A critique of the Church Times 100 best Christian books

Recently, the Church Times published their list of the “100 best Christian books” (you can view the full list here). Any such list, whether it be of books, films, scientists, etc. will inevitably elicit a response from those who don’t agree with the list. An American website entitled Modern Library has 2 lists, one from a selected panel, one from (some subsections) of the American public. I think it’s fair to say that the latter disagreed somewhat with the former. For example, the latter list has as their top 3: Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand), The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) and Battlefield Earth (L Ron Hubbard). Any reasonable reader should be able to posit a flaw in the methodology that gives such an outcome. One may also see a similar list for nonfiction which is also dominated by Rand and Hubbard. Thankfully, neither feature in the Church Times list!

So with the Church Times top 100, as I read through the outcome and could not help but be led to question the methodology though I would also say that the outcome was not quite as wildly off target as that of Modern Library.

Methodology

Martyn Percy, the chairman of the judges, admitted, “The panel was mainly, but not exclusively, Anglican.” Why might this be? Well, despite the apparent universal name, The Church Times is not a magazine that deals with the whole Church, it is focused just one denomination, that of Anglicanism.

Almost anyone reading the list would see that not only have the judges reflected a traditionalist bias, but that they are on the particular anti-reformed end of the scale. There is also a confession of an anti-evangelical bias:

“We spent some time mulling the lasting influence of recent Evangelical literature: Billy Graham’s Peace with God, David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and Norman Warren’s Journey Into Life, to name but a few, have sold in their millions.

The works of Jim Packer and John Stott, likewise, have enjoyed significant influence. But the comparatively meagre attention that Stott and Packer receive today may reflect a more fluid market, and emerging diversity within Evangelicalism. Many titles in this category tend to have an immediate but short-term relevance rather than long-term resonance.”

It would not be unfair to paraphrase this as an assertion that all evangelical writings, nomatter how influential, are merely flash-in-the-pan and have no lasting impact. Even those overtly evangelical writers they do pick come from that niche intersection of being both evangelical and Anglican; namely C.S. Lewis and John Stott. The exclusion from the list of non-Anglican evangelicals also implies that not one of them could be considered a top 100 book. The only possible concession to such a haughty attitude might be that evangelical theology is much more about ideas than about the celebrity status of a book’s author. So while Stott may not be selling all that many volumes today, his way of expounding the gospel does still reverberate across many churches today, though preachers are far more likely to namecheck Jesus than Stott.

In considering this, one might think of the likes of The Purpose Driven Life, though in this case I would be inclined to agree with the panel by not including it. Influential it may be, but not necessarily in a good way. Though if one were to relegate books based on their theological soundness (a subjective criterion, if ever there was one!) then I would certainly advocating dropping quite a few of the catholic writers off the list, possibly starting with Julian of Norwich.

In conversation about the list, someone else wryly pointed out to me that of the 20th century writings, many were done in the 60s and 70s which may well coincide with the formative years of those on the panel of judges.

Perhaps a far more balanced approach would have had the panel include equal weightings for Baptists, Methodists, charismatics and Eastern Orthodox.

Outcome

So with that noted, what of the final list? As stated earlier, I would heartily applaud the inclusion of many of the books on the list. I would question the positioning of some of them, though. For example, having recently read and reviewed Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, I would very much disagree with the implication that there are only 3 books in the history of christian literature which are better. Might it be included in the top 100? Possibly. But in the top 10? No way. It’s adherence to medieval Catholicism make it decidedly dodgy theologically, so must be approached with caution. Is it influential? Well, it’s been in fashion of late and it is noteworthy for being the earliest known example of a book written in English by a woman.

I would question having so many works of fiction so high (Divine Comedy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost). While they are each great works in their own right, each of them has their own drawbacks. Not least in possibly how we view the concept of hell, where these have been possibly been more influential than sound biblical exegesis. I must also confess that I’m not a huge fan of poetry. While I can admire the Great War poets likes Sassoon and Owen, it’s not a form of literature I’m drawn to. So I wouldn’t be so keen to see it high up the list.

In terms of history, I was pleased to see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People included, but was puzzled at the omission of Eusebius’ History of the Church. One might have considered Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity, which has garnered much praise since its publication a few years ago, though I confess I’ve not yet read it. The inclusion of Duffy’s revisionist piece, The Stripping of the Altars, adds weight to my argument of particular favour given to an anti-reformationist view. Even if one were to include it, then might it not be reasonable to include a more balanced approach and at least have Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea alongside it?

The final word here has to belong to the most obvious omission of the lot. It is reflective of the anti-reformed bias that pervades the selection. Given the criteria of the lasting influence of the work, and given the inclusion of equally weighty volumes such as Summa Theologica and Church Dogmatics which, though influential, are not widely read in their entirety, there can be no excuse for the exclusion from the list of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. You might disagree with some of its content (as I do) and tone (likewise) but it is utterly baffling that any group of christians can sit down together, think about the greatest and most influential books on christianity and leave it out.

Appendix: my own lists

I haven’t read the majority of the books on the list. Some of them are gargantuan works and I would be surprised if many have read them all through from start to finish. Some are reviewed on this blog, others I read before I started reviewing books (so I may need to revisit them). If you are interested in them, I have included links to reviews of them. Since this is a post about lists, it seems only fitting to include a few of my own. They are no less biased than the one produced by Church Times, they are simply different.

Those that I have read

Those that I have partially read, but not finished in their entirety

  • The Divine Comedy – Dante
  • Summa Theologica – Thomas Aquinas
  • Church Dogmatics – Karl Barth
  • Paradise Lost – John Milton

Those that I own but haven’t got round to reading yet

  • The Rule of St Benedict
  • The Dark Night of the Soul – St John of the Cross
  • The Cloud of Unknowing
  • Fear and Trembling – Soren Kierkergaard
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes

Omissions (obvious and some less obvious)

  • The History of the Early Church – Eusebius
  • Run Baby Run – Nicky Cruz
  • Variety of Religious Experience – William James
  • Knowledge of the Holy – AW Tozer
  • Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey
  • The Divine Conspiracy – Dallas Willard
  • Knowing God – JI Packer
  • Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
  • Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
  • The Early Church – WHC Frend
  • The Normal Christian Life – Watchman Nee
  • The Ragamuffin Gospel – Bennan Manning
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin
  • What’s So Amazing about Grace – Philip Yancey
  • The Hiding Place – Corrie Ten Boom
  • God on Mute – Pete Greig
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – David Hume
  • Morning and Evening – CH Spurgeon
  • The Desert Fathers
  • The Cross of Christ – John Stott
  • Too Busy Not To Pray – Bill Hybels

My personal top 10

  1. The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  2. The Resurrection of the Son of God – NT Wright
  3. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey
  4. Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
  5. Letters and Papers from Prison – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  6. The Screwtape letters – CS Lewis
  7. Confessions – Augustine
  8. God on Mute – Pete Greig
  9. Knowing God – JI Packer
  10. Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin
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