Why Christians Should Read Novels: I believe it is significant that one of the primary ways that God has chosen to communicate Godself to us is through story. From the first page of Scripture, we are brought to the realization that God wants us to see Who He is by inviting us into the narrative that He is creating in the world we know. In the Bible there is poetry, there is history, there is storytelling – and in many cases – there is fantastical imagery inviting us into a world that is far greater than what we can see with our physical eyes. Notably, when God Himself comes to earth as a human being in Jesus, He chooses – most often – to communicate what He wants people to know in parables – stories He makes up to convey timeless truths about Himself and about ourselves. I believe that all great stories give us insights into our existence in a way that mirrors the storytelling that God Himself does. We are, after all, made in God’s image, as sub-creators in this universe of wonders He has placed us in as His representatives. So, it should be no surprise to Christians to find human beings – even those who are not believers in Jesus – creating stories that display truth about life, the world, humanity, love, God, and everything in between; all of this can bring us closer to our Lord Jesus if we bring it to Him, with minds taken captive to Him and thoughts made obedient to His Will.
In this series, I will be going through my current list of top 100 novels I have read. I fully expect this list to grow and change over the course of my life, and I hope you, friend reader, will help me grow it by recommending books I have overlooked to me after you read my selections. I have tried, especially over the past decade of my life, to diversify my novel catalog, looking for books written by folks who are not white men of European descent, but I’m sure my list as it currently exists still slants that way. Fortunately, my reading of great literature has HELPED to show me the need to seek culturally and ethnically diverse stories. To qualify for my list, a book has to be either a continuous fictional narrative or a series of short-story form fictional narratives. Additionally, each author can only have one entry on my list (other books written by an author that I’ve read will be listed in parentheses following my favorite title from each writer).
100. The End of Baseball by Peter Schilling, Jr. (Adult language and substance-abuse situations)
Summary: In an alternative universe version of 1944, maverick baseball owner Bill Veeck buys the Philadelphia Athletics, ditches the team’s white players, and fills it with stars from the Negro Leagues.
Analysis: For me, baseball is a primary conduit for reflecting on the meaning of life, as I find the sport endlessly fascinating as a daily exercise in struggle, pain, joy, victory, failure and redemption. I find that Schilling’s novel does an exceptional job illuminating how fame is fleeting and triumph in this world is always mixed with sadness, all while highlighting the amazing stories from Black baseball players whose talents our nation’s racism robbed us of fully appreciating.
99. Track Series by Jason Reynolds (Appropriate for pre-teen/teen readers)
Summary: In this young-adult series, Reynolds traces the stories of four members of an urban track team, including their challenges at home, school, and in their sport of choice.
Analysis: These books are excellent choices for adults to read with their children, as the stories are exciting and funny, while also bringing up important aspects of our society to discuss in ways that are not preachy or verbose. Reynolds knows how to tell a good story for people of all ages, but especially teens, and, if you’re like me, these books will help you understand backgrounds and environments with which you may not have been especially familiar before reading them.
98. In His Steps by Charles Sheldon
Summary: A pastor and his congregation begin aligning their lives with Scripture by asking the basic question, ‘What would Jesus do?’
Analysis: A bit ham-handed at times, this novel’s earnest nature and willingness to confront honestly evils of all kinds in our world stands the test of time, in my opinion. I’ll openly acknowledge that the narrative can be a bit sappy and preachy at (many?) points, but the question that it asks believers and non-believers alike and the framing of those questions in the stories of characters you can’t help but care about make it more than worth a read and a re-read for me.
97. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Summary: Russian fathers born of the mid-19th century deal with the changing perspectives of their sons as they come to the forefront during the beginning of the late 19th-century.
Analysis: Ever wondered why your parents don’t understand you? Or, why your kids are so weird? Turns out Russian writers have been asking those questions for at least 150 years. This novel is a surprisingly quick read and deftly handles the bankruptcy of nihilism while asking some difficult questions about the feudalistic system that was hanging on in Russia at the time, all while portraying dads and sons realize the importance of their bond. Jesus gave us the greatest version of this story in the Parable of the Prodigal Son – Turgenev only adds his own special spin on the tale. When it comes down to it, we are all trying to imagine ourselves back home and picturing how our fathers might welcome us or reject us when we get there.
96. There, There by Tommy Orange (Adult language and substance-abuse situations)
Summary: We follow various Native American characters as they deal with the violence, poverty and discrimination, while seeking to be faithful to ties of family and love.
Analysis: It is hard for me not to spend every moment when I encounter a story of Native Americans feeling absolutely heartbroken over how they have been mistreated. The miracle of this book is that Orange spends no time blaming or attacking, simply offering a lament and prayer for hope for his people, all packaged in a compelling narrative that will keep you turning pages to see what meaningful resolution can be possible when there is so much pain. This is the story of the people whom God loves and the world has rejected – a story which should call Christians back to their roots as a faith for the marginalized instead of a faith that oppressed and rejected Native Americans (and others).
95. Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (Written for pre-teen/teens, but I’d advocate a child being 13+ to read it due to its complexity).
Summary: The Baudelaire orphans experience a chain of disasters as they seek to uncover the mystery of their parents death while fending off the dastardly villains of a secret society seemingly desperate to enact their similar demise.
Analysis: There is something to be said for a series that is extremely clever, unfailingly funny, and frequently poignant that is written to assure that life is very, very hard and everything is not always going to turn out all right – because all of this is TRUE to real life. In my opinion, this series is severely underrated; not only is it imaginative and well-plotted and populated with Dickens-like characters who will stay in your consciousness forever, it asks questions that we all ask when we deal with tragedy, pain, and loss. This is a children’s story if it was written by the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes.
94. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Also read: Here I Am, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) (Adult language and situations).
Summary: Two narratives are woven together as a character of Ukrainian-Jewish descent seeks to discover and write the history of his grandparents.
Analysis: I appreciate how inventive, funny, and different Foer’s stories are, but I realize not everyone will. I find it hard to believe this story wouldn’t move most readers to cry, laugh, and wonder about the meaning of life, and about how our ancestor’s trials make us who we are. There are questions about generational pain and suffering in the middle of hilarious hijinks that span generations. For Christians, and for all people, I believe it is important to understand and appreciate with love and respect the story of the Jewish people, and this novel is a great story that also helps with this effort.
93. Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami (Adult language and situations)
Summary: A Japanese man uncovers the truth about himself, his wife, his wife’s family, a neighbor girl, and a missing cat in a labyrinthine story of self-discovery and love.
Analysis: I enjoyed Marukami’s story because of how hard it made me think. He is able to be funny, deep, mysterious, and direct all at the same time. The primary theme seems to be about how humans take the wounds they both sustain and inflict and craft distinct identities that provide them space to live, love and endure. Jesus’ nail-scarred hands remind us of the importance of understanding this concept.
92. The Good Father by Noah Hawley (Also read: Before the Fall) (Adult language)
Summary: A psychiatrist’s son is suspected of shooting a candidate for President.
Analysis: Hawley is my favorite writer for television, and he does incredible work here in crafting a story that explores the guilt that parents experience for the actions of their children, and the lengths to which a person will go to protect and redeem their son. There is no limit to a father’s love – that’ll preach.
91. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – short story collection – by Raymond Carver (Adult language and situations)
Summary: Stories that showcase Carver’s ability to use as few words as possible to leave a reader’s mind to confront ideas of love, loss, companionship, and depression.
Analysis: For me, reading a good short story is like entering a boxing match, different than the more baseball game/chess match experience of a good novel. Few are as good as Carver at delivering those blows, leaving you gasping on the canvas, reevaluating the decisions that left you feeling this way. All of this is a good thing, just to clarify. Jesus does the same thing in His parables that often leave His hearers breathless and angry.