We concluded last week that salvation is solely by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. So no, reading a lot of books, no matter how great the books, is not the way to gain salvation. But I withdrew in order, fighting a vigorous rearguard action, claiming that reading was still potentially helpful to the Christian and to other people as well. Reading the Bible a lot is very helpful, but it is also might be helpful to be reading lots of other books, including theology, economics, history, science, other stuff, and–please sit down–even fiction.
Fiction? Untrue stories? How could that be of any value to a Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian?
Well, if you think fiction cannot be helpful to you, please take up your complaint with Jesus Christ. I’ll sit back and listen to the discussion, with great interest. Because Jesus Christ Himself told lots of fictional stories. He told numerous parables–stories He and His listeners knew to be fiction–and He seemed to think this was a sensible way to talk to people and to convey truth to them.
Actually, He was correct. (What a shock.) Fiction can help us understand life, God, goodness, evil, everything, better. To ignore fiction as something unimportant for our lives is to turn our backs on one of the ways we learn. And as we learn, we can be bringing great joy to ourselves. We are built by God to respond to fiction. Jesus Christ knew it, and we should begin to understand that as well.
So today I will once again ride in on my white charger, carrying an armful of novels, and evangelize for fiction. If a person who has had no interest in fiction wanted to begin to read some of the books which help convey Christian civilization to succeeding generations, here is a checklist of twelve books. Relax, if you are a non-Christian, because not all of these authors are necessarily Christian, although the jury is still out on some of them. These are books you could read if you have any kind of affection–strong, weak, increasing or fading–for what has been Christian civilization. Some of the books may seem pretty heavy if you are a beginner, but some of them are much lighter. Here goes, alphabetically by the author’s last name.
1/Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She wrote only six novels before she died at age 41, and all six of them are excellent. But P and P is her most famous, and her most sparkling. Numerous films, of varying quality, have been made of the book. If you want to ease into the book by watching something on film first, the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version is a good place to start.
2/The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. Anne is the least famous of the Bronte sisters, but was the most thoughtful Christian of the bunch, and displayed remarkable Christian character in the way she lived and died (at age 29). Tenant is a novel which every Christian should read, especially those wanting to pretend that we can marry however we want and can get away with it.
3/Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Jane speaks for a lot of us. ‘”Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?”‘ Charlotte died at age 38–practically an ancient mariner succumbing of old age, when it comes to Bronte sisters. There are numerous excellent film versions of Jane Eyre.
4/David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Dickens was prolific, and this was his personal favorite. Part of it is autobiographical. This is one of our greatest writers, and this is him in top form.
5/Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is my nomination for the greatest novel of all time. Dostoyevsky wrote lots of other great books.
6/True Grit by Charles Portis. “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” Opening line. This may be the greatest novel ever written by an American. (My other nominee is below.) A love story as well as adventure and humor? You decide. Two excellent movies have been made of the book, but the book is better yet.
7/The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. He wrote lots of great fiction and lots of great non-fiction (of which The Gulag Archipelago is perhaps the most famous). Solzhenitsyn himself endured cancer as a young man. God preserved his life, to allow him to become one of the greatest writers of all time, and a man who fought with incredible determination and courage to preserve Christian civilization. And he started out as a good normal Marxist! He grew up, but it wasn’t quick and easy.
8/War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Fasten your seat-belt, because this is long. But it is famous for a good reason.
9/The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope. Another very prolific novelist. A strong percentage of his work is of high quality. This is the concluding Barset novel, so you may not want to start here. But consider trying something by Trollope.
10/Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. This is my other candidate for best American novel of all time. Twain wrote a lot of very good fiction.
11/The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse. Something lighter, to be sure. But delightful. Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves are featured in a series of books by Wodehouse. Bertie does the writing (except in one, which is inferior as a result). Bertie is an idiot, right? Then how come he has been able to write incredibly entertaining stories and novels which will live as long as reading exists?
12/Life Is Life: And Other Tales and Episodes by Zack (pen name of Gwendoline Keats). Twelve stories of varying length, by Zack. Who? She was an English writer, born 1865, who wrote five books of fiction. Four of them are very good, one flawed but with redeeming qualities. Full disclosure: I have written a book about Zack and her books, entitled By Noble Things She Stands: The Fiction of Gwendoline Keats/Zack. Her date of death is uncertain. Some of her stories are among the best ever written. That’s just my opinion, of course. Warning: Devonshire dialect may make some of her work difficult to understand.
Well, that was fun–for me, at least.
While I’m on the topic, I will give my nominations for the fiction writers in world history who are of the first rank. In alphabetical order: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Shakespeare, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, and Leo Tolstoy.
I don’t find myself rereading Shakespeare and Tolstoy as I do the others, but I acknowledge their greatness. With Shakespeare (a playwright rather than a novelist) I admit I have a hard time understanding his language. But he has said so many insightful things, wonderfully phrased, that I cheerfully put him in the first rank of writers.
Besides, I need him among my six writers of the first rank, to make the balance complete: three English, three Russian, zero rest of the world.
Which speaks highly of England and Russia. But maybe Christian civilization is young, and other countries will eventually contribute writers of the absolute first rank. Certainly they have already given us books and authors of wonderful greatness.
We are not saved by reading. But reading is a gift God gives to us, and reading helps us to appreciate the wonderful bounty of His world.