I’ve been offering you tons of fiction recommendations, but some of you may have friends awesome enough that you can give them non-fiction. Others might just be planning ahead for the gift cards you expect to get this Christmas. But head on over to the Christianity section at Barnes and Noble and the prospect of choosing a book can be overwhelming. From Christian self-help to Doctors of the Church, there’s tons out there, not all of it good. So before you hit the mall (or Better World Books1), here are my favorites. It’s been years since I’ve read some of them, but these are, for the most part, the books and authors that have had the greatest impact on my spiritual and intellectual development. I’ll give you the Apologetics books today and the spirituality and Christian living books…you know…soon.
Christian Apologetics–Books (some more theological than others) defending the divinity of Christ and the validity of Christianity. These are generally good for Catholics or Protestants, with a few exceptions that I’ll point out. Once again, asterisks mark non-Catholic authors.
C.S. Lewis*: Mere Christianity. This is the first book I give to anyone who’s exploring Christianity. Again, all of Lewis’ stuff is awesome, but Mere Christianity sums all of (mere) Christianity up in one spot. While it’s only a jumping off place (largely because Lewis thinks anything beyond the basics that connect all Christians is insignificant, nothing to quibble over), it’s a great start. Best passage from the book:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation. I don’t remember much about this book, but soon after I read it, my 16-year-old brother declared himself an atheist. When he told me, I went straight to my computer2 and ordered him a copy, confident that it would bring him back to the flock tout de suite. I’m still convinced that he’d be Catholic today if he hadn’t lost the book in the abyss of his bedroom before he had a chance to read it. Basically, Athanasius is explaining our need for a redeemer. It’s some serious theology, but a great buy for someone who thinks he’s too smart for Christianity. Especially if that person actually happens to be smart.3
Lee Strobel*: The Case for Christ. Lee Strobel’s is a much more practical look at the issue. Strobel was an atheist journalist who set out to disprove the divinity of Christ. Turns out, it’s hard to disprove truth. Strobel shares his discoveries in a compelling book full of facts and figures that will appeal to the secular mind as well as the Christian. Strobel has written a number of other books with a similar accessible but thorough approach but I’ve found The Case for Christ most compelling.
Gregory Boyd*: Letters from a Skeptic. This book is set up in the form of letters between an Evangelical pastor and his atheist (ex-Catholic) father. It’s conversational in tone and a very easy read, engaging deeper theology than Strobel’s books. I will warn you that there are some anti-Catholic undertones–nothing offensive, but very dismissive of Catholic theology in places. What it does it does well, but I’d only give it to someone who’s solid in their Catholic faith.
G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man. Also everything else. Have I mentioned that I love him? A million times? Okay, good. Everything Chesterton ever wrote was completely brilliant. Orthodoxy is like Mere Christianity for the hardcore intellectual. Any Catholic of an academic bent will love it. And Chesterton wrote it when he was still an Anglican, so many Protestants will be open to much of what he had to say as well. Chesterton is incredibly Catholic, but these two books appeal to a broader audience, from what I recall. Check out one of my favorite things ever written ever from The Everlasting Man:
Above all, would not such a new reader of the New Testament stumble over something that would startle him much more than it startles us? I have here more than once attempted the rather impossible task of reversing time and the historic method; and in fancy looking forward to the facts, instead of backward through the memories. So I have imagined the monster that man might have seemed at first to the mere nature around him. We should have a worse shock if we really imagined the nature of Christ named for the first time. What should we feel at the first whisper of a certain suggestion about a certain man? Certainly it is not for us to blame anybody who should find that first wild whisper merely impious and insane. On the contrary, stumbling on that rock of scandal is the first step. Stark staring incredulity is a far more loyal tribute to that truth than a modernist metaphysic that would make it out merely a matter of degree. It were better to rend our robes with a great cry against blasphemy, like Caiaphas in the judgement, or to lay hold of the man as a maniac possessed of devils like the kinsmen and the crowd, rather than to stand stupidly debating fine shades of pantheism in the presence of so catastrophic a claim. There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter’s apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’
Seriously, don’t you just want to ninja kick something after that? No? Maybe I’ll post a video of me reading it–I’m told it’s quite an experience to watch.
I haven’t read A Doctor at Calvary, but I’ve heard it’s wonderful. Barbet is an M.D. who uses the Shroud of Turin, archaeology, history–all kinds of smart guy stuff–to determine what exactly was going on during the Passion. From what I’m told, it’s a thorough and accurate explanation of Christ’s suffering, a necessary step in the defense of the Resurrection.
Catholic Apologetics–A series of authors (grouped loosely from most important–in my mind–to least) who all seem to be male converts from Protestantism. Maybe this cradle Catholic chick needs to get on her game and write her apologetics book….
Scott Hahn. This agnostic turned Presbyterian minister turned Catholic theologian may have done more to revive the Catholic Church in America than any other layman.4 His puns may drive you nuts, but he writes popular theology that manages not to be ing”pop” theology, make my jaw drop at least once every chapter. The connections he makes between the Church and the Old Testament–I tell you what, they’ll blow your mind. Rome Sweet Home is a great choice for someone who’s wading in the Tiber.5 It outlines Hahn and his wife Kimberly’s path to conversion and covers most of the major apologetic points along the way.6 Hail, Holy Queen is another favorite of mine, but really, they’re all good and very readable.
Peter Kreeft. Kreeft is a Catholic theologian (another convert) at Boston College, but don’t hold it against him.7 He has a less Scriptural approach than Hahn, looking at things from a more philosophical perspective. He also engages specific common questions more than Hahn, writing books like Angels and Demons and Socrates Meets Jesus. My favorite of his books (and I haven’t read terribly many) was Fundamentals of the Faith, which really is Christian apologetics, not Catholic specifically, but we’ll let it slide. He defends the creed in short, very readable essays.8 My friend Mike says Kreeft’s book Jesus Shock is one of the best books he’s ever read. I haven’t read it yet, but Mike’s got good taste,9 so give it a shot.
Dave Armstrong. Armstrong, also a convert, is similar to Hahn in that he’s deeply Scriptural, but Armstrong is much more about proof-texting. The thing is, he does it within the context of Scripture as a whole and ties it all together so it doesn’t feel disjointed the way apologetics often does. Try A Biblical Defense of Catholicism to start with and go from there.
Thomas Howard. Anyone want to guess if he’s a convert? You got it. His On Being Catholic is powerful apologetics, for sure, but it’s also beautiful. That’s a very hard combination to manage, but Thomas does it masterfully. The chapter on the Mass in this book is my favorite thing I’ve ever, ever read on the Mass. That alone should convince you to buy it.
Karl Keating. Convert. Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism has an impeccable explanation of why we need the Church. After I taught it to a senior class, I had an agnostic in the back raise his hand and ask, “So, is there any way an intelligent person can not be Catholic?” Check and mate, my friend. This book in particular has some irrelevant chapters in the middle, but if you ignore those overly-specific sections, it’s excellent.
It’s not apologetics, really, but you do have a Catechism, right? If you need one, get the green one, not the white one. It’s got better bonus features in the back–a glossary and everything! And the new YouCat is really quite good–interesting with awesome quotations in the margins and mostly non-awkward pictures. It would make a great confirmation present.10
It’s rather a daunting list, I know, but what a blessing to be part of such a rich theological tradition! If you’re just beginning, start with Mere Christianity and Hahn’s Reasons to Believe. Then add some Strobel, a little Kreeft, all the Chesterton, and before you know it you’ll be blogging me out of business! Let me know when you’ve read all these and I’ll make you another list. We wouldn’t want anybody to be without a book, now would we?
Speaking of books, how about the greatest book ever? If you want to join me in reading the whole Bible through in one year (and you know you have to read the whole thing someday), today’s the best day to start! Print off my nifty little schedule here, spend 5-20 minutes a day in the Word, and watch your life change.
- I really don’t get anything for all the press I give them, they’re just that awesome. [↩]
- After I finished treating him in a kind and understanding manner, of course. [↩]
- The translation linked above has an introduction by C.S. Lewis–how fun! You can buy a real book, too, but the whole text is online. [↩]
- I’m basing this on nothing, but I really like his books. [↩]
- Considering converting to Catholicism. Get it? Because the Tiber is the river in Rome? [↩]
- Caveat: it’s filled with awkward family pictures. Might not be suitable for teens who eschew anything uncool. [↩]
- Just kidding! But seriously, go Irish. [↩]
- Check out an excerpt here. [↩]
- In books and friends. [↩]
- Or a Christmas gift if the kid is a Jesus nerd, but otherwise giving a teenager a catechism instead of an itunes gift card might just make him hate Jesus. [↩]