Tag Archives: Christian classics

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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Augustine on a Drunk Homeless Man–Augustine Again

I’m so glad I’ve been able to pick up Augustine’s Confessions again, and came across this passage of Augustine’s reflections on his encounter with a drunk homeless man. I love how it doesn’t go in the expected, modern direction (why is the man homeless? should the man be drunk?), but swerves into profound spiritual reflection instead:

My heart was panting with these anxieties, and boiling with the feverishness of consuming thoughts. For, passing through one of the streets of Milan, I observed a poor beggar, then, I suppose, with a full belly, joking and joyous: and I sighed, and spoke to the friends around me, of the many sorrows of our frenzies; for that by all such efforts of ours, as those wherein I then toiled dragging along, under the goading of desire, the burden of my own wretchedness, and, by dragging, increased it, we yet looked to arrive only at that very joyousness that the beggar-man had arrived before us, who should never perchance attain it.

For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same was I plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding; the joy of a temporary happiness. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.

But should any ask me, had I rather be merry or fearful? I would answer merry. Again, if he asked had I rather be such as he was, or what I then was? I should choose to be myself, though worn with cares and fears; but out of wrong judgment; for, was it the truth? For I ought not to prefer myself to him, because more learned than he, seeing I had no joy therein, but sought to please men by it; and that not to instruct, but simply to please.

Away with those then from my soul who say to her, “It makes a difference whence a man’s joy is. That beggar-man joyed in drunkenness; you desired to joy in glory.” But even as his was no true joy, so was the glory I sought no true glory: and it overthrew my soul more. He that very night should digest his drunkenness; but I had slept and risen again with mine, and was to sleep again, and again to rise with it, how many days, Thou, God, knowest.

But “it doth make a difference whence a man’s joy is.” I know it, and the joy of a faithful hope lies incomparably beyond such vanity. Yea, and so was he then beyond me: for he verily was the happier; not only for that he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, I disemboweled with cares: but he, by fair wishes, had gotten wine; I, by lying, was seeking for empty, swelling praise.”

  • Augustine, Confessions, Book VI*

I started Confessions last year and look forward to finishing it! This ancient man has a reputation for a reason, and his words hit us in the heart even today.

*Note: I simplified a few of the more difficult phrases in the translation I happened to find, so look up the full version if you want to quote this 🙂

 

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Is Science Superior to Art? (Is That Why Kuyper Wants Theology to be ‘Science’?)

It’s easy to bemoan the fall of Theology, from being the ‘Queen of Sciences’ to merely being a subsection of the Religious Studies department (if it has a place at universities at all). For example, R. C. Sproul laments, “in the classical curriculum, theology is the queen of the sciences and all other disciplines are her handmaidens. In the modern curriculum man is king and the former queen is relegated to a peripheral status of insignificance.”*

Now, why lament this? Is it because ‘science,’ as we conceive of it today, is so distinguished that we want to associate theology with it, and more than that, assert theology’s dominance over it?

No one should assert theology as the queen of science because they want to rescue theology from falling into the realm of ‘art.’ ‘Science’ is not superior to ‘art.’ It is of a fundamentally different character. Theology falls into the realm of science (according to the older, more full definition of science–science as ‘knowledge orderly arranged’) not because science is superior, but because of the character of theology.

Obviously, Kuyper has a quote on this: (Yep, still reading his Principles of Sacred Theology):

The theologians who, depressed by the small measure of respect cherished at present by public opinion for theological study, seeks favor with public opinion by loudly proclaiming that what he studies is science too, forfeits thereby his right to the honourable name of theologian.

Suppose it were demonstrated that Theology is no science, but that, like the study of music, it is called to enrich our spiritual life, and the consciousness of that life, in an entirely different way, what would this detract from its importance? Does Mozart rank lower than Edison, because he did not work enchantments, like Edison, with the data of the exact sciences?

The oft-repeated attempt to exclude Theology from the company of the science, and to coordinate it, as something mystical, rather like the world of sounds, was in itself entirely praiseworthy, and has commanded more respect from public opinion in general than the scholastic distinctions. If thus it should be shown that Theology has no place in the organism of science, it would not lower it in the least, even as, on the other hand, Theology would gain no merit whatever from the fact (if it be proved) that it has its rank among the sciences.

In no case may Theology begin with renouncing its own self-respect. And those theologians who are evidently guilty of this, and who, being more or less ashamed of Theology, have tried, by borrowing the scientific brevet, to put it forth in new forms, have been punished for their cowardice. For the non-theological science has compelled them to cut out the heart of Theology, and to transform it into a department of study which shall fit into the framework of naturalistic science.

Hence we definitely declare that our defense of the scientific character of Theology has nothing in common with this questionable effort. No Calvinist takes part in the renunciation of our character as theologians. And now to the point.

Oh, Kuyper! Wasn’t that already your point? 😀

In other words, we can bemoan the demotion of theology to a lowly sub-discipline in academia, but not because it has been categorized under the heading of “the arts.” The heading is not the problem. Arts are not less important.

For Kuyper theology is science because science is the study of order, and the very character of theology is knowledge of an orderly God. That’s it. Art uses materials–words, clay, paint, etc–to generate something new. This is legitimate and absolutely wonderful, and human beings were created to do this. But the character of this art is incredibly different from the character of theology. In theology you study what’s already there.

I love how theology gains no rank in Kuyper’s thought from being either art or science. Neither art nor science has to prove its own worth, nor do they grant more value to theology by including theology under its umbrella. No, theology has its own self-respect.

So we have the freedom to just let theology be what it is. And the freedom to respect both art and science, without elevating the contributions of Mozart over Edison, or Edison over Mozart, as if that was the controversy that really mattered.

 

*The Heart of Reformed Theology, by R.C. Sproul

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Kuyper Encounters Difficulties – Subjectivity Weighs In…

Principles of Sacred Theology continues to fascinate me, despite the reality of heavy schoolwork weighing in.

In my last post I explained the amazing claim that Abraham Kuyper made about theology–that out of the chaos of theological knowledge, order could be found. A unified order. In fact, it is the responsibility of people to find this order, and to work out this framework to rest theological knowledge in.

The obvious objection to any claim that a study of theology would discover an objective system rising up is–well, if an objective system of theology is so obvious, why on earth do we have thousands of competing systems of theology? Hasn’t practically every church, and every era of history, come up with their own opinion on how it all ‘works’?

Now, I half-expected Kuyper to just skate over this difficulty. The system shows itself to anyone who just looks at the chaos of knowledge systematically enough, he might have said. But no. He faces it head on. He treats his study of theology with thoroughness. And as a reader, I follow him half-expecting to fall into gaping theoretical holes in his thought, and discover he has seen the holes before me and wants to build guardrails around them.

Having read too many popular theological works, the peace of mind of being guided by an experienced hand is too reassuring for me to be able to put it into words.

Kuyper grants that thousands of streams of theologies exist. He grants that subjectivity so underlies all of our ideas of what we’re actually studying that any communal One Theology is impossible.

But does this subjectivity completely remove any hope for discerning any objective truth? That is what he explores next.

Now, for any postmodern thinkers out there who believe the twentieth century was, in fact, the first one to take seriously the perils of subjectivity–well, Kuyper certainly knows what effect subjectivity has on his work:

“Every theologian, therefore, knows that neither he himself, nor the stream of history in which he moves, are able to make an all-sided and complete exhibition of the object of his investigation.”

Ah, so subjectivity does exist then? The context of the writer’s history may actually impact his work–impact any hope of finding a ‘neutral’ theology?

Kuyper then, astonishingly, goes on to describe his viewpoint. I say astonishingly because I’ve always assumed laying out one’s viewpoint was a recent development, stemming from postmodernism. To talk about one’s perspective is important because one takes for granted that one’s perspective does, in fact, affect one’s work. However, Kuyper also lays out his individual perspective right there for the reader to see, long before academics insisted it was a requirement to do so.*

What does this mean, then? Has Kuyper given up on objectivity in the study of theology altogether? No, rather, he lays it out because he wants to argue this background is exactly what leads him to discovering order in theology. What he really means is that he’s separating objectivity from neutrality.

He’s not going to try sum up every theological opinion under the sun, because to do so he would inevitably be bringing his own opinion to his summary. He’s not going to dig around in every theological system to find fundamental truths common to all of them, because whatever he came up with would not, in fact, be a common system but rather ANOTHER system (his own system), ready to continue to compete endlessly with the others. No. He believes an objective order exists, but it not to be found by remaining neutral.

So he lays out his viewpoint. And he’s not neutral about how it leads to truth.

He unapologetically believes his viewpoint–Reformed Theology–has, as one of its inherent strengths, the ability to frame theology in such a way that it can be studied systematically and ‘scientifically’:

“[Kuyper’s declaration of his viewpoint] intends to make it clearly known, that he himself cannot stand indifferently to his personal faith, and to his consequent confession concerning the object of Theology, and therefore does not hesitate to state it as his conviction that the Reformed Theology with respect to this has grasped the truth most firmly.”

Now, I know enough about Kuyper to know a little about what he’s getting at (and which I’ll need to read the rest of the book to understand more fully)–what Kuyper will argue for is the necessity of first starting from a starting point of faith when studying theology, and secondly, starting from the Scriptures as the fundamental principle for studying theology. In this quote, he is declaring that he is unapologetic about his Reformed viewpoint because he knows the Reformed viewpoint values learning about theology in faith from Scripture. And he is convinced that starting with faith and learning from scripture is the only way to find the order that must exist in the chaos of theological knowledge.

Now, there may be quibbles about these two points he makes. I still have to read more, so I’ll leave them lie there for now.

Anyway, Kuyper talks about his subjective background because he believes that this system is the one that possesses the values that will lead to objective order. Ah, maybe there’s something in that. Maybe if we believe in the existence of objective truth (out there somewhere–in our humanness incredibly difficult to find and articulate), we could also believe in the existence of an objective viewpoint. And while it might be right to say an objective viewpoint can never be achieved by a human, there may in fact be a sliding scale of ‘better’ viewpoints in contrast to ‘worse’ ones.

This sounds incredibly audacious–to line up viewpoints according to how objective they are. How would they be judged? But maybe this is an idea to wrestle with for a while.

 

Appendix: Kuyper himself on how he ended up with Reformed Theology as his viewpoint:

“The author does not hesitate to say frankly that in the writing of this work he occupies the Calvinistic view-point… He is no Calvinist by birth. Having received his training in a conservative-supernaturalistic spirit, he broke with faith in every form when a student at Leyden, and then cast himself into the arms of the barest radicalism. At a later period, perceiving the poverty of this radicalism, and shivering with the chilling atmosphere which it created in his heart, he felt attracted first to Determinism, and then to the warmth of the Vermittelungs-theologie. But if this warmed his heart, it provided no rest for his thought. In this Vermittelungs-theologie there is no stability of starting-point, no unity of principle, and no harmonious life-interpretation on which a world-view, based on coherent principles,
can be erected. In this state of mind and of heart he came in contact with those descendants of the ancient Calvinists, who in the Netherlands still honor the traditions of the fathers; and it astonished him to find among these simple people a stability of thought, a unity of comprehensive insight, in fact a world-view based on principles which needed but a scientific treatment and interpretation to give them a place of equal significance over against the dominant views of the age.”

 

 

*This assumption is based on my education–I don’t mind seeing evidence to the contrary if there’s any.

 

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Bringing Order to Chaos–Can Human Achieve Actual True Knowledge?

You may’ve expected my next post to continue with Augustine, and I certainly would like to get back to Augustine, but since I currently am attending seminary to sort out the tangle of thoughts in my head about theology, I may blog about several different Christian classics first, before getting back to dear Augustine.

Now consider theology–would you consider it crazy, or maybe presumptuous, to argue there are basic underlying principles of the subject that naturally appear if you investigate it enough?

It’s utterly outdated to talk like that in the modern world. After all, are there not thousands of denominations, each with their own strongly held beliefs that they argue are deeply rooted in the Bible? How can anyone argue for any principles of theology at all? Are we not all groping in the dark, all equally as likely to be correct about some things and wrong about others, and all equally without hope of putting our beliefs into any kind of concrete order?

Ah, this is why it is so refreshing to read a book that says no, no, no. There is not chaos, only order, and it is the mission of humanity to seek it out. This is what Abraham Kuyper argues in his classic Principles of Sacred Theology, written in 1898.*

Now, the date gives a strong clue about the reason for his confidence. He belonged to the modernist era, when academics in general believed they could categorize all of human knowledge, and one day we’d achieve a full knowledge of our world. As the world revealed itself to be more and more complex, more and more people fell away from this idea. And as the disputes about the fundamental nature of reality multiplied, many people came to the conclusion that we cannot really ever know… And thus postmodernism entered the picture.

However, back to Kuyper, who was writing with confidence before postmodernism was born. He is the very exemplar of C.S. Lewis’s charge to read old books, because where can you find such confidence in humanity’s ability to gather knowledge, except in someone untainted by our atmosphere of postmodernist thought? There’s no explanations for why relativism doesn’t work. He doesn’t even consider anyone would argue for relativism. He just gets right to the point.

And his point is–humans should assume order is present in creation. If you accept a theology that states all creation is created by an orderly God, it naturally follows that we can find our way through the chaos of knowledge that lies before us. More than that, it is part of our goal as humans to bring order to chaos. Anything which first presents itself to us as chaos will possess an underlying order upon inspection.

Now, this still sounds kind of crazy, so I’ll let him expand on this thought:

“Here we merely state that in our bringing about of Encyclopedic order in the chaotic treasure of our knowledge, we are governed in two respects by a compulsory order which is separable from our thinking. First, because the treasure of knowledge which we obtain by our thinking does not originate first by our thinking, but exists before we think; and, on the other hand, because the knowledge to be arranged in order stands in relation to a world of phenomena which is independent of our thought…. Thus our human spirit is not to invent a certain order for our knowledge, but to seek out and to indicate the order which is already there.”

Astounding. As someone deeply bathed in postmodern thinking (which I truly do not regret, by the way), this is mind-blowing to hear. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. It turns my brain around down an avenue of thinking I could have never entered otherwise. What if I did accept that we can bring a system to our knowledge? How would it change everything?

Because I have to admit, order does arises from nature, consistently. Not always the order we expect–when science discovers the planets rotating around the sun, for instance, or the crazy calculations involved in the theory of relativity (yet it can be described with equations, for some reason). Having our own previous fixed ideas about the order we should find does interfere with our ability to see what is already there, but even the craziness of what we discover fits into a framework. We can categorize knowledge of creation. We can quibbled about the interference of our subjectivity, our human bias, and its effect on categorization of knowledge, but to dismiss any scrap of information humans have ever arranged as a pretense of order is to give up on attaining knowledge entirely.

In other words, while postmodernism is incredibly useful to critique systems of knowledge, it is really only useful for tearing down, and not offering any solutions to replace what it has destroyed.

Then it occurred to me how chaotic our modern knowledge is–how Wikipedia is a maze compared to the encyclopedias of old, and how the internet (perhaps our greatest repository of human knowledge) is a sprawling mass of contradictory streams of information. Our guide through this mess is usually Google, but Google cannot be conceived as bringing true order to our chaos. We’ve allowed our enthusiasm for gathering knowledge to result in a sprawl we know how to wade into, but not how to organize it.

I’m not arguing we should return to the days of printed encyclopedias, which were out-of-date the day they hit the store shelves. However, as humanity, we should start the discussion about the nature of knowledge. We should consider bringing order to it. We reinvented how we stored knowledge, so maybe we can reinvent a new way to lay it all out. We might draw out connections between different disciplines that we gloss over right now. We might have ideas about what should be done, and start acting instead of just reacting the first search result on our screen.

Anyway. Just a thought.

 

*Note: In case you’ve never heard of Abraham Kuyper, or Principles of Sacred Theology, and do not believe it to be a classic–as far as I know, it is more well-known in European systematic theology studies, rather than North American ones, and originally was written in Dutch. Hope that helps! It’s fully available online here.

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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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