We have a winner! Out of our original bracket of 64 books, one book has been chosen by Emerging Scholars Network members as the Best Christian Book of All Time.
Confessions by Augustine has defeated Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis 50–43.
Why Confessions Won the Title
From the beginning, I thought Mere Christianity would win the competition. It seems to be the book mentioned most often when people are asked to name their favorite Christian book in an open-ended question, and it received the most nominations of any book. Once it became clear that Mere Christianity would be facing Confessions, however, I thought that Augustine would likely come out on top.
What makes Confessions the best Christian book of all time?
Its blend of the personal, spiritual, and theological. At its core, Confessions is Augustine’s story about himself and God’s pursuit of him. As I noted yesterday, many consider Confessions to be the first autobiography. If you’ve read much ancient literature, Augustine’s transparency about his own life is striking. Further, it’s not narcissistic, like so many contemporary memoirs. Augustine examines his life in light of God’s truth, bringing Scripture and theology alongside his own story.
Our ability to relate to Augustine. Confessions could be the story of someone of our generation:
- A bright young man rejects his mother’s faith in God in order to follow his own desires.
- He seeks influence and power through academic pursuits, but finds no satisfaction.
- He lives for years with a woman he’s not married to and has a son with her. Later, even as he realizes the mistakes he’s made, he loves his son dearly and values him as one of the treasures of his life.
- His conversion comes as an adult, after trying many other philosophies of life and finding all of them lacking.
The power of Augustine’s witness. Augustine not only affirms that God loves all of us, regardless of our mistakes, but also lives out that truth. His story — finding God in mid-life, then becoming one of the most important figures of the Church — gives us hope that God can redeem the most fallen among us.
The status of Confessions as a classic of world literature. The place of Confessions in the Western canon can’t be ignored, either. In the Norton Anthology of World Literature, Confessions is the only work included by one of the Church Fathers, and the only work of Christian literature included between the New Testament and the Koran. I would wager that, for many college students, Confessions is the only ancient Christian literature that appears on any of the syllabi of their general education classes.
Parallels between Augustine and C.S. Lewis
On our Facebook Page, during the match-up between Mere Christianity and Augustine’s City of God, occasional ESN contributor Kevin Birth noted that both Lewis and Augustine were writing during the decline of an empire — Lewis during the last decades of the British Empire, Augustine amidst the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
As I thought about Kevin’s comment, other parallels between Augustine and Lewis occurred to me:
- Both were born in provinces of an empire — Augustine in North Africa (modern-day Algeria), Lewis in Ireland. I’m not sure if we, as modern Americans, appreciate how much of an outsider each of them were in their day.
- Both Augustine and Lewis had mothers from Christian families. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a Christian married to a pagan, while Lewis’s mother, Flora, was the daughter of an Anglican priest.
- Both rejected Christianity as young men and pursued non-Christian philosophies, Manichaeism and scepticism for Augustine, atheism for Lewis.
- Both lived for years with women outside of marriage. Augustine never tells us the name the mother of his son Adeodatus, but he spent 13 years with her until his conversion. Lewis, meanwhile, lived with Jane Moore, the mother of his best friend Paddy (who was killed in World War I), for more than 20 years.
- Not only were both academics of the highest caliber before their conversion, but both rose to the most prestigious academic positions in their respective empires — Augustine to Rome and Milan, Lewis to Oxford and Cambridge.
- Both became Christians at the age of 33, after long periods of philosophical reflection and close relationships with Christians.
- After their conversions, both became prolific authors of Christian literature, and both became highly visible spokesmen for Christianity. While Lewis remained a layman, Augustine was ordained as a priest, and both were recognized as important Christian authors and speakers during their lifetimes.
- The conversions of both of them involved Christians who were famous in their own right — Lewis’s conversion was heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, while Augustine was baptized by Ambrose, archbishop of Milan and his fellow Doctor of the Church.
- In addition to being prolific writers, they were also diverse writers. Each produced books of high intellectual ambition (e.g. City of God for Augustine, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama for Lewis), but also many works for popular audiences as well. There is no record, however, of Augustine writing children’s novels with talking animals or any science fiction.
Thank you to everyone who voted, nominated books, and offered their opinions during this exercise. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
If you’ve enjoyed the Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament, please subscribe to the Emerging Scholars Blog by email. You’ll receive an email about twice a week with our latest post, so you’ll never miss one of our posts about Christianity and the academic life.
What are your thoughts about the tournament? Do you feel like the best book won? Which would you have picked?
- I do note that, in the latest edition, a poem by Boethius is also included. ↩
- City of God, in fact, was written partly to defend Christianity against the charge that it was responsible for the sack of Rome in AD 410. ↩
- There is debate about the exact nature of Lewis’s relationship with Moore. Alister McGrath, in his recent biography C.S. Lewis: A Life, argues that Lewis and Moore were lovers, as do A.N. Wilson and George Sayer in their biographies of Lewis. Others believe that Lewis and Moore’s relationship, while unusual, was not sexual. ↩
About the author:
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.
Whew! I feel like I can breathe again! I’m quite happy with the Confessions result–it’s early enough to transcend the Catholic/Protestant split, and an old enough book that I feel like we can safely say it stands the test of time (whereas some of the other books in the contest were so recent it was tough to tell, including Mere Christianity). Plus there is something quite nice about having it be a personal spiritual reflection rather than a theological tome or apologetic tome, it is useful in a variety of ways– theologically and apologetically as well as devotionaly. I use his writing on memory in Confessions in the psychology courses I teach–his descriptions of the marvels of memory are the best I’ve encountered. And I always find myself moved by his conversion account of the child chanting “Take up and read.” So beautiful. Time for a reread!
Micheal Hickerson says
Thanks, Elissa! That’s really interesting about your use of Confessions in psychology. Tom and I were talking yesterday about Christian texts that are (or should be) read in college courses. I read Confessions in a literature class. It would be interesting to see if it shows up anywhere else.
What a great summary.
Hurray! Augustine’s Confessions is a worthy choice but I will put Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion as the best Christian book of all time. Confessions, a close no. 2.
I’ve tried to read the Confessions at least three times, to no avail. (When I poop out in reading any classic, I presume that the fault is with me and give it at least a couple more tries.) I’ve read more than a dozen of the books on this list and definitely prefer intellectually and spiritually challenging reading, so it’s not that Confessions is outside my normal fare. Have any other ESN blog readers had this experience with the book? Might a mismatch in general or spiritual temperament account for a book falling flat with some readers? Is it sacrilege to suggest that Confessions isn’t for everyone?
Micheal Hickerson says
As our voting showed, there are at least 22 people who didn’t think Confessions deserved to survive the first round, so I don’t think it’s sacrilege at all. I’ve tried 3 times to read Crime & Punishment, and never been able to get past the first few pages. I tried reading Stott’s Basic Christianity in college and thought it was incredibly boring. Same with Pilgrim’s Progress. When I mentioned my inability to get into Pilgrim’s Progress to one of my grad school professors (Maxine Hancock), she replied that some books have to be read at a certain stage in life for them to resonate. The same is true for spiritual temperament, as you say.
Howard Pepper says
I’m new to this blog, so way behind on this “Best of” contest and post. One observation I found interesting is that relatively few of the entries, especially those making it to the “final 32” or so, are by true Evangelicals or their clear predecessors (as one MIGHT call, for example, J. Edwards, tho he was highly philosophical and also generally accepting of “charismatic” phenomena–within limits). Most are not American (who are more likely “Evangelical”), even from within the era when America was producing strong theologians and authors of both fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure what to make of this, but perhaps that while relatively conservative (as I presume are the majority of this blogs’ followers) American Christians like the nation’s Evangelical format and cultural trimmings, a deeper part of them recognizes and gravitates toward that which is broader and deeper and less dogmatically restrictive.
Tom Grosh IV says
Thank-you for visiting the Emerging Scholars Network’s blog. The facilitator of the ‘competition’, offered a working definition of a ‘Christian book’ at https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2013/03/what-is-a-christian-book-a-working-definition/. The series was intentionally focused on ‘Christian’. Evangelicals are Christians. As any Christian movement, despite their distinctives, Evangelicals cannot resist drawing from, building upon, and being connected with the wider Body of Christ throughout time and geography. Some draw more from their roots and their ‘relatives’, others draw less. Personally I have found studying church history, missions, spiritual formation/devotions, theology, etc., a great blessing. InterVarsity Press, a sister ministry in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (http://www.intervarsity.org), has a rich base of resources, http://www.ivpress. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is but one member of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), http://www.ifesworld.org/.
The Emerging Scholars Network’s desire in this form of “March Madness” was to explore “the Best Christian books” and open doors to future conversations/book reviews among members on campus, the blog, our Facebook wall, etc. What do you consider “the Best Christian books”?
Note: In the future, I desire to give some attention to explore widening the exposure and interactions with the resources/materials of global Christianity (historical and current), which has continued to extend in amazing ways. How rich is the work of God.
In Christ, Tom
Howard Pepper says
I actually assumed what you explained, and understand the dynamic you laid out. I’m a former long-time Evangelical, theologically educated, now basically a “Process” guy (finding it the most “parsimonious” system, tho not a simple one, to make sense of God, the Bible, diverse spiritual phenomena, etc.)
Actually, I was encouraged to see the breadth included (many of the books voted for I’d not read, but knew of almost all, if not all, of them). I guess nothing by Process theologians has been either simple or resonant enough to get included. But I was glad to see Bonhoeffer rated highly, who was ANYTHING but a simplistic thinker, though he could write simply (another mark of a truly great mind and person). Some sadly missing authors (besides more recent Process folks), that at least I didn’t notice: Rauschenbusch, R. or H. Richard Niebuhr, Tillich, Borg, Crossan, Sheldon (?) “In His Steps”, Lovelace (esp. “Renewal as a Way of Life”, which I think was an IVP book), Schweitzer (esp. “The K. of God and Primitive X’nty”)… I suppose some of these are debatably Christian (by Evangelical or orthodox standards… but I believe a person’s self-designation should generally be taken at face value… a current case in which it very often is NOT is Pres. Obama, sadly).
I also am pretty familiar with IVP and used to read a lot of your publications… definitely filled some important gaps for me at the time. I was quite encouraged with the “radical” nature of this blog… looking at things more deeply and openly, as I was aware of from a bit of distance, via P. Enns, McLaren, and several other folks. But didn’t know how that had somewhat (or heavily?) involved IV, IVP and IFES.
Lawrence Thiel says
Agreed. I give it as a white elephant gift every Christmas to up the bar, and assign it when I teach the Christian Tradition. Larry Thiel University of the Pacific
enough to get included. But I was glad to see Bonhoeffer rated highly, who was ANYTHING but a simplistic thinker, though he could write simply (another mark of a truly great mind and person). Some sadly missing authors (besides more recent Process folks), that at least I didn’t notice: Rauschenbusch, R. or H. Richard Niebuhr, Tillich, Borg, Crossan, Sheldon (?) “In His Steps”, Lovelace (esp. “Renewal as a Way of Life”, which I think was an IVP book), Schweitzer (esp. “The K. of God and Primitive X’nty”)… I suppose some of these are debatably Christian (by Evangelical or orthodox standards… but I believe a person’s self-designation