I’m always on the lookout for something new to read or watch or listen to. That’s why, in the last chapter of my new book, Discovering God Through the Arts, I provide many such lists that might prove interesting and helpful for the spiritual searcher. Here is an expanded version of one list: 25 great novelists who reflect on Christian faith through their work.
As you read through my picks, please understand I am not arguing these are the very best 25. I’m only doing what the title suggests—list 25 novelists who are worth your time and exploration. If I’ve left off some of your favorites, I’d love to hear your recommendations.
I hope some of these will be new to you and spark a fruitful journey into theologically rich literature.
1. Jane Austen
Austen’s novels of manners advance high moral ideals, but without a whiff of preachiness or sentimentality. She was a keen observer of human relationships and the complexity of the class system, and her writing shows a deep distrust of the romantic love celebrated in modern films and books. She was all about good character. Start with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
2. Georges Bernanos
The Diary of a Country Priest is a deceptively simple novel of doubt, faith, and self-sacrifice. His hero is a young priest whose mind is riddled with self-doubt and questioning, but who nonetheless provides those around him with a powerful witness to the love and mercy of God. It is hopeful and heartrending at the same time. His other novels are also worth a look.
3. Wendell Berry
Berry’s novels and short stories about Port William create a world of their own. His inimitable style catches the rhythm of life lived at a slower, more thoughtful pace, and his characters seem as real as your friends and relations. There is a gentle wisdom to be discovered in Berry’s world, a wisdom that reflects a simple faith in God and kindness toward others. Start with Jayber Crow and A Place in Time.
4. Frederick Buechner
The subtitle of Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale pretty neatly sums up the flavor of his novels as well. A raucous sense of humor and aptitude for seeing God at work in the mundane circumstances of everyday life give the reader a mirror for self-examination. These are deeply human meditations on faith and doubt. Start with Godric and The Book of Bebb.
5. Willa Cather
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a novel that reveals Cather’s twin obsessions: the American Southwest and Catholicism. Like the landscape she describes, the prose has a sparse and elegant simplicity. Its pace is languid and stately, its emotion understated and intense. What unfolds is the story of a missionary to the Mexicans and Native Americans—a story of quiet and humble heroism. Simply breathtaking.
6. G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton could pack more paradox and truth into a single sentence than possibly any other writer in history. His rollicking novels and short stories are a joy to read for their insight and their infectious cleverness. His swashbuckling faith, plain common sense, and startling observations keep readers turning the pages. Start with The Man Who Was Thursday and The Complete Father Brown Stories.
7. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dostoyevsky’s novels run the full gamut of human emotions and religious experiences. He struggles with vexing intellectual and spiritual issues, but never at the expense of the storytelling. His writing demonstrates a haunting awareness of the depth to which human beings can sink and the heights of self-sacrifice of which we are capable. Start with The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.
8. Shūsaku Endō
Writing as a Christian in Japan, a culture where Christianity is a minority religion, Endo received critical acclaim from believers and unbelievers alike. His Silence is a harrowing consideration of persecution and martyrdom without a hint of romanticization. Start with Silence and then explore his other novels and plays.
9. Gail Godwin
With the graceful pace of a 19th-century novel, Father Melancholy’s Daughter tells the moving story of a faithful Episcopal priest who struggles with doubt and depression, the wife who leaves him, and his relationship with an almost-grown daughter. Its themes of family, faith, and forgiveness are brought forward with gentle and artful storytelling. Its sequel, Evensong, is a worthy successor.
10. Ron Hansen
What happens when an attractive 17-year-old girl enters a convent in upstate New York and begins to experience, just as Christ once did, bleeding from her hands, feet, and side? Hansen’s vivid and restrained novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, shows the turmoil these manifestations cause and the questions they raise about her sanity, integrity, and relationship with God. Among Hansen’s other fine novels is Exiles, which draws on a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
11. Susan Howatch
Howatch’s series of novels about clergy in the English village of Starbridge might seem to be, on the surface, merely emotional potboilers. But their psychological exploration of the relationship between the spirit and the flesh provides an engrossing glimpse into the struggles of faith in the modern world. Her Anglican priests are not plaster-cast saints; they struggle against the temptations of power, status, and sex. Start with Glittering Images and Glamorous Powers.
12. C. S. Lewis
What can one say about Lewis that hasn’t already been said? His combination of a vigorous commitment to the reasonableness of faith and soaring creativity produced a body of work that has nourished and challenged innumerable readers. His effortless storytelling makes the gospel come alive in fresh ways. Start with The Chronicles of Narnia and The Great Divorce.
13. George MacDonald
George MacDonald’s writings combine a childlike sense of what is truly important and a rich sense of the mystery of holiness. In his fairy tales and his adult fiction, he sets forth a compelling vision of goodness and beauty. So powerful is that vision that Lewis wrote that one of MacDonald’s books “baptized his imagination.” Start with The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind.
14. François Mauriac
The many searingly introspective and psychologically probing works of this award-winning French novelist center on sin and grace. He uses the realities of the human condition as a springboard for profound theological musings in fictional form. Start with Vipers’ Tangle and Therese Desqueyroux.
15. Flannery O’Connor
Many may find O’Connor’s novels and short stories perplexing and even off-putting until they understand that she intends to shock readers into realizing their sin and self-deceit. Peopled with unforgettable characters and outlandish situations, her writing is startling and unforgettable. It will haunt your imagination long after you finish reading her. Start with The Complete Stories.
16. Walker Percy
Quite possibly my favorite modern novelist, Walker Percy brings to his work sharp powers of observation, quirky Southern humor, a vast intelligence, and a commitment to the Christian worldview. They focus on the existential quandaries of modern life and lay bare the aimlessness and ennui of our times. Did I mention he is extremely funny? Start with The Second Coming and Love in the Ruins. Or sample the brilliant mix of fiction and philosophy in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.
17. Marilynne Robinson
One of the most esteemed novelists of our day, Robinson is also theologically sophisticated. Her series of novels about a humble and imperfect saint of a pastor and the struggles with his family and congregation are beautifully crafted and rich in humane insight. Over the course of four novels, she writes of the same set of events from four different perspectives. The result brims with insight into the human heart and the triumph of grace. Start with Gilead and read them all.
18. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn’s life is a paradigm of moral courage, and he used his experiences in a Soviet concentration camp to lay bare the twin capacity in human beings for unspeakable cruelty and unimaginable bravery. With his characters, it’s usually faith in God that gives them the strength to persist in the worst of circumstances. Start with Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
19. J. R. R. Tolkien
Recently chosen as the most popular fictional work of our time, The Lord of the Rings is an epic adventure of good and evil and a personal mythology that stands supreme in its themes of heroism, loyalty, courage, and sacrifice. And though it portrays little faith, a powerful sense of providence resonates through its pages, and an ultimate triumph of good over evil—even if it comes at a cost. Start with the prequel, The Hobbit.
20. Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s ability to create memorable characters, and to illustrate how their hearts and souls change, are two of the many qualities that make him one of the very finest novelists. Whether through his short parables or dramatic epics recounted against a vast sprawling canvas, he makes the emotional and spiritual lives of his characters come alive. Start with The Death of Ivan Illych and Anna Karenina.
21. Anthony Trollope
Trollope’s charming tales of rural clerical life show keen insight into human nature. Touching and humorous, the first two books in his series, The Warden and Barchester Towers, reveal the political intrigue of an English parish. Every pastor or priest will recognize the internal battles of church politics as Trollope describes them.
22. Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter is the Nobel Prize–winning masterpiece of this Norwegian novelist. It is part of a grand historical epic set in 14th-century Norway that tells the story of a passionate and strong-willed woman who chooses love over duty and familial approval. Few writers have captured the world of the Middle Ages so well, which is a testament to her research and her literary skill.
23. Walter Wangerin Jr.
Wangerin, a Lutheran pastor, has the enviable ability to craft one beautiful sentence after another and to move the reader’s heart toward faith without resorting to mawkish sentimentality. The Book of God manages the herculean task of telling the whole narrative of the Bible in the form of a novel. Works like The Book of the Dun Cow and Ragman also deserve notice.
24. Evelyn Waugh
An elegance and a deft comic touch mark all the work of this important British novelist. His constant theme is the vacuity of life without God. Rather than concentrate on the joys of faith, this talented curmudgeon emphasizes the boredom and stifling meaninglessness of a life focused on this world’s attractions. Start with Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust.
25. Charles Williams
His metaphysical mysteries are probably the most unusual books on this list. He produced a series of novels characterized by their preoccupation with the presence of the supernatural—both good and evil—in our world. They are filled with bizarre occurrences, numinous revelation, intense spiritual experience. They are strange and utterly fascinating. Start with Descent Into Hell and The Place of the Lion.