Western Culture's Top 50 Books

Books | Give yourself an education by checking out these books

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

One WORLD subscriber who teaches accounting recently wrote, "I have a 'professional' school background. My liberal arts education is very limited. However, I make up for both with a 'feel good' sandbox education from the California public-school system in the '60s (can you see my tongue poking through my cheek?). I would truly love to expand my background. Any chance of helping with reading suggestions?"

Of course—and that subscriber should know that he is not alone. Most of us have come away from a "progressive" education system that gives us a little knowledge and makes us even more dangerous than those who are unschooled and aware of deficiencies.

Nevertheless, opportunity waits: Those willing to read long and deep can go far on their own, and education by reading doesn't even cost anything. Library cards are free.

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What to read? Many recent books are terrific.

On the key question of evolution vs. intelligent design, Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, and William Dembski's Intelligent Design are among the books worth surveying.

On American culture, Gertrude Himmelfarb's One Nation, Two Cultures, Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up, and Thomas Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed are all good reads from the past few years.

Regarding the role of today's church in our culture, Hugh Hewitt's The Embarrassed Believer, David Wells's No Place for Truth, and Leon Podles's The Church Impotent are among those that get the story right. Alvin Schmidt's Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization tells how potent Christianity has been in changing cultures, and Herbert Schlossberg's Idols for Destruction shows what happens when a society heads away from Christ.

But for those willing to spend time not only with contemporary analysis but the wisdom of former years, the advice of C.S. Lewis (On the Reading of Old Books) is excellent: Read at least one classic for every three new books. Doing that enables readers to avoid the narrowness of thinking that today's ideas are the only possible truths: We need "to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books."

So WORLD offers a Western Culture reading list, one that will stretch your mind, equip you for intellectual combat in the world, and even strengthen your faith.

While our list overlaps in part the typical "Great Books" canon, many such lists are drawn up as a secular humanist scripture.

This list is different in that these books are not only great but good. Though not all of the books are explicitly religious or even by Christian writers, they show the direct or indirect influence of the Bible or at least a worldview that sees the world as a product of design rather than anarchic material forces.

Only one book per author (or in one case, a collection of authors) is listed, though it would be beneficial also to read other books by many of these authors.

First comes the top five must-read classics of all time. Then, 45 more, sorted by their time period.

The Bible

Multiple Inspired Authors

The book that needs no introduction has survived two centuries of deconstruction and new movements of ideological mistranslation. Unlike the scriptures of other religions, it portrays founders and heroes as real people and (with one exception) sinners all, and combines theological exposition with realistic history and poetry that shows both ups and downs.

Paradise Lost

John Milton

The greatest poem in the English language shows the creation of the universe, the rebellion of Satan, the fall of the human race, and the plan of salvation. To do such awe-inspiring subjects justice calls for imaginative genius of the highest order and language that dazzles the heart; here too is the unforgettable pride and malice of Satan ("better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven"), the love story of Adam and Eve, and the silence in heaven before the Son of God steps forward to undo the Fall. Though the book-long work is not as difficult as one might think, a useful guide through the epic is C.S. Lewis's commentary, A Preface to Paradise Lost.

King Lear

William Shakespeare

The Complete Works would be educational in the highest degree, but this play is probably the bard's most moving and most profound. What is left when your country comes apart, when your family comes apart through your own fault, when you lose your very mind? Only self-sacrificial love.

The Pilgrim's Progress

John Bunyan

This is an allegory by a simple, uneducated repairer of pots and pans who happened to be a literary genius. Imprisoned for preaching without a license at a time when his Puritan faith was persecuted, Bunyan made good use of his time in jail, writing an unforgettable symbolic account of the Christian life. He gave us the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, and other expressions that still resonate today.


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