Literature is one of the most effective—and enjoyable—ways to engage the culture.
Reading great literary works allows us to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). Even reading works reflecting mindsets that deviate from a biblical worldview can spur on spiritual growth, allowing us to imitate Daniel and Paul who were learned in their surrounding pagan cultures and used that knowledge to point to the Creator of the universe. Furthermore, reading works that convey worlds of experience different from our own allows us to walk a mile in our neighbor’s shoes, thereby assisting us in loving them better.
Toward these ends—as well as for the sheer pleasure of reading a good book—I’ve chosen a short list, ranging from classics written centuries ago to works from more recent years, all of which offer (in addition to a rich literary experience) various kinds of challenges to most contemporary Christians. Sometimes the challenge is in disturbing material or notions that counter the comfort of commonplace ideas and experiences. Some of the works offer a direct challenge against Christianity or the church. Sometimes the challenging aspect is simply in the work’s level of reading difficulty.
But I’ve chosen all the works because I believe the returns offered by their challenges are well worth the reader’s investment. These works—presented in no particular order—are among my own personal favorites and by no means reflect any comprehensive or universal list of great books. I simply believe that these are works that offer edifying reading for the Christian who is willing to be challenged and stretched in a variety of ways. I would consider all of these works to be most suitable for mature readers.
Each work here has helped me, in one way or another, to love the Lord my God with all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind—and to be a better steward of this world in which God has placed us. I pray they do the same for you.
1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: The first four books listed offer futuristic dystopias of one kind or another. The title of Bradbury’s book refers to the temperature at which books burn. The setting is a future America when books are outlawed and incinerated. In the past, Christians have been prone to censorship; today, it’s Christian ideas that are most under siege. This story demonstrates that censorship of any should frighten us all.
2. 1984 by George Orwell: Orwell’s classic features a totalitarian government that uses external force to transform internal thoughts and desires. The book is utterly terrifying in its realistic psychological and political insights.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Huxley offers a vision of a consumeristic world where citizens are encouraged to give in to their sexual and material desires. Children are manufactured, leaving sex and procreation completely severed—and promiscuity, not love, highly encouraged.
4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Road is a very dark but deeply moving and lyrical story of the journey of a father and his young son across a sparsely-populated and dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape.
5. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy: Hardy was a fierce critic of the church and its traditions. This work, his last novel, questions the role of the church in modern society as well as its most revered institution: marriage. The book was met with so much controversy when it was published that Hardy never wrote another novel. He was, as it turns out, prophetic.
6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Many connect the protagonist of this novel to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “Superman”—Nietzsche’s ideal figure who, faced with the “death of God,” devises his own morality absent any concepts of the divine or eternity. Crime and Punishment demonstrates the impossibility of such a life.
7. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy: This short story is a kind of parable. At its center is a literal “fall” of a successful and materialistic man, followed by a painful, slow, but moving journey to redemption through a most unlikely, humble means.
8. Beloved by Toni Morrison: A brutal and devastating fictional account of slavery in America, this novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.
9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: This autobiography by the recently-deceased Angelou brings home how far and how long the reach of slavery’s legacy has been in this country as Angelou retells a coming of age marred by racism, rape, and poverty.
10. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor: O’Connor uses the violent and grotesque to shock complacent characters (and readers) into recognition of the grace of God at work all around. This is not your Sunday School version of Jesus, however. Start with “Revelation” which depicts more literally than most of her stories O’Connor’s recurring themes and techniques.
11. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: This book-length, highly readable poem depicts a journey through hell, purgatory, and finally, an ascent into heaven. A work reflective of medieval cosmology and theology, it offers challenges to and insights into many of today’s Christian assumptions, particularly in the categorizing of sins in Inferno.
12. A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift: This is probably the most difficult work to read on the list. Dive in with the modest goal of enjoying whatever you get and letting the rest go. A satire on the abuses of religion and the excesses of the early modern age, the allegorical parts depicting the three brothers (who symbolize the Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican traditions) are the most delightful and instructive for the general reader.
With a bonus selection, let’s make it a baker’s dozen:
13. Areopagitica by John Milton: This treatise by the seventeenth century Puritan poet and divine served as a foundation for the modern concepts of free speech. Here Milton argues that his Puritan government’s censorship only undermined the power of Truth to overcome falsehood. In pursuit of Truth, Milton argued that books should be “promiscuously read.” The full text is available online here.