Tom Oden was a natural born reader. In his undergraduate days at the University of Oklahoma, he loved “those early delicious days of free-spirited reading.” “I spent hours at Rickner’s Book Store, looking for whatever new or used books I could afford. I devoted endless hours to wandering freely around the open stacks of the great Bizzell Library, the largest research library in the state.” The library was an enchanted, “magical” learning space for Tom. “I was a happy bookworm feasting through long rows of shelves.” Not all the food offered to Tom in Bizzell library, though, would sustain him.

Tom was to learn that what we read, the books we turn to for making sense out of Reality, can nourish life or starve it. We can choose freely to welcome wise guides or foolish mentors. Tom found this out the hard way. In his effort to make sense out of human history, he “was particularly drawn to the agnostics and atheists, partly to let them test my belief system, which they did.”

Tom immersed his mind in the thoughts of three key writers, absorbing from them ideas he later would have to unlearn. Who were they? Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx. Tom found Nietzsche “to be the most poetic and rhetorically powerful of all the philosophers,” until he later discovered the work of Soren Kierkegaard. Sigmund Freud “forced me to question everything I had learned beforehand about psychological dynamics, abnormality, dreams and sexuality.” Yet it was Karl Marx who “stormed” into Tom’s “imagination, especially on the labor theory of value, the class struggle and economic determination in history.”

Only later in Tom’s life did he recognize the cracks in Marx’s thinking—and in the thought and behavior of those who imbibed him deeply. Marx’s errors gradually became “evident in the sad histories of their disastrous consequences, as in Ukraine, the Gulags and Cambodia.” Still, In the early years of Tom’s journey, he describes himself as a “Marxist utopian dreamer.” It would be ten years before Tom began to discern “the vulnerabilities of Marxist theories. As I looked back, it was full of flawed arguments, but they were central to my thoughts in the fifties. I let their words saturate my mind before I went to seminary, and they remained in my mind like a ghost well beyond my years at Yale.”

Nietzsche taught Tom that “the will to power” was the key to the meaning and dynamics of human life; Freud insisted that all human behavior could be reduced “to its sexual roots.” And Marx claimed that only economics determined the direction of human history. These thinkers and philosophies appeared elegant, deep, and perceptive to Tom, the “prototypes” of what he later identified as the heart and core of “modernity.” For over twenty years they guided the direction of Tom’s thinking and life. Ideas have legs.

“Between 1945-1965, every turn I made was a left turn. When I decided to go to theological school, it wasn’t because I was strongly committed to the biblical message, but to the hope that the church could be an effective message of social change.” As time passed, though, Tom was increasingly concerned as he discerned the fruit of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx’s thinking on his own life and that of his friends. Reality weighed in on him. “By 1968 I could see the tremendous harm caused by sexual experimentation—even among my friends. I could also see their lives being torn up by family disintegration and mind-altering drugs. The wonderful world they thought they were creating was simply turning to dust, ashes, and pain—enormous pain.”

It is both sobering and enlightening to ponder the effect ideas have on the minds and behaviors of God’s image-bearers. Good books and wise ideas challenge, nourish, heal, restore, renew. From the perspective of the church fathers Tom came to know well, when image-bearers read well, guided by trustworthy teachers, the happy result is astute, sound living, lives that concretely manifest ever-deepening love for God and neighbor.

And the result of a bad book or corrupt idea? The undermining of human life and the evisceration of love, with dry, dusty, hollow lives the miserable outcome. As Dallas Willard—who was later to become a close friend of Tom—writes: “To depart from righteousness is to choose a life of crushing burdens, failures, and disappointments, a life caught in the toils of endless problems that are never resolved. Here is the source of that unending soap opera, that sometimes horror show known as normal human life.”

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