On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Rebecca McLaughlin—regular contributor for The Gospel Coalition and author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway/TGC)—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about apologetics, and more.
What books are on your nightstand?
I tend to read dead people. There are upsides to this! It weeds out the flimsy literature that won’t survive beyond its cultural moment, and it reveals what in the human condition is perennial. But for the last year, I’ve committed to giving authors with a pulse a chance.
Currently, my nightstand features Sam Allberry’s excellent new book, 7 Myths about Singleness, as well as Sight, a debut novel about birth, death, grief, and scientific discovery by British author Jesse Greengrass.
I’m also halfway through Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is highly traumatic. I’m having to read it in stages, with space in between to lament. But as a white person living in America, I must confront the horror of slavery at an emotional level, and Morrison’s extraordinary writing gives me access to that.
What are your favorite fiction books?
As a child, The Lord of the Rings shaped me more than any other book. I’ve returned to it every few years since, waiting to forget enough to enjoy it afresh. Right now, I’m reading it to my 8-year-old daughter—much to our mutual delight! Tolkien’s grasp of joy and lament and the depth of non-erotic love have always appealed to me. The moment when Eowyn defeats the Witch King of Angmar, and the scene when Sam sings to his imprisoned master to let Frodo know he’s there, exemplify these themes. At a holistic level, the possibility of an even more magical world than Tolkien’s actually existing is one of the reasons I find Christianity so compelling. We who believe in the resurrection have that hope!
As a child, The Lord of the Rings shaped me more than any other book.
Jane Austen’s last completed book, Persuasion, is my favorite novel. It is, at heart, a tender love story. But it is a hard-won love, increased by disappointment. Austen was a serious Christian, and the book starts with a brilliant depiction of idolatry as she describes the heroine’s father, Sir Walter Elliot. Like someone given to extreme piety, Sir Walter is a one-book man. But his book is not the Bible. It’s the Baronetage—the yearbook of the British aristocracy—which includes a page about him that he paws over repeatedly. Two of his daughters have imbibed his self-obsession. But his middle daughter, Anne, is self-forgetful. She is Austen’s heroine.
You studied poetry for many years. Are there particular poets you’d recommend?
Yes! Much as I love prose, I managed to navigate my way through three English literature degrees on an almost exclusive diet of poetry. Shakespeare was my focus. He is the English poet par excellence, and lines from his plays play around my mind on an almost daily basis. But two more recent poets I’d recommend are the 19th-century Anglo-Italian poet Christina Rossetti and the early 20th-century Anglo-American poet T. S. Elliot. Both were deeply shaped by faith. Rossetti is most known today for the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Her work treads the line between pain and ecstasy, and we meet Christ in that margin in her poems. If you want a taste of that, try “A Better Resurrection.” It begins, “I have no wit, no words, no tears; / My heart within me like a stone / Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears”—and brings us around to union with Christ.
T. S. Eliot’s poetry is also explicitly Christian at times. Like Rossettii’s, Eliot’s best-known Christian-focused poem is connected to Christmas: “Journey of the Magi.” But most of his poems function more like the Book of Ecclesiastes, exposing life’s futility and making us long for more. Eliot dismissed his most famous poem, “The Wasteland,” as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” and, despite years of analytical training, I would honestly have a hard time explaining to anyone who wasn’t gripped by it why it’s compelling. But the grip is there. Indeed, for all Eliot’s checkered history and mixed-up life, a friend of mine came to Christ while he was a student at Oxford simply from studying Eliot’s works.
Which childhood books stick with you most?
I can’t read Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant without crying. I’ve tried. Multiple times! It’s an intensely beautiful children’s story about a giant whose selfishness keeps the spring away from his castle, until he learns to love. At the end, we find he has met Christ. It moves me partly because of Wilde’s deeply conflicted relationship with Christianity.
This comes out in a brilliant scene in his most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After years of cruel debauchery, committed only to beauty and pleasure, Dorian’s decadent mentor, Lord Henry, poses this question: “By the way, Dorian . . . what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose—how does the quotation run?—his own soul?”
Though a far less sophisticated tale, The Selfish Giant weds beauty to redemptive love. Both stories start with sin and end with death, but only one protagonist finds redemption.
What books have most influenced your thinking about apologetics and Christianity’s claims?
We all suffer from confirmation bias, which makes us liable to accept weak arguments for our beliefs. To compensate for this, I try to major on books by non-Christians that engage apologetic questions from the other side—either with a perspective that is hostile to Christianity, or with a somewhat neutral lens, looking at potentially relevant data without a Christian rinse. This helps me figure out what is and isn’t defensible and where the pressure points are—both for Christianity and also for alternative belief systems. As someone who is trying to address non-Christians and equip believers, I don’t want to add my bias to that of another Christian author and produce something with two layers of Christian veneer that would need to be scraped off to get to the facts.
The further I go on in life, the more I find the things the Bible says to be actually true.
That said, I’ve benefited greatly from books by Christian academics. Two recent reads that stand out for me are Peter Williams’s Can We Trust the Gospels? and Christian Smith’s Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver. Williams offers a timely and accessible briefing on the best arguments (old and new) for the authenticity of the Gospels. Smith evaluates whether prominent atheist intellectuals make a credible case that atheism supports their moral ideals. His conclusions are devastating. It’s a hard read if you’re not academically minded, but it’s worth the effort. The idea that our commitment to universal human rights and sacrificial care for the global poor are better grounded by atheism than Christianity gets ripped apart. But there is no bravado. Smith calmly dismantles the claim, from a purely academic point of view.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
The further I go on in life, the more I find the things the Bible says to be actually true. It’s not always a pleasant discovery! Paul prayed three times for the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh. God’s answer was no, no, no: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In the past few years, I’ve been learning again and again that God doesn’t need my strength, but graciously uses my weakness. This isn’t an excuse for us to wallow in sin or self-doubt. Quite the opposite. It means we can stop agonizing over whether we have what it takes (we don’t), or whether people will think well of us (they won’t), or why we don’t seem to be able to make it without help (we can’t)—and so give our weak selves to the work God has given to us.
God has knocked the stuffing out of me multiple times in the past few years, but that’s okay. I don’t need to be filled with stuffing to serve him; I need to be filled with his grace.