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Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture Paperback – December 17, 2010
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"Readers will want to return to Besides the Bible again and again. Some readers will even want to begin their own lists." (Forrest Rice, Congregational Libraries Today, Second Issue, 2013)
About the Author
Dan Gibson is a writer, editor, and researcher living in Tucson, Arizona. He is married, has two children, and manages an amateur soccer club, Sparklemotion.
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Now that I've gotten my disclaimers out of the way ( F.C.C. disclosure: I will be receiving a complimentary copy of the book and I may be allow to continue writing at Burnside, but I am sure there is no correlation.) let's just say that this is an outstanding volume. Beside the Bible is an attempt to identify the 100 most important books that Christians should read, other than the Bible. The reader should consider this book a field guide for Christian thought, and the thought that sprung up in response and protest to Christianity.
Distilling 2,000 years of faith into a mere one hundred books is a high bar. That's letting a single volume into the fold for every two centuries. I'm sure John, Jordan, and Dan are grateful for the relatively late introduction of the printing press and high illiteracy rates of the Dark Ages before that. Even so, there's an inherent tension in the list. It's inevitable that worthy books were omitted and that questionable books wormed their way in their cannon. I'm expecting a lively conversation to break out over what books have and are defining Christian thought. This would be a welcome conversation. I am not anti-blogging or anti-twitter; but it seems to me that intellectually we are getting dangerously close to inhaling our own stale air. Our tweets and postings are all starting to blend together into a forgettable and homogenized stew of blandness. It would do us all some good to take a break from the group-think and to read a classic.
The essays are written in a down-to-earth voice. After reading the first dozen essays I realized that none of the authors or guest contributors was jockeying to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, I was surprised by inclusion of the occasional "dude" into the essays. The casual tone might be off-putting to some; this book wasn't written for the average librarian. And I'll admit it, I felt a little less dense getting a refreshing course on Kierkegaard and Hegel from an essayist who wasn't filled with self-importance.
Several of the choices in the books are obvious: The Apocrypha, The writings of the Church Fathers, The City of God, Confessions, Calvin's Institutes, The Divine Comedy. Time has already endorsed these books has having lasting value. However, the more immediate the selection, the more debatable is it's inclusion on the list. For example The Bros. K by Duncan made the cut while The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky did not. I've got nothing kind to say about that choice (and here ends my writing tenure at Burnside). I grew up listening to Keith Green and playing his music on the piano. Even so, I don't believe his biography No Compromise was worthy of being on the list. Most of the other choices were well reasoned. Mere Christianity was edged out by similar volumes Knowing God and Simply Christian. Sarah Thebarge's highly personal essay of a Grief Observed and the essay on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe more than make up for the slight.
Several of the books that made the cut are cautionary. The Left Behind Series is mentioned, but for its lyricism or sound theology, but because its record-breaking sales point to the fact that these books captures the political and theological leanings of millions of Christians. This Present Darkness made the cut. Jordan Green treats this book more gently than I would, but he is a better person than I. I think the book belongs. Yes, it shaped the future of Christian fiction. But I also think the book is an example of the power of story to shape theological imagination in positive and negative ways. Perhaps Perretti should not be faulted for how his fans reacted to the book; he was just telling a good story.
I found myself the most fascinated by the final thirty selections. Patterson, Gibson, and Green had the hard task of examining contemporary works and extrapolating the arc of Christian thought into the future. Anne Lammot, Donald Miller, Rob Bell, Phylis Tickle, and Brian McLaren make the cut. This seems to be a nod to the undeniable shift in Christian thought toward valuing the emotional and relational aspects of our faith as much as we do the intellectual and dogmatic (I don't see that as a bad word). John Piper and Timothy Keller are represented on the list, but I'm not sure the tension between relational (that's not a bad word either) versus systematic expressions of our ancient faith is adequately captured on the list of 100.*
One caveat. This book was compiled by people who love literary. There's precious few references to philosophy or science volumes. This book biases toward all things literary. That's not a good or bad thing; it just is. Know that going in.
So who is this book for? It's for pastors looking for surprising sources of inspiration; readers who can't find a home for their minds within insular world of Christian books; its for the person looking for a crash course on Christian thought; it's for writers who want to improve their literary diet. But this book is mostly for the curious. Beside the Bible is a guide for those looking to get acquainted with our literary heritage.
* I agonized over that sentence. I don't intend to disparage the theology of those who I identified as emphasizing the relational; nor do I intend to swipe at the emotional intelligence of those I perceive to emphasize doctrine in their writings. I also don't pretend to think that good folk I herded into my artificial categories agree with each other, either. Why can't we all just get along?
Besides the Bible is well worth the mere ten dollars that Amazon is charging. Its top 100 books span a wide variety of genres. Notable works reviewed include John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, and No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green by Melody Green. Every Christian should read all of these works, but in the hectic 21st century world few actually have the time. In lieu of undertaking this herculean task, the next best thing is read a single volume that offers succinct reviews by well respected authors.
I've already bought it for several friends - a great gift for books lovers!
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