Chapter 7

Anticipating the Christian Classics

Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom. Job 32:7

One of the hopeful signs for the twenty-first century is the revival of interest in Christian classics. Our generation is known for its self-interest, love of novelty, and drive for relevance. Most of the literature of the day, even Christian literature, seems to reinforce the secular viewpoint. The new generation of Christians, in particular, shows little

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interest in the long journey of the church through the ages since the time of Jesus Christ. Yet, during these centuries, biblical truth has been defended, faith has been shaped, lives have been changed, and worlds have been won. For this reason, we included Bruce Shelley's Church History in Plain Language and Mark Noll's Turning Points in the three-year reading plan. Noll's book, in particular, identifies twelve turning points in Christian history that have directly influenced the integrity of our faith through the ages. Christian classics tell that same story through the thoughts, words, and experiences of great saints and great movements. They are not only worthy of our reading, they are essential to our reading.

A New Interest in Christian Classics

   People are showing a renewed interest in Christian classics, possibly because they fear secular society has reached a dead end in moral corruption, social violence, and emotional malaise. William Bennett's The Book of Virtues struck a chord with the public mind and with beleaguered parents especially, containing passages of great literature that teach moral values. Stuart and Jill Briscoe addressed the same need from an explicitly Christian viewpoint with their collection of teachable truths called The Family Book of Christian Values.

   Others have followed with a variety of viewpoints on the Christian classics. One of the most interesting and valuable is the work by Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination. For those of us who envision Christian classics as long tomes of outdated language and complex thoughts, we will be pleasantly surprised to learn that Guroian finds the same themes of "universally binding morals" in fairy tales and fantasies. Pinocchio, The Snow Queen, Beauty and the Beast, The Chronicles of Narnia (series), The Little Mermaid, The Velveteen Rabbit, and The Prince and the Goblin all qualify

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as classics that support the Christian faith, according to the author. Why? Because they contend for moral absolutes in the contest between good and evil, cultivate the moral imagination, and develop moral discernment. Perhaps to our surprise, Guroian found that fourth graders understand and accept these truths more than college students. If we can cultivate these gifts of understanding and acceptance among our children, they will be ready readers of Christian classics in the future.

What Is a Christian Classic?

   Definitions of Christian classics range all the way from homespun humor to heady scholarship. Mark Twain, the master humorist, described a classic as "a book that people praise and don't read." Elton Trueblood gave the definition a more serious bent: "It is a book that has been tested." C.S. Lewis added the dimension of time to the test when he wrote, "The only palliative (for the mistakes of our time) is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made many mistakes just as we. But not the same mistakes." Lewis then reinforced this idea by offering this principle: "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one 'til you have read an old one in between."1

   The test of time, however, does not necessarily confirm the quality of the content. Robert Maynard Hutchins, editor in chief for the Great Books of the Western World, describes great books as those "that had endured and the common voice of mankind called the finest creation, in writing, of the Western mind."2 For him, books that meet these qualifications will contribute to what he calls "The Great Conversation"

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between students and scholars, which, in turn, leads to a "liberal education."

   Still, the tests of time and creativity do not provide an assurance of quality. As we now know, liberal education in many colleges and universities means politically correct choices in reading, which means the writings of dead, white, Western, and Christian males are taboo. This bias is corrected by Louise Cowan, coeditor with Os Guinness of the book Invitation to the Classics. She answers the question, "What is a classic?" by listing seven characteristics:

1. The classics not only exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.

2. They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues.

3. They have a transforming effect on the reader's self-understanding.

4. They invite and survive frequent rereadings.

5. They adapt themselves to various times and places and provide a sense of the shared life of humanity.

6. They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number of people, establishing themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.

7. Finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of time.3

   The working definition we used to choose books for the three-year reading plan is consistent with these criteria. To distinguish a distinctly Christian classic, however, we added to the requirement of literary quality the standards of biblical integrity, lay readability, and developmental value for Christian understanding and spiritual growth. Admittedly, the books we chose have not yet passed the test of time, and whether they will survive the test of time is yet unknown.

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Historians have a rule of thumb that it takes at least seventy-five years before we can gain perspective on a contemporary event. The same might be said for books. It will take at least seventy-five years for the books published in our generation to be retained as classics or discarded among millions of forgettable titles. Ultimately, the test of timeless truth will determine their destiny.

Christian Classic Collections

   The revival of interest in Christian classics has been led by several prominent Christian writers who have compiled lists of books for consideration.

   Devotional Classics

   Perhaps best known is Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, who has also written a book entitled Take and Read in which he selects a wide variety of works emphasizing spirituality and gives a brief description of each book. Among the books chosen as classics, or as he puts it, "the giants in the land," are the more familiar Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ, Blaise Pascal's Pensees, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and Soren Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Peterson's list is highly personal, but when an author of his stature makes his recommendations for spiritual classics, people take note.

   The devotional life has become a major interest among believers of late, prompting many to read books on the subject of spirituality. My close friend and colleague Donald Demaray, Senior Beeson Professor of Preaching at Asbury Theological Seminary, teaches courses on the devotional life in which he involves his students in both the study and practice of spiritual disciplines. His reading list of devotional classics is "classic"

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in itself. Demaray introduces us to the lives and writings of such ancients as John Chrysostom and Catherine of Siena as well as our twentieth-century contemporaries Thomas Merton and Elizabeth O'Connor.

   I asked Dr. Demaray to choose twenty of those devotional classics as recommended reading for Christian laity. Although he struggled to limit the number to twenty, Dr. Demaray took the challenge and gave us the list found in appendix B. For those who are especially interested in devotional literature and spirituality, Demaray's list is an invitation to a lifetime of solid reading in the classics.

   Classics on Jesus

   Calvin Miller, one of Christianity's most creative speakers and writers, has also compiled a collection of classical writing called The Book of Jesus: A Treasury of the Greatest Stories and Writings about Christ. Books, stories, poems, and hymns take us through the centuries and through the life of Christ. In the books he has chosen, Miller ranges from Christian fathers such as St. Athanasius and St. Francis to contemporary writers such as Charles Colson and Max Lucado. He also adds some surprises with insights into the life of Christ from Shakespeare, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and even Ernest Hemingway. Both his choice of writings and his divisions of the life of Jesus are intriguing:

Jesus: Who He Was

Jesus: His Birth

Jesus: His Friendship with Us All

Jesus: His Becoming One of Us

Jesus: His Miracles

Jesus: His Teachings

Jesus: His Cross

Jesus: His Resurrection

Jesus: His Continuing Reign

Jesus: His Second Coming

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   As always, Miller never fails to stimulate our mind and spirit as he puts a creative touch to his solid faith in each of these sections. The book serves as a ready source of inspiration when we have just a minute or two to read a short selection from a great author.

   Classics in the Christian Tradition

   Terry Glaspey takes on the larger task of identifying Great Books of the Christian Tradition from the time of the ancient world to the present day. In response to his own question, "Why read the Christian classics?" he gives six answers: (1) appreciating our diversity; (2) appreciating the depth of our heritage; (3) asking the perennial questions; (4) seeing beyond today; (5) building a Christian vision; and (6) learning from the past. Chronologically, then, Glaspey chooses Christian classics from the ancient world, the early modern world, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and he even dares to recommend contemporary books as "candidates for greatness." His most daring decision, however, is to list ten books that are classics among the classics.

1. The Confessions, St. Augustine

2. The Divine Comedy, Dante

3. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis

4. The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence

5. Pensees, Blaise Pascal

6. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

7. The Brothers Karamozov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

8. The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer

9. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

10. Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster

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   Secular Classics with Christian Insights

   The most complete and far-ranging work on classics with Christian insights is Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness. The editors and their team of scholars take on the arduous task of reviewing great writings, beginning with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and journeying through the centuries to contemporary writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In each case, one of the contributing editors writes a synopsis of the book and focuses on a universal truth that is consistent with a Christian worldview.

   Critics will be quick to find fault with their approach. In a day when we get news by sound bites, read condensed versions of best-selling books, and rely on synopses of stories to bring us up to date, we are tempted to substitute reading about the classics for reading the classics themselves. Another question may be raised about the character of the authors, such as William Shakespeare, whose drama can soar into the heights of spiritual truth and then plummet into the depths of ribald humor. Nevertheless, Invitation to the Classics is a monumental work that deserves a place on our reading shelf. Also, its value as a reference source prompts us to include its list of classics as a guide for future reading (see appendix C).

   If you want the rich experience of sitting at the feet of a great Christian teacher of classical literature, you must read Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective by Leland Ryken. Although Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, is a distinguished scholar in his field, he has the rare ability to make the classics come alive for lay readers. As you read the book, you will sense that you are sitting in his classroom, learning to love great literature, gaining an understanding of its value, and especially seeing how the classics contribute to a Christian perspective of life. With the touch

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of a great teacher, Ryken brings simplicity to a complex subject by clearly outlining his thoughts and succinctly summarizing his conclusions. Consequently, you will come away from the book with an appetite whetted to read the books that once seemed too formidable: Homer's Odyssey, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Milton's Paradise Lost, Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Dickens's Great Expectations, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, and Camus's The Stranger.

   Ryken sees the rewards that come with all great literature: "pleasure, recreation, heightened awareness of human experience, involvement with life, expanded viewpoint, and the occasion to focus our own thinking about the great issues of life."4 More than that, Ryken says that reading the classics has two special benefits for the contemporary Christian reader.

First, we can expect our reading of the classics to make us discontent with shallow forms of literature, including examples from television drama and movies. As our taste is trained by contact with excellence, lesser works will inevitably seem inferior. Secondly, contact with the classics will alert us to the literary excellence of the Bible. The Bible, too, is a literary classic. It possesses the literary beauty, power, and wisdom that the best literature possesses. It is more than a literary classic, but not less.5

   Religious Books of the Twentieth Century

   Since the time of its founding more than fifty years ago, Christianity Today has surveyed its readership to publish a list of the most important Christian books of the year. In the April 24, 2000, issue of the magazine, the editors listed their choices for the one hundred books of the century that were already identified as classics. Out of this list, the editors asked scholars and church leaders to select the ten best religious books of the twentieth century. Criteria for selection included

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importance at the time of publishing and enduring significance for the Christian faith and the church. Even books with which evangelical Christians might not agree are included because we must contend with their influence on our faith and practice. The following books were chosen as the ten best religious books of the twentieth century.

1. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

2. The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

3. Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth

4. The Lord of the Rings (trilogy), J.R.R. Tolkein

5. The Politics of Jesus, John Yoder

6. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

7. The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

8. Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster

9. My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers

10. Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr

   With few exceptions, each of these books can be read by Christian laypersons. Several were also included in the three-year reading plan contained in this book (see p. 97). As an incentive to further reading of quality Christian books, please visit the CT page which contains the full list of one hundred books of the century.

Selected Classics of the Twentieth Century

   As a complement to the search for Christian classics, secular publishers have also asked, "What are the most significant books written in the twentieth century?" By surveying authors and editors, they too came up with a list of one hundred books that define the past one hundred years. Sadly, few of them are religious and fewer still were chosen for their spiritual insights. A quick review of the top ten choices reveals

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why President Bill Clinton, a Rhodes scholar and avid reader, confessed after reading the list, "I feel as if I am ignorant." Most of us may feel the same way when we see the list.


1. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams

2. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James

3. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington

4. A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

5. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

6. Selected Essays, 1917-1932, T.S. Eliot

7. The Double Helix, James D. Watson

8. Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

9. The American Language, H.L. Mencken

10. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes


1. Ulysses, James Joyce

2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

5. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

6. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

7. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

8. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler

9. Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence

10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

   Regretfully, none of the top one hundred books of the twentieth century is a work published by a Christian press. In fact, none of the books has a specific religious focus except for William James's psychological study The Varieties of Religious Experience. And yet, every one of the top ten choices for nonfiction and fiction in the twentieth century reflects a worldview that cannot be ignored, whether Christian or secular.

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Quite naturally, then, we must ask, "Should Christians read secular books?" The answer is a selective yes. Secular books, and particularly those that are highly recommended by critical review, give added depth and breadth to the perspective of the Christian mind. Like the sharpening of iron against iron, they will challenge and confirm our Christian worldview. They will also teach us to be discerning readers because secular books cannot be read uncritically.

   Beth McDonald, one of the professors whom I hired to teach literature at Spring Arbor College (Michigan), was very circumspect in her Christian life. With all due caution, she avoided any appearance of evil. But when it came to teaching English and American literature as a core discipline in the Christian liberal arts, she approached literary works with questionable language or scenes by reminding her students, "We can't stop the birds from flying over our heads, but we can stop them from building nests in our hair." In other words, to be liberally educated Christians, the students needed to read secular literature, but they did not have to absorb the values or espouse the viewpoints.

   In the book Invitation to the Classics, we see another reason for reading secular literature. Too often, believers give up early on books that are not transparently Christian or filled with evangelical jargon. Cowan and Guinness have done us a special service by probing the surface of images, languages and plots to discover truths that are rooted in biblical Christianity and contain the potential for redemptive hope.

   Recently, I finished reading John Grisham's best-seller The Testament. As I read, I found my faith resonating with Grisham's story of the wastrel attorney who discovers the beauty and meaning of a Christian Missionary who lives selflessly for primitive Indian tribes in the remote Brazilian jungle. She proves her faith by refusing to claim the inheritance that would have made her one of the world's richest women. Not only does the testimony of her life bring the attorney to faith, but between every line in Grisham's story is the repudiation

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of the false values that are driving us in our secular society. An author's faith is not so evident in most contemporary novels, but Grisham's work reminds us that God can reveal his truth in many ways.

   Still another reason for selectively reading secular literature is to be alert to what the world is thinking and feeling. A periodic check of the New York Times best-seller index can be most enlightening. Not long ago, the index showed a surprising number of best-sellers that dealt with the subject of spirituality. Even though they ranged from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, the signal was clear: Deep within the human psyche of this generation, there is a thirst to know God. Books on Eastern religion, personalistic psychology, the cult of self-realization, and New Age philosophy give us a base for understanding contemporary beliefs and help us find an entry point for Christian witness.

Christian Classics: Old and New

   As a fitting conclusion to the many recommendations of books that might qualify as Christian classics, we can return to the challenge, "Imagine that you are to be exiled all alone on a deserted island. You are given the privilege of taking your Bible and ten books with you. Which ten books would you choose?"

   The task is even more difficult now because our choices will include old books already acknowledged as Christian classics and new books that are yet to pass the test of time. Yet, as we remember from the pyramid principle, only a handful of books can be read more than once and will grow with us. With this thought in mind, I made a list for my library in exile. Originally, my list included more than fifty books, old and new, fact and fiction, prose and poetry.

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Finally, after making many difficult choices, I came to my list of ten. The books that I would want to read again and again are the following:

1. The Confessions, St. Augustine

Without question, The Confessions is the autobiography of autobiographies. In his search for God, Augustine gives us intellectual and spiritual insights in a context of prayer and praise that have never been matched.

2. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis

Here is the prototype for all devotional literature. The author awakens in us a thirst for the purity of spirit and simplicity of life that comes only as we wholeheartedly adore Christ and seek to follow him.

3. Pensees, Blaise Pascal

When Pascal writes, "The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing," he frames the paradox out of which profound thoughts and great truths are born.

4. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If I had only one novel to read, The Brothers Karamazov would be my choice. Dostoyevsky probes the depth of human sin and the height of Christ's redemptive power.

5. The Pursuit of God/ The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer

By counting these two small books as one, we would encounter the mind and spirit of a man with a deep and abiding sense of the presence of God.

6. The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

Poetry with rhythm and depth is a life-support system for a desert island. Form, line, and color all come together in this artistic masterpiece.

7. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis

Satan cannot stand ridicule and a person exiled on a desert island cannot lose a sense of humor. Lewis's ability to convey truth in satire will dispel loneliness with a laugh.

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8. The Cross of Christ, John Stott

If contemporary Christianity is to survive, the doctrine of the cross must be its lifeline. As always, John Stott speaks the truth with love.

9. In the Name of Jesus, Henri J.M. Nouwen

With penetrating spiritual insights, Nouwen identifies the three temptations of leaders, whether in isolation or among the masses. Who can ever forget God's call to Nouwen, "Go among the poor in spirit, and I will heal you"?

10. The Incendiary Fellowship, Elton Trueblood

As a cure for the tendency toward introspection that comes with isolation, Trueblood will not let us forget that we are members of the body of Christ with a fiery passion for the salvation of the world.

   We are now ready for exile. With our Bible in hand and ten books in our briefcase, we have an intellectual and spiritual survival kit for use on a lonely island. More than survival is at stake. During our exile, we must grow intellectually and spiritually by reading and rereading the books we have chosen.

   What books would make up your library in exile? What classic Christian books do you want to read and reread? As you begin to read books that will lead to your own Christian understanding and spiritual growth, you will make discoveries that you can claim as your own. Like an explorer mapping the way over uncharted territory, you will find classic books that serve as landmarks showing the way and contemporary books that serve as locators defining reality. The text is not dead. Whatever the medium for the books of the future, we must remember that "in the beginning was the word," which shall never pass away. God's Word and the books that are commentaries on his Word will still be communicators of the faith "once delivered to the saints."

Appendices  ||  Table of Contents