People are into books right now. That's #Awesome. There is, in the wake of the #IceBucketChallenge, a "list your top ten most influential/favorite books" #bookchallenge floating around social media (e.g. Facebook) right now. There are blogs, like Justin Taylor's "Between Two Worlds" at The Gospel Coalition, that are running a series on "novels every Christian should consider reading." As a bibliophile, I'm all for it. O masses, read on!
So, mixing Justin Taylor's "novels every Christian should consider reading" with the "top ten influential books" list I put forward my, "Top Ten List of Novels that every U.S. (and, to be honest, specifically white, middle class) Christian Should Read."
Why this list?
Our top ten lists and choices of novels often reinforce our own philosophies and voices. This isn't horrible per se, but when we only we read what we like or what confirms our biases we are never challenged to think beyond our current worldview. That can be dangerous. One of my favorite aspects of the top ten lists people are posting on Facebook is that many of the novels they list came from their high school or college reading lists. There's a reason for this, someone told you to read this book because they thought it might challenge you. At its best, literature cracks us open, challenges us, and provokes us to discover and be confronted by strange new worlds or by deconstructing comfortable, familiar ones.
Therefore, This list is predominated by what some call "subaltern" voices, or "the little voices of history." These voices are post-colonial and come from often marginalized authors or, at the least, are written from their perspective. Basically, this list presents pieces of fiction that should shake up and disturb comfortable, middle-class, suburban, caucasian, Christians...not to mention many others. We need this if we wish to continue to interact with the new power centers of Christianity in the "the Global South" (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). We have to face that we are not the hegemonic power we once were and deconstruct our neocolonial thought patterns, ministry actions, academic exercises, methodologies, and mission emphases -- no matter how well intentioned. These novels will help us to see from this perspective, albeit limitedly. They are meant to humble us.
TEN NOVELS EVERY U.S. CHRISTIAN SHOULD READ:
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- This is the story of a young, naïve African-American man in the U.S. South who explores his own black identity and racism through experiences in college, with the Communist Party, through riots, and under the streets of Harlem. There, in darkness and solitude he finally begins to understand himself -- his invisibility, and his identity. Why read it? Invisible Man challenges us to consider marginal, invisible, voices and confronts us to consider stereotypes, racism, and subjugating and radicalizing social forces in the U.S. No surprise, I read it in a high school literature class. Thanks Mrs. Kelly.
2. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck -- Told in traditional Chinese narrative style and written by the daughter of missionaries, this story amplifies traditional family life in a Chinese village before World War I. It follows the fortunes and pitfalls of a rural farmer and the slave of an opium-soaked merchant household who eventually come to own all they worked hard for. Why read it? This book has it all, exploring women's rights, family dynamics, class conflict, spiritual struggle, moral dilemmas, simplicity versus complexity and the pressures of the modern world.
3. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver -- The Price family, missionaries from Georgia, head to the jungle of Africa to convert the masses. Only, it isn't that easy. Confronted with culture shock, mosquitos, snakes, political upheavals, malaria, and their own metaphysical conundrums and shocking family dynamics the experience breaks them apart -- physically, mentally, and spiritually. Why read it? If I taught a course on world missions, this book would be required. Themes of forgiveness, cultural hegemony, culture shock, colonialism, racism, and more are all packed into this little bundle of heart-wrenching reading. You won't like this book, but you will most certainly love it.
4. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis -- A dystopian novel that wraps up Lewis' "Space Trilogy," That Hideous Strength features the battle between a sinister pseudo-scientific institute, the N.I.C.E., that plans to take over the world and is backed by demonic forces. Why read it? Ok, so this isn't a subaltern novel and it features Roman, Christian, and British philosophy and tropes, BUT it's still worth a read as it challenges our 21st-century's emphasis on scientific salvation, the divorcing of body and soul, and our tendency to permit Normal Nihilism in everyday life.
5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad -- Heart of Darkness follows one man's hellish journey into the interior of Africa where he encounters corruption, brutality, hate, violence, and colonial hegemony at its most capitalistic and manipulative worst. Why read it? While this book should be read hand-in-hand with a transcript of Chinua Achebe's "An Image of Africa," (or, for that matter, his tomic novel Things Fall Apart) the story still stands alone as a Gordian expedition into what constitutes the forced binary between 'barbarian' and 'civilized,' attitudes on colonialism, and imperial racism. Plus, the character of Katz is super mysterious.
6. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo -- Oh sweet cream, this book is so good. It is a coming-of-age story of Darling, a Zimbabwean girl, who navigates her fragile and shifting world first as a ten year old in her home country and later as a teenager in the Midwest of the U.S. Why read it? Exploring themes of family, immigration, and cultural memory this book captures, "the uneasiness that accompanies a newcomer’s arrival in America, [and] illuminate[s] how the reinvention of the self in a new place confronts the protective memory of the way things were back home." (NYTimes' Uzodinma Iweala)
7. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie -- Mixing magic and mundane realism, Rushdie invites the reader into India during the period of transition from British colonialism to Indian independence in order to open us up to how Western ideals have shaped, for good and ill, modern India. Why read it? This is quintessential post-colonial lit.. Using Hindu gods and magical realism, Rushdie speaks to the creative and destructive forces at work in the world and which seep into the unequal power relations between imperial forces and colonial minions, between East and West, and how this world is still shaped by centuries of colonial dominion.
8. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut -- John, who goes by Jonah, is researching a book on what elite Americans were doing the day the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on the island of San Lorenzo -- a quaint little dictatorship in the Caribbean. Unbeknownst to him as he sets off, this research will lead him to meet a fated group of people, come across the religion of Bokononism, and, unfortunately usher in the end of the world. Why read it? Because it's Kurt F***in' Vonnegut, that's why. Ever since I read "Harrison Bergeron" and that changed my life (thanks again, Mrs. Kelly), I can't get enough of this curse-laden, dystopic, short-story, satirical mad man. But this book in particular really gets me. It's a novella about human stupidity and its many manifestations in the realms of politics, sexuality, cultural elitism, capitalism, and religion. If you read it and don't like it, that probably means you understood it.
9. The Bone People by Keri Hulme -- Technically a story about love, but also one about a woman locked away in a tower (go figure) the plot follows Kerewin Holmes, who is half Māori, half European (Pākehā), and her love interest and his son. Why read it? My best suggestion is to get drunk on New Zealand literature. Seriously, that place is stock-full of scintillating novels, poetry, and philosophy. Plus, their indigenous debates (between Māori and Pākehā) are some of the most robust, and constructive, in the world. Specifically, this book paints a picture of reconciliation between indigenous and Eurocentric powers that not only critiques colonial hegemony, but offers a pathway for both Māori and Pākehā to work together to achieve healing and unity for the future.
10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- Another magical realist novel, this is the saga of seven generations of the Buendía family in Macondo in Latin America. There are massacres, marriages, major corporations, misfortunes, and migrations. It's the story of Latin American history centering around one family and one city. Why read it? It's dense, convoluted, and puzzling prose. Did I sell you yet? Every sentence, comma, and page turn mean something in this book. So it's not only an exercise in how to read a book, but it also initiates the reader into the soul, passion, and dashed dreams of many Latin Americans who fear that colonialism and corruption have fated them to a repeated history of could-have-been glory, lost love, and decay.
*Honorable Mention: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell -- The first story in the Wallander detective series, the plot follows the bleak, cold, investigation of a bloody murder of two farmers in the countryside. The only clue to the brutal crime? The attackers may be 'foreign.' When this leaks out, racial hatred is unleashed. Why read it? A) It's entertaining. B) It's going to make you question whether you're a racist or not...and you probably are. But, as one of the characters says, what really counts, "is what you do with [your racism]."
This is my list. I could add more, I could change it up. For now, this is what it is. What would you add? What is your list? What are your thoughts? Share with me on the blog, via Facebook, or on Twitter with the hashtag #BookChallenge.