Rod Dreher asks which three books we’d use to introduce Christianity–in at least a few of its many catastrophic forms–to an open-minded reader seeking religious literacy, not conversion. You should check out his post for a better sense of what he’s talking about. I pictured the ideal reader as a well-meaning American secular journalist, from a background much like my own only a lot less Jewish, who wants to know how to write fairly about Christians in the news.
EDITED: Having read a bit more of what Dreher is responding to, the conversation he’s in, I see why he is focusing on theological concepts, which I determinedly eschewed. So I’m not anti-catechesis here, but I focused more on highlighting ways in which Christianity remains weird–especially the weirdnesses which are easy for contemporary well-fed Americans like myself to miss–and a lot of those ways aren’t best exposed through theology.
I fully grant that a) it’s impossible to write a list like this for an abstraction! Don’t take this as the reading list I’d suggest to you personally, if I know you!, b) books are not how this kind of understanding generally happens or should happen, and this kind of understanding is not all that important if it doesn’t go further, and also c) this kind of post is always about the self-image of the one posting at least as much as it’s about the question supposedly being answered. NONETHELESS here’s my list with some reasoning:
1. Brideshead Revisited. This captures the conscious, often studied sense Catholics have (in the US and also some other places, so I hear) that we are exotic outsiders; it emphasizes the meaning of suffering, the sometimes infuriatingly childlike nature of the faith, and the way that Catholic/Christian arguments don’t really track with modern categories of thought. Also, I think there’s something painfully Christian in the way Sebastian reflexively divides people into “sweet” or “strict”: not really kind vs. unkind, but merciful vs. just, with neither term being negative and both of them, at times, being hard to bear. (I think that’s Sebastian. Can’t quite remember.)
2. The Brothers Karamazov. This one isn’t first just because it’s so long. But it has children and suffering again, and mutual incomprehension between secular and Christian worldviews, and it breaks your heart and is also very funny.
3.Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Christianity vs. America; also this list needs some poverty and prison.
I think these books hit on areas where a) the Christian worldview is either obviously divergent from received American wisdom or b) surface similarities, for example those between secular liberalism and Christianity (including Christian leftism), mask major underlying divergences. It seems that what I’m trying to do with all of these choices is make evident how weird Christianity is even in a culture whose conventional wisdom has been deeply shaped by it (and by the rejection of orthodox Christianity).
ALTERNATIVES A.K.A. COPOUTS: De Profundis (list needs something by a prisoner, esp if it’s for an American audience; Wilde is relentlessly focused on the character of Christ and so should you be!; guilt, shame, and self-justification); Cavalier’s Therese (more suffering); Chesterton’s biography of St Francis, which I booted in favor of Dorothy Day mostly because Day is explicitly political; The Imitation of Christ but that is maybe too scary to start with; and I initially wanted to be a jackass and say that my three books were The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross, but then I decided to attempt to be a person instead. Also I know I just read these and have been talking about them nonstop, but I don’t think Gilead and Home would be a bad pair to add to this kind of list, and I failed to get in any other Protestants largely due to my own ignorance.