January 23, 2012

My Must-Reads: Fiction


In my last post I listed out an entirely subjective and woefully incomplete list of books that helped shape my spirituality, and which would be on my required reading list for young Christian adults hoping to grow in their faith. Those books were nonfiction — of which I continue to maintain a steady reading diet — but my real reading love is fiction.

Which leads us to my second must-read list. What are the novels that ought to be on a thoughtful, growing Christian’s shelf?

This is a challenging list to make, because fiction is such a different animal. For decades, theologians, and readers the world over have argued about what makes a story “Christian,” with no real conclusions. And not every book worth reading is a “Christian” book, no matter how you define it. But truth is truth, and the best novels help us understand the world we live in, regardless of how redemptive the story may be or what the author truly believes.

So there’s my disclaimer. These are the novels that have shaped my faith in significant ways. This is my list, my opinion, my perspective. You may think some of these books aren’t list-worthy. You may be concerned they’re not Christian enough. Or even that they’re anti-Christian. You may have tried to get these books banned from your local library. If so, that’s fine (except for the book-banning part). If you disagree, let us know in the comments, and offer us your own recommendations.

The Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis): Lewis kicked off the last list, so might as well put him on this list, too. These books, written for children and drenched with Christian allegory, have solidified their place in the canon of classic literature. From the creation of the universe (The Magician’s Nephew) to the Resurrection (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) to the end of days (The Last Battle), it’s all here. And it’s riveting.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck): This Pulitzer prize-winning classic, set during the Great Depression, sends us on a perilous road trip with the Joad family as they leave behind their Oklahoma farm in bumbling pursuit of a new life in California. An eye-opening look at poverty, economic instability, and the ongoing personal battle between selfishness and sacrifice as it plays out in a flawed family.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain): Few stories are told with a voice as enjoyable as Huck Finn’s…as interpreted by Mark Twain. Twain’s genius was that he could tell a rollicking story while also slipping in a dose of medicine, opening his readers’ eyes to the injustices of prejudice, slavery, and life in the American South. Twain’s characters and situations are hilarious, eye-opening, and impossible to forget. Yes, it’s always been a controversial book due to its frequent use of the “n-word,” but the discomfort of the language serves Twain’s powerful and redemptive themes. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece.

Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe): One of the first books I read that really made me think about Christian missionaries and the impact of colonial religion on native cultures. Written in English by a Nigerian author, the book follows Okonkwo, a highly esteemed (and flawed) village leader who tries, unsuccessfully, to hold onto the old ways when white Christians introduce a new culture to his village.

Les Misérables (Victor Hugo): The epic tale of unjustly imprisoned convict Jean Valjean and his attempt to escape his past is at once sprawling and dense, and filled with historical and factual rabbit trails. But at its heart is a story about grace and redemption. There are few stories which portray the value of love and social justice like this one.

Wise Blood (Flannery O’Connor): Hazel Motes is ugly with original sin and filled with spiritual doubt, but he can’t get away from Jesus, who moves “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark.” That line has stayed with me for 20 years, and I can’t get away from this book like I can’t get away from that wild, ragged figure.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (JRR Tolkien): I’m flying my geek flag on this one, but I am a proud Tolkien fanboy. These books aren’t perfect, but few authors have come close to Tolkien in imagining a universe — complete with its own history, languages, and mythology — like Middle Earth. The narrative is built upon Christian themes like the perils of pride and greed, or the hope of resurrection and eternal life. But the real spine of these books is the steadfast courage, loyalty, and friendship of its central characters. Frodo may be the ring-bearer and Aragorn the long-awaited king, but brave, homesick Samwise Gamgee is the character who’ll inspire you most.

The Harry Potter Series (J. K. Rowling): Few Christian kerfuffles over the past decade have annoyed me more than the uproar about Harry Potter, thanks to well-intentioned believers who tried to keep the books out of school libraries or refused to let their kids “dabble in magic” by reading them. Ugh. By any definition that makes sense to me, Harry Potter is a Christian story. Period. For the last two years, I’ve been reading the series to my own little muggles, hoping they’ll internalize the deeper magic behind Rowling’s universe of spells and sorcery: that there is no force more powerful than sacrificial love. Love wins.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving): “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” I hope that opening sentence—and the fact that my wife and I named our son after the title character—is enough of a tease to get you to read this book, my favorite novel of all time.

So this is my admittedly idiosyncratic list, and I fully realize that the 800-lb gorillas of Christian fiction—from Left Behind to This Present Darkness to The Shack—are conspicuously missing from it. But that’s because it’s MY list, and I make no apologies.

Now it’s your turn: What novels are on your must-read list?

Originally posted on June 18, 2011

Originally Published: January 23, 2012
Category: Books
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