Top Books 2003 – annotated


* Augustine: Confessions, AD 398

* Thomas Merton: Elected Silence or The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948
(same book, 2 different titles)

* C. S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy, 1955

Three similar authors, though in different times and cultures:

Augustine: a 4th-5th century North African bishop, possibly the greatest Christian theologian, who wrote the first autobiography.

Merton: a 20th century American Catholic Trappist monk, of whom the Dalai Lama said he never realized Christians were spiritual until he met him.

Lewis: a 20th century English Oxford academic, close friends with Tolkien and probably the top Christian author of last century.

All rejected Christian faith and had a long and fascinating journey back through the interaction of life experience with different philosophies and literatures.  Augustine found echoes of God through the writings of the Neoplatonists, Merton in the Ireland of James Joyce and elsewhere, Lewis through ancient British and Nordic mythology.  Interestingly, the earliest (Augustine) is the most frank about the misdemeanours (sexual and otherwise) of his youth!

* M. Scott Peck: In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason and Discovery, 1996
Travel through Britain discovering stone-age monuments and thinking about life.  Peck acknowledges the booksellers who’ve struggled to classify his books: psychology, religion, self-help, or New Age?  In “this work.. they now have four new additional possibilities: travel, history, archaeology, and autobiography.”

Wisdom Literature

The first 2 are miscellaneous thoughts, good for dipping into anywhere

* Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, AD 180
The philosophical journal of a Roman emperor.  Stoic reflections and sayings, written while he was defending the Empire’s Danube border against the barbarians.

* Sayings of the Desert Fathers
– various compilations, e.g. by Helen Waddel, Benedicta Ward
A delightful mix of wacky asceticism and wise gems from the first generations of Christian desert monks in the 4th century AD.

* Henri Nouwen: Reaching Out, 1975
Another Catholic priest, who lived in a community for the disabled.  Very realistic about life’s struggles.
The book is structured around 3 movements of the spiritual life:
From Loneliness to Solitude: reaching out to ourselves
From Hostility to Hospitality: reaching out to others
From Illusion to Prayer: reaching out to God


* Terry Pratchett: The Truth, 2000
Another very funny slice of his fantasy Discworld.  An imaginative depiction of the conflicts brought by invention of the printing press, and the resulting power of the news media to shape truth.  Rather relevant!

* Allan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country, 1948
Subtitled “a story of comfort in desolation.”  It’s a lament for the land of South Africa, “lovely beyond any singing of it”, a land decaying environmentally and socially with fear and violence.  The longing for forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope: “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why that is a secret.”

* Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter, 1948
Set in West Africa during WWII.  Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the protagonist is a good man with a fatal weakness of pity.  This leads him into a web of deceit and despair, in tension with a longing for peace and the hope of mercy.

C. S. Lewis: Science Fiction Trilogy
* 1: Out of the Silent Planet, 1938
A trip to Mars.  “Space” is not empty, but full of light, music, beauty, life.  It is earth that is an empty hole in this fullness.

* 2: Perelandra, 1944
Set on Venus, where the Paradise of a newly created world is once again tempted to fall.  Near the end, Lewis ponders about “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” long before the recent bestseller.

* 3: That Hideous Strength, 1945
On Earth, Arthurian legend and “scientific” social engineering merge to bring great evil.  (As a scientist, I like the demonstration of the potential evil of the social “pseudo” sciences, as opposed to “real” physical science!)

* Charles Williams: The Place of the Lion, 1931
Williams was a lesser-known member of the Inklings – the group of Oxford writers including CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.  He also writes a sort of fantasy – surreal “supernatural thrillers”.  In this one, Plato’s archetypical Forms break into our world as the animals that represent them.

* George MacDonald: Phantastes – a Faerie Romance, 1858, and Lilith, 1895
Thoughtful “fantasy” novels.  CS Lewis described MacDonald (19th century Scot) as his mentor, and these have hints of Narnia (In Lilith the other world is entered through a mirror frame in the attic of a big old country house).

Two books by Robert Farrar Capon, a US Episcopalian priest.  He loves language and plays delightfully with it.

* The Supper of the Lamb: a Culinary Entertainment, 1967
Quite unique – a sort of “theological cookbook”.  The entire book is a leisurely recipe for a lamb stew dish, liberally sprinkled with delicious theological reflections.

* The Parables of Grace, 1988
Commentary on some of Jesus’ parables.  The best I’ve read on the shocking outrage of Christ’s grace, available only to the little, the last, the least, the lost, and the dead.

See my posts on Capon: