie Dillard has ever written. She is the only one on this list who I have actually met and had a short conversation with.  She is a theologian, naturalist, and a deep reader and thinker. And it shows in her writing which can cover a wide variety of subjects: literature, geology, natural history, poetry and theology. How could I not invite someone with that kind of intelligence and breadth of interests? 

Last on my list is an author and essayist whose work I did not encounter until well after I was out of college and was working in a bookstore and a customer suggested I read Housekeeping. Yet it was Marilynne Robinson's trilogy of books (Gilead, Home, and Lila) that blew me away with her ability to work theology (Calvinism, no less) into novels in such a way that was beautiful, profound, moving and real art. I would, even later, discover her essay collections (The Death of Adam, When I Was a Child I Read Books, The Givenness of Things) that I saw what a brilliant mind she had and the persuasive intellect that she brought to her work. If all of this wasn't enough, I read the interview that President Obama did with her (Robinson is one of his favorite authors). Here's a link to that interview:

It was only after I had completed my list that I realized I had only invited one male (Lewis) and, while it would not bother me in the least, I wasn't sure about ol' Lewis. Since it was my imaginary dinner party, I knew that it wouldn't and that all of my guests would bring a lively discussion to the table. Each of them has expanded my thought process in terms of how I see the world, others and God. All five of these people are questioners, thinkers and damn fine writers. Each one would be a great person to share a meal and a conversation with. I only hoped that I could keep up, though at such a dinner party, I would be thrilled to just sit there and listen. What would they say if all five of these people were in a room together?

Someday, in heaven, I hope that I really can have these five people over for a dinner party. The reader in me believes that to spend time in the company of such splendid conversationalists and writers would be heaven.

That's the five people I would invite, but how about you?  

Who would make your list and for what reasons? 

Please comment or post it on your own blog and then add a link in the comments.


  1. This is such a great post -- and list! As I read it I kept wondering, do the characteristics that make someone a great writer also make them a great dinner guest? I think I would be kind of intimidated by some of these people, especially if they arrived all grumpy and taciturn, as I expect some of them would :)

    I really have to think awhile longer about my own list. I think it would include Henri Nouwen (his writing has influenced me greatly, and I think he'd be such an engaging, interesting conversationalist and listener) and Father Greg Boyle (he could share stories from his book Tattoos on the Heart and bring us all to tears and laughter) -- but I'm not sure who else. Thanks for getting me thinking, though.

  2. I have pondered this question before and I love hearing others' responses. I would pick: C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, Jane Austen, Hannah Moore, and Dorthea Dix. If I had an extra chair, it would be Louisa May Alcott. Clever comment about Emily Dickinson.