To say that a book is a great Christian novel obviously and necessarily implies two things: first, that it is great and, second, that it is Christian. Many of the books here are widely considered to be great, but there seems to be little consciousness that they are also explicitly Christian. Although Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is widely thought of as a Christian work, as are Flannery O’Connor’s stories, Cry, the Beloved Country and Tolstoy’s War and Peace—and even Anna Karenina—are almost never referred to in this way. How many literate people are not even aware that Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo are unapologetically Christian? And The Lord of the Rings—how many among the vast multitude of its fans even guess that it is thoroughly and deeply Christian?
Here’s the list.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A young engaged couple came to me recently and asked if I would give them marriage counseling. “Absolutely not,” I responded. “I’m not qualified. But I’d be glad to meet with you and answer any questions you have.” My only condition was that they read this book, which is possibly the greatest Christian novel ever written, and is certainly the best novel on marriage ever written. (There may be some other great book on marriage I have never read, but I simply refuse to believe there is one better than this.) There are several marriages in this book, but two are primary: that of Levin and Kitty, the paradigm of a Christian marriage—a model of marriage—and that of Anna and Vronsky, which is a mockery of marriage. What Levin and Kitty have is love; what Anna and Vronsky have is mutual idolatry. It is Christian marriage and its evil twin. Reading this book might change your life.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I had a psychological block about even attempting this book because it was, to people of my generation, the quintessential Long Book—even though I had read longer books than this without psychological consequences. But once you begin this book, the length becomes your friend and the fact that it ever ends, an enemy. The story’s only weakness is that it doesn’t last forever. I have had a number of people tell me how sad they were when they had finished because they would simply miss these characters. Tolstoy had the great gift of being a master storyteller who could create an utterly real world with utterly real people. The best translations are those by Louise and Aylmer Maude and by Pevear and Volokhonsky.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I heard someone say that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the greatest evocation of the Christian West ever written. Every time I read it (and I think I have read it six times now) this judgment seems more accurate to me. Every time I see some deeper insight into the human experience, which is a quest like that of Frodo and Sam. Tolkien’s is a world in which evil must be fought, and where, as bad as it seems sometimes, we have to have faith in the fact that good wins in the end and that we can make a difference.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
This is my wife’s favorite book. It is the story of Stephen Kumalo, an elderly Black Anglican minister in South Africa in the time of Apartheid whose son has moved from their now-impoverished tribal town to the city of Johannesburg and hasn’t been heard from since. One day, the minister is told that his sister, who is also in Johannesburg, is in trouble. Kumalo takes what little money he has saved and goes in search of his son and sister in the city. He finds his sister is a prostitute and is addicted to alcohol, and his son a suspect in a murder case. Johannesburg in this story is Babylon, luring young people away from their tribal homes to their destruction. It is a story of faithfulness, forgiveness, and redemption. It is the story of how one man comes to terms with the requirements of justice and how mercy overcomes all. It is a stunningly beautiful book, not only in its message but in its telling. Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.” If this is true, this book will play a part.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I believe Wendell Berry to be the greatest living American writer. He is one of the few authors I read for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment and enlightenment of reading him. This book is the story of Jayber Crow, who is orphaned as a boy, and who sojourns to a Bible college thinking he is called to be a minister but leaves when he cannot find the answers to his theological questions. He learns how to cut hair and makes his way to his original Kentucky home, Port William, finding his real calling as the town barber. It is Jayber himself who narrates the story, and we see him as others do not. It is he who cleans the church and buries the town’s dead. There is a scene in the graveyard where he reflects on the importance of memory and how a community is maintained only through our remembrance of it that is, in my mind, one of the greatest scenes in literature. This book is one part Dickens’ David Copperfield, one part Homer’s Odyssey, and two parts Dante’s Divine Comedy. The least bookish of all my children says that this is his favorite book.
The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott
This was the first book I read by Sir Walter Scott. He was the most popular writer in English for a good hundred years or so, and now I know why. This book’s historical background of the Crusades frames a fascinating comparison between Christianity and Islam. I have always thought, as Arnold Lunn once pointed out, that we have an obligation to judge any position by the best arguments for it, not the worst ones we can think up. There are several places in this story where two great world religions come into conflict—in the action and in the dialogue. Scott shows us the character of Western Christianity in the persons of King Richard and Sir Kenneth of Scotland, and the character of Islam in the person of Saladin, perhaps one of its most attractive historical exemplars. We really feel—justly, I think—that Scott is trying to give us the best arguments for both sides. And despite the fact that we feel we have been given the best representation of Islam, still we see the superiority of Christianity and we sense that we are able to judge fairly because we have fairly heard both sides. The next time I am asked what it is about Western civilization that makes it worth trying to save, I am going to point to this book.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
If it weren’t for the existence of The Lord of the Rings, I would consider The Count of Monte Cristo perhaps the greatest Christian adventure story ever written. It continues to amaze me how a book written in the nineteenth century can speak so directly to a reader in the twenty-first, but this book does. As the reader you want vengeance for the wrongs committed against Edmond Dantès every bit as much as he does himself, but in the end you are far more satisfied by the redemption that eventually comes. The plot twists in this story are astounding. What a great Christian epic!
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is famous mostly for her short stories, but I believe this novel to be her greatest work. The first thing you must do in reading O’Connor is to understand her impish sense of humor. Once you “get” O’Connor, you will never let her go. She is trying to shock the modern reader out of his secular lethargy by confronting him with stark characters and a sometimes absurd plot. This novel is about a boy caught between his seemingly crazy great-uncle who thinks he is an Old Testament prophet and his secular, scientistic uncle who thinks he can save the boy by convincing him that the other uncle’s crazy religion is a sham. In this contrast O’Connor captures the two extremes of the modern personality—and the modern world.
The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy
Like many of the authors above, Percy does not shy away from portraying the world in all its depravity. His stories are like a prism through which we see the good, not in the light itself, but in its refraction. The question he asks here is: If we could find a way to satisfy every human desire and at the same time render everyone peaceful and harmonious, would we do it? He knew that you could do this only at the cost of humanity itself. Percy is the great twentieth-century defender, not of “humanity,” that dangerous abstraction, but of the human in all his imperfections.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I have disappointed a number of people by preferring the writing of Tolstoy to that of Dostoevsky. The advocates of Dostoevsky point to his more orthodox theology and to Tolstoy’s relative heterodoxy. But somehow Tolstoy’s works always seem to rise above his questionable theology, and in any case good theologians don’t necessarily make great writers. Nevertheless, the flaws in how Dostoevsky writes are more than made up for in what he has to say. In this book he tells of three brothers: Ivan the rationalist, Dmitri, enslaved to his passions, and Alyosha, who is a balance between the two. It is the story of a murder that drives each character to his ultimate and proper conclusion. The story of the Grand Inquisitor alone would make this book great, but the chapter, “Rebellion,” is one of the most harrowing confrontations with the problem of evil ever written.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
French writers tend to have an exuberance about their writing, which is one of the endearing things about them, but it does mean that their books are long. Hugo’s book bears little resemblance to the Broadway musical or the movie. We see the characters portrayed in this book in all their glory and in all their degradation. If Tolstoy is life, then Hugo is the world. Les Miserables is the story of several characters: Jean Valjean, a former convict befriended by a priest whose act of charity changes Jean into a good man; Marius Pontmercy, a young student whose life is transformed after he falls in love with Cosette and is saved by Jean Valjean; and Cosette, whose simple goodness changes both Marius and Jean Valjean. This book is criticized by some readers for its frequent and extensive digressions. But the digressions are what make the book so universal—they take the lessons of the story and ruminate on them. I find them among the best parts of the book.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
This book is about the life of a woman in fourteenth-century Norway. It won the 1928 Nobel Prize for literature. At the time of the story, Norway has been Christianized only for a few generations, and the pull of the old paganism is strong. This theme weaves its way through the story, much as it does in Beowulf. It is about Kristin, a young woman from a good family who rebels against her parents by running away with a young man. Her actions in defiance of the wise advice of her parents resound throughout her life. Her relationships with her husband and her children are all affected in indirect ways by her earlier choice. It is the story of how our sins can be visited upon our children. Kristin Lavransdatter is a book that will live with you for the rest of your life. It is about childhood, motherhood, and fatherhood, and has an ending that will make you weep—and rejoice.