Cover Story

From disapproval to delight

Novels and movies were once generally suspect in evangelical eyes, but now the emphasis is on discernment. Thirty evangelicals reveal their favorites

Issue: "Books and Movies 2006," July 1, 2006

In his pithy way of offering insult without falling into crudeness, Benjamin Disraeli-the Jewish-Christian 19th-century British prime minister who moonlighted as a novelist-once characterized a woman as having "guanoed her mind by reading French novels." That was the general disapproving reaction of the evangelical elite back then to thrillers or romances. (Disraeli said he personally avoided the abyss by authoring 18 fictional works: "When I want to read a novel I write one.")

Early in the 20th century the reaction of many evangelicals to the movies was similar: Don't go to productions viewed as tawdry or (at best) consumers of time that could better be spent at church picnics. But the appeal of lights/camera/action overwhelmed strict separationism, and films were increasingly seen as delights of life like vines and fig trees (some of which produced rotten figs and deserved to wither).

A month ago I asked evangelicals from a variety of fields-some pastors, some writers or directors, some heading political or nonprofit offices, even Tony Campolo and a Texas Supreme Court justice-to answer this question: "What are your favorite novels and movies (up to five of each) published or produced during the past 20 years?"

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I chose 20 years simply because this is WORLD's 20th-anniversary year, and did not strictly enforce that limit. I did not have an agenda-other than satisfaction of curiosity-in mind, except that the choice of the word favorite rather than greatest was intentional. Novel and movie favorites are often deeply personal: We can admire some films intellectually but they leave us cold, while others that are deeply flawed still grip us emotionally.

For example, I put on my own favorite five list some pretty nonsensical movies like Field of Dreams and The Family Man, as well as a supremely logical one like The Princess Bride. I've enjoyed reading realistic novels by gritty John Lescroart and grungy George Pelecanos that provide an often-grimy look at San Francisco lawyering and inner-city Washington detective work, but I don't recommend them to general readers and don't consider them "great."

Following another of Disraeli's maxims, "Never complain and never explain," I didn't ask respondents to justify their personal choices, but some did anyway. Dennis Haack, for example, helps Christians develop skill in biblical cultural discernment, and he thoughtfully had Peace Like a River on his list as a "novel depicting a Christian worldview," Magnolia as a film "raising perennial big questions," and The Royal Tennenbaums as a "movie revealing brokenness." (I would agree with that, and would suggest You Can Count on Me as another film implicitly showing our desperate need.)

Matt Ristuccia got into the spirit of "favorites" rather than "greatness" by listing back-to-back the film version of Little Women ("since everyone is allowed one bit of schmaltz, this is mine. Family, growth, loss, and love. It never fails to bring a happy tear to my eye") and The Fugitive (the epitome of an "action/drama film. You can't beat the final vindication of the fugitive. Truth does win out; guilt is exposed").

Here are 30 sets of favorites . . .

Priya Abraham, World reporter

Novels

  • The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Last King of Scotland, Giles Foden
  • A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

Films

  • Quiz Show
  • The Princess Bride
  • Hotel Rwanda
  • Shawshank Redemption
  • Schindler's List

Art A. Ayris, Kingstone Media Group chairman

Novels

  • All things, Grisham and Cussler
  • A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren

Films

  • Amistad
  • A Time to Kill
  • Braveheart
  • Gladiator
  • The Patriot

Jeff Baldwin, Worldview Academy research director

Novels

  • The Children of Men, P.D. James
  • The Samurai, Shusaku Endo
  • Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
  • Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Films

  • The Winslow Boy
  • Quiz Show
  • Braveheart
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • The Truman Show

Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard executive editor

Novels

  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin

Films

  • The Incredibles
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • United 93
  • Saving Milly (CBS TV movie)

Mindy Belz, World editor

Novels

  • The Second Coming, Walker Percy
  • A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin
  • The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
  • Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons
  • The Odyssey, Homer, as translated by Robert Fagles

Films

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • The Princess Bride
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Amistad or Schindler's List

Bill Boyd, All Saints Presbyterian Church (Austin, Texas) pastor

Novels

  • Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks
  • Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire
  • The Border Trilogy-All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain Cormac McCarthy
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
  • The Wilderking Trilogy-The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, The Way of the Wilderking, Jonathan Rogers

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