Christianity in Three Books

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:

  1. No more than three books on the list.
  2. List them in order of preference.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.


Two other takes on Dreher’s challenge that I quite recommend: Eve Tushnet and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

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).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Dylan Pahman

    Sort of cheating (re: no subdivisions) since these are mostly Eastern Christianity and thus fit with the Orthodox tradition better than any others, but that’s my tradition, so whatever:

    1) The Life in Christ – St. Nicholas Cabasilas
    - An excellent introduction to the Christian life and, unlike much monastic literature, written for laypeople.

    2) The Fount of Knowledge – St. John of Damascus
    - Book 3 of this work contains his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox faith, which is a wonderful summary of Eastern patristic theology. It is also sort of hipster since St. John of Damascus was a sort of scholastic before the (Western) scholastics—the first book, The Philosophical Chapters, is a basic summary of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic categories as used by the fathers before him.–Philosophical-Chapters-Heresies/dp/1470149249/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381436026&sr=1-1&keywords=the+fount+of+knowledge

    3) The Conferences of St. John Cassian, esp. the First Conference with Abba Moses.
    - An Easterner in the West, but still fairly Eastern. It is a semi-systematic summary in dialogue form of what he learned from fathers of the Egyptian desert (including some of his own thoughts as well). The First Conference with Abba Moses contains perhaps my favorite passage from the fathers and one I cannot dwell on enough:

    “’[T]he ultimate goal of our life is the kingdom of heaven. But we have to ask what the immediate goal is: for if we do not find it we shall exhaust ourselves in futile efforts. Travellers who miss their way are still tiring themselves though they are walking no nearer to their destination.’

    “At this remark we stood and gaped. The old man [Abba Moses] went on:

    “’The ultimate goal of our way of life is, as I said, the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven. The immediate aim is purity of heart. For without purity of heart none can enter into that kingdom. We should fix our gaze on this target, and walk towards it in as straight a line as possible. If our thoughts wander away from it even a little, we should bring back our gaze towards it, and use it as a kind of test, which at once brings all our efforts back onto the one path.’”

  • Scott Elliot

    For Judaism:
    1) Jewish Literacy, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. An extremely accessible, encyclopedia-like work, written in an attempt to cure “Jewish ignorance” of history, culture, law, and theology. Serves as an excellent introduction to the terminology and context of almost any other Jewish text.
    2) Halakhic Man, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. A passionate reflection on the nature of Jewish law and the lifestyle of observance.
    3) The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. A more mystical and less legalistic counterpoint to Halakhic Man.

  • Brian Sullivan

    I’d keep 1) Mere Christianity, sub at 2) The Everlasting Man, and 3) maybe The Handbook of Christian Apologetics or, better, Peter Kreeft’s Fundamentals of the Faith.

    • Brian Sullivan

      Thinking about #3 being a work of fiction. Trying to avoid Lewis and Chesterton again, I am thinking of something like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. Dune for the complete World he creates and Helprin because it is one of the best books I have read–full of grace.

  • Dan

    1) Mere Christianity–more or less for the reasons Leah states. I’m not the biggest fan of it, but it is a good starting point. And I did read it when struggling with my faith back in my early 20s.

    2) Crime and Punishment–it’s a dense read and I’m sure it loses some flavor reading it in the English translation. Thus, it isn’t one of my favorites, but it does illustrate the ability of Christianity to heal one’s soul–even that of a murderer.

    3) Pride and Prejudice–I find Austen to be a bit of a moralist as she subtly highlights Christian values in her works. I picked this one of her novels because it involves a character overcoming the sin of pride–which Christians view as the most dangerous sin–to find happiness. Its domestic setting is also more approachable to the reader; we cannot identify as a murderer like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, but we can identify as a smug, superior individual who looks down upon others (Darcy) or a person who unfairly judges people based on first impressions (Elizabeth Bennet). Shedding pride in order to find love can be seen as the essence of Christianity.

  • Balthasar Lewis

    1) Theology of History by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
    2) The Everlasting Man by G.K Chesterton
    3) Dimiter by William Peter Blatty

  • TV

    1) _Seven Storey Mountain_, Thomas Merton
    2) _The Everlasting Man_, G.K. Chesterton
    3) _A Canticle for Leibowitz_, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

    • Christian H

      This isn’t the first time I’ve seen A Canticle for Leibowitz on this kind of list. I’m reading it now (I’ve finished “Fait Homo” and “Fait Lux,” and am on the third) and I can’t for the life of me see how it would make this kind of list. From what I can tell, the monks could just as easily be Buddhist or Banjoist as Catholic. So I’m asking: what is it you see in this novel that is a good into to Christianity? Or is it something else you’re trying to introduce?

  • Randy Gritter

    1. Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity
    2. St Augustine’s Confessions
    3. Pieper’s Faith, Hope, Love

  • Christian H

    Off the top of my head, I can only think of /Christian: A Global History/, by David Chidester. It is an appropriately global, rather than Euro-centric, view of Christianity. /Mere Christianity/’s not bad, but, well, it smells pretty badly of male English privilege and it fumbles psychology in places, so I’m not sure I’d want that as an introduction.

  • Ray

    Three books from an atheist who is so deeply nominalist that he sees the platonist/nominalist distinction as a mere aesthetic choice:

    1) Al Ghazali, Incoherence of the Philosophers — Here’s a book by someone who believed pretty much everything Aquinas would think he proved 100 years later (albeit by way of the Koran and not the Bible). Nonetheless, his book instead shows the folly of trying to build religious beliefs on the methods of Classical Philosophy. He does not attempt to disprove what the Philosophers say, he merely points out that their conclusions do not follow from general principles of reason. In the end, Ghazali falls back upon his own tradition’s revelation, but he comes dangerously close to saying outright that atheism is just as consistent with reason as religion.

    2)Graeber, Debt, the First 5000 Years — this book is many things, but in this context I will highlight a single theme. Graeber’s book shows how morality arises naturally, as an anthropological fact, how it comes to coexist with coins, credit, and empires, and how conflation of the two great systems of value — personal moral values, and common economic value — can lead the overactive imagination into all manners of folly and confusion. I can’t speak for all readers, but this book left me with little doubt that both moral value and economic value are creations of man.

    3) The Feynman Messenger Lectures — I’m more familiar with this one in its video version, but it’s available in book form too. This is a guide to what can be built once the barriers erected by classical philosophy have been destroyed. The clearest symbol of this is Feynman’s preference for “Babylonian Mathematics” over “Greek Mathematics” when doing physics. Feynman presents a physics which treads fearlessly upon the supposed turf of philosophy, and which can and must be extended into areas where it has not yet been tested experimentally, in order to be successful. Feynman never mentions that he is an atheist in these lectures, as his main purpose is to explain physics and not to alienate a large portion of his audience. Nonetheless, the careful reader or listener will know exactly how the man came to his well documented atheistic convictions.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      I find it interesting that you link Al-Ghazali with Aquinas, presumably on the grounds that they both believed in God as Creator of the Universe; all I know of the subject comes from reading Michael Flynn’s various posts and he claims that they had dissimilar philosophies:

      “Islam denied secondary causation. According to Maimonides [Guide to the Perplexed], Islamic theologians asserted that “when a man moves a pen, it is not the man who moves it; for the motion occurring in the pen is an accident created by God in the pen. Similarly the motion of the hand, which we think of as moving the pen, is an accident created by God in the moving hand. Only God has instituted the habit that the motion of the hand is concomitant with the motion of the pen, without the hand exercising in any respect an influence on, or being causative in regard to, the motion of the pen.” Al-Ghazali asserted in Tahafut al Falasifa [The Incoherence of Philosophy], that fire did not burn cloth. God caused the fire, and God caused the blackening and disintegration of the cloth; and it was only the habit of God that the one followed the other. Unlike Anselm of Canterbury, ibn Hazn claimed God need not even be faithful to these “habits.” Al-Ghazali wrote [in the Tahafut], “The imponderable decisions of God cannot be weighed by the scales of reason.” The great faylasuf Ibn Rushd countered with Tahafut al Tahafut [The Incoherence of the Incoherence], but in 1195 he was stripped of all his offices and exiled. As “Averröes,” his popularity in Europe was second only to Aristotle, but little noteworthy science was created in Islam after his time.

      “The problems of physics,” wrote Ibn Khaldûn, “are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods; therefore we must leave them alone.” An exception was made for the “practical sciences” of astronomy, medicine, etc., where Muslim scholars made outstanding contributions of facts. But laws of nature and explanatory theories smacked of men limiting God’s autonomy. ”

      “1. How the Muslims Lost Their Groove.
      Islam began with a region that had a layer of Hellenism a thousand years thick, so it is no surprise that the grandchildren of those Byzantine Greeks and Syriacs kept up their study of Aristotle. They ran into a wall, though with the Qur’anic scholars. Not having the concept of synderesis [conscience] from Plato’s Timeaus and/or Pauls Epistle to the Romans, chap 2., the dominant school of ijtahid, the Ash’ari, did not acknowledge that human reason was capable of reaching correct conclusions in morality. If you wanted to know right from wrong, you looked in the book, not in your heart. This was extended to reaching correct conclusions about nature. (And it is interesting to note that except for al Kindi, all the great faylasuf were non-Arabs: ibn Sina was Persian, ibn Rushd was Spanish, and so on.) The final pillow on the face was Al-Ghazali, who wrote in The Incoherence of Philosophy that fire did not burn cloth. All we can really see is that the one event is followed by the other. God causes the fire and God causes the cloth to blacken and distintegrate, and it was only the “habit of God” that one followed the other. The Spanish Jew Maimonides and the Spanish Muslim ibn Rushd ridiculed and tried to rebut him, but both had to “leave town in a hurry.” The rival mu’tazilite school did take a rationalist approach, and it is an interesting counterfactual speculation how things might have turned out had they come out on top.

      In terms of our pyramid, the Muslims had many brilliant minds – we can almost lay them out in parallel columns with the Latins — but simply not enough of them and they always had an uphill fight. (Even kalam – theology – was viewed with suspicion by the traditional scholars. Apply logic and reason to sharia? Oy!) They did, however, find appreciative audiences – and full credit – in Latin Europe.

      At the root of it: The Muslims never had an Aquinas to reconcile their belief in God’s infinite power and freedom of will with the basics of Aristotelian metaphysics and physics.”

      • Ray

        I find it interesting that you link Al-Ghazali with Aquinas, presumably
        on the grounds that they both believed in God as Creator of the

        The agreement goes much deeper than that. The religion Aquinas claims can be known through reason, as opposed to revelation, is every bit as consistent with orthodox Islam as it is with orthodox Christianity. Further, most if not all of the areas where Al Ghazali feels Avicennism contradicts revelation (e.g. the pre-eternity of the world, denial of bodily resurrection) are also held by Aquinas to contradict revelation. I tend to suspect that even Aquinas’s distinction between truths known by revelation and those known by reason can ultimately be traced back to Al Ghazali (but I am by no means certain on this point.)

        FWIW I tend to find both the philosophy of Aristotle/Avicenna/Averroes and that of Al Ghazali to be more self consistent than that of Aquinas. Aquinas kind of seems like he’s mixing and matching incompatible philosophies to get the conclusions he wants. While Al Ghazali, when he rejects a premise, rejects it consistently, even if it seems useful in another context for giving rational support to Islamic revelation, and Avicenna and Averroes accept their chosen Aristotelian premises even if they seem to support a conclusion contrary to revelation, Aquinas seems much more selective in his skepticism.

        As for Flynn’s historical argument regarding Al Ghazali, I don’t buy it for several reasons

        1) Claims of a decline in Islamic science around the 12th century seem greatly exaggerated. There were plenty of Muslim scientists in the 13th-16th century, and it isn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that they become obviously inferior to the scientists in Europe, at which point it seems easier to attribute the disparity to things like the printing press, and the European conquest of the New World than any distinctly philosophical development.

        2)European philosophers who shared many of the skeptical views Flynn objects to in Al Ghazali are generally regarded as having a positive impact on science (e.g. William of Ockham, David Hume.)

        3) This is a nitpick, but it’s odd that Flynn makes so much of the faylasuf being Spanish and Persian, when Al Ghazali was also Persian.

        If there is any truth to Flynn’s claim that Al Ghazali contributed to the downfall of Muslim science I suspect his political views rather than his philosophical views were to blame. For example, there is a Fatwa at the end of the “incoherence” which declares those who hold three of the views he refutes (pre-eternity of the world, denial of bodily resurrection, and the claim that God only knows universals but not particulars) to be kafirs who can be killed with impunity. (To be fair, the medieval Church was happy enough to kill heretics themselves, and the three propositions denounced by Ghazali would almost certainly be considered heretical by the medieval Church as well.)

        all I know of the subject comes from reading Michael Flynn’s various posts and he claims that they had dissimilar philosophies

        if you’re curious the book is available for free on the internet: Obviously, I don’t endorse everything said therein, but it is an excellent illustration of the fact that you don’t need to be an atheist, or ignorant of classical philosophy, to be skeptical of the supposed rational force of Aristotelian metaphysical arguments.

        • Alexander S Anderson

          Funny, I’ve always liked Aquinas’ “mix-and-match” (I don’t entirely agree that that’s what he’s doing, but I know what you’re getting at) approach, because it doesn’t bind him to a “perfect” system of one sort or another. But I’ve always been skeptical of attempts “to fit the clouds in your head” so to speak.

          • Ray

            You argue that Aquinas’s eclectic approach is good because “it doesn’t bind him to a ‘perfect’ system of one sort or another.” The problem is that Aquinas is still binding himself to a system, just an imperfect one, which is arguably worse.

            This reminds me of a discussion from one of my other “readings.” In Feynman’s 7th messenger lecture, about 45 minutes through, he remarks that the intuitions behind Newtonian Gravity are completely different from those behind the Theory of General Relativity which replaced it. He argues it had to be this way, because you can’t replace a perfect system by adding little warts to it, you have to replace it with a completely different perfect system. Likewise, I think the correct way to build a philosophical system is not to grab a kitchen sink of different intuitions and try to satisfy all of them imperfectly, but rather to take very few core principles and stand by them consistently. This is no guarantee that your philosophy will be correct, of course, but the above discipline will prevent you from greeting signs you may be on the wrong track with excuses and special pleading.

  • grok87
    • Dan

      If you don’t mind me asking, why Matthew? (if I had to choose, I’d pick John).

      • grok87

        Just personal preference. I’m sure everyone has their favorite.

        I think there is a reason that Matthew comes first in the canonical order though- I believe historically it had some “primacy” status in the eyes of the early church.

        here is an interesting discussion

        Q: Which is the best Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John)?

        Italiano asked 7 months ago

        A: “Probably not the right category, but I’ll try to answer it anyway.

        It depends on personal taste, but also on what you want or need to hear. Each of the gospels portrait Christ in a different way. Want to see Jesus as the king of the Jews and read the longest recorded teaching of Jesus? Read Matthew. But read the shortest of the four, Mark to see him as a humble servant. Do you want to have an emphasis on his humanity and want to hear what he has to say about money? Then Luke is the best. If you want to read about God becoming a mortal human, with the biggest focus on the week before his crucifixion, read John.

        Each has its own emphasis, while they don’t deny each others claims. I wouldn’t want to choose between them.”

  • Joe

    “Life of Christ” by Fulton Sheen

    “Between Heaven and Earth” by Peter Kreeft

    “The Cost of Discipleship” by Detrich Bonhoffer

    • Joe

      That would be “Between Heaven and Hell” by Peter Kreeft

      • grok87

        you know you can edit your posts now right?

  • Chris Hallquist

    The future of AI in three academic publications:

    1) David Chalmers, “The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis”
    2) Nick Bostrom, “The Superintelligent Will”
    3) Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, “The Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap”

    • Joe

      I was actually thinking about the super intelligent AI today, something I know nothing about except that a lot of really smart people are working on it. Thanks for sharing.

    • somervta

      number two to be replaced by Superintelligence when it comes out?

      • Chris Hallquist

        Possibly. Honestly there are other things already out there that might belong. There’s an anthology called “Singularity Hypotheses” that I haven’t read because I don’t want to plunk down $60 for the Kindle version. And I’ve only just started reading a new book called “Our Final Invention,” which looks to be good.

  • frjohnwhiteford

    Which three books you pick would depend on whether you were picking three books that a person ignorant of Christianity could read to become acquainted with it; or whether you are talking about three of the most influential books in Church history, or whether you are talking about three books every Christian should read to benefit themselves spiritually. Rod’s picks seem to fall into the first category, though I would replace Chesterton with St. John of Damascus’ “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”. In the second category, if you exclude the Bible itself, I think you would have to go with St. Augustine’s Confessions, St. Athanasius,’ “Life of St. Anthony,” and St. John Cassian’s “Conferences”. In the third Category, Fr. Thomas Hopko says three books a priest should read every day are the Bible, The Arena (by St. Ignatii Brianchaninov), and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers — and personally I think those are good choices for laymen too.

  • Darrell

    I’m not certain that I can provide books that provide a basic familiarity with “Christian” theological ideas without their having a ‘slant’ towards certain traditions. However as an Orthodox Christian my choices would probably be relevant (if only as a historic basis for later theological development) to most “traditional’ forms of Christianity.

    1. The Fount of Knowledge by St. John Damascene to provide a summary of Christian dogmas.

    2. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius is an apologetic on the nature of Jesus and His relationship with God the Father. An explanation, if you will, of the First Council of Nicaea.

    3. The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa displays concepts such as apophatic theology, theosis through ἐπέκτασις, and the non-literal way that early Christians read the Holy Bible and viewed the world around them.

  • Hernán J. González

    On christianity, and leaving aside the obvious main thing (New Testament) :

    Henri de Lubac: “Splendor of the Church”
    Paul Tillich: “Dynamics of Faith”
    Therese of Lisieux: “Story of a Soul”

  • Erick

    1) Any of the four Gospels – to be Christian, one must know Christ
    2) Acts of the Apostles – to see how the first Christians lived their lives
    3) The Hobbit – only because Lord of the Rings is too long. The Hobbit is a fictional recreation of what the Christian adventure is all about.

  • Robert

    Philosophical Fragments (Kierkegaard)
    The Christian Faith (De Lubac)
    Love Alone is Credible (Balthasar)

  • David Zincavage

    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

    Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

    Wynwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

  • Alexander S Anderson

    Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton – The book is on a very short list of books that changed my life and my whole view of the world. It shows how Christianity isn’t just a set of precepts to be learned but a life to be lived, and one that necessarily changes the whole framework in which you live life.

    Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger – If Orthodoxy makes Christianity weird, this book somehow makes it weirder. Ratzinger deals with contemporary philosophers head on here, so this is especially recommended to those well read (or moderately read) in continental philosophy.

    The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis – Many times, it’s the nature of evil that trips up the inquirer into Christianity. Lewis is fantastic at expunging our cartoon villain idea of evil. What he leaves is somehow both more understandable and more incomprehensible. It’s also just a good book.

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