A Literary Reading List for Theology Students

One of my regrets from my college years is that I didn’t receive a more literary education. By God’s design I attended a Bible college that at the time had only theological or ministerial degrees (now, they offer a Humanities degree, a Philosophy-Politics-Economics honors program, and more options). So I spent the vast majority of my reading time in college reading nonfiction, usually works of systematic theology or biblical exegesis. I don’t think that time was wasted, but I have often wished I’d cultivated a love of literature during the season of life where I was most able to and most connected with friends who might share my joy in it.

Perhaps some reading this can empathize with my plight. If so, here are a few book recommendations for theology students who want to read more literature. Of course, booklists are subjective, imperfect, and you probably shouldn’t structure all your reading around them. “Read at whim” is crucially important advice for getting the most out of reading. Nevertheless, I can remember feeling like I wanted to read great literature but was swimming in an ocean of propositional theology instead, and had no idea where to go. If you’re nodding along, this list is for you:

  • The Pleasures of Reading In an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs). If you feel like you need to read a book on reading, don’t even consider alternatives. Read this one. It will not only help you read better, it will inflame your desire and free you from ridiculous literary legalism.
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro). This short novel is one of the most completely entrancing books I’ve read, and its themes are rich for Christian interaction. If you enjoy history, too, you’ll delight in the 20th century geopolitical subtexts throughout this work.
  • The End of the Affair/The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene). Graham Greene is an author any Christian reader needs to know. Even if his meditative prose challenges your patience, the spiritual turmoil of his characters, and the deeply humane way in which he describes them, are almost devotional in insight.
  • Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis). Recommending Lewis for theology students is practically a cliche, but this is one of his lesser known works. It might be the most purely literary thing Lewis ever did.
  • The Jeeves & Wooster novels (P.G. Wodehouse). These books are funnier than anything on Netflix.
  • Inferno (Dante). The Divine Comedy as a whole is a masterpiece of literary history, but if you’re looking to dip in the waters first, Inferno is widely considered the most compelling of the books. Don’t get tripped up wondering whether Dante’s descriptions of hell are literally theologically accurate. They weren’t intended to be.
  • Collected Essays (James Baldwin). This isn’t fiction obviously, but it is perhaps one of the finest collections of writing ever assembled. Not everything that Baldwin says or argues is true. Nonetheless, particularly for white evangelicals, encountering Baldwin’s rhetorical power is a shaping experience. When you’re knee deep in academic theology it’s important to remind yourself that writing is a craft. Baldwin will remind you.
  • The Harry Potter series (J.K Rowling). You might have grown up with these books, in which case, good for you. But many evangelical college students waited till adolescence or even adulthood before the scent of homeschool chain emails dissipated from their conscience. I envy any first time-reader of these books. You are in for an indescribable treat. If teenage wizard fiction isn’t your thing, give the first two books a try anyway.
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book assigned in a Christian “Great Books” course, but it belongs there. Christian students in particular should wrestle with the book’s depiction of European missionaries and questions of cultural integration and colonialism.
  • Night (Ellie Wiesel). A book you’ll want to run from. Don’t. Let history and memory hit you with the force that it hit the biblical prophets.
  • Silence (Shusaku Endo). Sooner or later every obedient Christian will have to ask themselves the questions at the heart of this book. This is a story you won’t forget anytime soon. Don’t resist the impulse to pray after reading this. I hardly think you can really understand it otherwise.
  • Great Expectations¬†(Charles Dickens). At the end of the day, the chief end of literature is to enjoy it. Slink into this novel and drink a little bit of its world every evening. Of all the books on this list, this one might rehabilitate a crippled love of reading the most.

10 Suggestions For New Bible College Students

From one Bible college graduate to another, here’s a brief word to students beginning their education this month:

  1. Do not use your school work on the Bible to replace your personal reading of the Bible. Even the most spiritually helpful class time cannot compare to the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of private quiet times.
  2. Don’t be thrown off by the way holiness has become “cool” on campus. This may seem dreamy at first, but it carries with it many temptations. If you find your popularity increasing with how righteous you are, stop whatever you’re doing and ask a trusted friend for an honest assessment.
  3. You won’t find every class, book, or topic equally interesting or helpful. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your love for God is lacking.
  4. Read at least one work of fiction every semester, lest you unwittingly become, like Charles Darwin, a machine for grinding out (theological) facts.
  5. Don’t resent family members or former pastors who didn’t teach you all this wonderful new theology. People with fewer books than you may know something too.
  6. Don’t organize evangelism events if you have no intention of following up with or discipling those in your community. See suggestion #2.
  7. Being teachable is better, and more Christian, than being smart. That’s true in the classroom, the pew, and the dorm.
  8. Run from pornography as fast as you can. It’s a locust that will devour your years. Embrace flip phones.
  9. Remember Mom and Dad and grandma and grandpa. After all, you’ll be surprised how few of your college friends are still in contact 3 years after graduation.
  10. Go to church every week, preferably a church that would notice when you’re gone.