Over the past few weeks I’ve shared a bit about my favorite books, what reading has taught me, and a short-list of truly “great” writers. But as I mentioned a few weeks ago, these are all merely glimpses of what is truly good in our world and beyond. So this week I want to share with you some of my own areas of interest and how I plan to delve deeper into them.
You can organize my interests (very loosely!) under three headings: Ethics, Epics, and the Ekklésia (or Church). In fleshing out how I wanted to approach these subjects, some of these books simply fell into my lap, either as gifts from family and friends, or as free or discounted eBooks available from their publishers. But most of the fifty-two works below were pointed out to me by a handful of books I read the last few years (or even months!):
~ After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
~ Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro
~ The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
~ Early Christians Speak, Vol. 1 by Everett Ferguson
~ The Language of God by Francis Collins
After Virtue is preeminent on the list for three reasons. First, reading it last year, MacIntyre reminded me just how much I still have to learn; so many of the works listed under ethics are due to his influence. But he is also one of the reasons why I want to immerse myself in epic poetry. Much like Kirk, MacIntyre points out how ancient epics informed the virtues of heroic societies, the subject and title of his tenth chapter. So while many of the epics I’ve chosen were influenced by Lewis (That Hideous Strength) and Tolkien (The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, and The Story of Kullervo), MacIntyre has given me new reasons to read in that direction. Finally, MacIntyre is also the inspiration for Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which means that there’s not really an area I’m interested in that he hasn’t already thought and written about extensively.
The next two on the list really go hand-in-hand. I used Common Prayer for my daily devotionals in 2016, and I read though The Benedict Option this year in the first week after its release. Both demonstrate the need for the modern church to reclaim something she has lost through the ages in order to transcend our politics of lust and greed. But there are also several differences between the two perspectives, CP approaching things from the Left and The BenOp from the Right (see here and here). And yet there were four books recommended by both CP and The BenOp, which seem to merit my attention: The Rule of St. Benedict; Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon; and Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community by Wendell Berry.
But if I had to sum up the problems with both CP and The BenOp, it would be that they assume the wrong frame of reference for their diagnosis and prescriptions. Both try to recover the wisdom of the early church, but neither of them goes far enough back (only the fifth or sixth century). And that’s where Everett Ferguson comes in with Early Christians Speak. Ferguson combines representative quotes from the first three centuries of the church, organizes them by topic, and then discusses what this teaches us about being the church then and now. So far I’ve read about half of his monographs, and am hoping they eventually digitize his several edited works. He has also pointed me back to many other Restoration Movement writers, many of which are seen below.
Of these five works, though, the one that surprises me the most is still The Language of God. Francis Collins served previously as Director of the Human Genome Project and is currently the Director of the National Institutes of Health. He’s also a committed believer who has tried for over a decade to reduce the friction between the fields of religion and science. The connection between him and some of the works below is probably fairly obvious, like the last three under ethics (although ethics is actually where I disagree with him most). But Collins also draws extensively on Lewis (whom he calls his “familiar Oxford adviser”), as well as Augustine, both of whom appear below.
To illustrate how you can weave the Great Books and other good books into a course of reading, I’ve once again numbered the authors recommended in Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book. Although each list is roughly chronological, I don’t necessarily plan on reading them that way. Books I plan on re-reading along the way have been marked with an asterisk (*).
10. The Republic of Plato, trans and ed. Allan Bloom
Plato’s Theory of Education by R.C. Lodge
11. Metaphysics, Rhetoric*, Poetics*, The Constitution of Athens, and Fragments, all attributed to Aristotle
Augustine on the Christian Life by Gerald Bray
32. City of God by Augustine
The Allegory of Love, Mere Christianity*, The Four Loves*, The Discarded Image, The Weight of Glory, Christian Reflections, Poems, and Present Concerns by C.S. Lewis
Dependent Rational Animals by Alasdair MacIntyre
Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community by Wendell Berry
Embracing Creation by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson
The Faithful Creator by Ron Highfield
Reconciling the Bible and Science by Kirk Blackard & Lynn Mitchell
Beowulf*, trans. Seamus Heaney (alongside Tolkien’s commentary)
33. The Song of Roland
35. The Story of Burnt Njal
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Prose (or Elder) Edda
The Poetic Edda
The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún* by J.R.R. Tolkien
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Kalevala, ed. Elias Lönnrot
Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien, forthcoming June 2017)
The Lord of the Rings* by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Inheriting Wisdom, The Early Church and Today (Vol. 2), The Early Church at Work and Worship (Vols. 2 & 3), and Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses by Everett Ferguson
The Rule of St. Benedict
Life Together and Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon
Reviving the Ancient Faith and Reclaiming a Heritage by Richard T. Hughes
The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen
The Crux of the Matter and Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, by Douglas A. Foster et al.
Why They Left by Flavil R. Yeakley
Why We Stayed, ed. Benjamin J. Williams
Last week we discussed how reading the Great Books fosters the growth of “the moral imagination.” This week, we take a look at what I’ve come to call a glance at the Great Books, a list of forty-eight great authors and their best known works.
The authors and works listed below are those recommended by all three of the reading lists I consulted—Adler’s How to Read a Book, Bloom’s The Western Canon, and Fadiman and Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan--organized chronologically and numbered by Adler. For the sake of convenience, I’ve divided these works into the conventional categories of Fiction and Nonfiction. Some of these writers belong in both categories, but to avoid redundancies I have included each author only on the list where I felt most readers would look for them.
We spoke last week mainly about Nonfiction: philosophy, the natural sciences, foreign languages, and civics. But this week I’d like to preface the list with some brief thoughts on Fiction. The list starts with Fiction for two reasons. On one hand, this corresponds closely with most people’s actual reading experience. As children we (hopefully!) began reading fiction for fun, and then later on shifted to reading for learning. But in an even deeper way Fiction stands first because, as Russell Kirk once said, “Fiction is truer than fact.” As he continues:
I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain—if at all—unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences. I began to read Sir Walter Scott when I was twelve or thirteen; and I think I learnt from the Waverley novels, and from Shakespeare, more of the varieties of character than ever I have got since from the manuals of psychology.
And Fiction’s edifying role is not limited to the social sciences. “In certain ways, the great novel and the great poem can teach more of norms than can philosophy and theology.” Think for a moment of the Bible: God did not reveal himself to mankind merely through lengthy discourses (although there is much of that, about 24 of the 66 canonical books) but also in poetry (17 books) and narrative (25 books). In other words, the One who made us and knows us best reveals himself in a way that is not only good and true, but beautiful (Ecc 12:10). In the same way, the Great Books’ blend of poetry, prose, and discourse reflects the image of the Creator and His creation. So while a well-rounded education will certainly include some good, no-nonsense discourse, “miscellaneous browsing in the realm of fiction rarely does mischief,” and often does far more.
So as you take a glance at these great books, remember not to hold them as an end-all-be-all, but as a glimpse of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Instead, find something that interests you and dig in, let it shape how you see the world around you, and let it launch you onto other literary endeavors (whether those works made the list or not!)
Lord willing, next week we’ll continue with quick looks at some of my own areas of interest: ethics, epics, and the Christian ekklesia.
1. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
3. The Oresteia by Aeschylus
4. The Theban Plays by Sophocles
6. The Baccae, Hippolytus, and Medea by Euripides
9. The Birds and The Clouds by Aristophanes
18. The Aeneid by Virgil
37. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
38. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
45. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
49. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
52. The Poetry and Plays of William Shakespeare
58. Areopagitica, Paradise Lost, and the Sonnets of John Milton
67. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
68. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
78. Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne
86. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89. The Poems of William Wordsworth
90. Biographia Literaria, Kubla Khan, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
91. Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen
93. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
99. Pére Goriot and Eugenie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac
101. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
105. The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and Hard Times by Charles Dickens
109. Middlemarch by George Eliot
110. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
111. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
112. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
113. Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen
114. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
115. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
117. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. The Histories by Herodotus
7. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
10. The Dialogues of Plato
11. The Nicomachean Ethics and Poetics by Aristotle
17. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
32. Confessions by Augustine
40. The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli
47. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne
56. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
60. The Pensées of Blaise Pascal
61. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison (which I plan to read chronologically alongside the Anti-Federalist Papers)
73. Candide and Letters on the English by Voltaire
82. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell
103. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
107. Civil Disobedience and Walden by Henry David Thoreau
116. Pragmatism by William James
118. Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Wilhelm Neitzsche
~ Adler, Mortimer J. & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone, 1972. Print.
~ Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead, 1994. Print.
~ Fadiman, Clifton & John S. Major. The New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th Ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.
~ Kirk, Russell. “The Moral Imagination.” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Majoring in the humanities was probably the best academic decision I ever made. I have always enjoyed reading, but what I soon found was that reading great books well doesn’t just entertain us or teach us useful facts. It helps us rely less on ourselves—with all of our faults and blind spots—by listening to and engaging the minds of others through their written works.
Solomon is perhaps the clearest biblical example of the breadth of knowledge the humanities seek (although he had more than a little divine assistance to boot!). As we read in First Kings:
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore. … He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. (1Ki 4:29-33 ESV)
Later on, similar things were said of Daniel and his friends, who were “endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace” and who were taught “the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Dan 1:4). Even Paul, “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) knew something of the Greek poets and made use of them in both his preaching and teaching (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12). Taken together, these biblical figures understood something of philosophy, the fine arts, the natural sciences, literature, foreign languages, and civics.
Of course, I’m nowhere close to where they were (or are!), but reading the great books helps realign ourselves with the wisdom of the ages, rather than the spirit of the age. As Russell Kirk often argued, what modern society requires is to reclaim “the moral imagination”—“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events,” and “aspires to … right order in the soul and … the commonwealth.” And: “To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.”
Of course, true knowledge and true wisdom, comes only from above (Jam 3:17-18) and is revealed fully in Christ (Col 2:13) and in his word (1Co 2:6-16). But to grasp the difference between the wisdom of Man and the wisdom of God, you have to understand something of them both. Ancient wisdom, then, is not inherently opposed to scriptural truth, but instead an introduction into what God has revealed more explicitly his word (which is just one reason why preachers should read good literature).
While the Bible helped me see the heart and soul of reading, it was Mortimer Adler who first introduced me to the skills required to do it well. One of the assigned readings in my first humanities course was his 1972 classic, How to Read a Book. But Adler not only tells you how to read well, he also distills for us the experience of the ages through his list of 137 Great Writers and their greatest works. As Adler would certainly warn us, no list is the “end all, be all” of any education. Instead, I am reminded of the elegy offered by Fadiman and Major in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. By reading great books well, we begin “to fill our minds, slowly, gradually, under no compulsion, with what some of the greatest writers have thought, felt, and imagined” (xix). Of course, even this is merely a beginning:
Even after we have shared these thoughts, feelings, and images, we will still have much to learn: We all die uneducated. But at least we will not feel quite so lost, so bewildered. We will have disenthralled ourselves from the merely contemporary. We will understand something—not much, but something—of our position in space and time. We will know how we have emerged from our long human history. . . . Just as important, we will have acquired models of high thought and feeling. (Fadiman & Major xix-xx)
The question then becomes, Which list to use? I have some experience with three, but each is quite different from the others, often expressing the interests and views of its compiler. So Adler’s list reflects his extensive background in philosophy and Western civilization, and essentially stops with what had been recognized as ‘great’ by 1972. Clifton and Fadiman and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon help immensely by adding many non-Western or newer works, but they are lighter on nonfiction than Adler’s.
Not surprisingly, however, some books make it onto all three lists. And though I don’t think we should make too much of this (building a canon within the canon), these commonly-received works give us a good starting point for our literary endeavors. And though the resulting list is much shorter than the one thousand works recommended when these three lists are compiled, it still represents a substantive goal: forty-eight authors (or groups of authors) and over one hundred individual works.
Next week, Lord willing, we’ll see what the resulting list looks like. Until then, check out Russell Kirk’s lecture, “The Moral Imagination,” which is still one of the best introductions to the ethical function of literature I’ve ever read. For the even braver soul, read slowly through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially chapter 10, “The Virtues of Heroic Societies.”