Books to Challenge the Thinking Christian

Karen Swallow Prior recently posted a list of Classic Literary Works to Challenge the Thinking Christian. The top four are all visions of the not-to-distant future dystopias and are among my favorite books.

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  • A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
  • Areopagitica by John Milton

I thought I would add a few, perhaps obscure books for the “Thinking Christian” to read. These books challenge Christians to think more deeply about the nature of faith and the problem of evil. I would include Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, and maybe Crime and Punishment on my list. I probably would not have included The Road since it is not particularly on religious/spiritual themes (although it is an excellent novel).  I think Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, or The Forever War are good political books but do not address “spiritual” issues.

Like Prior, I am interested in dystopian novels; for some reason, these “what if” novels tend to range toward spiritual issues. But sometimes, these books treat spirituality in ways most (evangelical) Christians would find shocking. As I look over the list, these are not “Christian” books, but they will push Christians to think about their faith more deeply.

Here is my list, in no particular order. I am sure there are excellent novels I have omitted. Feel free to suggest them in the comment section below.

The_Brothers_KThe Brothers K, David James Duncan. This book is a vague retelling of the Brothers Karamazov as a coming-of-age story in the late 60s. It follows the four Chance brothers as the react to the rapidly changing world of small-town America. Their father is a minor league baseball pitcher who suffers an injury, cutting short his career. Their mother is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist who struggles to keep the family together.

Silence, Shusako Endo. Written in 1966, this historical novel describes the Jesuit mission in Japan in the seventeen century. Most Christians are completely unaware of the Jesuit mission to Japan or the persecution of Hidden Christians (Kakure Kirishitan) during the Edo period.  During this time, Christians were forced to step on a fumi-e, an image of Jesus or the virgin Mary; those who refused were tortured and executed. Tracing the steps of a Portuguese missionary, this book explores the problem of the silence of God when his people suffer. Although the topic is disturbing, this is one of the most moving books I have ever read.

Night WeiselNight, Elie Wiesel. This 1958 book is a memoir of Wiesel’s experience as a teen in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944–1945.  The English translation is only 116 pages and is perhaps the most difficult book I have ever read. The overwhelming silence of God during Wiesel’s experience destroys his faith.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book, Walker Percy. Anything by Walker Percy is worth reading, but this 1983 is different. It is a collection of thought experiments and short humorous vignettes. The book strikes me as Robert Anton Wilson meets Pascal.

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. Like Silence, this book concerns a Jesuit mission to an unreached people, although in this novel, Father Emilio Sandoz is sent to an alien world to bring the gospel to an unknown race of beings. Innocent actions have grave consequences, and Sandoz suffers horribly before returning to Earth. The book questions God’s existence and the nature of faith as the priest must face his humiliation and subsequent anger with God.

A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz_cover_1st_edA Canticle for Lebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.  This book was written in 1959 and won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is a post-apocalyptic novel with a twist. The world is slowly recovering from hundreds of years of dark ages after a nuclear war while members of the order of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz faithfully copy the sacred texts. However, the texts are not Christian Scripture, but science and technology carefully stored by Isaac Leibowitz. Terry Bisson completed the book the posthumous Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. Canticle is a commentary on the relationship of church and state, faith, and science.

Small Gods, Terry Pratchett. A fantasy novel takes place in Pratchett’s Discworld, and like other books in that (very large) series, this book is satire and biting commentary on organized religion. In this world, the god’s size and power depend on how many “true worshipers” follow the god. The Great God Om has the largest religion but has few followers (he must manifest himself as a turtle). I love that the biggest religion had the smallest god because no one practicing religion was worshiping the god! To me, that is very preachable.

Hitchhiker's GuideThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, Douglas Adams. This is a bit of a cheat, but you should read all five books in this trilogy. In fact, skip the movie until you have read the books twice, listened to the radio programs, and played the Infocom text adventure. Then you can watch the movie. Since Adams was a self-described “radical atheist,” it might seem strange to include him on a list of books Christians should read. Adams is an entertaining writer who has a way of expressing complex theological problems with humor. Anyone who has read these books is already thinking about the Babel Fish (a twist in the teleological argument for the existence of God).

There are probably others I should include on a list of “good literature everyone should read,” but these would be my additions to the “thinking Christian’s library.” I love Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (or anything by Murakami), but his themes are not particularly theological. Most people who know me are wondering why I did not include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, but oddly enough, that novel has less theology than some of his later ones. Several Arthur C. Clarke novels could be included here (the Rama books, Childhood’s End, etc.)

What is a book you read that challenges you to think more deeply about matters of faith?


Hebrews 11:1-3 – Faith is Being Sure…

One of the more common characterizations of Christians is that they live by “faith” not facts.  Sometimes this is said in the context of a “faith versus science” debate.  Scientists (we are told) hold to facts proven to be true, Christians believe in things that cannot be proven by facts.  If a Christian is telling the story, then the scientist (probably an atheist Democrat) is too close-minded and too prejudiced to accept things he cannot explain rationally.  If a scientist is telling the story, then the Christian is a soft-headed uneducated person (probably a Republican from Texas) who believes in childish things.

I am reminded of a rather funny passage in Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  All science fiction stories have to come up with some explanation for why everyone in the future distant reaches of space all speak English.  Star Trek has a universal translator, for example.  In his story, Adams describes the Babel Fish, a tiny fish which, when inserted in one’s ear, translates all languages into what every language the host person thinks.  This fish is so complex it could not have possibly evolved naturally, so it is a clear proof of the existence of God.  Adams goes on to say:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly disappears in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

As funny as this is, it points out a misunderstanding about faith.  Faith is not believing in things you know to be untrue, or impossible, or strange.  Having faith in the Easter Bunny does not make him real.

The writer of Hebrews defines faith is being sure of what we believe in.  When a Christian talks about having faith, they are certain what they believe is built on a proper foundation and is objectively true.

“Sure” here is an important word, used only two other times in Hebrews (1:3 and 3:14).  The NIV renders this word in three different ways, although the difference between Hebrews 1:3 and Hebrews 11:1 should not be as great at the NIV translates (substance vs. sure). Literally, the word means that which stands under, or foundation. The word began as a medical or scientific term, although nothing of that meaning remains in the New Testament usage.  The word then was used in philosophy to describe the reality of something, as opposed to the philosophical “being.”

BAGD identifies ὑπόστασις as “substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality…”  The meaning here in Heb 11:1 is most often given as “realization” or “reality.”  Or as Louw and Nida comment, faith is “that which provides the basis for trust and reliance – trust, confidence, assurance.”   The NIV’s “sure” tries to combine these meanings, the substance of hope is the thing that gives one confidence that the hope for goal will occur, something that gives assurance of an abstract concept, something that is not necessarily provable, without substance.

The “substance/proof” is for things that are hoped for, not seen.  Hope is “to look forward with confidence to that which is good and beneficial.”  In the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ that provides the basis for that hope, first in his work on the cross, and secondly in his promise to return.   In the other five occurrences of the word in Hebrews, hope is rooted in salvation, each verse is talking about the content of our salvation, and in each case that hope is certain.

Hope in modern use tends to be more “wishful thinking.”  I hope this is over soon, I hope I get that for Christmas, I hope my kids grow up right, etc. Biblical hope is an expression of something that will happen at some point in the future and it is so certain that I can live my life on the foundation of my hope.