“When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.”
These are the words of Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance scholar and theologian. Reading books has been an obsession since my conversion to Christianity when I was a sophomore in college. As a new Christian I sensed that my mind really mattered in serving the Lord, so I began a serious pursuit of the “life of the mind” to the glory of God. Today I have a personal library of between three and four thousand books. Because of this background, people often ask me for book recommendations, especially in such fields as philosophy, theology, and apologetics.
Three Christian books (other than the Bible, the greatest book ever written) are at the top of my list. These timeless classics will cause any serious thinker to grapple with the claims of Christianity. If I had to go and live on a deserted island I would need to take these books with me.
“Oxbridge” literary scholar C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) served as a lay Anglican theologian and versatile Christian apologist and was perhaps the most important conservative Christian thinker of the twentieth century. Lewis’s work Mere Christianity, published in 1952, was the first Christian book that I ever read and it powerfully impacted my thinking. In this book Lewis explains and defends the central truths of Christianity. What impresses me most about this book is its lucid style and single-minded focus on the essence of the faith. Knowing the core elements of historic Christianity and being able to articulate them with clarity to believers and nonbelievers alike can help all Christians fulfill their God-given role in drawing others to follow Christ.
Over the years I have come to disagree with some of the theological positions that Lewis held, but he certainly deserves respect for his clear, insightful, and courageous witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. I am grateful to Lewis for his careful discussion of such issues as the triune nature of God, the Incarnation of Christ, and the moral argument for God’s existence.
In the short span of his life the French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) accomplished much as a mathematician, physicist, inventor, and an intuitive Christian thinker and apologist. Pascal had been preparing a book on Christian apologetics when he died prematurely at 39. His unfinished apologetic work (consisting mainly of a series of organized notes, outlines, and fragments) was subsequently published under the French title Pensées* (pronounced “Pon-sayz” and roughly translated as “Thoughts”). While the Pensées is more of an outline than a complete book, the content is so compelling that it remains a perennial bestseller.
The Pensées reveals three distinctive Pascalian apologetic themes. First, Pascal argues that Christianity uniquely explains the enigma of man as a paradox of “greatness” and “wretchedness” (great because man is created in God’s image but wretched because humans are fallen). Second, he speaks of “reasons of the heart,” meaning that while religious belief is not contrary to reason, nevertheless there are limits to human reason and the human heart plays a critical role in intuitively forming one’s most basic beliefs. Third, Pascal introduces his famous “Wager” argument in which he attempts to shake people of their indifference to ultimate issues (God, death, immortality) by appealing to the ultimate cost-benefit analysis of belief.
Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside the New Testament. History knows him as a theologian, philosopher, church bishop, and a gifted and tenacious defender of orthodox Christianity. A prolific classical author, Augustine wrote more than five million words, with three of his works becoming both Christian and literary classics of Western civilization. Confessions* is his best known and most popular book.
Confessions gave birth to a whole new genre of literature in Western culture–the autobiography. The work chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The title “Confessions” can be understood in a triple sense: Augustine’s candid and contrite confession of sin, his sincere confession of newfound faith, and his thankful confession of the greatness of God.
The content of the Confessions may provide the most penetrating spiritual and psychological self-analysis of any work ever written. Written in the form of a prayer to God (similar to the Psalms), the work also serves as thought-provoking devotional literature. Augustine quotes and expounds the Scriptures throughout and suffuses the text with profound theological, philosophical, and apologetic insights. While the Confessions records Augustine’s extraordinary life and spiritual pilgrimage, the book may really be about every human soul’s search for God.
Skeptic and Christian alike will benefit from familiarity with these significant works. As classics they are readily available in paperback, so there should be money left over for buying food.
* Although there are many translations of these two works available, the author recommends these: Pensées (New York: Penguin, 1995); Confessions (New York: Penguin, 1961).