ALONG WITH THE 50 WESTERN CULTURE BOOKS highlighted in this issue, we should be aware of key works from other cultures-not only because it is essential for Christians to understand competing worldviews, but because the works below show the universal need, and sometimes even yearning, for the Savior who came for people "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Revelation 7:9).
The Analects by Confucius. The Chinese sage 500 years before Christ emphasized ways for individuals to perfect their own moral character and implied that they could succeed in the process without any divine help. The advice is still useful in our age of attention-seeking ("A gentleman is distressed by his lack of ability, but he is not distressed by men's not knowing him") and grabbing ("What the gentleman demands is something of himself. What the petty man demands is something of others").
The Four Noble Truths by Gautama Buddha. At about the same time Confucius wrote, the Buddha was teaching that life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, nonattachment can end suffering, and the means to this end is the "noble eightfold path." This teaching is at the center of numerous books by and about Buddha, for the desire to get rid of desire is the root of all Buddhist practice.
The Bhagavad Gita by many authors and editors. India's most beloved story emerged in final form during the centuries after Christ and includes passages that appear to have been influenced by the teaching that the apostle Thomas and others first brought to India two decades after the resurrection.
The Quran by Muhammad. Allah, majestic but also largely inscrutable, is called the all-compassionate but doesn't show it. This 7th-century work, essential for understanding the basic thought patterns of a billion people, should be read in its entirety-it's only about the length of the New Testament-so that the ratio of war to peace within Islamic understanding becomes evident. The Quran's curious retellings of Bible stories are also worth examining.
Essentials of Faith Alone by Shinran Shonin. Founder of Jodo Shinshu, Japan's most popular form of Buddhism, Shinran (like Martin Luther three centuries later) did not find enlightenment or peace during his monk's training, and the harder he tried the more frustrated he became. Perhaps influenced by Christian teaching, he recognized his total inability to free himself from bad behavior through his own power: "With mind of asps and scorpions vile/How can I hope to practice good?/Without His Grace, and gifts from Him ..." But the Him referred to here was a Buddha.
Ecstatic Poems by Kabir. One of the most quoted authors in India, Kabir six centuries ago was a literary leader of the bhakti (devotion to some god) movement. Kabir wrote, "When the bride is one with her lover,/who cares about the wedding party? I am not a Hindu,/Nor a Muslim am I!" He also wrote, "Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on your forehead,/wear your hair matted, long, and ostentatious,/but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you have God?"
Poems by Tukaram. This 17th-century bhakti poet in western India wrote of his total dependence on Krishna: "I am a mass of sin;/Thou art all purity;/Yet thou must take me as I am/And bear my load for me.... No deeds I've done nor thoughts I've thought;/Save as your servant I am nought./Guard me, O God, and O, control/The tumult of my restless soul./Ah, do not, do not cast on me/The guilt of mine iniquity./My countless impurities, I, Tuka, say,/Upon thy loving heart I lay."
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. First of "the Cairo trilogy," this evocative novel (which includes some sexual content) portrays an Egyptian merchant family during the early 1900s and gives a sense of life, especially for women, under Quranic social authority. Mahfouz, who married a Christian woman in the 1950s, has been an opponent of radical Islamists, contending (through a character in one of his novels) that "they wish to drag us back 14 centuries." The radicals retaliated in 1994 by knifing in the neck this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; he recovered, but his right arm was paralyzed.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This 20th-century, missionary-educated Nigerian author shows how residents of an African village think and feel, and how they react to the introduction by missionaries of a completely different worldview. Achebe portrays cultures clashing and also shows why the missionary's message is so compelling: Christianity makes the old world "fall apart" because its teachings against infanticide ring true for mothers who have seen their babies killed, and its emphasis on education takes villagers to a new level of civilization.