A Few Good Books

Read any good books lately?

One thing is for certain – there’s no shortage of books on the market, and more coming out every day. And for Christian believers who want to grow in their faith, or perhaps be challenged in their thinking, there are literally entire bookstores selling nothing but “Christian” books. But having so many available is in itself is a problem: how can you know what’s worth the money to buy it, or the time to read it?

I’m not claiming to have any special insight about what makes a book “good” to read – it’s obviously very subjective. But I wanted to highlight a few volumes that have especially blessed me over the years. These are books that have challenged me, taught me, annoyed me, made me think, made me question, helped me grow closer to God, and in the end, blessed me.

First, the ground rules: First, this list is for non-fiction ONLY. Sorry to disappoint fans of Christian fiction, but that’s not my purpose here. Second, only ONE book allowed per author. Third, I’m only including books from the last hundred years – I’m aware of great Christian books from earlier times, but I’m excluding them. And finally, I’m limiting myself to only FIVE books. I’m not saying these are the best five, or that they are somehow better than a list of your top five, just that these are some books that have blessed me, and that I recommend for your consideration.

So, with that said, here’s the first in my list of favorite Christian books. Future installments will follow in blogs to come.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

(Copyright © 1952, renewed © 1980, C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)

Anyone who knows me well is not surprised at this point. And I freely admit it: I am a HUGE C.S. Lewis fan. (In fact, without Rule #2, this entire list might have been his stuff!) The story is well known of how Lewis went from being a reluctant churchgoer in his youth, and moved from agnosticism to theism, and finally to Christianity. Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks given on the BBC between 1942 and 1944, which Lewis later edited and compiled into its present form. “Mere” is used in the sense of “basic” – in other words, the book contains the principles and teachings which are held in common by ALL Christian groups, rather than more “advanced” doctrines about which different denominations would disagree.

Now, I will freely admit, this is NOT an easy book to read. Lewis was British, and his writing can sometimes come across as wordy and cumbersome, especially to Americans who are used to three second sound bites and 140 character tweets. When you read the book, you have to remember that it started out as a radio script, and so you should read it as a good announcer would on the air, with appropriate pauses. And the subject matter is considerably deeper and “denser” than most of us are used to reading. There’s no denying it: this is heavy stuff!

But I urge you: please make the effort to read this book. It may take a while to get used to Lewis’ rhythm and style of writing, but I assure you – it’s worth it. In these days of bumper sticker theology and coffee mug wisdom, Lewis is a deep breath of very fresh air.

Here’s a favorite passage:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.



Think You Know Jack?

cs-lewisC.S. Lewis once said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” If you enjoy reading as I do, you will probably agree with him, although you might prefer a cup of coffee, or maybe even something stronger, to sip on while you’re doing your reading and thinking.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death – November 22, 1963. Of course, that particular day was also the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. (It’s also the day that another British intellectual and author, Aldous Huxley, died, but this isn’t a review of Brave New World, so we will move on.) Anyway, there are a number of remembrances and celebrations of Lewis and his work being planned, so I thought I would jump the gun just a bit with a few thoughts on this author and thinker who has influenced me and so many others.

Clive Staples Lewis was born November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. As a small boy, he took the nickname “Jack” after a family pet, and so he was “Jack” to his friends for the rest of his life. His mother died while he was still young, and her death was a factor in him renouncing his Christian faith. He later wrote that he considered himself an atheist, although he also said that he was angry at God for NOT existing.

NarniaHe served with British troops in World War I, and was wounded in a friendly fire accident that killed two friends. Eventually, he returned to the faith, in part with the help of his friend and fellow author, J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall at a meeting of the “Inklings,” as their little society was known?)

Lewis held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and was the author of a great many books, both fiction and non-fiction. Many people first come to know of Lewis through his fiction, including the seven-volume “Chronicles of Narnia,” and then later tackle his non-fiction, although for me, it was the other way around. The first book of his that I ever read was The Problem of Pain, required reading for Bob Brockus’ “Apologetics” class back at Dallas Christian College. And thank you, Brother Bob, for introducing me to him, and for many others things, too.

CSLewis AllLewis’ best known non-fiction is probably Mere Christianity; by “mere,” he means basic Christianity, first principles of faith that all Christians generally accept and teach. The book started out as a series of radio talks during the 1940s, and was later adapted into its current form. I won’t kid you – it’s not an easy read, but it will absolutely make you think, and give you something worthwhile to consider.  I am completely convinced that if more Christians read it, we would have a lot less goofy theology.

In my opinion, people who have only read Lewis’ fiction, without diving into his non-fiction, are only getting the gravy – it’s good gravy, of course, but you should also get the meat and potatoes of Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, and so on.

Another personal favorite of mine from his fiction work is The Screwtape Letters. This imaginative book relates the story of a young apprentice demon who has been assigned his first human to corrupt. The tale is told through a series of letters from his “uncle,” an experienced demon, on the most effective ways to tempt and lead astray. I think it’s a brilliant bit of writing that reveals Lewis’ keen insights into human character and weaknesses, but it does take a bit of getting used to – for example, whenever the older demon talks about God, he refers to Him as “The Enemy.” But still, good stuff.

year_with_cs_lewis_coverIf you haven’t read much of Lewis and are looking for a good place to start, I would recommend A Year With C.S. Lewis. It’s a collection of 366 brief readings of his material, gleaned from nearly all of his best works, and arranged by a daily schedule (including one for February 29 during leap years). Spend a few minutes every morning for a year with Jack, and you will be amazed at how much better clarity of thought you will have.

So then, here are a dozen favorite Lewis quotes, arranged in ascending order leading up to my personal favorite. Please note that this list includes the results of a very unscientific poll that I conducted, asking some friends to share their favorites. Thanks to those who helped me put this list together – you know you are. Some of the suggestions are theirs, but the order is my own.  And to my fellow lovers of Lewis, if I’ve left off your favorite quotation, you are of course welcome to submit it as a comment.

The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. The Screwtape Letters

“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” The Horse and His Boy

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. The Great Divorce

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible… People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs. Mere Christianity

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. The Weight of Glory

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither. Mere Christianity

…Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. Mere Christianity

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. The Problem of Pain

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. Mere Christianity

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The Weight of Glory

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. Mere Christianity