About a year ago, we announced our call for nominations for the Best Christian Book of All Time, and you — our readers — responded with great enthusiasm. From a nomination pool of over 140 worthies, we first narrowed the bracket to 64 contenders, voted out lesser lights (such as Luther, Calvin, Chesterton, Aquinas — I hope they make something of themselves some day!), and crowned our winner: Augustine’s Confessions, the Best Christian Book of All Time. You may have heard of the runner-up, a short tract by C.S. Lewis called Mere Christianity.
Tom asked me to return to the blog to share my reflections about the tournament. As I read through the bracket and reflected on the process, here are a few things that occurred to me.
Authors Included, Authors Excluded
The bracket was dominated by white European and North American men. This largely reflects the Christian church over its first 1,900 years, as well as (I wager) the reading habits of ESN members. For most of the church’s history, the education and theological opportunities for women were limited, and until 1900 or so, Christianity was centered in Europe and North America. The situation has changed dramatically over the last hundred years, however, as Christianity has exploded in South America, Africa, and Asia. Simply witness the phenomenon that is the Argentine Pope Francis for the most visible sign of this change.
Looking through the bracket from last year, I was also struck by the small number of women writers represented, and they mostly in literature and devotionals. Seven of the eight women in the bracket were in those two brackets. Only Dorothy Sayers appeared in Christian Life & Discipleship, and not a single woman appeared in Theology and Apologetics.The increasing presence of women in leadership of the church, as well as the globalization of Christianity, leads to my next reflection.
How many of these books will still be read a century from now? If we re-ran the bracket this year, I bet it would largely come out the same. But a century ago, a far different group of contenders would have faced off. If we had blogged about this in 1913, I bet that Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur would have put in a strong showing in the literature bracket. Among devotional and theological writers, Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody would probably have been nominated. Augustine has been influencing generations of Christians for 1,500 years, so I don’t foresee him being neglected. In the Best Christian Book tournament of 2113, though, will C.S. Lewis still be as popular, or will he be seen as a uniquely 20th (and 21st) century voice?
Why these books? Why were these books chosen by ESN members, and why did certain ones advance to later rounds? All of the Final Four were written by academics – Augustine, Lewis, Tolkien, Bonhoeffer – though that trend breaks down as you start to expand the selection. Still, as I regard the bracket as a whole, the books lean heavily toward the life of the mind, with few “practical” books — say, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger or Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World — advancing or even being selected. A year removed, I’m struck that entire genres of books were left out. I don’t see a single Bible commentary or worship-oriented book in the bracket, even though these have been tremendously influential in the life of the church. Gordon Fee’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is one of the most profoundly spiritual and intellectually challenging books I’ve ever read, yet it didn’t even occur to me to nominate it or any other commentary.
The Importance of Books
Books matter to ESN. The Best Christian Book tournament generated a tremendous response. The Selection Show ranks as the #1 post on the blog over the past year, and the announcement of the winner comes in at #3. ESN is a book-reading community, which is one reason I’m so glad that Bob Trube has begun contributing book reviews to the blog. Andy Crouch has made a distinction between two parts of the university, which happen to inhabit the same physical space: the campus, which includes so much of what people love about college, such as athletics, dorms, Greek communities, parties, and so on; and the academy, which includes the teaching and research of the university, the academic disciplines and traditions, and the act of learning. ESN lives firmly within the academy-part of the university, and books have always been a vital part of that.
A tournament is a terrible way to pick the “best book.” For some people, Confessions didn’t even deserve to exit the first round: 22 people voted for Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel instead. The same goes for Mere Christianity: 11 people thought that On Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux should have advanced. (In our hypothetical 2113 bracket, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bernard defeats Lewis.) The “best Christian book” is the one that draws you closer to God, teaches you more about him, and helps you live out the Gospel every day. For some people, that’s a dense and lengthy work of theology, like Calvin’s Institutes. For others, something more pragmatic — Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life? — is preferable. This isn’t to say that some books aren’t objectively better than others.
Rather, there’s an inexhaustible variety of relationships between books and people, which is why “of the making of books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12). If you read through the comments on the Best Christian Book posts, or if you followed the voting on ESN’s Facebook page, you’d’ve seen many people confessing that they could never see the appeal of Book X or Book Y. Personally, I have never been able to get past the first chapter of Crime and Punishment — one day, perhaps! Both Confessions and Mere Christianity were books that spoke to me about God, but if they didn’t do the same for you, that’s okay. The most important things is to keep learning about God — and to keep reading.
- Well, according to your votes, anyway. ↩
- See Mark Noll’s New Shape of World Christianity, Philip Jenkins’ Next Christendom, and Soong-Chan Rah’s Next Evangelicalism for more on this worldwide movement. Justo Gonzalez’s Story of Christianity (Volume 1, Volume 2) provides a solid overview of the history of Christianity that includes non-Western events and perspectives. ↩
- The #2 post? Kelly Seaton’s Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: Nailing the Interview. Rounding out the top 5 are David Williams’ Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar and Hannah Eagleson’s What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School: Surviving the Workload. ↩
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.
David Eric Carlson says
Augustine and Bonhoeffer have to be classified as Pastor-Academics – just to quibble on a small point.
Micheal Hickerson says
It’s a good nuance. Pastor-academic is definitely a different role than pure academic, though it’s also different than a non-academic pastor. Perhaps Augustine and Bonhoeffer resonate with so many ESN members because they stand at the intersection of spirituality and academia.
Michael Stell says
I think the connection between spirituality and academia is important for Lewis as well. We connect with Lewis’ non-academic writings rather than his academic ones. While you could argue that the Confessions is Augustine’s most memorable work, certainly in academic theology his work on the Trinity, the City of God and his anthropology are more important, but did not make the final (or even the field for On the Trinity) . I also think that Lewis’ Mere Christianity is better understood from a contemplative perspective rather than a philosophical one – in other words, it is more like Anselm’s Proslogion than it is like Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief. The theology/apologetics section then was “won” by a book that is best understood from the perspective spirituality, not academia.
Dave Johnstone says
Dominated by white European/North America men? Sad but good observation. However, I am pleased that the top book was written by an African….