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Western Culture's Top 50 Books

"Western Culture's Top 50 Books" Continued...

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

The Temple

George Herbert

One of the most neglected books by Christians, here is a series of poems about a personal relationship with Christ, saturated with Scripture, zeroed in on the gospel, with God's grace breaking in-time after time-into the sinful heart. All this from someone increasingly recognized as one of the greatest masters of poetic form.

Ancient books

The Iliad

Homer

The keystone epic of the ancient Greeks and the greatest war story ever written is yet, strangely, anti-war. The conflict between egotistical, angry Achilles and noble Hector, who only wants to defend his family, is heart-wrenching; so is the ending, as once-hated enemies are reconciled in mutual sorrow. The immoral, indifferent, meddling pagan gods are reminders of what "good news" it was for the Greeks centuries later to learn about the God who is real.

Gorgias

Plato

Plato's dialogues are consistently worthwhile but this one is fun, as Socrates uncovers the threat and exposes the pretensions of a sophist who prizes style over substance and seems uncannily like some politicians and mediacrats of our own day.

Antigone

Sophocles

See the Greeks come to the realization that there must be a higher law above that of their own culture, one that should limit the power even of kings.

The Aeneid

Virgil

The true sequel to The Iliad, in which a band of Trojan refugees escape their burning city and found another that would become even greater: Rome. The book's theme is that success in any important enterprise requires faithfulness to duty and the subjugation of personal desires.

Sayings of the Fathers

translated by Joseph H. Hertz

The best-known treatise of the Talmud describes the seven marks of a discerning man along with the envy, cupidity, and vain ambition of the foolish. Wisdom and pride inhabit every page, but the overall emphasis is on the need to repent one day before death comes, which means-since none of us knows when he will die-every day.

Confessions

Augustine of Hippo

Witness the conversion to Christianity of someone who was at once a Greek-style philosopher and a sophisticated Roman man of the world. The first autobiography ever written, this book is a vivid, honest, and spiritually stimulating account of the inner life of an African bishop whose theological insights are today appreciated across the whole spectrum of Christendom.

Medieval Books

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri

In this allegorical journey to heaven, the punishments of hell are symbols of the very sin that the lost souls embraced in life, evils chosen by their own will. Dante's purgatory is a symbol of what it means to repent from a sin, and his paradise is a symbol of the love of God. The epic is a comedy because, in Dante's terms, it has a happy ending, with images of grace and Luther-like criticisms of abuses in the church resonating far longer than its medievalism. For a Virgil to see you through these vales, see Dorothy L. Sayers's Introductory Papers on Dante or Charles Williams's The Figure of Beatrice.

The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer

Diverse representatives of medieval society, on a religious pilgrimage, amuse each other by each telling stories along the way. Reflecting the different personalities that brilliantly come to life at the hands of Chaucer, some of the tales are bawdy and others are intensely moral, romantically idealistic, or cynically satirical. Chaucer's characters include both pious Christians and hypocritical frauds (such as the Pardoner, who sells indulgences), but his last story is a sermon about everlasting life that reminds us how we are all traveling on a pilgrimage that ends in eternity.

Le Morte D'Arthur

Thomas Mallory

This book weaves the King Arthur legends into a unified saga of chivalry, heroism, and faith, with destruction of the civilization of Camelot coming through human sin, the adultery of Lancelot and Guenevere. This is the sourcebook for all of the later retellings, from Tennyson's Idyls of the King to T.H. White's The Once and Future King.

Summa Theologica

Thomas Aquinas

This "Summary of Theology" is a systematic examination of the nature of God, creation, man, thoughts, and sacraments. Aquinas's five "proofs" for the existence of God (motion, causality, contingency, degrees of perfection, and design) proved influential, and his thinking underlay Roman Catholic philosophy from the 14th century well into the 20th.

Renaissance & Reformation

Dr. Faustus

Christopher Marlowe

The legend of a man who sells his soul to the devil has become a literary motif in nearly every age. "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mark 8:37). Here in the educational explosion of the Renaissance, it was knowledge. In Goethe's version in the Romantic era, it was experience. Other versions trade off salvation for artistic genius, material success, or even baseball prowess. In today's horror stories, people give themselves to the devil for nothing. In Marlowe's classic exposition, Dr. Faustus cannot really sell his soul, since it does not belong to him. It was bought with a price. He can repent at any time—"Christ's blood streams in the firmament"—but he won't, even as he is being pulled into the fires of hell.

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