The Best Christian Book of All Time Selection Show

The nominations have closed, the selection committee (of one) has met, and we’re ready to announce the official bracket for the Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament! Download your printable bracket for your office pool, and head over to Facebook to vote for your favorites. The first half of the field will be voted on today, with the rest up for vote tomorrow.

UPDATE: View First Round Results for the Theology & Apologetics and Christian Life & Discipleship brackets.

Tournament Bracket

Click for a larger size. Who’s going to win YOUR office pool?

The Brackets

Originally, I had planned to divide the books by era, with a separate bracket for literature, but blog reader Jayme Yeo (who is also a contributor to The Well), suggested an alternate categorization that I preferred, with a few adjustments and additions.

The four brackets are:

  • Theology & Apologetics — #1 Seed: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Memoirs, Devotionals, & Spirituality — #1 Seed: Confessions by Augustine
  • Christian Life & Discipleship — #1 Seed: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Fiction & Poetry — #1 Seed: The Divine Comedy by Dante

Theology & Apologetics and Fiction & Poetry are, I think, self-explanatory. The books under Memoirs, Devotionals, & Spirituality all deal with one’s relationship with God in daily life, whether through biography, daily meditations, spiritual theology, or other routes. Meanwhile, Christian Life & Discipleship includes books that deal with the practical applications and daily practice of the Christian life. Books in both these brackets are often quite “theological,” but I think there’s a distinction between them and books of “pure” theology.

About the Seedings

Seedings were created using a carefully crafted algorithm that combined the book’s popularity among our readers, the judgment of leading theologians, greatness across the horizons of history, and my own guesstimations. It shames me to confess that I have not read every book in the bracket, so it often fell to my sense of the book’s reputation and consultation with authority, specifically Christianity Today’s Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals and A Beginner’s Christian Bookshelf, an excellent bibliography created by literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey. “Beginner’s” is a bit of a misnomer — most Christians would be proud if they made it through the complete list in a lifetime.

Why So Many Books from the Twentieth Century?

Twentieth-century books dominate the tournament, as I expected they would.[1] This has more do to with our bias for the recent than the inherent superiority of the past century, but I’m not sure how to combat this tendency and still have a tournament that would make sense to most of our readers.

The Christian Life & Discipleship bracket, however, is especially heavy on 20th century books. As I developed the bracket, I wondered why this might be the case, and I came up with a couple of reasons.

  • Since these books deal with practical applications of Christian faith, we are most drawn to those books that deal with problems we are facing today. As cultural issues change, books that deal with those issues become less relevant, eventually becoming of interest mainly to historians. Among all the books in this tournament, these are the ones least likely to be read by future generations.
  • In earlier eras, many of these books would have been delivered as sermons, possibly without ever making it into book form (except as a sermon collection if the pastor were truly notable). Indeed, many of them began as sermon series or local church discipleship programs. That they were transformed into influential books says as much about our culture of the past 100 years as it does about the content of the books themselves. It also makes me think we would do well to attend to older sermon collections for our reading.

Cultural and Gender Diversity

White, male writers from Europe and North America also fill the bracket, which partly reflects the history of the Christian church with regard to geography and gender roles, and partly reflects blind spots of me and my fellow ESN members. I would be very interested in seeing a list of the most important Christian books of all time created by groups from other cultures and places.

Further, I expect that the cultural background of influential Christian authors will change radically over the next century. As has been described by a number of authors[2], over the past century the center of gravity for Christianity has shifted from Europe and North America to the Global South: Africa, Asia, and South America. The election of Pope Francis as the first pope from the Americas is only the tip of the iceberg. By some measures, Christians in the Global South now outnumber those in North America and Europe. Those of us in North America are accustomed to the idea that we have the knowledge of the Bible and theology that the rest of the world needs. As Christianity in the rest of the world matures and produces ever greater numbers of scholars and writers, will we be willing to learn from Christians of different cultures?

The Toughest Decision

Without question, the toughest decision was leaving C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters out of the bracket. The novel was a crowd favorite, receiving 5 nominations, but once I began comparing it to the other contenders in the Fiction & Poetry bracket, I felt it didn’t hold up as a novel when compared to the others on the list. Moving it over to the Theology & Apologetics bracket didn’t help, either. As great a book as it is, it would likely have been the 16 seed in either bracket, so I chose to remove it.

You may disagree with me, which is fine. I often disagree with myself. Let me know about other decisions you think I flubbed — biggest omissions, worst seeds, etc. — in the comments.

Vote Today (and Tomorrow, and Thursday, Friday, and Next Week, Too)

We’re running the voting over on our Facebook page. Half the field — Theology & Apologetics and Christian Life & Discipleship — will be posted today, and the other two brackets will be posted tomorrow.

Vote today!

  1. A number of 21st century books were nominated, but, for the most part, these are too recent to have truly made their mark as great books. Two or three exceptions may have slipped through my filter.  ↩
  2. Among them Philip Jenkins, Mark Noll, and Soong-Chan Rah.  ↩
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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    bw commented on March 19, 2013 Reply


    Conrad Fisher commented on March 20, 2013 Reply

    Is this the way you really have it seeded, or is this simply the way you have these gems ordered on your bookshelf?

      Micheal Hickerson commented on March 20, 2013 Reply

      I tried to think through the seedings, though it could always be stronger. The seeds aren’t necessarily based on which books I think are better, however. (I’ve personally voted for a few underdogs.)

    Blake commented on March 20, 2013 Reply

    This is a fun idea, but at the same time it’s disappointing how it reinforces the perception that historical study is not valuable. Christians are too enamored with immediacy and the works that give them clear tools for how to deal with those problems. Therefore, no one bothers to read or argue what the best histories of Christianity are.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on March 20, 2013 Reply

      Great comment, Blake – you’re absolutely right, and it’s my own blind spot. I didn’t even think about including a selection of histories, even though histories of Christianity are some of my personal favorite books. I should have realized something was wrong when I tried to slot in Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries and couldn’t find a spot for it.

    petergoforth commented on March 31, 2013 Reply

    Under “Fiction and Poetry,” I would have to do a write-in nomination for John Irving’s, “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” perhaps the greatest single meditation on the idea of sovereignty I have ever read.

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