Wednesday 4 January 2006

Essential novels for theologians

“Philosophy, religion, science, they are all of them busy nailing things down, to get a stable equilibrium.... But the novel, no.... If you try to nail things down in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.” — D. H. Lawrence

My friend Kim Fabricius (who sometimes posts at Connexions) sent me this list of 15 essential novels for theologians, and he has allowed me to post it here.

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
2. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
3. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
4. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenin (1876)
5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
6. Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
7. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)
8. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (1947)
9. Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
10. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
11. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1955)
12. William Golding, The Spire (1964)
13. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1975)
14. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1983)
15. Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

This is an excellent list, although I might have wanted to include Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot, and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, as well as anything by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. Oh, and something by John Updike and Salman Rushdie and A. S. Byatt.


Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

But, where are the ancients and medievals?! Are they to be so scorned? And of Chaucer? Yes, Fielding has to be on there and at least one by Henry James, as well. Who could ignore the brother of William? Jane Austen, there can be absolutely no doubt, must be on there. But, of her predecessor too-Fanny Burney-we'd better include one. Though whether Evelina or Cecilia is hard to say. And Machiavelli is not to be on there? He has such great commentary on power, love, and fear.

Great list though, in the main. Though I'd add to it, I doubt I could have made up a better one.

Chris Tilling said...

Oh boy, you guys are so cultured I feel ashamed.

My favourite novel is still one by Terry Pratchett ...

Will I still go to heaven?

Fred said...

add poetry: dante, ts eliot, peguy, claudel, chaucer, hopkins, etc

Anonymous said...

The "Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco is quite a fascinating novel. The author is an italian writer, well-versed in medieval culture including historical theology, history, and philosophy. You'll be surprised at Umberto's genius imagination.

I strongly recommend you to read the book.

Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...


Just to make you feel better, I want you to know that my first novel (or book for that matter) that I ever read in its entirety was Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. And this only after I had graduated from high school (you've gotta love government school in the U.S.). To continue the shame, that same summer (1994) my second book I ever read was John Grisham's The Firm.

It's amazing to see what the discovery of philosophy, a couple of degrees, and one decade can do to change a man's reading habits. But then, Mortimer Adler once said you don't ever really start learning anyway until you get into your mid-20's. So, I'm OK, I guess, if you're OK.

T.B. Vick said...

Ughhh . . . Where is Victor Hugo's Les Miserables? That is, in my estimation, the greatest novel ever written, and it is shot through with Christian theology.

btw, Chris, Terry Pratchett is awesome!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Chris, My french AP class recently read "Les Miserables". It is full with christian allusions. The movie is also awesome!
I have to say that I favor "The Name of the Rose" over "Les Miserables"


k said...

My only addition would be the unsuspecting John Steinbeck's East of Eden

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Isn't the Gulag nonfiction -- sort of? Well, I'm not a theologian, but I do know books. I would of included, IMHO:

The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, Demons (Doestoevsky IS the greatest Christian writer who meets, head on, the modern age).

Billy Budd would of been my Melville theologian entry.

The Silence, by Endo

The Wild Palms, Absalom, Absalom, (and probably a few other titles), by Faulkner

The Clown, by Heinrich Boll

Hope against Hope, by Nadezhda Mandelstam (nonfiction, but if Gulag qualifies -- this is don't miss as well)

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Till We Have Faces, by CS Lewis

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Anonymous said...

JKC: Ancient or medieval novels? I don't think Chaucer or Machiavelli qualify, though Cervantes' Don Quixote (1615) certainly does.
Fielding - yes, one of the fathers of the novel. And certainly St. Jane (living in the UK, I'm just a bit sick of her), so, even better, Henry James (which period?). And you mention Mortimer Adler. His How to Read a Book taught me, well, how to read a book, back in the early sixties. Is he still studied in American high schools?

CJ and TBV: I don't know Les Misérables - but it looks like I should. Staying with the 19th century French lit., Flaubert's Madam Bovary (1857) would certainly make my Top 20.

And thanks for the Steinbeck, KP. You could also have mentioned The Grapes of Wrath (1939). A friend of mine is using it to explore exodus themes in a turorial at Oxford.

No one has mentioned another front-runner runner - Bulgakov's masterpiece The Master and the Margarita (1928-1940).

A couple of votes for Terry Pratchett - yet some more reading to do!

And thanks for your supplement, Ben. I don't know the White or the Carey, nor have I read any Byatt. Rushdie is no doubt brilliant, but he gets on my nerves. If we're going for something quintessentially postmodern I'd pick Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Keep your favourites coming, everyone!

Anonymous said...

Steve: Just read your post.

You mention some more Dostoevsky, another Graham Greene, and Billy Budd. Who is going to argue with you? But I decided to limit myself to one novel per author.

Glad you mentioned Faulkner. Hemingway belittled Faulkner for using "$10 words". (On these terms Finnegan's Wake would break the bank!) A case of novelist elephant and whale?

And I'll make note of your other suggestions. Isn't literatute a box of chocolates!

metalepsis said...

Ben loved the idea so much I stole it. The only ones I might keep are Camus, Greene, Mann, and Morrison. I would exchange the Beloved for the Bluest Eyes though.

Again Great Idea!

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


Not to nit-pick but Tolkien's LOR is a three part book as you know. Did the poster of this list want all three or was he thinking of a single book? I personally read all four (the three plus the Hobbit) each summer - and have since I was fourteen.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kim. The "biblical" runs much deeper with Faulkner than Hemingway - though Hemingway is more approachable. Max Perkins, who edited both, thought Faulkner the greater writer (though it pained him to even discuss it).

Greene's Brighton Rock is often overlooked by those who like Green's religious novels.

On the way to work I thought of a few more:

The Violent Beat it Away, by Flannery O'Connor

The Stand, by Stephen King

Autumn of the Patriarch, by Marquez

War of the End of the World, Vargas Llosa

(Rushdie gets on my nerves as well.)

Thanks for posting your list!

Anonymous said...

I strongly second the recommendation of Dostoevsky, especially The Idiot.

Also, Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest are must-reads. I'd also add Sasha Sokolov's School for Morons if the Proffer translation weren't awful and riddled with errors.

Anonymous said...

Oh, shoot, and how could I forget? Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.

Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

Kim Fabricius wrote:

"JKC: Ancient or medieval novels? I don't think Chaucer or Machiavelli qualify, though Cervantes' Don Quixote (1615) certainly does.
Fielding - yes, one of the fathers of the novel. And certainly St. Jane (living in the UK, I'm just a bit sick of her), so, even better, Henry James (which period?). And you mention Mortimer Adler. His How to Read a Book taught me, well, how to read a book, back in the early sixties. Is he still studied in American high schools?"

OK, OK. I wasn't trying to be a jerk. But, contemporary theologians have enough troubles, I find, without being overwhelmed with all too much 19th and 20th century literature. May they not be encouraged to begin with literature prior to 1850? I must agree with Fred K's inclinations above. All on your original list should be read of course, but equally so should the ancient, medieval, and early modern (what shall we call them?) writers, poets. Specifically, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Aristophanes,
Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the others already mentioned by folks here (except somehow Sterne seems to have escaped our notice too).

And BTW, no one in the government schools here, I assure you, has any knowledge of Mortimer Adler--to the future detriment of us all, I fear.

What of Burney though?

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, JKC. Of course the ancient Greeks, the Roman, and the Italian you cite are all must-reads - again, it's just that they're not novels. Interestingly, though, when I studied English at Wesleyan Univeristy (Middletown, Connecticut) in the late sixties, my course in "The Novel" actually began with - The Odyssey! (though The Iliad is the greater epic).

Steve - glad to see that you too are a fan of Flannery O'Connor. Why don't you do a short story list?

By the way, I've just returned from seeing King Kong - and my jaw is still falling back into place! But it reminded me: How could I have forgotten Conrad's Heart of Darkness? And if that should rather go on Steve's short story list, there is still Nostromo.

James Crossley said...

Now that was a topic waiting to spark off debate!

How about this one: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? Plenty of big theological themes and lots of biblical imagery. A bit naughty, ok, but I believe I have the Archbishop of Canterbury himself on my side here! What do you reckon?

Anonymous said...

Kim, Wow, short stories. Let me think on that one, since they can be scattered all over the place by so many writers. The O'Connor selection is one of her few (two?)novels she wrote. Like my Greene selection, Wise Blood is usually the O'Connor novel that gets all the buzz, but I think "Violent" may be the more powerful novel.

Bulgakov -- on my major GUILT list.

Pullman -- It's brilliant (well, at least the first entry in the series). It's his statements that trouble me. Still, I fall on the side of being flexible...

Anonymous said...

Yes - James C. - Pullman is good, very good, and if of Satan's party, very much along the lines of Milton and Blake (who are right at the top of major influences on Pullmann). He says, "My books are about killing God." As long as its the God depicted in the books themselves, he is doing Christians a favour. I too am with Rowan Williams on this one.

(If only Pullman wasn't so adolescent in his anti-clericalism and -ecclesiasticism: he makes his targets strawish.)

And Steve H. - forget Flannery O.'s novels - well, don't forget them! - but check out her two collections of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. I promise , you won't be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

I read them Kim. Yes, they're very good. Her letters are also pretty cool (The Library of America Edition has them in the back.) It's such a shame she died young. She'd have won a Nobel and few other major awards.

Thanks so much for digging up those Pullman quotes -- that's along the lines of what I read from him a while back (I was actually shocked at the tone of his comments.)

Ben Myers said...

I have been enjoying all these interesting and entertaining comments. I agree that Victor Hugo should be added, as well as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and perhaps Steinbeck and Marquez.... And I agree that it would possible to make up the entire list just from Dostoevsky!

I'm also a fan of Pullman's His Dark Materials, and I'd definitely agree with Kim and Rowan Williams on this one: Pullman is doing everyone a favour by putting God (i.e. the God of religion and power) to death in His Dark Materials, just as Nietzsche did us a favour by announcing the death of the God of metaphysics. These Gods are idols, and they deserve to be toppled.

So I like Pullman theologically: but in terms of literary quality, he wouldn't make it on to my top list.

James Crossley said...

Out of interest, what do you not like about Pullman's literary qualities?

Great topic btw and begs the question: why has no one thought of it before?

Anonymous said...

Yes, great feedback everyone. Just when you're wondering what fiction to read next, along come the buses!

James, wait for it - I sense another thought-provoking list coming soon!

Also, how about a Top Twenty Religious Paintings? And Films? (do it - "and he will come" - there's one of mine!). Perhaps Ben might have some other guest posters over the year on a range of Top Whatevers. I would certainly be willing to have a go at most!

Ben Myers said...

Hi James. Pullman is a good writer, and I certainly don't think that His Dark Materials is badly written. But I don't think it's a perfect work of fiction either. For me, His Dark Materials promised a little more than it delivered: it has some superb ideas, an imaginative setting, loveable characters, and a plot that develops with terrific suspense -- but in the end, somehow I don't feel that the story ever quite lives up to all the suspense that Pullman creates. The plot resolves itself in the final book, but not in a way that really does justice to all the story's profound ideas and elaborate developments.

Don't get me wrong: I loved the trilogy, and I found it utterly gripping and compelling. But in the end I just didn't find the narrative entirely satisfying. So although I'm a definite Pullman fan, I would find it hard to mention him in the same breath as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Hemingway or Tolkein or Patrick White or Eco.

Obviously some of this just boils down to personal taste. Do you disagree?

Anonymous said...

I guess it depends on what kind of a list you want? Should it all be heavy lumber? (And don't theologians read heavy lumber all the time? Geez, you guys need a break from time to time.) This is the reason why I suggested King's The Stand and Wangerin's delightful Dun Cow. Many themes that would interest a theologian are covered, but in a different package (horror & fantasy).

If you want a varied list, I think Pullman would be OK, maybe even great, since you have the Milton link. Personally I think the triology is uneven (the first book was for me the best), but that Pullman is a fine writer. Then again so was Lord Dunsany. Gene Wolfe? The fairy tales of George MacDonald.

Looking back at my own suggestions, the one forgotten pearl which this discussion brought back to me, was Mario Vargas Llosa's War of the End of the World. I think many critics think it Llosa's best book. I read it about 10 years ago, and was blown away by the novel's epic sweep. Here's a blurb I found on the internet:

Anonymous said...

One more (sorry), but it's just such a great read: The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, by Paul West. This book is about the plot to kill Hitler. Many of the plotters had religious reasons for doing so. West does a fine job bringing this all out. As a follow-up, read Geoffrey Hill's poem sequence De Jure Belli Ac Pacis, from his Canaan collection. I took a crack Hill some time back (I probably got the title right). If interested:

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I suppose the Narnia books are a little low-brow huh?

I'm more a sci fi type person, so I might also want to suggest...

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

And also Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock.

And I know you said novel, but some pretty provocative short stories are the Star and the Nine Billion Names of God both by Arthur C. Clarke and The Man and the Fire Balloons both by Ray Bradbury.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, how come no one's mentioned Frankenstein? And how about Huxley's Brave New World? Maybe some Orwell, too. And I'd love to see a couple of good Jewish novels on here! Maybe Uris's Exodus? Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year might be an option, and would give your list a bit more historical weight! And Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress simply can't be ignored (and, yes, I will argue that it is a novel). I would definitely include something by Douglas Coupland - maybe Hey, Nostradamus - in fact, add to this Chuck Palahniuk's Survivor and DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little and you'd have an excellent trilogy.

We also need a children's fiction list - you can't expect Narnia and Pullman to compete with Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky!

If you would be happy to count a good biography, then the medieval Book of Margery Kempe would be a must.

Why Jane Austen? I'm not convinced, really, and would definitely not include Burney. These are excellent reads, but I think that something like Jane Eyre has more depth and insight where religion is concerned.

James Crossley said...

I was quite happy with the ending of His Dark Materials. I really like the idea of a not entirely happy ending and not attempt to make it all great (as I'm worrying a Hollywood version might do) I see your point on the resolution of the big themes. I'm not yet wholly convinced by this but I think am starting to see that the ideas attacked and the new paralleled ideas do not seem to match in scope.

Kevan D Penvose said...

I like the list. Most of them I've read and would agree with their placement. If I may, I'd also suggest SILENCE by Shusaku Endo.

Anonymous said...

But what about "The Pastoral Symphony" (or whatever it's called in english - only read the Swedish translation "Pastoralsymfonien")by Andre Gidé?

Anonymous said...

It's hard to argue with the choices and with the translated ones one can never know if it's the translation that's at fault, i.e. Les Miserables just bores me silly with the on and on waffling Hugo falls prey to, whereas the Proust translation (who is modern man and 'has no stable existence at all but hurries in a perpetual vanishing') grips thoroughly and to re-read it provokes anticipation of delight. Dostoievski's 'Notes from the Underground' should be there, it's got most his ideas expressed with the lucidity of rage and if biblical themes surely it should be Mann's Joseph and his brothers, an absolute masterpiece, that simply allures you into the magic of dreaming history, which is all we ever do which is why of course theologians are pasionately oriented towards history.

Steven Demmler said...

Hello, Ben (and others)!

This post among other factors has inspired me to delve into the great works of fiction as an exercise in stretching my mind, in hopes that I may be able to conceive of God in the imaginative ways I used to before, academics reconditioned me to think in desolate language of formal logic.

For what it's worth, I posted about it here:

and linked to this page of yours here:

You don't need to look at it, I just thought I'd let you know and say thank you for this post and I enjoy your writing on this blog a great deal!


gregorymm said...

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

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