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.