Five Classic Novels That Christians Should Read
Classic literature is a deep well; offering more nourishing water than even the most dedicated bookworm can hope to drink in a single lifetime. It is also an area that is often neglected by Christians. We are a people of the Book, but have not always been a people of books. Yet, the Christian who ignores great literature is depriving themselves of the indispensable wisdom passed down by some of the greatest minds in history. The advantage that classic literature has over modern literature is that it has been tested. The rivers of time have washed away the inconsequential and preserved the works of true genius. Many novels that were popular during their day are now entirely forgotten, while some that were ignored and overlooked have been vindicated and their greatness realized.
Below is a list of five classic novels that every Christian would benefit from reading. The list is far from exhaustive. For example, The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian classic by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is frequently cited as essential reading for Christians, and other literary masterpieces, such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, are filled with thought-provoking and edifying truth. These books are worth the effort of reading—but they take effort. They are not as easily accessible to today’s casual reader. Therefore, the five novels below are among the best that a Christian should read and that they may actually read. So, without further ado….
1. Fahrenheit 451 — by Ray Bradbury
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Time has emphatically affirmed the genius of Bradbury’s prophetic dystopian narrative. The story of a society that bans and systematically burns books remains as timely today as when it was published in 1953. The novel is often interpreted as championing physical books against the onslaught of the digital age, but that is a misunderstanding. Fahrenheit 451 is not about the importance of physical books as much as it is the indispensable value of knowledge. The power is in the words, not the ink and pages.
Christian readers can take note of the way that the book’s central message relates to scripture. The society of “Book People” that emerge near the end of the story seeks to preserve knowledge by memorizing books, including books of the Bible. The novel remains a timely warning against the mind-numbing distraction of constant and ubiquitous media and entertainment, and will challenge Christians to evaluate the importance of truth, knowledge, and scripture.
2. The Lord of the Rings — J. R. R. Tolkien
“But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
Every Christian should take at least one pilgrimage to Middle-Earth during their lifetime. Tolkien once referred to The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Yet, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia (written by his dear friend C. S. Lewis) can be reduced to a game of “spot the Christian allegory and symbolism,” there is no such easy interpretation of Tolkien’s masterpiece. The novel embodies Christian virtue rather than teaches it; more inspirational than didactic. In Narnia, the story is constructed like signposts to point toward and demonstrate Christian theology. In The Lord of the Rings, the theology is the fertile soil out of which the story organically grows. The novel is far more nuanced than many critics in today’s post-Game of Thrones culture might suggest. While adhering to a clear binary of cosmic good vs. evil, the nuance comes in how the flawed characters operate in such a world, for good or ill.
Christian readers will be encouraged by the novel’s elevation of Christian virtue, the inspirational depictions of characters heroically striving against the powers of evil, the role of divine sovereignty, and the many profound nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout. A literary journey through The Lord of the Rings is like a cleansing shower that washes away the dirt and grime of today’s modern culture.
3. Great Expectations — Charles Dickens
“I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
Dickens belongs in any conversation about history’s greatest authors. He is worth reading for the mastery of language and immense wit. A Charles Dickens sentence is a work of art unto itself. Most readers, however, approach a novel primarily for its story and plot, and in this Dickens delivers as well. Despite their age and cultural context, his novels remain as timely and relevant as ever in their exploration of the themes of social justice, politics, power of the press, Christian virtue, and social relations. A Tale of Two Cities is his best-known work, Bleak House his greatest, and David Copperfield his most enjoyable, but Great Expectations is perhaps the best entry point for a first-time reader. One of only a handful of Dickens novels told from the first-person perspective, the book is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Pip as he develops a moral awareness and formulates a Christian worldview.
Christian readers will benefit from experiencing Pip’s realization of his sinful nature, his seduction to pride, and his eventual humbling and maturation. Dickens’ religious convictions do not manifest as overtly as is typical of much Christian fiction today, but Christian truth permeates Great Expectations from beginning to end.
4. The Pilgrim’s Progress — John Bunyan
“Just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders,…”
The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the best-selling works of literature ever written, although its popularity seems to have waned in recent decades. Although allegory is a common genre in Christian fiction today—thanks in large part to the influence of C. S. Lewis—it was not so when Bunyan penned his great novel from a prison cell. In fact, Bunyan begins his book with an apology for deploying allegorical and fantastic elements to examine theological truth. Despite the author’s concerns, the story has challenged and edified countless readers since it was written.
By today’s standards, the allegorical tale may seem outdated (it was published in 1678, after all!) and too “on-the-nose.” Yet, the beauty of Pilgrim’s Progress is in its outward simplicity, and its ability to add tangible form to deep theological and spiritual truth. The patient Christian reader who embraces the older style and writing will come away with new reflections and insights into the Christian life, salvation, and what it means to faithfully seek God.
5. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”
Jane Austen and the three Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) are often dismissed as being “for girls.” During their time, however, Austen published anonymously, and the Brontë sisters published under male pseudonyms, allowing their initial audiences to enjoy the books for their own merits without the baggage of overly simplistic labels. While Jane Austen remains more popular today, the Brontës wrote with more grit and are perhaps closer to modern sensibilities. On the surface, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a romance story, but it is far more than that. Similar in style and purpose to Dickens’ Great Expectations, it is a coming-of-age tale (or a Bildungsroman, to use a fun literary term!) tracing Jane’s physical, mental, moral, and spiritual growth from childhood to adulthood.
Christian readers—men and women alike—will be challenged by Jane’s steadfast faithfulness and virtue. The power of the novel is not merely that Jane Eyre grows to embody a Christian worldview, but that Charlotte Brontë convincingly demonstrates how such a worldview was developed. The adult Jane Eyre at the end of the novel is much changed from the child at its beginning. It is through the crucible of life that faith is grown and tested, and Christian readers will find their own faith challenged and strengthened alongside Jane Eyre.
Have you read any of these classic books? Let me know what books would make your own list of novels that Christians should read!
Also, check out the Five (More) Classic Novels Christians Should Read for more book recommendations!