By this time next year we will likely have read dozens of new books and articles. Of these, how many of them will have been worthy of our attention?
The deplorable rumor has it that the “classics” are for scholars to know and high-school students to endure. What a tragedy! For the foundation of Western civilization has been slowly built between the lines of these impressive works. Like a lawyer arguing a case, these writings do more than explore the grand ideas of life and death, civilization and chaos; they take a stand, advocating right over wrong and good over evil. They engender, in the hearts of their readers, love for that which is lovely and animosity toward that which is amoral. Thus, it is no surprise that the Christian faith has “animated the majority of these masterworks.”1
What is a Christian to think about literature, even “Christian” literature? First, it should be put in context. As C. S. Lewis rightly noted, the conversion of one sinner “is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies . . .”2 Furthermore, Christian enjoyment is not limited to “preachy” literature; ironically, the believer is more inclined than the “cultured Pagan” to value literature simply because it pleases the imagination: “We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God.”3 Still, Christians should be first in line to read, enjoy, and promote these particular classics since, at their best, they are a mirror to God’s truth—reflecting the importance of wisdom as well as the emptiness of folly.
So, for the promotion of that which is noble, here are a few praiseworthy works. Of course, Mark Twain said a classic is “a book that people praise and don’t read.”4 Although there are many Christian classics, here are ten to prove him wrong.5
* Augustine, Confessions (c. 400): With frankness, Augustine describes the intellectual and moral obstacles to his conversion. It is both a confession of sin and profound thanksgiving to God.
* Bede, Ecclesiastical History (c. 731): This English monk gave the world its first, carefully researched history. Here, the Venerable Bede introduces A.D. (Anno Domini) as a means to date history.
* Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (c. 1321): A soul journeys through the “Inferno,” “Purgatoria,” and “Paradisio.” It includes some of the most insightful writing on heaven, outside Scripture.
* William Shakespeare, King Lear (c. 1605): Lear sees but cannot perceive the truth. As usual, Shakespeare points desperate characters (and audiences) to the existence and value of the divine.
* John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667): In the tradition of the Odyssey and Aeneid, Milton wrote this epic to immortalize his culture’s values. Some call it the “anti-epic” because Milton’s hero is God.
* William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1650): Here, American history and the doctrine of Providence collide. These settlers enter a new land exercising an ancient faith.
* John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678): This allegory of the Christian life has creatively and simply communicated the truths of Christianity to generations throughout the world.
* Samuel Johnson, Rasselas (1759): In this short tale about an Ethiopian prince looking for happiness, Johnson communicates the enduring truth that satisfaction is not found on earth.
* Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886): Today, it is common to hear, “I’m a victim of my circumstances.” Not so in Hardy’s world, where a man’s flaws are enough to topple his kingdom.
* C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (1942): While The Chronicles of Narnia is Lewis’s best known work, the Screwtape Letters made him famous. It views sin from Satan’s perspective as he gives advice to a junior devil about how to re-enslave a human being.
Unlike many products of popular culture, the classics treat sin seriously, portraying it as real, ugly, and dangerous. Furthermore, these authors eschew novelty for the sake of novelty, masterfully redressing the transcendent ideas of hope, redemption, and forgiveness. Salt and light, if you will.
1 Os Guinness, “The Purpose of Invitation to the Classics,” in Invitation to the Classics, eds. Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 14.
2 C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Religion and Modern Literature: Essays in Theory and Criticism, ed. G.B. Tennyson and Edward E. Erickson, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1975), 53.
4 Guinness, 13.
5 Of course the list of Christian classics is virtually inexhaustible. See James V. Schall, Another Sort of Learning (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).