Cover Story

Top 40 books

The best titles proclaiming or applying a biblical worldview in a hostile 20th century

Issue: "Top 40 Books," July 3, 1999

When the Modern Library published its list of the top 100 novels of the century, critics complained that it was not inclusive enough of women and minorities, a mistake made up for when ML published its top 100 nonfiction titles. Then William F. Buckley's National Review complained that the nonfiction list was not inclusive enough of conservatives, so NR published its own top 100. None of the lists, as might be expected, was particularly inclusive of Christian titles, so in the spirit of end-of-the-century listmaking, here's WORLD's offering. The top books of the last 100 years, as far as WORLD is concerned, are those that proclaimed or applied a Christian worldview in a hostile century. Not all of the books listed here are necessarily by Christians, though most are, but they all exerted not just an influence (as in the secular lists that hold up Marxist or Freudian or obscene titles only because they were influential), but a positive influence. Only one title per author is listed, though the author's other books may be equally worthy of inclusion. Also, since this is a retrospective look at a century that is all but over, only authors who are dead are listed. The many excellent writers still living and writing may, if they stand the test of time, be listed a hundred years from now, since their influence will mainly be felt in the next century. Also, not too much should be made of the exact ordering, as if a book listed in the 20s were greatly superior to one listed in the 30s. Certain groupings, as well as rankings, will be apparent. Readers will no doubt note gaping holes and flagrant omissions. Notice that while most lists tend to come in 10s or 100s, WORLD's list follows the radio format of giving a top 40. This allows room for additions. Readers are invited to nominate books they think are among the top books written over the last 100 years.

1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1943). Modernists did not realize that Christianity made so much sense or was so exhilarating until they read Lewis, the century's foremost defender of the faith.

2. T. S. Eliot, The Collected Poems (1963). The Modern Library made the wildly experimental Ulysses by James Joyce the No. 1 novel of the century, despite, or perhaps because of, its obscenity trial and the fact that it is nearly unreadable. Against this quintessential modernist novelist, we offer the quintessential modernist poet, who charted the spiritual wasteland of the 20th century, in the process becoming a conservative Christian.

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3. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908). This exuberant, joyous, humorous journalist defended the faith with a razor logic and a razor wit. He also showed how Christianity can transfigure all of life.

4. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (1968). Schaeffer taught evangelicals to become engaged with culture, art, and the world of ideas. His worldview criticism became a catalyst for Christian activism.

5. The Fundamentals (1909-1915). This series of monographs by various authors battled the liberal theological modernism that would take over much of mainline Protestantism. Those who consider "fundamentalism" a synonym for narrow anti-intellectualism have never read these books, which, for the most part, remain strikingly relevant.

6. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974). By documenting and describing the evils of communism in his powerful and evocative style, Solzhenitsyn did much to pull down the Soviet Empire, showing that the pen really is mightier than the sword.

7. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952). The moving autobiography and reflective mediation of a communist spy who became a Christian and, to the scorn of the intellectual establishment, witnessed to God's grace. Chambers didn't know it, but he was on the winning side after all.

8. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). This Princeton professor and Westminster Seminary founder showed that liberal theology actually constitutes a new non-Christian religion. This insight got him kicked out of his increasingly liberal denomination, but Machen was right-then and now.

9. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955). Although his attention to "presuppositions" rather than "evidence" in Christian apologetics continues to spark debates, Van Til remains the father of worldview criticism.

10. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1956). The Oxford professor whose witnessing to C. S. Lewis helped bring him to Christ wrote the century's grandest fantasy epic, a staggering work of self-contained imagination.

11. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901). A freed slave at the beginning of the century laid out a strategy for pulling out of poverty, based on faith, hard work, and character.

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