An invitation to an argument: ’25 Books Every Christian Should Read’

Renovaré has a new book out that seems designed to start an argument. It’s called 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, and it’s just what it sounds like — an introduction to 25 classic works of Christian writing, with excerpts from each and short essays arguing for why these selections are worth reading.

As with all such lists — think of those AFI lists, or those lists of “the best novels,” or NPR’s recent list of 100 science fiction books — part of the fun is the inevitable argument over which books should be included.

In this case, that argument ought to be a gentle one, seeing as these books are mostly classics of devotional literature whose most avid partisans ought to reflect the spirit of those books. One assumes that two friends with passionate opinions about, for example, the relative merits of The Practice of the Presence of God versus The Seven Storey Mountain would conduct their dispute in a manner that would make Brother Lawrence and Thomas Merton proud.

The Renovaré folks recognize this aspect of their project, and they see the fun in it, so they’ve structured their book to accommodate and encourage such discussion. Sprinkled throughout 25 Books are dozens of additional recommendations, including additional lists from a variety of interesting people — lists of their five favorites, or the six books they found most inspiring, or “Seven Books Those Idiots at Renovaré Unforgivably Failed to Include.” (No list is titled quite that explicitly, of course, but the editors are smart enough to realize that this is what many readers will inevitably be thinking.)

Patheos is also helping to continue that friendly argument with a book club forum on 25 Books.

The main list is a good one. I’ve read maybe half of these and am at least familiar with the rest, thanks in part to having been introduced to some of them years ago by a similar, earlier Renovaré publication called Devotional Classics. The excerpts, like the titles listed, are well-chosen, and the short essays make a good case for these entries.

The overall sense one gets from 25 Books is that of having an earnest, bookish friend enthusiastically pressing a stack of books into your lap and encouraging you to read them. Such enthusiasm — even from a stranger — is bound to nudge those titles higher in your mental queue of Books to Read Someday. But the weight we give such recommendations depends upon the friend making them. If it’s someone we trust and regard with affection, admiration and affinity, then the book may move to the top of the queue — even to the top of the nightstand.

So how much weight should we give to this stack of recommendations from Renovaré? That answer will depend, largely, on what one thinks of their list.

So let’s take a look at that list, and please let’s do have the friendly argument it’s bound to provoke.

Here is Renovaré’s list, followed by my suggested amendments, additions, etc.

  1. On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius
  2. Confessions, St. Augustine
  3. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
  4. The Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict
  5. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  6. The Cloud of Unknowing
  7. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
  8. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
  9. The Philokalia
  10. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin
  11. The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila
  12. Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross
  13. Pensées, Blaise Pascal
  14. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  15. The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence
  16. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law
  17. The Way of a Pilgrim
  18. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  19. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
  20. The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  21. The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  22. A Testament of Devotion, Thomas R. Kelly
  23. The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
  24. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  25. The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri J.M. Nouwen

These are all worthy books and you won’t be wasting your time with any of them, but I’m not sure all of them belong in a short list of “essential spiritual classics.”

The Divine Comedy, for example, is one of the greatest human achievements in all of literature. You must read this before you die. Everyone should. But it’s not really a spiritual classic.

And if we’re only to have two poets in this list, must the other one be Hopkins? (My list of poets to include in this list would start with Emily Dickinson, Donne, Blake and Auden, and would probably go on for a bit longer before I got to Hopkins.) In general, I prefer poets to the sort of flat earnestness one encounters in a lot of the sort of writing that’s often regarded as “spiritual” or “devotional” — a category into which I’d lump several of the saintly works listed above, as well as some of the more recent entries there. “Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear, / And the rocks melt wi’ the sun!” strikes me as richer than “I really, really, really, really love you, very, very much” and that applies whether the object of love is human or divine.

Calvin’s Institutes is, again, a worthy and vastly influential book that every Christian ought to encounter and engage. It’s also a massive, sprawling book that I don’t think every Christian should or even could read in its entirety. Calvin wrote it in a great rush at a standing desk next to an open window in the winter so that he could work late into the night without falling asleep. I needed a similar arrangement to keep awake while reading it. I’m not saying Calvin doesn’t belong in a list like this one, just that the Institutes is not the best place to start. When you want to introduce readers to Joyce, you give them Dubliners or Portrait — you don’t hand them a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and say, “Good luck.”

If we’re going to include C.S. Lewis here, then let’s go with The Screwtape Letters, which is funnier, more insightful and a better crafted bit of writing than Mere Christianity (which is also a valuable book, but the reader can tell it began as a series of radio lectures that was later cobbled together).

The additional lists in 25 Books and an appendix on contemporary authors mention many of the writers or titles I would want to add to the list above: The Journal of John Woolman, Gustavo Gutiérrez’ A Theology of Liberation, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and the letters of Flannery O’Connor, and various works by N.T. Wright, Anne Lamott and Wendell Berry.

What else to add? The formidably clear-eyed Annie Dillard, for one — Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Holy the Firm (all three — they’re short). And some Graham Greene — The Power and the Glory or Monsignor Quixote. Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, Frederick Buechner’s Alphabet of Grace, and some Kathleen Norris (take your pick) and some Reinhold Niebuhr (who doesn’t seem very “devotional,” unless you’re a sinner — no one writes more clearly about what that means).

And then two more that I think are the most glaring and egregious omissions: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and essays. This is a book published in America and primarily for American Christians, and no one should attempt to understand the current shape of American Christianity without confronting how it came to be shaped that way. At some point, that means encountering Frederick Douglass. And any conversation that includes the phrase “Every Christian Should Read” also needs, somewhere, to include the phrase “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I’m sure I’m also forgetting many things that unquestionably belong in this list. And I’m sure someone will remind me of what those are in comments below. I hope so, anyway, because I can’t enjoy the fun of a friendly argument by myself.

Update: I like the approach Carl Gregg takes to 25 Books — working his way through the list and recommending alternates for each title. Let me follow his example by suggesting a substitute for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

That’s a great book and Bonhoeffer was an exceptional, heroic saint. But that’s also the problem with our cult of esteem for Bonhoeffer. Instead of viewing him as exceptional, we pretend that his exceptional courage in the moral crucible of the Holocaust is how we would have behaved as well. We vicariously congratulate Christianity in general, and ourselves in particular, by imagining that his response was typical of how the church responded to the Holocaust. But his response was far from typical. We turn Bonhoeffer into something like the white protagonists of films like Mississippi Burning or Cry Freedom — it’s a way of reassuring ourselves or absolving ourselves without having to confront the reality of evil and our complicity in it.

As a reminder of that, and as an antidote to the self-congratulatory temptation of pretending we were all Bonhoeffer in a past life, let me recommend We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch. Christian faith plays almost no role in the horrifying story Gourevitch recounts, although many of the figures involved were Christians. Christians were among the victims, among the rescuers, among the resistance, among the genocidaires, among the collaborators. And Christians were among the millions who stood by, frozen, and watched it all unfold without intervening.

  • eyelessgame

    I am sadly unfamiliar with many of the names on the list, but your mention of the omission of King and Douglass raises the question: are there, in fact, any authors of color on that list at all?

  • Anonymous

    Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. As an agnostic, her non-fiction drives me crazy, but her novels- especially Gilead- are full of a spiritual vitality I’ve not encountered elsewhere.

  • kittehonmylap

    I’m not going to argue that this should be in the top 25, but Walking On Water by Madeline L’Engle is fabulous. (Some of the “evidence” she gives for some of her postulates is bunk, but generally it’s amazing.)

  • cjmr

    eyelessgame–Some of the Desert Fathers were probably ‘people of color’ but not what Americans mean by ‘people of color’.

    I’m pleasantly startled by the huge number of Catholic writings on the list.

  • Heartfout

    I have…issues with Mere Christianity. Mainly because although it is a well written book, the arguments within it are fairly poor, and frequently rely on the conclusion that God exists as a starting point, or else making a jump from `We don’t know` to `God exists` without consideration of other options (and when he does consider them, he generally does a poor job of it).

    The last chapters particularly have a number of things that annoy me, such as his claim that being a Christian must make you a better person, and that if a non-believer seems better than a Christian, then think how much more better he would be with Jesus!

    Yet, for some reason, I am repeatedly told by people attempting to convert me to read it. Perhaps others find it convincing. I’m not sure.

  • Lawrence E

    When I saw Julian of Norwich on the list, I was looking forward to your opinion – in an English class about medieval conceptions of sin, her Revelations of Divine Love were in many ways the brightest light. It’s a powerfully sincere narrative that uncompromisingly insists that God’s love is more powerful than any doctrinal considerations. It’s still a bit radical on the topic, actually, and for the time it was unheard of. A difficult read, but a beautiful one.

  • kittehonmylap

    @cmjr:disqus - the Catholics had between 500-1500 extra years to get started (depending on when you count the Catholic church as having started, i.e. whose version of the Great Schism you listen to), plus a significant portion of Protestantism’s history has been identified with, at best, a discomfort with intellectualism starting in, oh, the 2nd Great Awakening? I’d also like to see some John Wesley mentioned, though (bad Methodist) I don’t know which one to recommend. 
    And isn’t the Blessed African Doctor theoretically a PoC, despite how he’s usually depicted?

  • kittehonmylap

    Frakking hell. I misspelled your name, @cjmr. My apologies. 

  • http://vicwelle.wordpress.com victoria

    Dorothy Day is sadly missing from the list.  Though i would shy away from the obvious choice of her autobiography (“The Long Loneliness”) and go with something like the “Selected Writings” edited by Robert Ellsberg, or (also edited by Ellsberg) her recently published diaries “The Duty of Delight.”

    I think including Gutierrez is a good move, but his “Theology of Liberation” can be a tough first book for introducing people to his work.  I much prefer his book “The God of Life” as a more accessible primer on liberation theology. 

  • Lori

     Yet, for some reason, I am repeatedly told by people attempting to convert me to read it. Perhaps others find it convincing. I’m not sure.  

     

    My impression is that Mere Christianity is very convincing—to people who are already convinced. It may be fair to consider it a devotional classic*, but as an evangelism tool it’s seriously lacking. It’s just one of those things where it’s difficult for someone inside to see through the eyes of those on the outside. 

    *I can’t really offer an opinion one way or another. The tradition in which I was raised is quite insular in it’s spiritual reading. My father was a full time minister for over 40 years. My BIL has been in full time ministry off and on for more than 25. I doubt either of them have read more than a couple of the books on this list and I wasn’t encouraged to read them growing up. (I’ve read a couple, but in other contexts, for other reasons.) These days, of course, I am totally not the target audience for a list like this. 

  • sumeria

    My impression is that Mere Christianity is very convincing—to people who are already convinced. It may be fair to consider it a devotional classic*, but as an evangelism tool it’s seriously lacking. It’s just one of those things where it’s difficult for someone inside to see through the eyes of those on the outside.

    I certaintly couldn’t deny that that’s true– but there is something else, as well.  I think it’s an argument that’s convincing to a certain kind of intellectual fantasist.  It is, I think, Lewis’ attempt to recreate in argument format the ideas which persuaded him to adopt Christianity.  And I am reminded also of his forward in his book The Pilgrim’s Regress which I quite liked, where he commented that in writing it, he thought he was doccumenting a very common way people converted into Christianity and only upon seeing the very lackluster and confused response to the book did he begin to suspect that the experiences and arguments which persuaded him were not at all the norm, as it were.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    If I were going to recommend a list of 25 books every Christian should read, which I’m not because I’m no authority on what anyone should do, I’d recommend 25 books about other religions. I’d do the same for 25 books every Muslim should read – 25 books about religions other than Islam, and for 25 books every Buddhist should read - 25 books about religions other than Buddhism, etc.

    But then, as I said, I wouldn’t make such lists, because every time I see language like “25 books every Christian should read” my automatic unspoken addendum is “Or else what?” 

  • Anonymous

    The Divine Comedy has rather too much “people I don’t like in Hell” for my taste.  I also came away with the impression that Dante didn’t really believe in the forgiveness of sins.  Even apart from that, the people tended to be very tied to that time and place.  You literally need a guide to late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian politics to make sense of it.

    My vote for this slot would go to Paradise Lost.  This may be my Anglophone prejudice showing, but it seems to me much more timeless.  It’s main flaw is that Milton ran out of steam quite a bit before he got to the end.  Most of it is brilliant, but too much of the rest feels phoned in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marchantshapiro Andrew Abrams Marchant-Shapiro

    I’d definitely put Screwtape on that list.  And maybe Ray Bradbury’s story (I can’t recall the title–perhaps “The Man”?) about the starship captain who chases a messiah from world to world, never to realize that he’s missed him entirely.  Maybe even something like Stranger in a Strange Land or Tommy, though those are way beyond the left field wall.

    When I was younger, I read everything–Narnia, Dostoyevsky, the works.  But ultimately I think Erasmus had the better view.  According to the biography of Martin Luther _Here_I_Stand_, Erasmus’s patron saint was the thief on the cross “because he was saved with a minimum of theology.” 

    My problem with lists like this is that I don’t see any of them as “essential.”  But I may be confusing ‘essential’ and ‘fundamental.’  Personally, I like Coleslaw’s idea…

  • http://twitter.com/Fletchathustra Fletcher Wortmann

    I might suggest “Til We Have Faces” Instead of “Mere Christianity” or “Screwtape.”  That might just be me being a C.S. Lewis hipster, though, and going with the more obscure work.

    In terms of recent fiction, Quarantine by Jim Crace is terrific, and all the more remarkable for being written by an atheist.  

  • Lori

     But then, as I said, I wouldn’t make such lists, because every time I see language like “25 books every Christian should read” my automatic unspoken addendum is “Or else what?”  

    Yeah, this is unfortunate implication of “should”. Of course a book called 25 Books That Might Be of Interest to a Great Many Christians or 25 Books That Christians Might Want To Consider Reading or such like is not going to sell many copes. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/marchantshapiro Andrew Abrams Marchant-Shapiro

    I left one out that I’d definitely want on there, though it’s more about culture than it is about spirituality:  _A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz_

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    When I was 12 or so, the sisters in Little Women had so much fun reading and role-playing The Pilgrim’s Progress that I thought I would like it as much as they did.

    Boy was I wrong.

    Though looking back as an adult, there’s an interesting study on literary styles lurking there – Little Women was written when novels were in transition to the form we’re familiar with today, but it’s written about people who read the older style. It’s easy to look back at those older books and think “dry and difficult” but obviously the people of the time didn’t think so.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, this is unfortunate implication of “should”. Of course a book called 25 Books That Might Be of Interest to a Great Many Christians or 25 Books That Christians Might Want To Consider Reading or such like is not going to sell many copes.

    More or less. It’s more 25 Books About Christianity that Christians Like to Look At. A quick example of what I think 25 books every Christian should read would look radically different.

    1. Kapital, Karl Marx
    2. A History of Sexuality, Michelle Foucault
    3. The  Qur’an
    5. Metamorphosis, Ovid
    6. The Avesta
    7. Beloved, Toni Morrison
    8. Promethea, Alan Moore
    9. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
    10. Prayers for Bobby, Leroy F. Aarons
    11. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
    12. The 1001 Nights
    13. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
    14. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
    15. Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
    16. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
    17. Macbeth, Shakespeare
    15. “It’s a Good Life,” Jerome Bixby
    16. The Divine Comedy, Dante
    17. The Lais, Marie de France
    18. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
    19. 1984, George Orwell
    20. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer

    And the final five spots would be taken up by up-to-date books on biology, climatology, geology, astronomy, and dinosaurs.

    Of course this is just off the top of my head. Although I could make a claim about how each of these books is important as some sort of critical thinking exorcise with regards to Christianity.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Something far more modern and, well, shocking to the system: Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau’s Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible.

    I remember sitting at a wrought iron table outside a restaurant on the sidewalk in Wheaton, IL reading the chapter on Exodus across from the GARB pastor’s daughter I desperately wanted to love and respect me.  She, in turn, desperately wanted to think of herself as being a rebel and a non-conformist.

    The Exodus chapter hinged upon the author being excited to read her part at the Passover dinner, then reading the chunk about how god killed all the firstborn of Egypt and realizing, “Wait, that could have been me in a different story.”  It was, to me, a beautiful, thoughtful passage with the emotional impact of a sledgehammer.  So I read the section out loud, hoping to share and discuss.

    As I read the section her eyes narrowed.  By the time I was done there was no room for discussion.  All she wanted to know was how I could read such a thing and appreciate it.

    I think every Christian should confront the questions raised by that and so many other sections of Killing the Buddha.

  • Anonymous

    At the risk of being a bit too quippy, I’d like to see the Bible on the list. (Particularly in ancient Greek and Hebrew.) Because, honestly, all too often, people haven’t.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    But then, as I said, I wouldn’t make such lists, because every time I see language like “25 books every Christian should read” my automatic unspoken addendum is “Or else what?”

    My assumption was always, “Or else you’ll be woefully unknowledgeable about your own religion.”  Or your own state or your own country, or whatever is in the place of “Christian”.

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  • Anonymous

    As far as recent fiction goes, I’d like to add Nation by Terry Pratchett.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I heard that was selling for an absurdly low price.  So if anyone wants it, now is probably as good a time as you’re likely to get.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    Oh, is that all. I think I’ll live. 

    Of course, it’s always possible that I know things that the list maker doesn’t. Stranger things have been known to happen.

  • http://profiles.google.com/peter.svedman Peter Svedman

    Interesting list. Most of those books are ones that should be required reading for everyone, christian or not. 

  • Will Hennessy

    I suppose I’m biased as an English major, but I’m happy to see Divine Comedy up there, and my justification for it is to acknowledge how much of our theology of “Hell” came from that book as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, THE BIBLE. Alongside it, I’d probably put Milton’s Paradise Lost, but again, English major bias…

  • Keromaru

    “My assumption was always, “Or else you’ll be woefully unknowledgeable about your own religion.”  Or your own state, or your own people, or your own country, or whatever is in the place of “Christian”.”
    This is my sense, too.  And it’s why I kind of prefer Renovare’s list to Carl Gregg’s.  I’ve read some of Gregg’s suggestions, and liked them, but I got a deeper appreciation for my religion by looking at the historical books.  The books on Gregg’s list helped me question and analyze the faith, but these books showed where it actually comes from.  Which is something I feel is lacking in modern Protestantism: it’s divorced from tradition, and lacks spiritual and historical perspective.

    Now, my suggestions:

    Instead of the entire Philokalia, which is a rather big series of books, I’d suggest a specific volume: Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart.  It collects the writings specifically mentioned in The Way of a Pilgrim, the ones which deal most directly with the Jesus Prayer.

    And to help give the Philokalia and Pilgrim some context, and expose people to a different side of church history, I’d include The Orthodox Church by Bp. Timothy/Kallistos Ware, as well as Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.”

    And finally: Dynamics of Faith, by Paul Tillich, which helped well and truly steer me toward apophatic theology and Christian mysticism.

  • Conscience

    I’m not a fan of the Divine Comedy: I attempted to read it a while back, but was annoyed by Dante’s name dropping and rather juvenile attempt to answer his critics by saying “Oh yeah? If Virgil were alive today he’d think I’m cool!” so I put it back. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.condrey Steve Condrey

    I’d substitute Plato’s Republic for the Qu’ran.  As important as the Qu’ran is, one could scarcely include it without also including the Mahayana Sutras, the Tao Te Qing, etc.  An understanding of Plato, on the other hand, would go far in helping Christians understand the intellectual hertiage that has shaped their own beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    I actually found Pilgrim’s Progressto be surprisingly readable, but I read it as an adult, so that may have made a difference. I don’t think I would have been jumping up and down saying, “Goody, Goody” if someone had given it to me as a child. The book I expected to like and never could make my way through more than a few pages of was a compilation of the love letters of Abelard and Heloise. I may still have that one around the house somewhere.

    Although back in the 80′s, I thought a modern version of the Abelard and Heloise story might make a good movie, with Heloise running Pete Abelard’s spa/self-actualization center for him even after their divorce (he claimed she emasculated him), until her kids pack her off to a Co-Dependant’s Anonymous seminar.

  • Anonymous

    I loved The Divine Comedy — well, wait.  I loved The Inferno.  I also liked Purgatory for the most part.  Heaven was boring, but there’s not really much you can do with people flying around talking about how awesome (in all senses of the word) God is.  It was like a really stodgy reception with Beatrice and Dante making small talk with the souls the whole time.  “And you are?  And how did you get here?  Thank you, that’s very interesting.”

    I love the imagery of The Inferno, but I agree there are things about Dante’s cosmology that seriously irk.  Specifically, the problem of Limbo.  I know Purgatory is supposed to be about Dante’s progression upwards, but every time I read it, my heart breaks for Virgil.  Virgil who was drawn out of hell to guide Dante upwards, but who cannot make the same journey himself because he was born too early.  He’ll eternally be denied God’s presence because of timing and because apparently you can’t repent or convert or whatever in Hell.  (Oh, unless you’re an Old Testament character, in which case Jesus collects you personally.)  Just.  Grrr.  And when Dante-the-character wonders about how fair that is, the answer he gets is more or less, “Don’t ask me, that’s the way it works.”  I appreciate the scope and depth of Dante’s work, but it annoys the frak out of me that he brings up this major flaw and then shrugs it off.

    Paradise Lost is also problematic, although I haven’t thought about it as much.  It does the whole “Eve is so winsome and innocent and about as smart as a can of tuna” thing plus Milton inadvertently makes Satan a much more interesting character than anybody else.  It’s almost like he forgot which side he was on.

    I think Good Omens should be on this list, as well as Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods.  If the reader doesn’t get why they have to re-read it until they understand.

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t read that entire list of 25, but the parts I have read are generally the prime examples of their respective subgenres. (For instance, Julian of Norwich is strictly better as a theologian and writer, and significantly more credible from a skeptical perspective, than the other medieval female mystics, while covering much of the same subject matter.) In particular, The Brothers Karamazov deserves its spot for more than the ten pages everybody remembers. There’s a lot in there about living faith, miracles, self-awareness, and acceptance that is underappreciated because it’s more interwoven with the plot.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting list. Most of those books are ones that should be required reading for everyone, christian or not.

    I agree. When you sit there and think “what do Christians specifically need to hear?” you are going to wind up with a lot of classics of literature that everyone needs to hear.

    Broadly when I was writing it I thought of a few categories that seemed of paramount importance and then filled in the list with examples from them. Specifically the categories were:

    1. Science
    2. Politics and Economics
    3. Feminist writing
    4. The African American Experience
    5. The Gay Experience
    6. Islam
    7. Alternative Religious Perspectives and Alternative Moral Perspectives

    I’m sure there are some categories I just didn’t think of, but these seem to me to be the big issues that Christians (Americans, and, well, everyone) need to examine and consider in depth.

  • Andrew Galley

    Albert Camus’ The Plague. 

    Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.

  • Anonymous

    I’d substitute Plato’s Republic for the Qu’ran.  As important as the Qu’ran is, one could scarcely include it without also including the Mahayana Sutras, the Tao Te Qing, etc.  An understanding of Plato, on the other hand, would go far in helping Christians understand the intellectual hertiage that has shaped their own beliefs.

    I quite agree. I’m not as well versed in philosophy as I am in literature. I absolutely should have included Plato’s Republic. Although I’m not sure it should replace the Qur’an, because I think it is vitally important that Christians make a concerted effort to learn about Islam. In fact, one of my biggest problems with my list was that no matter how hard I tried, I could not think of a good book to represent the Islamic experience.

  • friendly reader

    So…. nothing by Luther? Not even “On Christian Freedom,” in which he outlines how being saved by grace makes you beholden to help everyone in the world?

    Or from the same time period on the other side, no “Martyr’s Mirror,” an account of the atrocities committed against Anabaptists and the heroic non-resistance they displayed?

    No Niebuhr?
    No Martin Luther King Jr.?
    No Flannery O’Connor?
    No Liberation Theologians?
    And Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” over “Screwtape Letters” or “A Grief Observed”?

    I mean, I’ll admit, this isn’t a terrible look at a spectrum of different Christian books, and for people who seem to think that Christianity began in America and the Bible began in English, it could be a nice antidote. But it’s got glaring gaps, including, yes, the big elephant in the room of race.

    Admittedly, a list of “Great Christian Literature” could be several hundred books long. So then, yes, let’s come up with a list of “should read” in the sense of “are directly relevant to issues today.” Loki100 has the start of what I’m going for here: books critical of Christianity, but I want to couple each of them with a Christian response. Put up Marx, and then follow it with a Liberation Theologian, etc.

    (I wouldn’t include “Promethea” on that list, though. Impossibly gorgeous art, but the story is just an excuse for Alan Moore to talk and talk and talk about his religious ideas, the characterization is paper-thin, and it really shoots itself in the foot with that last chapter full of outdated pseudoscience. I found a lot of the ideas in it fascinating, but I only read it to understand the ending of “Tom Strong,” which from a narrative perspective is a superior work.)

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    my justification for it is to acknowledge how much of our theology of
    “Hell” came from that book as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, THE BIBLE.

    So, so agreed. I was reading a comment somewhere the other day talking about how X was a heretic and was going to end up in [region of hell], just like the Bible says, and thought “That’s not the Bible, that’s effing DANTE.”

  • Paul D.

    Pilgrim’s Progress struck me as a load of proto-fundamentalist drivel, but maybe that’s just me.

  • cjmr

    kittehonmylap said “The Catholics had between 500-1500 extra years to get started
    (depending on when you count the Catholic church as having started, i.e.
    whose version of the Great Schism you listen to), plus a significant
    portion of Protestantism’s history has been identified with, at best, a
    discomfort with intellectualism starting in, oh, the 2nd Great
    Awakening?”

    I guess it’s just because I’ve seen far too many lists of ‘must-read’ Christian books put out by Fundamentalist organizations which don’t include anything older than Luther or Calvin and which are heavily weighted toward Francis Schaeffer (the father, not the son), Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, and other stars of late 20th/early 21st century Christianity.

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    For Martin Luther King, Jr I agree with Letter from a Birmingham Jail but also A Knock At Midnight, a collection of sermons. 

    I also would put in Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America

  • Anonymous

    I definitely agree that Screwtape should be on the list.  I’d really like to see The Great Divorce on there too, although that might be more indicative of personal preference than of quality. 

    I think Good Omens should be on this list.

    As much as I love Good Omens, I’m not sure I’d put it on the Top 25 EVER–there’s just so much to choose from–but if there were a list of, say, the Top 25 Recent Books Christians Should Read, Good Omens would definitely be on it. :)

  • ako

    I would have to agree about Mere Christianity – as a tool of conversion, it is really not impressive.  I can’t comment on the value of Christians reading it (although if the Christians are looking for “How to convert unbelievers!” lessons, I’d pass on that in favor of anything that explains the problem with looking for instructions on how to convert people), but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

    (I would recommend Dante’s Inferno to anyone who wants a clearer picture of where our cultural ideas of Hell came from, or is fond of crude humor or epic poetry.  And, while my favorite Dostoevsky book is Crime and Punishment, I’d recommend The Brother’s Karamazov to anyone who enjoys long books with interesting ideas (most of my sympathy was for Ivan – Alyosha was sweet, but from my perspective, his mindset was very alien).

  • Will Hennessy

    I think a lot of the religious establishment could benefit from not just reading Dante, but reading about how that particular work came about. They might find some solidarity in a man who wrote a work of fiction where he decided to put everyone who disagreed with him in hell. Does that sound familiar? It’s almost like that’s a familiar topic covered in this blog…

  • Fraser

    I hated Dante when I read him in a bad prose translation in my teams. Loved him in good poetry (the Ciardi translation, I think). Niven’s Inferno would make a good accompaniment.

  • Bogatyr5

    I was going to say something to that effect about Promethea. Thanks for saving me the trouble.

  • Anonymous

    My first reading of the Divine Comedy was in high school, and I thought that Dante stuffed those people whom he truly hated into Hell because of the way he continually expounded upon their suffering and evil. But after a second reading or two, I started to notice how he would describe certain characters with respect or joy in seeing them – think the way he describes Farinata’s imposing figure and details his impressive history, and how happy he is to see one of the Sodomites (whose name I can’t recall). I’m still not sure what I make of this, but I think that maybe there was a little bit of regret there, that maybe not all those dwelling in Hell are totally evil or lost (recall the way Guido’s father faints in grief when he mistakenly infers from Dante’s words that his son is dead) which comes back to his tour of Limbo and his fear of leaving Virgil behind. I wonder if it wasn’t purely his fear of losing a guide in uncharted territory as it was losing a friend at, almost literally, the gates of Heaven. He certainly applied many terms of endearment to Virgil in the past.

    And yeah, Paradiso was pretty boring because it lacked the conflict, the difficulty, and heck, the geography of the previous two sections. At times it was interesting to see the science of the times being presented in a spiritual and poetic segment, but for the most part it really did feel like a series of “hello, what’s your story, and what’s your spiritual question?” And again, my first readthrough I was very disappointed with the presentation of God Himself: I kept counting the cantos as I read, getting worried that geez, when is he gonna make it there, and detail God, and we’re running out of time…this is it? This is all I get? It all led to this? I suppose in part I was led to expect more by Dante’s near-constant claims of being unable to describe what wonders or horrors he was seeing and then do so in great detail. Having read it again, it’s still somewhat of a letdown, but less so than before.

  • Lupus753

    That’s why I think some parts of that book are subtle criticisms of Catholic doctrine. Dante (both the character and, I assume, the author) cannot understand why a good man like Virgil can’t go to heaven. It comes off less shrugging off a question than lombasting the absurd injustice of such a belief. That’s my interpretation, anyway.

    I also found Satan in Paradise Lost to be a terrible, pitiful being who excuses his misdeeds with incredibly spurious logic. Then agaIn, it probably says something that Paradise Regained is a far less well-known book.

    Just a note: Milton’s portrayal of Eve is far better than how she was generally treated back then, as she was not shown to be outright evil and destructive. It’s always a shame when we can’t enjoy progressive attitudes because they still far short to modern standards. I went off on a tangent, didn’t I?

  • Dan W

    Can’t think of 25 off-hand, but here’s a few I would recommend, and not just to Christians: The Bible, The Koran, various other holy or sacred texts of other religions, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Brave New World, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, pretty much anything by Douglas Adams, and any up-to-date books on history and science. Also any good books on logic.


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