Five (More) Classic Novels Christians Should Read
Mark Twain once quipped, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” No doubt, bookshelves are filled with beautifully bound classic books that have never been cracked open. A book is a gorgeous sight to behold (and don’t even get me started on that wonderful “book smell”), but what makes books valuable are the words on their pages.
Earlier this year I wrote an article called Five Classic Novels That Christians Should Read. My purpose was simple: to share my love of classic literature. I anticipated that it would be a niche article I enjoyed writing, but that it wouldn’t find a wide audience. To my surprise (and delight), that article became one of the most popular ones we’ve ever published, with many people weighing in with their own personal recommendations. Bookworms truly are the best.
A Charles Dickens’ novel is read against the backdrop of the political and social conditions of 19th-century England, but we don’t read classic novels just to learn about history. Classic literature’s value is that it transcends its setting and contains universal themes and edifying truth. Its less accessible packaging may require more work and patience than other books, but that is part of the charm. Classic novels entertain and enlighten, but they also require something in return. They ask us to slow down and to open ourselves up to all they have to offer.
Here are five (more) classic books that Christians should read.
1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — C. S. Lewis
“The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.”
Every Christian should take at least one trip through the wardrobe into the fantastical land of Narnia. The younger the better, but Aslan welcomes readers of all ages. The Chronicles of Narnia is firmly engrained alongside The Lord of the Rings and The Pilgrim’s Progress as one of the most beloved works of fiction in all of Christendom. The story is escapist fantasy at its best, filled with evil queens, magical creatures, anthropomorphic animals, and epic battles.
Christians can enjoy the novel for its captivating narrative and also for its rich theological underpinnings. Unlike the more embodied religious elements in Tolkien legendarium, there is an overtly evangelistic aspect to the Narnia stories. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not technically an allegory, since it lacks a one-to-one correlation. Rather, Lewis sought to “reimage the Gospel” by recasting it in vivid, fantastical imagery. Christian readers will experience a fresh sense of wonder and understanding of their faith, and some of the images—a roaring lion, or a broken stone table—may remain with them as lifetime companions.
2. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen
“It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us.”
Jane Austen is perhaps the most famous and beloved female author in history, despite publishing anonymously during her lifetime. A stigma about Austen’s stories is that they are merely mushy romances for girls. The Hollywoodization of the film adaptations is partially to blame for this image, as they fail to capture the satire and sharp wit in her work. To be clear, there is indeed plenty of romance to be found, with the basic plot of every novel involving a musical chairs of which girl ends up with which boy (#TeamBingley). But her books have far more to offer than love stories. A clergyman’s daughter, her writing embodies a pious Christian worldview and penetrating insight into social relationships.
Emma is her most hilarious and enjoyable work. Mansfield Park and Persuasion (published posthumously) feature more mature and virtuous heroines. But if you only read one Austen novel, it should be Pride and Prejudice, her most famous work. The manuscript was originally titled First Impressions, which is a succinct summation of the central theme. The story traces the moral growth of the various characters as they overcome their shortsighted assumptions and judgments of each other. Present-day Christian readers may no longer live in the same genteel, aristocratic British society as Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but the novel can help challenge and deconstruct our own pride and prejudices.
3. The Count of Monte Cristo — Alexandre Dumas
“Until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words,-Wait and hope.”
A classic revenge story (and a precursor to the Batman character), The Count of Monte Cristo weaves a complex narrative about a man named Edmond Dantès who escapes from a wrongful imprisonment and, with the help of a seemingly limitless fortune, slowly plots the downfall of the men responsible. While movie adaptations often render the story into a swashbuckling adventure tale, the novel has more in common with a Shakespearian tragedy. It’s a slow-burn, methodical character study of the dehumanizing cost of anger, bitterness, and revenge. On a deeper level, the main theme is nothing less than the original sin of mankind—elevating ourselves into the place of God.
Edmond Dantès desires justice and comes to believe that he is acting as the hands of God. Dantès is the protagonist, but the uncomfortable tension at the heart of the book is that he isn’t a hero. A key moment in the novel is when he realizes he has gone too far: “[H]e felt he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, ‘God is for and with me.’” Dumas’ great novel explores the line between human justice and God’s eternal and perfect justice, raising difficult questions without always providing easy answers. In an age when justice (or the lack of justice) is a primary concern, The Count of Monte Cristo remains a relevant and timely cautionary tale.
4. Les Misérables — Victor Hugo
“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.”
We’re plunging into the deep end of the pool now. If you haven’t read many classic books, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is not the most accessible starting point. An apt descriptor for the book is “abundance.” The novel is exceptionally long. Like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s ambition is greater than telling a straightforward narrative. He paints his sprawling canvas with elements of history, politics, art, and life in all its facets. Side tangents that go on for 30 or 40 pages can spark frustration. But the extensive tale is a tonic for our rapidly paced lives and shortening attention spans. By forgoing a simplistic narrative structure, the story almost forces readers to immerse themselves into the life and rhythm of the characters, thus more keenly experiencing wisdom and truth along the way.
Christian readers who take the daunting plunge will be inspired by how Christian virtue can ripple across history. Les Misérables is a generational story, unfolding over the course of many years and tracing the ways seemingly simple acts of forgiveness, grace, and compassion can change the trajectory of a life. Bishop Myriel—one of the most towering pillars of Christian faith in all of fiction—exits the story after the opening few chapters, but his profound influence is felt throughout the whole novel and echoes in the life and actions of Jean Valjean. Les Misérables is not for the faint of heart, but the hearts of those who read it will be stirred and compelled to a life of greater Christian charity.
5. Frankenstein — Mary Shelley
“Accursed creator! …God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance.”
Let’s get this out of the way first: Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster. Mary Shelley’s influential science-fiction novel bears little resemblance to the various movie adaptations. Although at times spooky and horrific, it is also a deeply philosophical story. The monster spends more time monologuing about the meaning of life than he does terrorizing people (although he does that too). The book explores the relationship between creation and creator. As with many classic works of science fiction, the story also exposes the disastrous consequences that come when man attempts to climb the ladder of scientific advancement and reach for godhood.
Christian readers will be drawn to reflect on their relationship to their own creator whose image they bear. As a created being, the monster represents another Adam narrative—a parallel drawn by the creature itself—but with sinful man as its creator, rather than a loving God. Frankenstein is a gospel story stripped of divine hope, a bleak picture in which sin begets sin in an endless and destructive cycle. The book also challenges Christians to reflect on the influence their actions can have. The innocent monster begins as a gentle, curious creature but develops into a sinister fiend largely due to the way he is treated and viewed by the world.
Have you read any of these classic books? Let me know what books would make your own list of novels that Christians should read!