The Reading Nook: The Great Evangelical Novel

If you haven’t already learned this about me, you might as well know. I’m a literature snob. Whenever someone asks me how I liked a book, my comments are usually prefaced with the statement “well, it wasn’t Dickens, but…”

There are other authors I admire, other genre I enjoy. For me, however, Dickens is as good as it gets.

This means I don’t read much Christian fiction. I find much Christian fiction works have weak plots, poorly constructed characters, and poor writing. It’s frustrating to me, because I think as Christians we’re called to a level of excellence that simply isn’t represented in mainstream Christian literature. I’ve given up perusing the inspirational fiction shelves at the library, because I find nothing that inspires or challenges. As a middle schooler I read some Brock and Bodie Theone, and in high school for some light reading I picked up Perretti and Myers. I have read most of the Left Behind Series and Dekker’s Red, Black and White. For me, this was mostly cheap vacation reading, something I could entertain myself with, without thinking too hard.

I was fascinated to stumble across this blog post, Teaching Truth With Fiction, by Philip Jenkins, through a Christian philanthropy blog I follow (Fred’s Blog, by Fred Smith of The Gathering). Philip is looking for the best fiction to use to teach a course on evangelicalism at a secular college. He naturally mentioned Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan. Then he wandered down a few literary paths I don’t know with In His Steps (Sheldon), Elmer Gantry (Sinclair Lewis), Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Winterson) and Gilead (Robinson).

He concluded by searching out his readers for the best fiction books to use to teach evangelicalism, including modern thought on Christianity and discovery of Christian culture and thinking. Here are some of the thoughts I left in the comments on Jenkins’ blog.

  • A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Not intentionally a religious novel, but gives deep insight into concepts of self-sacrifice and relating that to Christian thought.
  • Pilgrim’s Regress, by C.S. Lewis
  • Barabbas, by Pär Lagerkvist
  • The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Painted Veil,by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Red, Black, and White, by Ted Dekker
  • books on spiritual warfare by Frank Peretti (such as This Present Darkness)
  • Blood of Heaven, and Eli, by Bill Myers

Many of the readers wanted to add things by Beverly Lewis and Francine Rivers – which may tell stories of redemption, but certainly aren’t college reading material. These books haven’t inspired me, and I think are a shallow representation of Christianity.

I could have added Lewis’ allegorical work The Chronicles of Narnia, although I’m not sure they’re suitable college reading material. I also consider Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings triology to be full of Christian symbolism, but it certainly isn’t clearly laid out Christian theology or philosophy.

Jenkins was specifically looking for 20th and 21st century novels, which excludes something like Paradise Lost, and also wanted to focus on Protestantism and Evangelicalism, excluding The Divine Comedy.

I’m curious to know, what have I left off my list? What works of fiction would you give to a college student to aid in their study of modern thought on Christianity? The works don’t necessarily have to be written by Christians, nor do they have to be complimentary of Christianity (The Poisonwood Bible certainly isn’t). One reader suggested The Handmaid’s Tale, which is certainly an interesting look at both religion and feminism, although I’d strike it from my list because I think the futuristic view of religion in the novel is not a fair representation of current Christian thought.

What novel(s) have you read that are full of deep theological truth and excellently written?

~Amanda

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