Besides the Bible

A thorough, conversation-starting guide to the books that have shaped Christian culture.

Remember when email surveys were popular? This was before the days of Twitter, Facebook and even MySpace (yes, children, way back in 1999). In those dark ages, you had to work a lot harder to share the minuscule and pointless details of your life, and the email survey helped you do just that. In middle school, they were forwarded in droves, asking the hard-hitting personal questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” and “Ocean or mountains?” A common question was, “What’s your favorite book?” As a pious young Christian woman, I often answered with “Besides the Bible?” before astounding my peers with my knowledge of classic literature and/or the latest Sweet Valley High offering.

That’s almost the same place the authors of Besides the Bible start from. People of faith have a basis in the Bible. It is the Book of all books, the bedrock, the foundation from which Christians interpret and understand this world. And yet, even as Christian faith is tied to the written word, the authors (Dan Gibson, Jordan Green and John Pattison) lament “Christianity’s dying literary tradition.” These days, as people are writing and reading blogs more than ever, a whole literary tradition is being left behind. This culture is forever searching for what is new and next, and as a result, it misses out on what has been and continues to be. There are millions of books in this world, and a good portion of them deal with faith. Of those books, many are good, even life-changing.

Besides the Bible isn’t just three guys raving over their favorite books, or even the books they’d want to read for eternity while stuck on a desert island. Instead, these are books they believe have either shaped Christian culture in the past or are doing so right now. With those parameters, it’s astounding that the three of them could narrow it down to 100.

This list has everything: fiction, nonfiction, poetry. Within those broad labels, there’s an even wider range. Fiction ranges from A Wrinkle in Time to The Road. Nonfiction tackles personal memoir, theology and expose. Short stories, graphic novels, poems, as well as lectures in book format, have a small showing. Even a picture book is on the list: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

Besides the Bible is composed of short essays, each no more than four pages. These essays are not merely a summary of the book being referenced. Instead, they are personal essays, in which the authors and their friends—Donald Miller, David Dark and Phyllis Tickle, to name a few—share why these books have profoundly impacted them or Christian culture. They are mini-persuasive essays, both witty and concise. 

The authors don’t shy away from controversy—in fact, the more controversial a book, the more it belongs on this list. The first essay is about the Apocrypha. Others include Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Rand’s The Fountainhead, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and the most final (and most recent) entry, Marin’s Love is an Orientation. These aren’t safe books; they are books that have been debated, denounced and denigrated by some while being embraced by others. They are change-makers.

This book is nearly brand new—and yet, it’s already outdated. About a month ago, there was a huge firestorm about Rob Bell’s latest book, and as I was finishing Besides the Bible, I couldn’t help but think Bell’s Love Wins belongs in this book. It’s made a huge splash in the month it has been out. But it is obvious the authors did not set out to create an absolute compendium (evidenced by the ongoing conversation on their blog at BesidesTheBible.com). Instead, they want to shed light on authors and books of the last few centuries that the current culture may have overlooked. Most Christians today have heard about Love Wins; have they also heard about Jacques Ellul or Miroslav Volf?

The other conflict is the bias of the choosers. Anytime there is a list of anything, someone’s favorite something is always left off. These authors come from a specific perspective, one more in line with the current generation that is comfortable with doubt, focused on social justice and partial to fair-trade coffee. As a young evangelical who finds great spiritual significance in both a Catholic mass and a Mumford & Sons concert singalong, I found them speaking my language, though I wished there were more female writers on the list.

Perhaps the highest compliment for Besides the Bible is the fact that each person I have shown this book to has gotten excited about it. They have gone through the Table of Contents to tally up those they have read. They have exclaimed with surprise at seeing the Left Behind series mentioned and flipped to read that essay. Or, better yet, they saw the title of a book that changed their life, and they stopped to tell me about it. That’s what this book is all about—taking that dying literary tradition and reviving the art of thought and conversation.

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