This is a reading list of the best modern novels that deal with Catholic of Protestant themes. I’d call it Christian Literary Fiction, but the more common term is probably Modern Christian Literature.
A definition: By “Christian Literature” I mean the broad Christian faith, including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Most of the books on this list are actually Catholic novels written by Catholic authors.
If you’re a reader, feel free to treat this list like a pick-and-choose resource—read the summaries and reviews of selected books and read the ones that tickle your interest. For writers, though, this is meant as an exhaustive way to train yourself in the tradition, in order to prepare you to write the Best Christian Novel of the future.
With this list I’m trying to find books that engage in faith in meaningful, complex ways. It isn’t enough just to have a religious character. It isn’t enough to have a vague underpinning of a quasi-religious notion like “forgiveness” at the heart of the narrative. I’m looking for brave fiction, that risks apostasy and heresy and ideological alienation, and which tears open the human soul. I’m looking for fiction that treats words as sacred, and narrative as a divinely selected medium.
I don’t like all the books on this list, which will become increasingly clear by my commentary. But all the books on this list are necessary for you to read to come to your own informed opinions about how the marriage of faith and fiction should be best conducted.
Godspeed with reading.
Let’s start with Shusako Endo, because I love him. You’ve probably heard of Silence, the novel about the 17th century priest in Japan forced to choose between apostasy and the death of his parishioners. Ah, the ethical dilemma: a wonderful launch pad for the religious novel.
Most people stop with Silence. I did. It took me years to discover Endo’s other fiction, which is equally powerful. Read Scandal next. Scandal is one of the most ambitious and dangerous Christian novels I’ve ever read. It’s the greatest Christian Sex Novel ever, it’s the greatest Christian Doppelganger Novel. It’s also meta—the protagonist is eerily similar to Endo (A famous Catholic Japanese author struggling with sexual temptation). Essentially, the protagonist discovers that someone who looks exactly like him has been visiting peep shows in the red light district of his town, and he tries to hunt his doppelganger down.
Wonderful Fool belongs to the “Holy Fool” category of Christian Fiction, which is probably my favorite sub-genre and includes G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, Dostoevksy’s The Idiot, Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote and Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue. Holy Fools practice Christianity in unorthodox, even crazy ways, forcing others to hate them for their innocence and naivety. In Endo’s Wonderful Fool a French exchange student comes to Japan and is mocked for all his foolishness—his sympathy for street dogs, his ugliness, his simplicity, his stumbling into brothels and conspiring with criminals. Yet his loyalty and devotion for others demonstrates a devout holiness.
Deep River goes far afield in terms of orthodoxy—Endo suggests that all religions are equal—and ultimately I think the novel has serious problems with heavy-handedness, redundancy, and tourist caricatures. But it also has some of my favorite mini-stories—about an anti-evangelist who tries to woo believers away from faith, about birds performing a substitutionary death, and about the Christ-like symbolism of someone volunteering for cannibalism.
The Sea and the Poison is an excellent study in the conscience (doctors performing experiments on prisoners of war), but direct religious mentions are limited. Skip his short story collection Stained Glass Elegies unless you’re a completist (although his story about Christians playing baseball with lepers is excellent).
Shusako Endo and Graham Greene were friends. They both wrote characters on the edge of faith and transgressing faith, and they both wrote a lot about suicide (So did Walker Percy—suicide is a recurrent theme in Christian/Catholic Novels).
Start with The Power and the Glory, about the whiskey priest hunted by a corrupt politician. It’s his best novel, and among the best Christian/Catholic novels out there.
Graham Greene has the most range of almost anyone on this list, in categories that I’m not highlighting here—political fiction with The Quiet American, social commentary with The Comedians, espionage intrigue with Our Man in Havana. But if you’re interested in how he deals with religion in fiction, stick to what’s known as The Catholic Novels. This is:
Out of the three of these, The End of the Affair is by far the best—it has some of the moving writings on the struggle with faith, written in the form of a diary. Anger against God, bargaining with God, hatred of God—they’re all dealt with, against the backdrop of a love triangle. It’s also Graham Greene’s most autobiographical novel, as he drew from his own love affair.
Brighton Rock is my least favorite. While the others, especially The Power and the Glory, deal with faith in a broad sense, accessible to a broad spectrum of believers and unbelievers, Brighton Rock serves up a narrative that only has emotional significance for Catholics. It’s narrow, as if he was only speaking to his own people. For example, I just can’t access the emotional trauma from getting married by a justice of the peace rather than in a church (I lost count of the times Greene calls this a “mortal sin.”). I like the setting of rival gangs struggling for the power, and the wonderfully evil character of Sonny Boy, but the narrow religious focus tanked this novel.
The book you have to read by Walker Percy is The Moviegoer. Binx Bolling is a hedonist in search of the next girl, the next car, the next entertainment, and although he knows he should be searching for meaning in life, he can’t quite bring himself to do it.
It’s a very philosophical novel. Percy draws from Kierkegaard to inform his fiction the way Flannery O’Connor draws from Aquinas and Marilynne Robinson draws from John Calvin (writers, note well: take dibs on your favorite theologian now).
Lost in the Cosmos isn’t fiction, but more of a very inventive nonfiction philosophy treatise (it’s organized like a self-help book, with pop-culturesque quizzes and loads of leading questions). A philosophically inclined friend considers it to be one of his favorite books; I find myself mildly amused.
Love in the Ruins is an apocalypse novel, featuring a stethoscope for the human spirit. The stethoscope is a salvation device, a marriage of science and theology that can point out the flaws in the soul and attempt to remedy them. It’s a ruthless satire of Christianity, Manifest Destiny, spiritual pimps, and the promiscuous Christian. For all of its faults (and there are many), it’s a fantastic example of the Christian imagination given free and rambunctious rein.
I’ve always admired Percy more than I’ve enjoyed him. The pleasure he gives belongs to an intellectual strain, novels built mostly of the head and only a little bit of heart. I view him more as a fantastic resource, a well that future Christian/Catholic novelists may draw from for inspiration.
Not to play Captain Obvious, but I have to mention CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien or I’ll be sued for literary malpractice. Still, I’ll circumvent the mainstays (Narnia, Lord of the Rings, yada, yada), and suggest CS Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, and also the wildly underrated and powerful concept of the unfinished novel, The Dark Tower (Time travel! Human unicorns!) For Tolkien read Tree and Leaf, a collection of short fiction, especially Leaf by Niggle, which will make any artist’s heart explode from their chest.
That’s all I’ll say about these two titans, because they’ve gotten the most attention of all Christian authors and you don’t need to hear about them from me. I will note that it’s not a coincidence that the most popular Christian/Catholic writers of the 20th century wrote fantastical stories, not realism. I think that’s key to the future of Christian Fiction.
Charles Williams is the third-wheel inkling, the member you don’t hear about much, and it’s because he’s much stranger and denser than Tolkien/Lewis, mostly by dint of his high diction and essayistic passages. Still, read Descent into Hell, largely considered his best, about martyrdom, dopplegangers, succubi, a play performance, and one of the most beautiful examples of taking upon another’s burdens. War in Heaven, which is an alternate history based on if the Holy Grail was found in the countryside of England, is a good runner up that deserves your attention as well.
Not an inkling, but the father of inklings: George MacDonald. CS Lewis said every book he wrote was influenced by MacDonald, and Lewis even personified him as a Virgil-like guide in The Great Divorce. MacDonald’s most popular and accessible book is the fairy tale The Princess and the Goblin. On the spectrum from suggestive to explicit faith, it’s more suggestive. There are themes of purification, a grandmother that is a stand-in for a divine being, and a spool of thread that requires something like divine obedience.
Lilith is much more complex and sophisticated than Princess/Goblin. Lilith is not a fairy tale, but it is fantastical. Part Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress, Narnia and Franz Kafka, it is dense and filled with riddles. Come for the evil children-killing princess who gets attacked by an army of children riding animals, and stay for the beautiful scenes of rebirth and heaven. What fun!
Yes, of course Dostoevsky is on this list, and of course I would recommend Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov. Of course. But when it comes to pure Christian Fiction, I love The Idiot. The Christ-like character of Prince Myshkin is one of best example of a blameless character in fiction (and the idea of his epilepsy as a form of holy connection, as well as the fact everyone hates the only perfect character—oh, it’s wonderful.).
Here we come to the allegorist. Which makes sense, because he has a wide range of nonfiction (essays, reviews, etctera) and so treats the fiction is viewed as a vehicle for ideas.
The tentpole novel in his oeuvre is The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a metaphysical detective novel in which a policeman goes undercover to infiltrate an anarchist group. As it ends up, nobody is who they appear to be. I give Chesterton major props for creating such a wildly entertaining story, a tight, lickety-split romp with as much fun as ideas.
Manalive, which shares the same madcap pace as The Man Who Was Thursday, features Innocent Smith, a holy fool in whom true religion seems to be one step shy of madness. He’s put on trial for shooting at people, burgling houses, and practicing polygamy. It’s a wonderful book that teaches people how to truly live, by employing an idea familiar to those who have read Orthodoxy: one must turn one’s live upsidedown and live unconventionally.
Lesser known: The Ball and the Cross. This is a novel of ideas, which is formulated as a debate between a man of faith and an atheist, and made exciting by a duel.
There’s a good case to be made that the most important Christian/Catholic Author in the 20th century was Flannery O’Connor. I find her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away, reverent and irreverent, brutal and funny, yet she’s known primarily for her short stories. Buy The Complete Stories, and start with these highlights: A Good Man is Hard to Find (amazing), Revelation (my least favorite story of hers), Parker’s Back (my favorite story of hers), Good Country People (wooden legs!) Also, don’t miss Mystery and Manners and Habit of Being, both of which provide the best window in the mind of the Christian Fiction author than anyone else.
Lesser known than O’Connor but a force in the short story form: J.F. Powers. You only need to buy one book: The Collected Stories of J.F. Powers. Powers is an ex-priest who writes all about priests. Includes stories from the POV of dogs. My problem with Powers is that he writes about men of religion without showing any of their religion, as though the most important part of their lives is the everyday motions of the physical world. If that sounds attractive to you, check it out.
Overall, I feel like the notion of priests/pastors as protagonists is the most wearisome trope in Christian/Catholic Fiction. I don’t wholesale write them off, but I sigh when I read a book description containing them. There’s a terrible presupposition in this continued insistence on clergy as protagonists in religious fiction: it assumes laymen can’t have equally sophisticated encounters and reactions to faith. Please, let’s stop discriminating against the layman.
This is a hodgepodge category for everything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. Let’s start with the one I hate most: Kent Haruf. I kept hearing him nominated for a golden award for Christian Fiction, so I gave him a chance. If you’ve read him, it’s probably been Plainsong, Eventide, or Benediction. He writes a steady stream of what I call “rural shtick,” and his engagement with religion is of the most pedestrian and unimaginative sort. If you took Wendell Berry, stripped him of thoughtfulness and good characters, you’d be left with the vanilla-wafer pastoral stories of Kent Haruf. Haruf’s characters are so chock-full of small-town goodness there’s no room left for any psychological complexity. If his novels were four times as ambitious, he might be worth reading.
Frederick Buechner is a godsend. He has a number of good books, but I would recommend Godric. Godric is a fictionalized account of a 12th century saint, but a saint with all moral complexities and contradictions of a deeply complex man. Saints produce their own challenges to write about narratively, as you have to navigate between hagiography and a smear upon the historical figure, but Buechner handles it with aplomb. What’s more, the story’s told in such a lyrical, poetic fashion that every line sings with rhythm and power.
Ron Hansen has a long pedigree filled with famous titles (The Assassination of Jesse James) but it’s his Mariette in Ecstasy that puts him on the Christian Fiction map. File this novel under “the power of ambiguity”: is a young nun manufacturing religious visions because she wants attention, or is she genuinely experiencing the stigmata and other heavenly signs of sainthood? I never heart-hugged this book the way other Christian Fiction readers did because for me the book was not ambiguous at all—she was clearly telling the truth, a genuine saint. But I know others have read this book and come to the opposite conclusion, so it’s more ambiguous than my reading suggests.
P.D. James is not a name thrown around in Christian Fiction circles, but The Children of Men is a deeply Christian view of a post-apocalyptic world. If you’ve seen the movie, forget it—the book is radically different. The concept is that women have ceased being able to get pregnant for a decade, and suddenly one woman gets pregnant. If that sounds like a miraculous birth, you’re following along just fine. The conversations in this book, plus the fantastical premise, plus the sacramental ending, vault it into the pantheon of one of my favorite Christian Fiction books.
What Christian Fiction list would be complete without Marilynne Robinson? Bless her Presbyterian heart. She is the one and only Protestant novelist in our midst, the Mosaic snake wrapped around the pole by which Protestants can look at and be saved from the idea that Catholics alone produce artful fiction. You should start with Gilead, and continue with Home. Lila was good but not my favorite, and Housekeeping is the modern classic that established her reputation. I shouldn’t like Robinson at all. She has clergy for protagonists, she specializes in quiet, domestic drama with subtle plots and simmering tensions, yet she capsizes all of my preferences and makes me fall in love with her. Cheers, Miss Robinson.
Except it’s not true she’s our only Protestant novelist. What about Chris Beha? Oh, he’s a smart one, to be sure, editor at Harper’s and author of two novels: Arts & Entertainments and Whatever Happened to Sophie Wilder. In Sophie Wilder, you find a rare marriage of exquisite literary writing and unashamed religion. The eponymous Sophie has a wild, precious faith, and the story of how she comes to it is powerful. When I checked the back page of the novel to see my notes as I read, I footnoted all my observations with one gigantic, admittedly unsophisticated observation: WOW.
Arts & Entertainments is less obviously religious (although one of the main characters prays and practices faith), but I marveled at the way Beha constructs layers of meaning onto the premise of a reality television show—is anything real, or is everyone always acting? It’s well worth your time.
Loyola Classics has reissued a baker’s dozen of Catholic novels that had gone out of print. The one that has received the most press is by Miles Connolly, and it is Mr. Blue (reminiscent of Chesterton’s characters named after days of the week, no?).
Mr. Blue is unlike any other novel on this list. It’s not a parable. It’s not a fantasy. Yet it doesn’t feel quite realistic, either—unless it’s reality amped up, infused with hyper-charisma. It’s a failure of a novel (is that terrible for me to say?) but I still love it (ironic, I know). It manages to be a success by pointing in the direction Christian Fiction can go. The main character has all the zest for life of Zorba the Greek, an archetype of generosity, poverty of spirit, and energy that could inspire a dozen Christian Fiction classics. Also, there’s a story two thirds through the book supposing a situation where humanity broke down and regressed to chaos, and how a single priest offering the sacrament would save it—a notion rich as a plot engine (has some echoes of P.D. James’ Children of Men).
Modernized Biblical Stories
There are thousands of novels that could fit inside this category, which is partially why I find it the least interesting category of Christian/Catholic Fiction. Please, if you’re a writer, and if this is the first thing you think of when you consider writing Christian/Catholic fiction, please don’t. Please use some imagination and come up with your own story. We don’t need rehashed classics, we need some honest-to-goodness new narratives.
I’m going to offer these without commentary. Out of the ones I have read, these are the ones I’ve found to be the best:
- Par Lagerkvist – Barabbas
- Richard Beard – Lazarus is Dead
- Jim Crace – Quarantine
- Shusaku Endo – A Life of Jesus
Lastly, here are some that I don’t have the time to discuss in this article, but which would make excellent reading:
- Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
- The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
- The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos
- Lying Awake by Mark Salzman
- The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor (A Loyola Classic)
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- Sword of Honor by Evelyn Waugh
- The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor
- Catholics by Brian Moore
- Morte D’Urban J.F. Powers