How we took our pick

26 September 2014

Paul Handley explains why we began our quest for the best 100 Christian books, and how we reached our verdicts

We begin our three-part countdown of the top 100 Christian books. Go to ct100books.hymnsam.co.uk for books 100-51, together with an explanation of our methodology and original CT reviews, where they exist.

HUMAN progress involves assimilating the wisdom of past generations, and building on it. The most valuable lessons are still conveyed by word of mouth, but these can be very basic instructions - and, besides, you have to be within earshot.

The jury is still out on the efficacy of modern methods of communications. The vast encyclopaedia that is the internet has to be acknowledged as a boon, despite its darker and more irritating aspects. As the editor of a newspaper, I recognise the value of Twitter for alerting people to events; and, as the editor of a newspaper with a healthy budget for photos, I can even see the value of things such as Instagram.

But wisdom is more than knowledge, and assimilation more than simple exposure. One of the privileges of life is to spend time with people who have had extraordinary experiences, processed deep thoughts, and achieved great understanding. Such occasions come rarely, but there is another way of spending time with the fruits of other people's wisdom - if they fall into the tiny category of people who wrote things down, and the even tinier category who had them published.

When we began our quest for the 100 best Christian books, we knew that the material we were contemplating had already been through several refining fires. It had been worked on by its author, judged worthy to be published, and, over time, had impressed enough readers to be noticed - and, mostly, to be kept in print. 

IT IS sometimes easy to forget it, given the variable quality of the books that come into the Church Times office for review, but works that get into print can be categorised, by and large, as quite good. Many that we review are not only good: some are very good. But "best"?

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Best is, of course, a value judgement. We have kept it for this project because it is so obviously subjective. "Best" does not just cover a book's intrinsic worth: it also prompts a consideration of what a book can achieve. Throughout our debate, we found ourselves balancing a title's historical position with its place in our memories. A different set of judges on a different day - perhaps even the same set of judges - would certainly have come up with a different list.

But, perhaps, not that different. Although there is no science in literary (let alone spiritual) criticism, we none the less approached the search for the 100 Best Christian Books in a scientific way.

First, we asked for nominations from the paper's stable of book reviewers. We had more than 100 replies, and drew up a long-list of more than 700 titles. We ranked these in accordance with the number of mentions they had received from our reviewers, and sent a resulting shortlist of 120 titles to our panel of judges.

These were: the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy (chairman); Jenny Monds; Canon Mark Oakley; Rupert Shortt; the Revd Dr Cally Hammond; the Revd Malcolm Guite; Canon David Winter; Dr Jane Williams. 

BEFORE we met (on 20 June), the judges ranked the titles into sextiles - which should be in the top 20, then the next 20, and so on - and we co-ordinated their answers to produce a preliminary listing.

Then the debate started.

 

An influential phrase from early on was "enduring value", indicated by one of our contributing reviewers, Richard Harries. It meant that we were drawn to books that had made an impact, and that this impact had been tested by time. It also meant that, with more modern titles, we had to judge how they would be viewed by future generations.

Impact was not everything, of course, as was shown in the judges' argument about John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. For 200 years or more, Foxe's huge book (more properly called Actes and Monuments) had been one of the most popular in Protestant circles, alongside Bunyan and the Bible. But the judges argued, and it slipped down the table. Its influence had not lasted to the present day: nobody could quote it beyond the odd line; it was more remembered for its woodcuts than its text; and, besides, had its influence been a good one?

Significance is a tricky thing to quantify, of course. Big works of theology, which changed the way that the Church thought about God, were relatively easy to place. But what of works of imagination and poetry? These worked their influence on the Church in much subtler ways, but, because they were read by more people, could have had a more direct influence.

We decided early on to exclude the Bible and liturgy, such as the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient & Modern: they were judged to be too seminal, too much woven into the Church's life to be considered as books in themselves. Besides, they would have blocked the top places in the list. 

ANOTHER consideration was the balance of the 100 Best. The judges did not get far into their discussions before they were asking: "Is there enough poetry in this section of the list?" "What about different works by the same author?" (Each work was judged on its own merits.) And, predictably, "Where are the women writers?"

Any historical list is likely to be biased against women. The judges did their best, attempting to ensure that women authors were not neglected, while judging books on their merits.

Finally, the finer detail: was this book better than that? We spent the last half-hour of our four-hour meeting assessing the choices that we had made, ironing out any quirks, trying to ignore the fierce lobbying from different judges, looking at the list as a whole. It looked pretty good. The next day, it still looked pretty good.

If we thought this list definitive, we would not invite readers to take issue with it. Our hope is that it will encourage readers to argue for or against books on the list, and recommend others.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the late Dr Denise Inge, wife of the Bishop of Worcester and one of our bank of reviewers, who died earlier this year. A week after her death, her husband, John, forwarded her suggestions for the 100 Best list. He wrote: "This list is about the last thing Denise was doing, hours before she died. It's not complete - it was on the screen on her computer on Holy Saturday.

"I found her doing it, and said: 'Why don't you let me do that?' She was determined to do it herself." Seven of her recommendations made it into the top 100.

Church Times 100 best books

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