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100 best Christian books: top 10

10 October 2014

The last in our list of the 100 best Christian books of all time

1. Confessions by Saint Augustine

David Winter: I read them and was profoundly moved by them.

Cally Hammond: What can I say? This book has absorbed three years of my life while I wrote my translation. First and best ‘journey of a soul’ story in all Christian history. Loved most of all for its honesty, and admissions of weakness, doubt and confusion. Englishing the Latin I doubt I’m any closer to the soul of the writer, but his thinking has done me much good, and his vision continues to inspire me. It is my favourite book on the list, no question. When my 10 free copies from the publisher arrived and I went to collect them from the college lodge, I found the porters (who sort the post) reading the label on the box saying Confessions and speculating whether some dodgy person had sent the dean pornographic material.

Mark Oakley: Shaping a new literary genre as he does it, Augustine tracks the path of a restless heart towards the harbour of love. The work is profoundly personal, startlingly universal.

Jenny Monds: We all agreed this had to have the top spot, and not just because one of the judges has just produced a new edition!


2. The Rule of St Benedict by St Benedict 

“Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may overtake you not.”

Cally Hammond: Loved more by others than by me; but I have read it and recognize its power and wisdom. The guidance for common living is truly precious.

Jenny Monds: The Rule of St Benedict has been so influential, and still provides a guide for living a Christian life. It is one of the bestselling books at Sarum College Bookshop.

Mark Oakley: Benedict’s invitation to a holy and humane balance in our Christian discipleship is equally as realistic about human beings as about God.


3. Summa Theologica by Saint Thomas Aquinas

“We can certainly never believe, trust, or love God more than, or even as much as, we should. Extravagance is impossible. Here is no virtuous moderation, no measurable mean; the more extreme our activity, the better we are.”

Cally Hammond: A book which has touched the life of every western Christian, whether they realise it or not.  The foundation text of systematics, and a defence of the reasonableness of belief in God.

Jenny Monds: Such an influential book had to come near the top of our list.

Mark Oakley: Important as it reminds us that matter carries meaning, but I also love the fact that it was left unfinished. All our best thinking ultimately has to give up when it comes to God; theology is a blend of silence and metaphor.


4. Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

“Truth sees God, and wisdom contemplates God, and from these two comes a third, a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love.”

Cally Hammond: The first book on the list a) not written in Latin but in the vernacular, b) to have found a relatively recent prominence, and c) not written by a canonized saint of the Church. For putting love, and relationship, at the heart of Christianity, and the forgiveness of God above his judgment, and the motherliness of God above his authority, she is rightly revered.

Jenny Monds: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich is such a well-loved work that it deserves its place high on the list.

Mark Oakley: The first woman to be published in English but the only woman in this top 10 … Beautifully intimate images abound here to recall us to the fact that with God love is not only the first word but the last.

Stephen Cottrell: Apart from the Scriptures the most dog-eared and thumbed book on my shelves is Julian of Norwich. I keep being drawn back to her revelations of love to remind me that I am loved and that love is the meaning of the gospel. Again, apart from Scripture, is there another books which is so ancient and so contemporary.


5. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

“The more a thing is perfect, the more it feels pleasure and pain.”

Cally Hammond: The first poetry on the list: No other poem could trump it for originality, depth of vision, coherence, completeness. Reading the whole of it is on my to-do list.

Jenny Monds: This masterpiece of Italian literature had to come in the top five for its influence on future writers, including William Blake, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.

Mark Oakley: This is a fantastic work – the pilgrim-poet – descending and ascending into human being, will and intentionality as well as hell and heaven. This is a spiritually serious scrutiny of whether we are recognisable to ourselves.

6. Pensées by Blaise Pascal

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Cally Hammond: The only one on the top ten I haven’t yet read at all. But I have promised myself that I will. The other judges made it sound both fundamental and appealing.

Jenny Monds: We felt this defence of Christianity, perhaps little read today, was deserving of a new audience.

Mark Oakley: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ I love fragmented theology, jigsaw placings, and so Pascal’s thoughts have been very sustaining over the years.


7. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

“A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away, the more he had.”

Cally Hammond: The first original narrative prose story.  Its English-speaking influence is colossal, its imagery pervasive; and the linkages between the author’s own life and this story add to its power.

Jenny Monds: One of the few books on the list that everyone will immediately recognise. Available in many different editions, this tale of Christian’s journey has never been out of print. Who can forget the poignancy of the postcard of Bunyan in jail which somehow made its way to Terry Waite in his captivity and touched us all (or those old enough to remember)?

Mark Oakley: I remember sitting on the London tube reading Bunyan and suddenly realizing how this great influential Christian allegory was pretty much alive and kicking around me as I went past the Vanity Fair adverts into the Slough of Despond next to Mr Brisk and Mrs Inconsiderate … 

8. City of God by Saint Augustine

“God is always trying to to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

Cally Hammond: A work which, like the Summa, is there not because it is lovely but because it is true and good.  A comprehensive vision of the divine purposes in creation, human history, and the eternal now in heaven.

Jenny Monds: Another book by St Augustine in the top 10, but we felt that it was impossible to put this major work any further down the list.

Mark Oakley: In an increasingly metropolised world, this is an important work that asks us who and what cities and cultures are ultimately for. In the City in which I live there has been talk of a financial crisis but Augustine helps us see it is actually a human crisis – and an urgent one. 


9. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

“As long as you live, you will be subject to change, whether you will it or not — now glad, now sorrowful . . . now gloomy, now merry. But a wise man who is well taught in spiritual labour stands unshaken in all such things.”

Cally Hammond: Not unlike Julian, this book is touching at any time, but at sensitive times, especially around vocation and the attempts to deepen a life of prayer, it can be absorbed into the spiritual mind-set of the reader.

Jenny Monds: A primer of the Christian life which has affected many, and been translated into more languages than any other book, apart from the Bible.  Admired by many prominent figures, including Sir Thomas More, St Ignatius and John Wesley.

Mark Oakley: A book that is realistic about the need for the converted to be more converted. It exposes human illusions but without making us disillusioned.


10. Complete English Poems by George Herbert

“These are thy wonders, Lord of love, To make us see we are but flowers that glide. Which when we once can finde and prove, Thou hast a garden for us where to bide.”

Cally Hammond: Like Julian, this is a work loved in parts and anthologies as much as for its entirety. Many of its words and ideas have the peculiar power of the very finest poetry to put into words what we, experiencing spiritual realities, were ourselves entirely powerless to express.

Jenny Monds: We felt strongly that the list should include a poetry as well as prose, and for our top 10, it had to be George Herbert. The priest/poet who died in 1633 left us a richness of poetry which still has a wide appeal, as evidenced by the 2,000 tickets sold for the George Herbert Festival held in Salisbury in July 2014.

In choosing my favourite book on the list I looked for a ‘Desert Island Disc’ book, i.e. one that would be capable of sustaining me throughout life in the absence of other books (or with just the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare in addition).  For this I think I need to turn to poetry, and will chose the collected poems of George Herbert, No. 10 on our list. I was somewhat steeped in Herbert in July, and had the privilege of hearing Rowan Williams, Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke and Helen Wilcox give their thoughts on his wonderful poetry. Rowan Williams described “Love Bade Me Welcome” as ‘possibly the greatest poem in the English language’. Steeped in the psalms, these beautifully musical poems would give me enough sustenance, range of emotion and intellectual stimulation to survive my desert island.

Mark Oakley: This is my No. 1! These poems, full of Herbert’s colloquial energy, reassure me of the reverence and rebellion that make the life of faith one of perplexing adventure and ultimate surprise. 

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