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What Seven Novels Would You Assign For A Christian Fiction Course?


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Scenario: You are teaching an English course at a secular university on "Christian fiction" (and of course, you know "Christian fiction" is not used to described the salvific status of the novels but the general themes, issues, worldview, spirituality, etc...represented by the novels). You've assigned seven novels for your students to read - what novels would you choose? Do you include novels that aren't particularly well-written but that have proven wildly popular among Christians (In His Steps, The Shack)? Do you include novels written by unbelievers/agnostics that deal with religious characters (Elmer Gantry)?

 

 

 

He finds no mercy

And he's lost in the crowd

With an armoured heart of metal

He finds he's running out of odd-numbered daisies

From which to pull the petals

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Do you include novels that aren't particularly well-written but that have proven wildly popular among Christians (In His Steps, The Shack)?

No - with only seven choices, any bad book is replacing an essential book.  Don't do it.  Not with options like these.

 

Personally, I'd go with -

The Divine Comedy (1320) - by Dante Alighieri

The Canterbury Tales (1392) - by Geoffrey Chaucer

Paradise Lost (1667) - by John Milton

Robinson Crusoe (1719) - by Daniel Defoe

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) - by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Till We Have Faces (1956) - by C.S. Lewis

Silence (1966) - by Shusaku Endo

Hmmm, there’s so many others, but I’d have to struggle in an introduction to “Christian Fiction” to introduce the essentials. Given the vast riches to choose from, two books from the twentieth century already has things top-heavy.

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Jeremy's list is excellent. I just finished my third reading of Silence, and it's essential.

 

A few more I'd single out, some of which are on the Image list:

 

My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Say You're One of Them, Uwem Akpan

The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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How strict is your definition of "novel"? I see that Jeremy recommends three works that aren't novels, necessarily (I'm not sure even Bakhtin would accept them as such), so picking them--while not a bad idea--would require some theoretical shovel-work. Worth doing, for certain, but it'll depend on the level your students are at. I'm assuming juniors/seniors? And how long are the classes? 

 

At any rate, I'd actually be strongly in support of doing a "Christian blockbuster" both because these books tell us interesting things, historically, and because reading them can help fill out the texture of what the "Christian novel" (itself, as you know, a vexed term) looks like. The Shack--nah, not really. If the class were "Christian popular fiction" then I'd recommend it (though see below), but it's too recent to really do much cultural work with. But In His Steps or even--better!--Ben-Hur would fit the bill nicely, I think.

 

If you're going to take "novel" in the strict definition--and choose as its genesis Don Quixote--then here's what I'd recommend (cribbing from Jeremy where necessary): 

 

Robinson Crusoe by Defoe (Inescapable, perhaps, as a genesis-point, though I'll bet a case could be made for Don Quixote)

The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne (here's where "Christian fiction" gets loose-ish, but even if the students have read it, it'll be worth seeing in another context)

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (alas, it's more essential than The Idiot, though I prefer the latter)

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Wise Blood by O'Connor

 

I had The Ball and the Cross by Chesterton on there, but took it off--though it's a good book. I had the great fortune of having it recommended to me in tandem with The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov (another book I wish I could have fit on the list). I also wish Sterne could go on the list; A Sentimental Journey handles the Pauline "wretched man that I am" turn in a way that's interesting in its commitment to Enlightenment science and some form of Christian meditation on sin and obligation.

 

Looking over the list, it's heavy on male writers. Gilead could go somewhere. You could replace The Scarlet Letter with the more orthodox Uncle Tom's Cabin, though I weep for your students if you do. Jane Eyre has promise.

 

My list is also very Anglo-Saxon. Silence has been recommended and, though it's not on my list, it probably should be. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton has the potential to do some interesting work in this context.

 

I'd fight for Ben-Hur, though, both because I'm an Am Lit person and because I do firmly believe that any attempt to deal with the idea of a "Christian novel" has to address its blockbuster or popular forms as well as its big-L Literary incarnation. And Ben-Hur was tremendously important. Actually, the more I think about it the more I like the idea of including it on such a list.

 

Using the strictest definition of novel means that the list--whatever form it takes--will have an inescapably 19th/20th C bent, since the rise of the novel is generally associated with the rise of the bourgeois class--and, therefore, with the rise of Capitalism (that might be interesting in itself, tracking the ways "Christian fiction" navigated the challenges brought on by Moretti's twin revolutions--the Industrial and the French). If you want to expand "novel" backwards in time, then I'm sure you can find other extended prose narratives (martyrdom stories; prose romances; etc) that might fit the bill--again, it's going to depend (as you know) on the level you can expect your students to have already attained in theoretical and cultural fluency. It's also going to depend on how willing you are to field objections like "But this isn't a novel-novel, right?"

 

EDIT: For fun--seven books for a "Christian Popular Novel" class:

Robinson Crusoe by Defoe

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Stowe (alas, inevitable on this list)

In His Steps by Sheldon

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain 

This Present Darkness by Peretti

Left Behind by LaHaye and Jenkins

 

Which--this only just occurred to me--nicely identifies the broad sweep of Christian popular fiction: from reform-minded in Stowe and Sheldon to historical/backwards-looking at midcentury, to apocalyptic and conspiratorial at the end of the 20th C. There's critical/historical work to be done here, for sure. Of course, Ben-Hur is 19th C, so perhaps not. (The perils of thinking on the fly; post in haste, edit at leisure)

 

So there's two lists for the price of one. And neither includes The Shack. Even I, apparently, don't want it on the syllabus--and I'll go to bat for anything.

Edited by NBooth
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It's tough to whittle it down to just seven. I'm a fan of Jeremy's list, but I have the same hangup as NBooth -- the first three are not novels. Besides, I wouldn't consider the classics to fall under the "Christian Fiction" umbrella as such. I'd consider them prerequisite reading for the course, in the same way that a Chaucer course might require some familiarity with Virgil, Ovid, and Dante. 

 

Of the titles already considered, my list would include:

 

The Brothers Karamazov

Les Miserables

Till We Have Faces (I just read it recently, and found it to be Lewis' best book by far)

My Name is Asher Lev

Gilead

 

Which leaves only two. Hmm. I think Buechner is essential on this kind of list, so I'd include Godric. Chesterton's The Ball and The Cross or The Man Who Was Thursday would be great fits. I wish I could include a novel by Maurice Baring - a contemporary of Chesterton's whose work is rife with Christian thought - but his work is neither popular enough or as well written as others, to warrant placement. Hawthorne would be nice to have too, I think that The House of The Seven Gables, while not fitting into the subject as nicely as The Scarlet Letter, would make for some fascinating discussions. Tim Winton might be considered as well; I've only read one novel by him, That Eye, That Sky, but it felt like an Australian Flannery O'Connor story.

 

To echo NBooth again, the list is very heavy on male writers (but generally, for good or bad, most lists this sort are). I haven't finished reading it yet, but Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy seems like a great fit. I also haven't read O'Connor's Wise Blood, so I can't speak to its placement.

 

In regard to the "Popular Christian Novel" list, I'd suggest Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead.

 

Another list I'd be interested in thinking about would be modern novels with strains of Christian thought and themes, while not "Christian" per se. (I suppose this would fall under the purview of "spiritually significant" in the same way as the Top 100 Films list would).

Works like:

Life After God, Douglas Coupland

The Stand, Stephen King

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin

Anything by Charles Williams

 

"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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How strict is your definition of "novel"? I see that Jeremy recommends three works that aren't novels, necessarily (I'm not sure even Bakhtin would accept them as such), so picking them--while not a bad idea--would require some theoretical shovel-work. Worth doing, for certain, but it'll depend on the level your students are at. I'm assuming juniors/seniors? And how long are the classes? 

 

Considering how most of the answers on Facebook I received were sarcastic or didn't answer the question, I'm pleased with any serious suggestions.

 

My own list:

 

Elmer Gantry - Sinclair Lewis

Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

The Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan

Godric - Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis

Perelandra/Voyage to Venus - C.S. Lewis

In His Steps - Charles M. Sheldon

Edited by winter shaker

He finds no mercy

And he's lost in the crowd

With an armoured heart of metal

He finds he's running out of odd-numbered daisies

From which to pull the petals

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I am not well-read in this category, but really enjoyed Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and consider it a notable Christian novel. The recent publication of Marilynne Robinson's Lila only strengthened by love for Gilead. I am glad you are including C.S. Lewis as well, as he sometimes feels like the one writer that everybody at a church has read or is at least familiar with.

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I'd find a place for Ron Hansen's Atticus.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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