20 Novels Every Christian Needs to Read

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It probably bears mentioning up front that a novel worthy of a Christian's time isn't necessarily going to be a "Christian novel;" in other words, it's possible to find spiritual edification in the regular fiction stacks. More than that, it's a good idea to seek out such truths in all art. Some of the titles on this list are more predictable, but others likely aren't. Yet the goal is the same in all of them: to explore what makes us human and to strive to become better, caring, more honest, people.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: Harper Lee's first and only novel is often described using words like "timeless," and rightly so. It's a perfectly crafted, emotionally resonant story about justice and truth in the American South of the 1960s, framing a quest for honesty with racial tensions of the era. An essential look at what it means to treat others with love and compassion.
  2. Atonement, Ian McEwan: Atonement, which plays such a major role in Christianity, is explored with skill and heartbreaking poignance in this moving novel from Ian McEwan. A young girl makes a mistake that wrecks the lives of those around her, and she spends the rest of her life trying to make it right.
  3. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Robinson's 2005 novel is a gorgeous story structured as an autobiography composed by an aging Iowa preacher who wants to leave behind something for his young son. The novel recounts the narrator's life and loves as well as his friendship with a Presbyterian minister. A warm and real look at the way faith is integrated into daily life.
  4. Peace Like a River, Leif Enger: Told from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota in 1962 — authors love mid-century America for mining the dichotomy between surface pleasure and emotional pain — Enger's novel deals with everything from murder to family in a world liberally sprinkled with minor miracles. An engaging novel.
  5. Acts of Faith, Philip Caputo: An emotionally charged adventure set against the Sudanese wars, Caputo's novel investigates the cost and nature of charity on a global scale and serves as a reminder that leading the fight for equality is always right but often bitter.
  6. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle: The first installment in L'Engle's classic sci-fi/fantasy series for young adults is loaded with interesting Christian themes and imagery, from the typical battle between the forces of light and dark to more oblique references to certain scriptures. As expected, the book's one of the American Library Association's most challenged, for reasons I cannot begin to unpack.
  7. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis: C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia is a classic fantasy series that allegorically explores ideas of God and salvation through a fictional realm of talking beasts. The third installment (by publication date, which makes for a more satisfying reading experience), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is the most accomplished of the bunch. A bracing sea adventure and a gorgeously rendered tale of temptation and redemption, it's the reason to read the series in the first place.
  8. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky: Fyodor Dostoevsky was perhaps the last great novelist to truly wrestle with questions of God and morality, and to do so in an honest way that was neither preachy nor self-indulgent. The Brothers Karamazov is a sprawling, phenomenal work well worth tackling.
  9. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Tolkien was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis but didn't at all enjoy allegory. This influential fantasy novel is not meant to parallel any particular biblical story, so don't go looking, but it does offer classic examples of love, friendship, and sacrifice in its epic depiction of a battle between good and evil.
  10. Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen: Ron Hansen is known for his spare, elegiac work in novels like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Mariette in Ecstasy is no exception. Set in a convent, the book follows a nun whose hysterics lead to stigmata. The cause and effects are left to the reader, making for an intriguing case study on the nature of faith.
  11. The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor: O'Connor's novels are infused with a Southern Gothic feel that reflects her own faith — she called the South "Christ-haunted" — and that tone comes through in The Violent Bear It Away, which bitingly deals with themes like prophecy and destiny.
  12. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis: Lewis' classic epistolary novel uses the correspondence of a demon to illustrate the trials of living faithfully in a modern world. Rightly heralded as one of the finest novels ever to incorporate apologetics, and it gets bonus points for framing Hell not as a fiery lake but instead as a grim bureaucracy.
  13. The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O'Connor: Recipient of the 1962 Pulitzer Prize, The Edge of Sadness centers on a middle-aged priest who struggles with alcoholism and a desire to serve his calling while fending off temptations. The book was eye-opening in its day and hasn't lost any power since.
  14. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene: Regarded as one of the best novels ever written, Greene's work centers on a Roman Catholic priest in 1930s Mexico on the run from oppressive authorities. The insightful volume follows his transition from reluctance to holiness.
  15. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell: Set in the near future, Russell's novel follows a crew of Jesuits on an expedition to a planet that's begun broadcasting music to Earth. A smart, haunting novel that touches on grace and humanity.
  16. Lying Awake, Mark Salzman: When a middle-aged nun is told her religious visions are merely the result of epileptic seizures, she embarks on a journey of faith that's both uniquely personal and completely universal.
  17. Blindness, Jose Saramago: A harrowing and unforgettable novel about how we define ourselves and our character when everything we have is taken away. Saramago won the Nobel Prize for his ability to create stories like this one, which bravely probe the limits of human evil and grace.
  18. The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos: Compelling in its execution, Bernanos' novel follows a French priest who struggles with the doubt that his vocation isn't doing any good to those around him. An expertly rendered story made all the more moving by the priest's yearning commitment to his faith.
  19. Mr. Blue, Myles Connolly: The hero of this novel models his life after St. Francis of Assisi and gets nothing but grief for it. A great way to look at Francis' practices through a modern lens.
  20. The Children of Men, P.D. James: Much different than the film adaptation, P.D. James' The Children of Men uses a dystopian setting in which no woman can conceive as a method of examining the power of belief and the faith-based rituals that bind people. A smart novel, and definitely worth checking out even if you've seen the movie.
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