Somehow slapping the name Christian on a work of art seems to excuse mediocrity for modern Christians. We listen to lame music, hang pathetic art, and read dull, saccharine novels because they’re Christian. We know in our hearts that God is beauty as well as truth and goodness but we read worthless and uninteresting novels because they’re Christian. My friends, Christian novelists are heirs to the legacy of Dante and Milton–there is power and brilliance in the works of those who truly seek God in fiction. In this installment of your Christmas list, I thought I’d recommend some of the greatest Christian fiction I’ve ever read–bearing in mind that “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s pleasant or evangelical or about a handsome young pastor with a dark past who moves to town just before a very special Christmas. Christian novels shouldn’t read like Lifetime movies, they should read like life.
(Books by non-Catholic authors are marked with an asterisk in case that makes a difference either way.)
For the Ladies
As in my last post, I don’t have much to say about books that are particularly good for men, largely because I’m not one. There are some books, however, that I know would do very little for most men but have been a huge blessing for me. I told you before about Francine Rivers, but I’ll summarize in case you missed it:
If you’re a sucker for a love story, you won’t do better than Redeeming Love* by Francine Rivers. The author was a romance novelist before she became a Christian, so she’s a good writer with a good message. Redeeming Love modernizes the book of Hosea,1 following Michael Hosea–who is hands down the holiest and most attractive male character I’ve ever read–as he marries a woman he knows is a prostitute. She’s so broken but he’s so good. Even on a shallow level, it’s a beautiful story; once you realize it’s about God’s love for you, it’ll break your heart. After the Bible, it may be the most important book a woman can read.
If a perfect man doesn’t do it for you and you need more character development in your romantic interests, try Rivers’ Mark of the Lion* series. This series has some drawbacks (a really slow start, for one), but once you’re drawn in, you’ll be fascinated by the goodness of the Christian slave girl, the dramatic consequences of evil choices, and the desperate love that breaks down barriers.
If you know a woman who hasn’t read these books, stop what you’re doing right now and buy them. I seriously buy Redeeming Love in bulk and hand it out. I’ve known a number of teenage girls whose lives have been changed by Michael Hosea in Redeeming Love. Tell them that girls who hate reading love this book–I promise they’ll love it, too. Forget the rest of the “Inspirational Fiction” section, all full of forgettable romance novels with the sex cut out–Francine Rivers is the real deal.
Another great series of books for women is Orson Scott Card’s Women of Genesis* series. Card (a Mormon) novelizes Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. These books are definitely fiction but there’s enough of the Scriptural story that the Bible begins to take on new life. Card’s characters are complex and enthralling–I’ll warn you that I’ve had more trouble putting his books down than any other books I’ve ever read. Most of his books are great,2 but these are more than great–they’re moving. Buy them for women who are serious about their faith but hungry for more.
Teenage girls will love Regina Doman‘s fairy tales. They’re fascinating and quite romantic, wildly Catholic but without being ridiculous. I was so caught up in The Midnight Dancers that I couldn’t put it down–even when my mother called. I talked to her on the phone for 20 minutes while reading my book.3 The books are pretty intense, but I’ve known middle schoolers who loved them and I adored them as an adult. If you like fairy tales, they’re definitely worth trying.
I’ll give a shout out here to Kristin Lavransdatter because everybody else loves Sigrid Undset. I thought they were alternately dull and infuriating, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste. Most Christian women I know who’ve read them are ready to tattoo Kristin’s face on their biceps. For me, the highlight was the heroine’s death. But she won the Nobel prize in literature largely because of these books, so I’m willing to admit that I’m probably wrong on this one. Give them a shot–I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Great Christian Literature
Anyone can look at the New York Times bestsellers list and find a few decent (and some not-so-decent) books to hand out to the random people who show up unexpectedly at Christmas dinner, books that one barely has to be literate to enjoy. Then there are those books that demand attention and analysis, books that require hard work but are rewarding, emotionally and spiritually. The books that follow are better suited towards your intellectual friends, so don’t hand them out indiscriminately, but the right one could be life-changing.
I already told you about Shusaku Endo’s Silence and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, stories of two very different priests on the run during times of persecution in Japan and Mexico respectively. Endo’s hero will challenge you to suffer for Christ while Greene’s will show you that you, too, fall short. Why not buy them both for a little balance? They’re convicting for any serious Christian, Catholic or not.
While you’re at it, throw in Greene’s The End of the Affair, a story of conversion and commitment to Christ whatever the cost. Greene’s characters are so real they hurt and while you find yourself hating them at times, you can’t get them out of your head. Graham Greene had the literary distinction, from what I’ve read, of being a great sinner. He had the spiritual distinction of knowing it. In his works, we find a real sense of how one ought to live coupled with the despair that follows failure. He can be terribly depressing, but there’s nothing saccharine about him. A great read for someone who’s learning the cost of discipleship–and aren’t we all?
It might seem strange, but I’m actually going to throw a C.S. Lewis book into the literature category. I love Jack4 as much as anyone,5 but most of his works are far too accessible to be considered great literature.6 Lewis generally wrote theology and allegory for the common man (or child), so he rarely did much that takes serious thought to understand. Till We Have Faces* is a notable exception. Lewis rewrites the tale of Psyche and Cupid from the perspective of the jealous and then guilt-wracked older sister. There’s something cold and painful about this book, but if you can get through to the end, it’s also cathartic. I’ll be completely honest with you–I don’t understand a lot of what Lewis is doing here. Maybe that’s why I’m sticking it in the literature category…. Anyway, it’s a great book for anyone indy and angsty, so go ahead and check your hipster cousin off the list with this one. Or someone who loves mythology or a Lewis fan who’s growing up or someone with sibling rivalry issues–it covers a lot of bases.
The Brothers Karamazov* is rather slow for the first 300 pages, but the next 700 really make up for it. What I’m saying is, you pretty much have to know someone who loves great literature for this to be anything other than an exceedingly large doorstop. But if you can find a Christian intellectual who is in the enviable position of not yet having read this book, buy it for her and then sit and watch her read it. It’ll be slow going for 5 hours or so, but eventually, you’ll be able to watch the passion and intrigue and terror and beauty and purpose flash across her face as she trips over herself to get to the end while slowing herself down to take in every detail. Dostoevsky’s tough to read, but so, so worth it.
G.K. Chesterton is famous for his wit in defense of the faith, but he was quite the novelist as well. The Man Who Was Thursday is his most famous, but I prefer Manalive. Chesterton’s novels are all a bit absurd and fairly confusing but Manalive is so joyful that you don’t mind feeling a bit twisted up. I won’t spoil it by telling you anything about it, just that I felt as though I was glowing after I read it. It’s rejuvenating somehow–definitely worth a read. If you know someone who is incredibly joyful or (conversely) who needs a shot of joy in his life, Manalive could fit the bill.
Great Christian Books
The distinction I’m trying to make here is not between literature and lame Christian novels that you can buy by the cartload at WalMart. These books are still high quality writing; some, I think, will be read centuries from now. But they are a little more accessible and a little less like your sophomore lit class in college. If the last category was good for intellectuals and academics, this category will generally appeal to your average Joe as well. Trust me–ain’t nobody too smart for Tolkien. The man was a genius.
Speaking of Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quite possibly the greatest Catholic novels of all time. It was hard to decide whether to put Tolkien in this category or the last, but he’s so widely read that I think I’ll leave him here. Tolkien is far more sophisticated than mere allegory–sometimes I wonder if he even realized how deeply Catholic his work was. Galadriel is the Blessed Virgin Mary and lembas is the Eucharist and the steward of Gondor is the pope. But more than that, Frodo is a real hero, dirty and weak just like us. Sam is the greatest friend in all of literature, Simon of Cyrene when Frodo can’t make it alone. There is true valor and loyalty and pain and betrayal. If you haven’t read these yet, forget all your prejudices against fantasy and get ready for a modern epic. Some of his descriptions might merit a little bit of skimming if you’re more plot-driven, but push through until you’re immersed in Middle Earth. Then watch the movies again–they’re even better on the other side.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead* is one of those books that you just can’t describe. Like Manalive, it leaves you joyful and refreshed. In some ways, it reads like a sermon, but no sermon you’ve ever heard. I’m beginning to think I’m just terrible at reviewing books, so I’ll stick with this: I found life more beautiful after I finished this book. Buy this for someone with a taste for poetry–there’s something ethereal about this one.
At the other end of the Chesterton spectrum from his intellectual novels, we have the Father Brown mysteries. Father Brown is a meek little priest who finds himself in the most improbable of situations, stumbling across dead body after dead body without any of the gory details or macabre undertones of so many modern mysteries. Chesterton’s stories are impossible to figure out, but they make so much sense in retrospect that it doesn’t even make me angry–I’m just excited to see how it all fits together. It might drive me nuts if these were novels, but they’re short stories, so the suspense is resolved pretty quickly. Think Encyclopedia Brown for the grown-up mind with some one-liners that’ll make you stop and think; buy them for pretty much anyone–they’re fun and fairly easy to read.
Everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote is worth reading, but my favorite of his adult fiction has to be The Screwtape Letters*. Lewis writes from the perspective of a senior demon giving his nephew advice as his nephew tries to woo a human soul to perdition. His writing is clever and interesting and cuts to the heart, shedding light on temptation and human nature in a way that his more prosaic works never could. It’s a perfect gift for someone who doesn’t read non-fiction but is still hungry for spiritual growth.
I know you could probably come up with a list a mile long of great books without Christian themes, but I had to give a nod to these two non-Christian gems, one because it’s riotously funny, the other because it’s heartrendingly painful.
Have you read The Princess Bride*? I mean, I assume you’ve seen the movie. If not, shame on you! Do it now! But the book is seriously (not to be a cliché) so much better. Goldman pretends that he’s translating a terribly boring book, summarizing 60 pages of analysis of the varies ladies’ hats to be seen at court that season in ways that actually make me laugh out loud. The book is wildly funny and entertaining–a good gift for the non-Christian on your list or for anyone who loves to laugh.
On the opposite end of the spectrum (but still quite secular) is one of the most powerful, chilling, painful, beautiful books I’ve ever read. When a dear friend recommended a book that she’d read in her high school English class, I was expecting a Johnny Tremain at best. Oh, but The Book Thief*, friends. It’ll break your heart. Buy it for someone who feels deeply–and make sure he’s got tissues.
If you’re not much of a reader, maybe try reading one or two of these books for Advent–Gilead could be a good one, but The Princess Bride doesn’t count. If you’ve already read all of these, try passing them on to a friend. People who might not otherwise read Christian books are much more likely to if you pick out a book just for them and ask them to tell you their thoughts. However you approach this, remember that literacy is an incredible gift, one that many people around the world long for. Be a good steward of that blessing and use your time and your intellect for transformation, not just twitter.
Hook me up with your recommendations in the comments and don’t forget to check Better World Books for great bargains that save the world. If you want recommendations for someone these books wouldn’t fit, ask that in the comments, too. I’ll be back in a few days with my favorite theology and spirituality books. Get excited!
- Okay, “modernizes”–it’s set in the gold rush. [↩]
- Alvin Maker, Enchantment, Ender’s Game, to name a few. [↩]
- Sorry, Mama!! I called you back the next day and totally paid attention. [↩]
- That was his nickname. His given name was Clive Staples Lewis. Hence the nickname. [↩]
- Remember how his Chronicles were the theme of my childhood? I’m not even exaggerating when I tell you that he was known as St. C.S. Lewis in my home. [↩]
- Although who decides, really? Why is a book more “literary” simply because you need a college professor to help you understand it? [↩]