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Wholesome reading

2011 Books Issue | Good books with good values are not hard to find

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

Dewey Huston, a retired Assemblies of God missionary, wrote me recently from Springfield, Mo. He started by describing how he reads every issue of WORLD and puts some on a table at his church. Then he came out with italics blazing: "My reason again for writing . . . " He sweetly implied that he wished we didn't review some books that aren't "wholesome." He asked for a list of books with good values and without descriptions of sex, violence, or how to talk dirty.

Dewey, this article is for you. I'll start with fiction, and four books for young children that are perfect for bedtime reading. In Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny, the persistent bunny mother acts as does God in Psalm 139. (Brown's Goodnight Moon is also great.) William Steig's Yellow & Pink provides a clever argument for creation, as two marionettes ponder how they came to be. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg is a terrific pro-life book, and Sylvia Plath's The Bed Book is a whirlwind poem for kids tired of their "nice little, tucked in tight little, turn-out the light little beds."

Next, for bedtime reading to children getting older, come two famous book series, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Lewis is perfect word-for-word reading, and parents should make sure that children have heard them at least once before they start watching the movies or videos. The stories are theologically pointed and usefully didactic. Tolkien is more of a challenge-I abridged a few sections when a child's attention lagged-yet more of a reward in some ways, as it excites adventurous imaginations.

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My four children went high over Tolkien's misty mountains and down into dungeons deep and caverns old. They sped on Shadowfax and developed the determination to trudge through Mordor. My fond remembrance of reading The Lord of the Rings to them eight times-twice per child-doesn't mean that the trilogy is not adult reading: It is, and is probably the paramount example of what I've called romantic realism. (Definition: Writing based on the realization that we live in a fallen, often grubby world but one suffused by the romance of Christ's love for all He came to save.)

Many of the English classics show romantic realism: Dewey could read Milton, Chaucer, Walter Scott, Dickens, and Jane Austen. Shakespeare's tragic protagonists sometimes wade in blood, but exalted language covers over a multitude of spills. Those who know Spanish can read Cervantes in the original and my favorite 20th-century novel, Jose Gironella's The Cypresses Believe in God; they are also available in translation, of course. I've enjoyed Russian authors Pushkin and Turgenev, and the two greats: Fyodor Dostoevsky's work is often holy in theme and wholly good in style, but works like Crime and Punishment might not be considered wholesome. Leo Tolstoy's novels are great and his short stories-this is a minority opinion-even better: "What Men Live By" is superb.

Among the 19th-century American novelists worth reading are Nathaniel Hawthorne (although he did have an anti-Puritan bias), James Fenimore Cooper (although Mark Twain wrote a hilarious critique of his prose), and William Dean Howells. From the works of my favorite 20th-century American novelist, Walker Percy, I'd particularly recommend Love in the Ruins (1971) and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)-no bad language but, since Percy was describing a sickness in the modern soul, some might not consider them entirely wholesome.

I believe Jan Karon's Mitford books and John Grisham's legal thrillers are clean, although I've only sampled parts-and I have to admit to not reading much current fiction. So, turning to nonfiction, I think of some oldies but goodies: The Bible, of course, plus Augustine's Confessions, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and John Calvin's Institutes. Good basic explanations of who God is from the past few decades include Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There, J.I. Packer's Knowing God, John Piper's Desiring God, and Tim Keller's The Reason for God.

Currently, Keller, Piper, and Randy Alcorn write romantic realist theology readily readable by non-theologians. I'll read anything those three write. Other living authors on my "read anything by them" list: Arthur Brooks (author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism), Phillip Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial), and economists Thomas Sowell (author of The Vision of the Anointed and Economic Facts and Fallacies) and Hernando de Soto (The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital).

The departed on my "read anything by them" list include Whittaker Chambers (Witness), Shelby Foote (The Civil War), Schaeffer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Spiritual Depression), and J. Gresham Machen (Christianity and Liberalism). I like using Calvin's and Matthew Henry's commentaries on the Bible and found Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony to be very useful. Of the many, many apologetics I've read, John Blanchard's Does God Believe in Atheists? was the most fun, because it's filled with curious details about major philosophers, world religions, cults, and lots of other stuff.

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