At the very end of John’s gospel, the author adds this postscript:
‘Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’ – John 21:25, NIV
There may be a certain amount of hyperbole involved in that statement, but a vast number of Christians have spent the last two thousand years endeavouring to remedy the lack. This list is somewhat biased, being based on books which I actually have on my shelves, but it is at least brief. It includes three fictional works, and three non-fiction. Showing still further bias one author, C. S. Lewis, appears twice. Here, then, is my list of six Christian classics, each of which I would heartily recommend.
The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan (1678): Received at the time as a radical anti-establishment Protestant text, embraced by the Victorians as an excellent source of moral development in children, and now largely relegated to the world of the academics and the religiously obsessive (ahem!), The Pilgrim’s Progress is the allegorical story of Christian, the ‘pilgrim’ of the title from the City of Destruction to the Celestial city, via such memorable places as the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and alternately helped and hindered along the way by individuals with names like Obstinate, Pliable, Faithful, Hopeful, and Ignorance. Written somewhat in the style of a script (the novel being a very new innovation at the time) it emphasises the importance of individual striving, rather than passive acceptance, in spiritual growth, and the struggles and challenges involved in living a life of authentic faith.
The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1867): Prince Myshkin is the self-professed idiot of the title, a young man afflicted with epilepsy and an unspecified mental illness or intellectual impairment which has left him with a Christlike selflessness and love. Suffice it to say that these attributes leave him ill-adapted for survival in the world of the Russian ruling classes, with tragic results (I admit, I’ve only just started reading it but it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t going to end well). The works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian Gospels’ thanks to the role they played in keeping the Christian faith alive during the Communist era, and The Idiot is perhaps the most deeply Christian of Dostoevsky’s works.
Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton (1908): ‘It is the purpose of the writer’, Chesterton wrote in the preface to Orthodoxy, ‘to attempt an explanation not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.’ At times dated, at times timeless, Chesterton’s spiritual autobiography gives the lie to anyone who claims that a rigorous intellectualism is inimical to a deep and sincere Christian faith.
The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1937): Bonhoeffer himself paid the ultimate price for his faith: as a founding member of the dissident Confessing Church in Nazi Germany he helped a number of Jews escape across the border to Switzerland and, after much spiritual anguish, was involved in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler before being imprisoned at Flossenburg Concentration Camp and executed on April 9th 1945. Structured around Christ’s Sermon On The Mount (to be found in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7), The Cost Of Discipleship is a radical Christian call to a vibrant and sincerely-lived Christian faith, written in the face of one of modern history’s darkest chapters.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis (1950): A beloved children’s classic for generations (and infinitely better than the movie, which drops several key scenes and lines), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe centres around the adventures of four children in the mythical world of Narnia – a world ruled by a wicked witch-queen but awaiting their saviour in the form of the mighty Lion, Aslan. The climactic scene around the stone table is an allegory for the Christian account of Jesus’ death and resurrection and remains the clearest and most easily-understood explanation of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement that I’ve ever encountered.
Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis (1952): Providing clear and easily-understood explanations of key Christian beliefs was one of C. S. Lewis’ greatest talents, and Mere Christianity, which starts off by addressing the question of whether God can reasonably be presumed to exist and goes from there, is beloved by many Christians today as the ultimate expression of that gift. Based on a series of BBC radio talks which Lewis (who had served in the trenches in WWI) gave on the subject of Christianity during WWII, like Chesterton a generation before Lewis eschews sentimentality in favour of saying, with St. Paul (Acts 26:25), only what he considers to be “true and reasonable.” The result is an apologetic of clarity and power which is well worth a read for both Christians and those seeking to understand Christianity.
And there you have it: my pick of six of the very best Christian classics. Have you read any of them? If so, what did you think?