Rod Dreher has asked his readers, and the internet at large, what three books they would recommend to provide a basic familiarity with Christian theological ideas to someone with little background on the topic. Here’s the challenge as he laid it out.
So, what’s your Religious Literacy 101 Reading List? To restate the rules:
- No more than three books on the list.
- List them in order of preference.
- Keep them restricted to a single religion (i.e., no volumes comparing the various major religions; Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One” is good, but not appropriate for this list).
- A single *religion*, folks, not subdivisions within religions. Christianity in general, not three books about Catholicism. Islam in general, not three books about Sunni Islam. Etc.
I am totally picking Mere Christianity for the first slot. I know it’s a cliche choice, but it is for good reason. After all, I was once in the position of Dreher’s target reader. I met Christianity wherever it impinged on the political sphere (and through bizarre allusions in weekly debates). I got a copy of Mere Christianity from one of the Christian student groups at Yale that would set up a FREE BOOKS table outside the dining hall. (An excellent ploy). Lewis’s book didn’t convince me that Christianity was true, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to have my neo-Platonist thrill of recognition as he lays out the case for objective morality, but I think most people would get a sense of coherence from the book. I could say that Mere Christianity is a good DM Guide for the faith; once you’ve read it, you can flail about in a slightly organized way and start to ask better questions and make plans.
Ok, and my second choice is, also predictably, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. If Mere Christianity helps make Christianity comprehensible, Orthodoxy makes it weird again. The first time I read it, I felt like Chesterton was some kind of philosophical Br’er Rabbit, who delighted in paradox and embraced the end of your reducto ad absurdum. So reading this book is a nice way to avoid complacency about understanding Christianity fully and shakes the reader out of the kind of scholarly remove you might experience if you were reading the excellent, but comparatively dispassionate, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Chesterton’s book forces engagement (even if it’s throwing the book across the room) and makes Christianity seem like a live thing to be answered or argued with, not a thing to be studied.
I’m considerably less sure what to pick for my third choice. I think I want a novel, so the reader can see Christianity lived (badly, presumably) instead of explained. And my best guess is The Brothers Karamazov. Like the other two, this is a book I read before I was Christian. In fact, it and Brideshead Revisited were two novels I felt a vague obligation to read after I’d broken up with my Catholic boyfriend, as a way of finishing my due diligence in investigating Christianity. The Brothers Karamazov is long enough to really fall into and be immersed by. It’s one of the books I felt reluctant to finish, because then I wouldn’t still be reading it. To be honest, Russia feels vaguely fictional to me anyway, so it was easy to just plunge into the world the way I might into Narnia. And I’m still not precisely sure how to recommend it, except that it felt a bit like ideas were linking up and gelling in the back of my head while I read it, even if I would have to go back and poke at them later to see what shape they were making.
And I’d be quite interested in reading yours below. (Not restricted to Christianity. Or religions at all. I’d be more interested in people sharing their three books for stoicism than their broader umbrella of atheism, for example).