What makes a work of literature worth recommending to Christian readers? Writing 20 years before the birth of Christ, the Roman author Horace bequeathed a twofold criterion for determining the worth of a work of literature that has stood the test of time. Posterity has most often used the words wisdom and delight to capture Horace’s idea of the function and rewards of literature.
I choose to read and reread works of literature on the basis of these two criteria. Sometimes I go to a work of literature seeking edification, and I’m entertained as a byproduct. Other works beckon me because I know they’ll provide an experience of enlightened leisure, with edification as a byproduct.
With the two criteria of edification and entertainment or enjoyment serving as a platform, here are five novels that I feel comfortable recommending to Christian readers.
1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This is my favorite novel. I go to it to be entertained, and I’m edified along the way.
At the narrative level, it has all the ingredients that humans most relish in a story—action, conflict, skill in description of settings and characters, and suspense. When I read a novel, I want to be transported, and this novel delivers the goods, transporting me to Victorian England. I know of no better introduction to the land and people of England than this book. The style sparkles, and the humor is continuously delicious.
The moral vision of the story is Christian, elevating such virtues as sincerity (as opposed to pretentiousness), compassion, loyalty, contentment, and the pleasures of the common life.
2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This is a “signature book” of American literature. It’s also a Christian classic, but one would hardly know because of how it’s misrepresented in secular classrooms.
The key to understanding this story of guilt and forgiveness is found in the way Hawthorne puts three worldviews on the playing field. Initially, it seems the two combatants are Puritan behavior and the Romantic worldview that elevates feeling to the highest value. In this contest, we naturally side with the Romantic heroine Hester Prynne. But as the book unfolds, a third perspective gradually unfolds. It is the true Puritan, or Christian, worldview. The Reverend Dimmesdale’s attainment of salvation in the next-to-last chapter is one of the greatest climaxes in literature.
Hawthorne is a master of style, with description, symbolism, and character portrayal topping the list.
3. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
For any reader fearful of the “long read,” this work is certain to please. It’s actually a novelette, approximately 60 pages. This is the literary work that baptized my imagination in the sense of showing me how thoroughly Christian a work of fiction can be. The storyline is the life and death of the protagonist, an Everyman figure. Ivan’s life, the narrator tells us, had been “most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” The portrayal of the shallow values by which Ivan’s society lives (and by which Ivan lives until a life-changing accident propels him toward death) is a mirror of modern society.
This book shares with the Bible an ability to pierce to the heart of things, and the indictment of modern life is matchless. At the end, in a manner similar to the conversion scene in The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist achieves salvation.
4. The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz
This is the best Christian novel you’ve never heard of. The author was a prominent cleric in the Swedish Lutheran church in the middle of the 20th century. The book is a trilogy of novellas, but since it traces life in the same rural parish over the span of three successive pastors, it reads like a continuous novel. Each novella traces the spiritual conversion of a young pastor during his first two or three years in the pastorate. Each man arrives fresh from theological training and is nominally, rather than genuinely, Christian.
The book as a whole tells two stories—the “coming of age” spiritual pilgrimages of the three young ministers, and an episodic fictional history of a rural Swedish parish. In a manner parallel to The Death of Ivan Ilych, the content and perspective are heartwarming evangelical portrayals of the deepest spiritual realities.
5. The Stranger by Albert Camus
Other things being equal, I believe the literature of Zion is more rewarding than the literature of Babylon. Yet there are good reasons to read non-Christian literature, especially if we can enjoy them as a skillful performance of the imagination.
The Stranger initially grabbed my attention for the thing for which it’s most famous—it’s the story of someone who was convicted of murder, not because he shot a man to death, but because he did not weep at his mother’s funeral. The style of the book is continuously riveting.
At the level of worldview, this novel is a textbook example of existentialism, a view of life we must grasp because of its continuing presence in our culture. The backdrop against which I read this novel is my knowledge that the author was moving toward Christian belief when he met an untimely death in a car accident.
God Gives Us Leisure
Does God care about what novels we read? He does. He expects us to exercise good stewardship of our time, which includes a realization that leisure is a Christian calling in the sense that God commands it.
With that as a starting premise, what constitutes a good use of our leisure time? Growth. Leisure can edify as it refreshes.