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Western Culture's Top 50 Books

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

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

The Faerie Queene

Edmund Spenser

Hardly anyone anymore reads this author who is ranked with Chaucer and Milton as among the greatest authors in the English language. That's too bad, because this work, with its purposefully old-fashioned spelling and complex rhyme scheme, invents the self-contained fantasy world and blazes the trail for fantasy writers to come. In this complex, labyrinthine tale, which is both chivalrous romance and multi-leveled allegory, Book I is a symbolic exploration of holiness: the Redcross Knight is subject to deception, sin, and bondage as long as he tries to be holy on his own, and has to be rescued by symbols of the grace of God.

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes

This parody of the medieval romances in realistic prose is arguably the world's first novel-and still one of the best. The saga of a man who insists on living in his fantasy world, despite mundane reality, is both hilarious and thought-provoking: The knight with a pot on his head is foolish for tilting at windmills, yet we are sad when he becomes sane again.

Institutes of the Christian Religion

John Calvin

Love him or hate him, Calvin with his precise formulations set the stage for all the debates within Protestantism that have since arisen. His emphasis on God's holiness, man's utter sinfulness, and Christ's merciful bridging work emphasizes the centrality of God's irresistible grace and points the way to hardworking contentment among believers.

Book of Martyrs

John Foxe

Foxe's vivid descriptions inspired generations of Christians to honor martyrs such as England's John Hooper, burned at the stake in 1555. "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me," Hooper repeatedly prayed: even "when he was black in the mouth, and his tongue swollen, that he could not speak, yet his lips went till they were shrunk to the gums." Finally one of Hooper's arms fell off, and the other, with "fat, water, and blood" dripping out at the ends of his fingers, stuck to what remained of his chest.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

John Donne

This libertine who turned to Christ was a great poet and preacher, but his written prose may even be better. In these devotions made on his sickbed, Donne coined some of his most memorable lines: "No man is an island," and "ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Donne's rich metaphors and honest spiritual musings as he faced death remain just as powerful today as they were in the 17th century-maybe more so, since we are not used to devotions of this kind of depth anymore.

Penseés

Blaise Pascal

When the young prodigy in mathematics and science (and godfather of today's computers) was converted to Christianity, he decided to write an apologetic treatise on the truth of the Christian faith. The result is a collection of short, fragmentary "thoughts" (the meaning of the French title) on the contradictions of the human heart and the astonishing grace of God. Pascal's thoughts are so fresh, so original, and so provocative that one sentence can leave you pondering for hours.

The Two Treatises of Government

John Locke

These treatises brought a new dimension to Anglo-American political thought by vigorously critiquing absolute monarchy and emphasizing the importance of the rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of property. Locke's view of the origin and goals of government grew out of biblical thinking even though he apparently did not accept some aspects of biblical theology and anthropology.

18th Century

Gulliver's Travels

Jonathan Swift

Not just a children's story (the original is probably not the cleaned-up version you may have read as a child), Swift's story of little people, big people, flying islands, and talking horses is a withering satire on Enlightenment pretensions. Swift was a conservative Christian minister with a wicked sense of humor; although some readers will be taken aback at his interest in bathroom issues (for example, how Gulliver really put out the fire in the Lilliputian castle), Swift was really inventing science fiction even as he ridiculed the pretensions of the modernity to come.

Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe

This gripping tale of shipwreck and survival has enraptured generations of readers, but in recent years some stripped-down editions removed the theological flavor and made the story merely one of physical survival. The full-bodied, original Defoe, now available once again, makes Crusoe's island hermitage a place for spiritual renewal as well.

Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

The strangest book ever written, and the funniest for those with the quirky sense of humor it calls for. The preface comes in the middle of the book and digressions make a walk down the stairs take hundreds of pages; characters close their eyes, whereupon Sterne shows you a black page to show you what they were experiencing. Written by another eccentric minister of the gospel, the book makes today's "experimental" novels look like dull, unimaginative exercises.

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