I enjoy few things more than opening a good novel and getting lost in its story.
But reading is about more than just good stories and getting lost. It’s about truth.
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” says Albert Camus. Truth can be difficult to understand and even harder to tell, but in fiction, truth becomes palatable.
Good literature also broadens our perspectives. Through fiction, we can experience war, infidelity, the loss of a lover. To an extent, we can empathize and understand the pain others go through. C.S. Lewis says, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself when I do.”
Unfortunately, few Christians know many good authors who write about faith other than C.S. Lewis—even fewer can name one alive today. It’s time to remedy that.
Here are 11 contemporary authors every Christian should know about:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I feel strangely out of place when I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels. But I think this is exactly how she wants me to feel, because her books deal with what it means to belong. Her understanding of race and gender has transformed the way I view both. She won a McArthur Fellowship—the award called the “Genius Grant” that only the 20 most brilliant people of the year get. She also won an O’Henry Prize and the PEN beyond the margins award. In short, she’s brilliant.
Reading Marilynne Robinson’s books is akin to reading Ecclesiastes. Her writing is dense with meaning, filled with reflections on faith, family, forgiveness and what it means to be human. After reading just the first page of Gilead, I better understood what it means to lose someone you love, and the pain that comes as you cannot escape death. She is one of the most brilliant writers alive today—having won the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, the PEN/Hemmingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Updike is probably the most well-known author on this list and the only one not alive today. He has written about 30 novels, 20 collections of short stories and 10 books of poetry (plus about 15 books of nonfiction). Throughout them all, he tries to “give the mundane its beautiful due.” Essentially, this means he takes monotonous, typical things in life and makes them beautiful. He sees beauty in walking down the street, standing in the grocery line and drinking a glass of lemonade—and he writes about them with elegance.
When I read his books and short stories I tend to believe the world is more magical. Apparently, the world must feel the same, as he won the Pulitzer for fiction twice (one of only three authors to do so).
Fun fact: McBride may be the only one on this list who is writer and a professional musician. He plays in the band Rock Bottom Remainders, a group consisting of famous and award-winning authors who also like to dabble in the field of music. But he’s also an excellent writer who won the National Book Award in 2013.
McBride writes a lot about race, faith and heritage. He believes that you must understand your past in order to understand the present and future. Reading his novels will make you want to explore your roots. After I read one of his books, I pestered my mom for weeks to send me our family tree.
Ann Patchett writes with a purity and elegance I have yet to find in anyone else. Her characters are as real to me as my good friends. Her stories are the kind of brilliant and touching that makes you cry in a good way. (If anyone has read Bel Canto with dry eyes, you have a raisin of a soul.) Patchett’s stories implore readers to live passionately for something in every single moment of life, and the way she writes tells you that she practices what she preaches. Themes of death, fate and family also pop up in her books.
Dillard is kind of like the female version of Henry David Thoreau—a writer who goes into woods and writes about it. But unlike Thoreau, Dillard dresses her language with every accessory she can. Her writing style is exquisite and unique. She brings brilliance and beauty to the ordinary and overlooked. It’s in Dillard’s writing that I see things in a fresh way. She wants people to see things as if they had never seen them before, to love creativity and to be curious again. She accomplishes this, however, not by telling the reader to do it, but by doing these things herself and letting you follow in her footsteps.
Anne Lamott is probably the funniest author on this list, and if you want a little angst in your life, Lamott is the one for you. Reading her work feels like hanging out with a hilarious friend who comes over your house, curls up on the couch with you, and just starts talking about normal, everyday life—with a whole lot of wisdom added to it. She talks a lot about hope, death, joy, addiction, friendship, creativity, compassion—there aren’t many things Lamott doesn’t write about. She also challenges the clichés of Christianity in a way that is snarky, witty and honest.
Gene Luen Yang
Though I personally haven’t read any Gene Luen Yang, I’ve been told he is one of the best graphic novelists alive today. His book Boxers & Saints was the first one to ever be a finalist for the National Book Award. The themes of race, identity and acceptance pervade almost everything he writes. You can be sure that I will read one of his Graphic Novels this year. You should too.
Wendell Berry is the ever-steady beating drum of environmentalism in writing today. In all his writings, he urges people to live in harmony with nature and each other. Whenever my day is fraught with worry, I go home and read his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” and let the chaos ebb away. Berry taught me to cultivate all things, because all things are in need of it—the earth, relationships and virtue within myself. His work teaches rest and peace in the midst of a busy world.
I never liked to read memoirs until I read one by Mary Karr. Now, I can’t get enough of them—especially hers. Karr writes with such meticulousness and detail, it feels like she started journaling her childhood as soon as she could hold a pencil. Even though her prose is excellent, I like her poetry even more. It bleeds and nourishes. She often writes about death, perseverance and family, and the way she talks about theology makes you rethink things you never knew you had to rethink. She is an honest writer, and we all need a little more honesty in our lives.
If success is measured in the length of your Wikipedia article, Buechner is doing just fine. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer and won an O’Henry Award. But, in my mind, nothing rivals his eight honorary doctorates. Yes, eight. He is probably the most theological writer on this list, writing devotionals, sermons and essays on Christianity and exploring themes such as doubt in faith, hope and perseverance.
Jonathan Minnema (@jonminnema), when not lounging in a bookstore, is a grad student in theology and an editor for a small publishing house. Few people in this world are more excited about Harper Lee's new novel than he is.