The Christian Examiner recently ran an article claiming to list the 18 classic Christians books that the “intellectually curious” should read. I’m not going to link to it, since the article is basically clickbait of the worst sort–the kind where you have to cycle through a bunch of ads to find out what the 18 books are.* If you want to read it, well, there’s always Google. Out of service to the readers of this blog, however, I went ahead and slogged through the whole thing. It’s mostly not worth your time. Not that the books on the list are terrible (though some of them are). Just that they’re not necessarily the books that should be read by the intellectually curious.
To be fair, there are some books on the Christian Examiner list that should in fact be read by intellectually curious individuals. Augustine’s Confessions and City of God both make the list, as do Lewis’ Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters and Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. And yet, also on the list are God’s Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, and something-or-other by Beth Moore. While these are all fine enough books (possibly excluding the Beth Moore book–I’ve not read that one), I’d hardly put them on a list of Christian classics ‘for the intellectually curious.’
Which raises the question of what books should be on such a list? These, of course:
- Augustine’s City of God (1) and Confessions (2). These both go without saying, the Christian Examiner got at least this much right. For that matter, a list of 18 essential books for the Intellectually curious could be made up of Augustine’s works alone. Still, the intellectually curious ought to read the Confessions to experience the first psychological autobiography for a peek at the Christian view of sin, conversion, and the life of the believer; and City of God for an exploration of the Christian view of politics and God’s providential rule over history and creation.
- Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (3). Justin’s Dialogue is an excellent introduction to the ongoing Christian reflections on the relationship between reason and faith. It’s not the last word, of course, but it’s a fascinating and thoughtful early word on the matter.
- Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (4) and Common Grace (5). Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is slightly misnamed; it is to be sure a series of lectures by a Calvinist, but for the most part the subject matter is a general Christian view of science, art, religion, politics, the future, and the Christian worldview. Clearly it should be of general interest. Kuyper’s Common Grace works through God’s providential rule over a fallen world–why is it that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? (Aside from the theological truth that there are no good people?) Read this series to find out…
- Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (6). I know, I know, no one is going to read Aquinas’ massive tome. Fortunately, Aquinas himself provided a summary that touches on all the key points of the larger version, including: faith and reason; the existence of God; predestination and free will; etc.
- Dante’s Divine Comedy (7). I know there’s a serious lack of fiction on this list, but that’s in part because most Christian fiction is terrible. Fortunately, there are always the classics–such as Dante’s jaunt through hell, purgatory, and heaven. My go-to is the Ciardi translation (linked), though I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Mark Musa‘s (I also recommend Esolen and Sayers–but avoid Pinsky).
- John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (8). Another Christian fiction classic, Bunyan is simply a must-read. I once heard that R.C. Sproul said that if you’ve been a Christian for more than three years and haven’t read Augustine’s Confessions, you’re sinning. I think that’s true, but I think it’s even more true for Pilgrim’s Progress.
- Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will (9). Especially relevant this year is one of the few of his own works Luther himself thought worth preserving. If you’re at all tempted to glorify yourself by believing you can contribute to your own salvation (and if you’re a human being, this is you), then you need to read this book.
- John Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life (10) and Response to Sadoleto (11). Like Aquinas massive Summa, I assume that Calvin’s huge Institutes or Commentaries will be off-putting to most people. Fortunately like Aquinas, Calvin has a summary of his Institutes that has been boiled down to the basics in A Little Book on the Christian Life that is much more manageable. Even better, his Response to Sadoleto is a short summary of the entire basis of Protestant theology (and, as it happens, the Gospel itself).
- Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (12) and A Faithful Narrative (13). The Greatest Theologian to come out of the Western Hemisphere (so far, at any rate) has written a number of worthwhile books and sermon series. In general, it’s acknowledged that the most important of these is his book intended to help you figure out whether or not that things that happened to you last week in church was a legitimate religious experience, or just you getting emotionally stirred up by the music/preaching. And what does it look like when a whole community is swept away in (the good kind) of passions? That question is answered in Edwards’ A Faithful Narrative.
- Carl F.H. Henry’s Twilight of a Great Civilization (14). Unfortunately out of print, if you can find a used copy of this book you’ll have a great way to reflect on the relationship between Christianity and Western Civilization in the context of a civilization in its… well… twilight years.
- Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy (15). Yes, this is my way of sneaking three books in–though they are published in one volume. Still, Schaeffer is an intellectual that no one interested in 20th century philosophy should ignore. This set of works is his masterpiece, and above all else that he wrote should be read and meditated on.
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (16) Bede’s history can at times get bogged down in early English names, but it is still a fantastic example of how two different Christian institutions (in this case, the Celtic Church and the Roman Church) can cooperate and even resolve their differences peacefully without violence or schism. (I also recommend mining this book for possible baby names, should you need them–for example: Ceowulf, Oswy, or Cynibert. You’re welcome.)
- Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies (17). Writings by women are certainly underrepresented both in this list and in the Christian tradition in general. Fortunately, the wonderful little book by Christine de Pizan more than makes up for it. If you think of women in the Middle Ages as demure, silent, and cowed by their overbearing husbands, you really need to read this book. While still holding to Biblical truth and traditional gender roles, Christine de Pizan argues for an active and bold femininity that marches side-by-side towards holiness with men.
- Herman Dooyeweerd, The Roots of Western Culture (18). If you’ve made it all the way through the list and still want to throw yourself into the deep end, Dooyeweerd’s The Roots of Western Culture is a good place to start (or end, I guess, given that it wound up at number 18 on this list). It is by far his most accessible book, and serves as a good survey of the philosophical situation in the Western world in the 20th century.
No doubt I’ve missed something–feel free to drop a note in the comments and let me know what. And yes, I know The Brothers Karamazov probably should be on the list. I’ve just been a bit underwhelmed by it. No doubt I need to read it again and have my underwhelmedness be turned into overwhelmedness. So, you know, in my spare time I’ll get to it…
*Unlike this blog post, of course, which is clickbait of the best sort.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he mostly reads books that will be of no interest whatsoever to the intellectually curious…