By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
As with any kind of art, in literature there’s bad, good, and great. There’s plenty of Christian fiction that falls in all three categories. Yet even what I’d call poorly done literature has brought people to Christ. In that sense, it’s invaluable.
Today I’d like to discuss some great works of literature (story or poetry) written by great Christian artists. Since the Bible belongs in its own category, I’m not including it on this list, though I think it’s as much an artistically excellent book as it is a book of divine revelation from God.
Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in the early 1300s. Many of us were exposed to his Inferno in school, but that’s only a third of an amazing epic poem which envisions all creation from the lowest Hell to the highest Heaven. You don’t have to believe in Dante’s theology to appreciate his poetry. Even he would say he was applying his beliefs to a fictional journey. Dante’s vision of Hell is frightening and his vision of Heaven stunning.
John Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667. His epic poem is about the fall of Satan and other angels and the temptation of Adam and Eve. It culminates in Adam being shown how God will save mankind through the sacrifice of Christ. An image that remains with me forever from the book is how Milton depicts the grotesque power of sin and death.
Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is one of the most popular books in history. While in jail for his Christian convictions, John Bunyan wrote an allegory of the Christian journey which people continue to connect with, even in our time. The book has never been out of print.
I’m going to put Uncle Tom’s Cabin on this list because of a personal experience. Literary critics don’t consider this book by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) to be one of the “great works” of American literature. But a decade ago when I had to read a few hundred books from the history of American literature in order to complete my doctorate, I found that what is considered our great literature almost always attacks Christianity in some way (and often rightly so in terms of pointing out Christian hypocrisy). The only book in all I read which ever really presented an amazing Christian character, living out Christianity the way he should without flinching, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s melodramatic and sentimental, but Uncle Tom is the most angelic, saintly Christian in American fiction.
Despite what critics have misunderstood about them, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were devout Christians and wrote their novels from a devoutly Christian point of view. The Brothers Karamazov (1880) offers a defense of Christianity by first attacking it and then proving the attack wrong. Anna Karenina (1877) presents parallel stories, one showing how sin destroys a life, the other showing how God incarnates truth in the simplest things of the world and saves the humble.
Part of what makes a classic is its staying power—people keep reading it for hundreds of years. The rest of these books have not been around that long, but I think they will be.
First is C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (1942). Its insights into temptation are as masterful as its humor. It has spawned a new subgenre in spiritual writing (infernal epistles) and continues to delight and instruct readers worldwide.
I would add to this Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-56), the only “children’s literature” I’m including in the list.
Though some people have a hard time seeing how J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-55) is Christian literature, Tolkien claimed it was, and a careful reading of the work reveals the truth Tolkien was sharing with the world.
Finally I offer a relatively new novel with strong Christian themes that won the Pulitzer prize for literature in 2005. The book is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. It’s about an elderly minister who married late in life and, because he has a very young boy and a heart condition, writes his son letters so the boy will have something of his father’s wisdom and life story when he’s older and his dad has passed away.
In his Philippians 4:8 list of things for our Christian minds to “dwell on” (New American Standard Bible), Paul includes anything with a good reputation. These great works of Christian literature have among the best reputations in the history of story.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.