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Top Ten Works of Christian Fiction – What Are They?

UPDATE: I’m glad to see The Gospel Coalition make an attempt at such a list here.

The other day my fellow seminarians and I were discussing the lists of top ten Christian books you so often run across online, and how far too many of them feature only really recent books published in the last ten years—not to mention how these lists tend to skew towards whatever theological tradition the compiler is from. Many suggestions could be made to improve these types of lists, but here’s one: why do most of them neglect to list any Christian fiction?

The unfortunate implication of mostly-nonfiction lists is that Christians shouldn’t waste their time reading fiction. That Christian art does not matter. That while Christian fiction might be interesting, it never rises to the level of “classic.”

We agreed that if Christian art is to be rehabilitated from the sentimental trenches it has fallen into, good Christian art should be celebrated. So we set about to compose a list of the top ten works of Christian fiction.

However, we quickly realized why so few people attempt to create this list.

The Trouble with Defining Fiction

First, what is fiction? In the few Christian fiction lists that do exist, the list is filled out by poetry and allegory—for example, see this list which includes The Faerie Queen and Pilgrim’s Progress. Poetry and allegory are great forms of art, and Christian artists certainly have made great use of them. However, if someone asks you for a recommendation for good Christian fiction nowadays, they’d be very taken aback if you gave them poetry. Perhaps Christians should also work at rehabilitating the genres of poetry and allegory—but that’s an issue for another day. What works of Christian fiction exemplify greatness according to our modern expectations of what fiction is?

Google defines fiction as: “literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.” Okay, let’s stick with that definition.

How to define “Christian” books:

The next question is—what makes a work Christian?

If you look at the current state of Christian publishing, you’ll see the struggle to pinpoint what Christian fiction is. In order to make it abundantly clear a novel is Christian, Christian fiction tends to feature conversions, sermonizing, and praying. In addition, Christian publishers have a very strict list of what will not feature in any of their publications, a list that would surprise many authors in other areas of the publishing industry. All of these are strong signals that define “Christian” novels, and make these works more easily marketable to a general Christian audience.

There is nothing wrong with standards, or even some of the common Christian tropes—however, very little of what modern Christian publishing produces falls into the realm of “art.” There are perhaps a handful that are recognizable to a somewhat broad audience—Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, and Love Comes Softly, by Janette Oke, but beyond that most are quickly forgotten. If Christians are serious about producing art that brings glory to the name of God, it is worth considering what precisely is the gap between the current Christian fiction being produced, and what might be called classic Christian fiction. What could be promoted, or should be promoted? What areas of our storytelling need elevating?

A deeper exploration of modern Christian fiction would need another post.

The main point behind all this discussion is that these concrete Christian signifiers so common in mass-market Christian fiction are not the only way to define Christian fiction, and perhaps not even the best way. Does a Christian work need to be about Christian characters? If it involves, or features, non-Christians, do these non-Christians have to convert by the end?

Take Lord of the Rings, for example. While widely accepted as a Christian novel today, it is understandable why Christians were hesitant to embrace it at first. Its Christian themes are not displayed at the surface level, the gospel story merely reenacted by its characters. No, in fact the closest equivalent of ‘God’ in Tolkien’s world is not even mentioned in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.

Well, let’s look at another angle. Should a Christian work be required to mention the name of God?

It seems pretty clear a work does not have to say the word “God” to speak of God—think only of the biblical book of Esther. Esther clearly demonstrates the power of God and his ability to turn all events to the good of His people, without explicitly spelling out its message in a little sermon at the end. Now, Esther is a biblical book by an inspired author, so fiction authors should hesitate before attempting to replicate such a feat. However, it does indicate strong Christian messages can be brought across without sermonizing.

This, by the way, is part of the reason I would argue Pride and Prejudice counts as a Christian novel, but I’ll leave that argument aside for today.

I’ll hesitantly point to Christian themes as a necessary ingredient, with full recognition of the difficulty involved in describing the Christians themes of a particular work. In addition, we should avoid lumping just any story where someone sacrifices themselves for another person as “Christian,” even though it parallels Christ’s sacrifice for believers. There’s got to be a deeper understanding of Christianity present than that.

So, if a work of Christian fiction need not feature Christian characters, reenact the gospel, or mention the name of God, what makes a work of fiction Christian?

Who are “Christian” Authors?

Well, maybe the author does. This is a good question—should Christian art be made by Christians? The answer is usually, of course! But think a little more. First is the difficulty of discerning a particular author’s precise beliefs. Take, for example, the debate over precisely how “Christian” Charles Dickens was (or really, any author who does not specifically spell out their beliefs). Or take George MacDonald, a strong influence on Lewis and Tolkien but who held some views that many Christians would declare unorthodox (at the very least). Determining the level of Christianity is difficult, and perhaps is beyond what the compiler of such a list should really be doing anyway.

Second, there is the recognition that non-Christian works of art can echo similar themes. If two works both condemn the folly of pride, for example, and point to man’s inability to improve himself, what difference does it make that one is written by a Christian and one is not? Well, I’d argue it does make a difference—in order to fully interact with a Christian worldview an author must understand it intimately. However, while drawing up a list many people will certainly put forward general works that agree strongly with a Christian message, and a compiler would have to consider what precisely the difference between Christian and non-Christian is.

I’d argue Christian themes discussed in the above section matter more than authorship—if an author’s level of commitment is doubtful, his work should be judged on its merits and his faith given the benefit of the doubt (especially if strong and theologically rich Christian messages come through his work). However, since we are looking for Christian themes that are not merely surface-level but deep, we want the authors to not describe themselves as unbelievers. To work with Christian themes at a deep level requires strong knowledge and some level of commitment to the faith. So this is my suggestion towards a solution here.

A Few More Issues:

There’s three more issues that occur to me when coming up with a list of Christian fiction:

First, there is difficulty of reading all the potential works to decide on the list. This takes time, but is essential to do a proper job. Preferably this would be done by more than one person, so it does not dissolve into merely one’s personal preferences.

Second, there are many theological traditions in Christianity, and sometimes great works from one tradition are essentially unknown in other traditions. For example, I know there have been many Roman Catholic fiction authors besides Tolkien, but I have never read any. This feeds into the related question of how well-known a work should be to be included on a list for all Christians everywhere.

Third, should Christian fiction be comforting or troubling? Should it pose issues without answering? I think here of the well-known novel, Silence by Shūsaku Endō, which I have never read. Its conclusions are perhaps more troubling than uplifting. But to narrow Christian art to merely what is uplifting does run the risk of throwing us back into sentimental territory again.

In conclusion, I think much of the above issues would be cleared up if we had a good of idea of what “art” is, and what makes art “Christian.”

The Start of a List

After stating all these problems—I still think such a list should be made! I’m open to suggestions for what to put on it. Here’s a few obvious ones to start:

  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being non-allegorical and not mentioning God, its Christian themes are obvious. It is also dearly loved by readers of all backgrounds, so its narrative quality is also clear.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Many categorize this one as ‘allegory,’ but it in fact goes much deeper than strict allegory–the Christian gospel is retold in a narrative that holds up on its own merits. Again, readers of all backgrounds enjoy this work.
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This one is mentioned so frequently it must be included.

This is a sad-looking list that I hope will greatly expand over time. These are classics that everyone I spoke to broadly agreed on. If it were down to personal preference, I might add Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis–but I’d prefer to have broad agreement on all works included on such a list!

Drawing up such a list would be a multi-year process that would take serious study. However, if Christians are serious about glorifying God with the works of their hands, I believe such a study is worthwhile to do! Let us celebrate Christian art that points us towards our Creator.

 

Note: We also agreed that filling a list of ‘top ten’ with books all by the same author (every work by C.S. Lewis, for example) is not especially fair or helpful.

 

 

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Shocked by Augustine’s Confessions

Lately I’ve had the leisure to do some more quality reading, as I’ve been laid up with an injury, and I’ve found myself facing Augustine’s Confessions without an excuse. So I dove into it. And I was quite shocked—not by any of his confessions (so far), but how readable it is. You always imagine classics to be quite unreadable, which doesn’t really make any sense, because how could anything become a classic unless people read it? But anyway…

The best thing about the first few chapters (and I’ve only read the first few chapters so far) is all of Augustine’s questions. Instead of doing what most books do, which is pose a question (Why does a good God allow evil? etc.) and then answer it, Augustine just poses questions. Each chapter is just a block of questions directed towards God, and Augustine doesn’t even pretend he has answers to most of them. If he has part of an answer, or a thought about the answer, he’ll say it, but it’s not from a position of authority. His bits of answers are not presented as definitive. He just lets his mind go wild with wonder over God.

I’d give a few examples, but to baldly state the questions in my own words destroys his beautiful wording of them. I’ll just say one or two—for example, haven’t you ever wondered whether you have to know God first before you cry out to him, or if you can cry out to him in order to know him? And haven’t you ever wondered how a God who’s outside time, and created time, experiences time?

The unexpected thing about this is Augustine is such a revered figure in the church. He’s more or less the ancestor of most of the churches that exist. So much of Christian theology has roots that go back to his writings. So I expected him to present himself as an expert.

And it was refreshing because I haven’t read a book that admitted it didn’t have the answers for a long time. Most often people write books because they do think they have the answers. Or they write because they think people need the answers, so they cobble together some kind of explanation. They know their book won’t attract our precious divided attention if they don’t make bold claims.  Augustine shocked me because he’s not presenting himself as the pattern the church after him should follow, even though the church does. (At least, he doesn’t present that way in the first part of The Confessions.) If anyone has a right to make bold claims, it would be Augustine, of all writers.

The second really cool thing about The Confessions is that, unlike if I was the one asking the questions, Augustine is able to ask them without a trace of cynicism. He doesn’t resent God for not providing answers to them. Somehow Augustine is able to put down all his wonderment with the deepest humility, and in a fever of steadfast love. He’s asking because he loves God. He wonders because a person is obviously interested in the things they love.

I can only hope I present a similar attitude one day.

I’ve only just started The Confessions, so I might have a few different thoughts once I’ve gotten farther in I’m only on Book I, Chapter 7, so I’m sure you could easily catch up with me before I come up with anything more to say.

If someone had wanted me to read The Confessions before now (and I don’t get the feeling anyone really did, as it was rarely on recommended reading lists), they should not have described it as Augustine’s autobiography, or however else people describe the book. They should’ve said, “Here’s a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago, who has a mind that works just like yours.” It’s crazy to reach across the centuries and find a thought pattern that feels familiar.

And as for the unanswered questions? This is what Augustine says about them:

“Let [people] ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you, God, and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”

 

UPDATE: An updated version of this post is available at the Reformed Perspective!

 

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Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian Classic?

Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian classic? Its author, C.S. Lewis is certainly well-known as a popular Christian writer, but his ‘Space Trilogy’—of which Out of the Silent Planet is the first—is not mentioned as often as The Chronicles of Narnia, or even several of his nonfiction works. Is the book neglected because its quality is considered inferior to The Chronicles? Is its message too dated? Or do some of its messages, despite being delivered by a Christian author, make Christians uncomfortable?

Or perhaps it’s mere happenstance that this work is not as well-known?

I already reviewed Out of the Silent Planet on my main blog, harmamaesmit.com. But as I want to give this section of my web presence a stronger emphasis on the Christian writings out there, I thought I’d address a few of my thoughts on the Christian messages in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet here. If you’re interested in the original review, you can read it here.

So, it is too challenging, too dated, or inferior quality? Let’s dive in and look.

Too Challenging?

How often do Christian authors tackle concepts like what ‘sinless’ creation might be like, what a pre-fall society might be like, or what might be the religious beliefs of alien peoples? No, if you briefly glance through the racks of Christian fiction today, you’ll find a lot of thoughts on the ‘moment of conversion,’ and how people get to that point in their lives. You might possibly see stories addressing how Christians live through difficult circumstances. You’ll see a lot of focus on romantic relationships, and a brief treatment of how Christianity views such relationships. But deep theological concepts, presented fictionally? No, not very common.

Of course, to present ‘sinless’ creatures is incredibly risky. Any author is, of course, sinful—so likely anything anyone writes would be skewed and inaccurate in some way. However, does this mean there is no point to be made about sinlessness, or pre-fall creation? It’s a challenge for only the best writers to take on, but Out of the Silent Planet proves that such an experiment can teach us something. It can reveal our own arrogance and sense of superiority in a surprising and powerful way.

I sincerely hope this not the main reason this book is overlooked. If so, it points to a towering problem in the modern world of Christian fiction in general—an unwillingness to tackle big idea and work out ALL of our faith with fear and trembling.

Too Dated? Its Critique of Modernism and Why This is Still Relevant

The second reason might be that its strongest theme springs from the context of the time period it was written in, almost to the point that it is ‘a product of its time.’ The theme—that cold, objective scientific study cannot describe the full joy, beauty and thrill of creation, and can even lead to outright blindness to joy, beauty and thrills if it’s too strictly adhered to—is critiquing modernism. It’s directly addressing the modernist idea that science would discover everything about the world and solve all of humanity’s problems. This impulse is still around today, but it was even stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were very optimistic about the benefits solid objective study would bring humanity. But society today in general is more cynical and more postmodernist, and it’s no wonder, seeing how some scientific products (the atom bomb, for example) were not all clearly benefits to humanity.

In other words, to argue against modernist optimism hardly seems necessary, as our culture whole-heartedly agrees with cynicism.

C.S. Lewis ably critiques extreme forms of modernism here without anticipating the ways this philosophy would morph into postmodernism. It doesn’t even begin to consider the postmodernist idea that you may see space as cold and empty, whereas I may see it as full of light and life, and each of these observations depends strongly on the perspective we ourselves come from. I am not saying that C.S. Lewis should have anticipated the next challenge to the Christian worldview, only that in reading Out of the Silent Planet today, the worldview he argues against may come off as quaint and not a threat.

And really, a story arguing against the dangers of a specific philosophy can come across as less universal than a story illustrating the message of salvation (like The Chronicles), especially as many readers may not know much about specific philosophies in the first place. So perhaps it truly is a bit dated?

I’d argue, in fact, that it is important in order to understand what a threat these sorts of ideas were, and to bolster our own worldviews by working through these ideas because—well, many people who believe in modernism are still around, and the heirs of the ideas themselves still influence our society’s thoughts. How often do you hear the media advocating colonizing other planets? Saving humanity by moving away from our mess and starting over elsewhere? We still talk about these things!

Lewis’s unique contribution is to point out that we can’t just see the rest of the universe as ‘ours’ to take over as we wish. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to point out that when Europeans took that approach to other continents, they absolutely disregarded whatever existed there before their arrival as irrelevant, nonexistent (‘we discovered a country that already had people on it so it clearly must’ve been discovered before we arrived!’). It’s quite fashionable to rightly judge this colonialist attitude—other lands did not exist merely for Europeans to exploit. But when it comes to space, we all seem to turn into colonialists again.

Now, we don’t usually consider the rest of the universe as inhabited, so maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable with this idea. In Out of the Silent Planet, the other planets are inhabited, and worse, are free of all the evil and destruction that comes naturally to humanity. So in a fantasy of this sort, it’s easy to demonstrate the harm of human expansionist ideas.

But the book is more than that. It’s not aiming at expansionism alone, but beyond that to the shortcomings of the human heart—our own greed and our own tendency to view ourselves as first and most superior. Even our ‘good’ protagonist is shocked to discover not only that the other planet are inhabited, but that they’re not inhabited by monsters but by creatures who might, in fact, be superior to himself. The book provides a necessary corrective, not just to a time-bound philosophy (modernism), but also to a timeless human temptation—to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe.

Inferior Quality?

I’m not going to spend much time on this topic. It is absolutely not inferior quality to The Chronicles. To discuss the quality of the story in-depth would stray too far from my main focus on its Christian themes, but I’ll just say its lack of recognition probably stems from it being published before The Chronicles, and being aimed more at adults and therefore overlooked.

 

In Conclusion – We Need More Fiction on the Classics Lists! Could This Be One?

So my answer to the question I raised in the title is—yes, I think it should be. But thinking a work should be a classic does not make it so. I think it’s the sort of story to give someone thinking through the philosophies the story addresses.

But to be fair, there really isn’t a definitive list of Christian classics. If you search it, you get great lists of nonfiction but very little fiction, especially modern Christian fiction. So that’s one new aim of this blog—to look at fiction classics as well as nonfiction ones. Not to draw up a definitive list, but present possible candidates. And here is my first suggestion!

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

 

 

 

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