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10 Fiction Classics for Churches to Read and Discuss

10 Fiction Classics for Churches to Read and Discuss

Few Christians would argue that reading scripture, wrestling with its meaning and striving to embody it faithfully are essential practices of our faith. In my recent book Reading for the Common Good, however, I argue that it is healthy for churches to read and discuss a broad range of books that help us understand and embody the scriptural story in our own neighborhoods.

I have also written a companion pamphlet titled 101 Transformative Books for Churches to Read and Discuss, that offers a broad range of classic books—on topics from theology to church history to economics to poetry and aesthetics—that churches would benefit from reading and discussing together. (Download a FREE PDF copy of this pamphlet from The Englewood Review of Books website).

Here are 10 fiction classics (nine novels and a play) selected from this list of 101 books, along with brief descriptions of why I believe that reading each one of these could be transformative.

What makes for a good and compelling story?

Scripture is, above all else, a story, and we must learn to find ourselves in it and discern what it means to navigate its twists and turns faithfully. Literature can be an immense asset to us in this work; in reading the fictional stories of other people in other times and places, we catch glimpses of ourselves, and we also are afforded insight into the dynamics of a good and compelling story. Through reflecting on literature in this way, we will be challenged to live better and more faithful stories in our own contexts.

Dante’s epic lyrical work in three parts, The Divine Comedy, is undoubtedly one of the most theologically important works of fiction in the Christian era. Given the mammoth size of this complete work, I am only recommending the first part, The Inferno, which describes Dante’s journey through hell and particularly the effects of the seven deadly sins (defining in essence seven of the nine circles of hell). Through this story, Dante offers us a rich theological exploration of sin and the ways that it binds us as humans.

  • The Tempest – William Shakespeare
    DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

Like Hamlet and many of Shakespeare’s other plays, The Tempest explores the struggle for power. In this play in particular, Shakespeare raises questions about the nature of justice and how that justice should be pursued. These questions are ones that are still strikingly relevant in the 21st century.

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

Perhaps the most familiar of Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice offers us plenty of opportunities to talk about gender, class, family, marriage and hopes for marriage in Austen’s day as well as in our own. The contrast between the two eras might itself be a topic of conversation.

  • Walk in the Light – Leo Tolstoy
    DOWNLOAD HERE (Google Books)
    PDF – Printable or readable on e-reader of your choice.

In this Tolstoy novella, lesser known than his hefty works such as War and Peace or Anna Karenina, Tolstoy stirs our imaginations with a story of conversion and Christian faithfulness in a world in which Christianity was a marginal faith. This work has particular relevance in the 21st century when Christianity again is rapidly becoming marginalized. It also breathes life into an era of the church’s history that many of us will not be familiar with.

  • The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky
    DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

Prince Myshkin, the title and central character of this novel, is a sort of Christ figure who lives with a simplicity and goodness that is reminiscent of Jesus. Dostoevsky sets out to depict “the positively good and beautiful man” and the conflicts that he will inevitably face amidst the powers embodied in modern culture. This novel offers us much to discuss about what it means to follow in the way of Jesus and the opposition that we will likely face as we do so in the modern world.

  • Middlemarch – George Eliot

DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

Perhaps George Eliot’s best-known novel, Middlemarch explores the life of a small, rural, British town in the mid-19th century. Eliot addresses the nature of marriage, and particularly the popular conceptions in her day of marriage and class. Reading this novel together will challenge us to reflect on our own ideas of marriage and how they give shape to our lives and to those of our children.

  • Phantastes – George MacDonald

DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

C.S. Lewis once declared that it was this novel that baptized his imagination, and indeed by portraying a fairy world that is quite other from our own, MacDonald will help us imagine worlds outside the one in which we presently live. It is not difficult to see the influence that this novel had on Lewis, and especially on his Chronicles of Narnia. Phantastes undoubtedly paved the way for the future of fantasy and science fiction novels that would follow almost a century later.

Willa Cather, in O Pioneers! (the first of a trilogy of novels about the experience of a pioneer family in Nebraska), captures vividly not only the pioneer experience, but the very essence of what it means to belong to a place and to live a life within the contours of that place. In doing so, she provides us with much to discuss about what it means for us to belong to our places, to be defined by them, and to seek their continued flourishing.

  • The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
    DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

Sinclair wrote this novel to illuminate the harsh lives of immigrants and other workers amidst the rise of urban industrialism in the early 20th century. The Jungle offers us much to consider about the nature of industrialism and the lives of those who live on the margins of society. What are the things that a socially engaged writer like Sinclair would write about in the early 21st century?

  • Main Street – Sinclair Lewis
    DOWNLOAD HERE (Project Gutenberg)

Main Street is based on Lewis’ experience growing up in a small town in Minnesota, and it depicts the challenges of living in that environment. This novel offers us much to discuss about the nature of a place and how we live in it, especially when we are not native to it or are marginalized by it. Although this novel provides keen insight into small town life, Lewis’ work deserves our scrutiny: Was he being too harsh? What are the benefits (in addition to the challenges) of small town life.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of the recent book Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016). He is also co-author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.