(By: Andrew Shaffer – Features Writer)
BOOKS! We know and love/hate them. There are lots of good ones, and way more bad ones. Much like movies (many of which came from books before they were all inspired by comics) they’re chock-full of theology.
I can’t adequately suggest some sort of situation in which you’re creating a youth gathering that centers around a book as so many do with movies… suggesting that everyone sit around and read/listen to a reading of anything you’ll at the very least get some weird looks and potentially incite some sort of revolt. I mean Oprah’s book club swept the nation, a while back and is apparently still a thing. So there’s an idea.
More likely though, you’re going to be reading (or have already read) these and will be able to relate some themes and hopefully inspire your students to crack a book or two.
So on to the books (in no particular order)! Many of these you’ll be familiar with, some may be new to you. I’ll outline some of the theological themes (even loosely) throughout them. As I was compiling these, I realized that there are several series, but I’ve included them as single entries to simplify. Feel free to disagree, find more, or think I’m reading too much (pun intended) into things. Regardless, they’re all worth a read.
- The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – JRR Tolkien
Ok if you haven’t read these, personally I feel like you should stop and go do so right now. That is, of course your choice. I feel like each of these books should be separate entries, as they all deal with separate and varied themes but this feature is about a bunch of books and not just Tolkien.
First The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
Themes: A nice range. Good vs Evil, the value of cleverness, loyalty and courage, dealing with wealth and the pursuit of it, adventure and even what home means.
Yes it was one book, and could have been one movie btw (it was an awesome cartoon movie that came out in the late 70’s, check it out). I won’t get into the story, because we all know it. Is Smaug a theme? Sure.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Arguably some of the greatest books ever, and undoubtedly the deepest, this is the essential theological fantasy. I’ll list themes separately for each book, but the trilogy is the epic of good vs evil and the corrupting nature of power, if you’re somehow unfamiliar the whole thing revolves around the destruction of the ring of power to keep the world from falling to evil… so that one’s easy. Friendship and Love (on all levels) are prevalent throughout all three books as well as asking what ‘The Home’ is, how big it is and what it means, etc. Race is one of the more interesting (and potentially troubling) themes in the trilogy, as Tolkien emphasizes the unique skills and strengths of various races who work together, but some are inherently ‘evil’ or ‘violent’.
Within the individual books:
Fellowship of the Ring Themes –Friendship, Compassion and Forgiveness, Fear, Perseverance, Strength (and what strength is) *I’m not even going to mess with Tom Bombadil… that’s a whole article on power, responsibility, and…whatever he is
The Two Towers Themes – Love (both individual and on a grander scale), Loyalty & Betrayal (or at least lack of loyalty), Isolation/Connection, Suffering, Youth, Environmental Stewardship, and even Acceptance of Help
Return of the King Themes – Identity, Sacrifice, Perseverance, Warfare, Women and Femininity (touched in Two Towers but delved more into), Language/Communication, Family
I could really go on for pages about how deep these are, so I’ll leave it with that.
- Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
It’s become the go-to, and at times a little heavy handed with its allegories. This is the essential Christian themed fiction. The themes vary from book to book, and since there are seven I’m not going to get too deep. Themes throughout are good vs evil, compassion & forgiveness, betrayal, transformation, the nature of being, guilt, blame, courage, family – overall Lewis weaves crucifixion and resurrection themes throughout.
If you haven’t read these, you definitely should. One of my favorite lines comes from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (book 2) from Mr Beaver, about Aslan the Lion: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.” Another good scene comes from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (book 3) when Aslan must split the skin from a dragon (formerly a horrible child name Eustace) to return him to human form – outlining that our path to finding true humanity means denying who we’ve become to be transformed. I could keep going, but you should just read them. They’re all pretty great (The Silver Chair is dark, and there are a couple that seem to be really out of place, but read them through). Again, there are some issues with racial implications throughout, as the brown, turban wearing races are the aggressors most of the time. There are a few characters who are the exception, but they’re pointed out as such. The Last Battle is the heaviest with it’s themes, but has some of the best moments dealing with faith and ‘correctness’, dealing with politics, and loyalty.
- A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
Themes: Wisdom and Knowledge, Appearances, Communication, Love, Fear, Free Will
Centered on a young girl named Meg, whose father is missing. When Meg is approached by three strange women: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. And Meg realizes she’s about to embark on a completely bananas trip to save her pops from some serious badness. Although written for kids/young adults, there are some very deep topics in here. I’m not just talking about wormholes either, faith gets some serious treatment.
- The Dresden Files – Jim Butcher
Themes: Identity, Spirituality, Divine Intervention, Inner Strength, Trust, Faith
There are, at present, like 15 books in this series about a Warlock who drinks Coke like it’s going out of style and fights all sorts of supernatural badness with a host of friends that range from vampires and fairies to cops and Catholic Priests. At times these books can be a little contrived, and even more often inappropriate for younger readers. Butcher does a great job of portraying the struggles of a real people who have real issues and how they cope (even if it’s in the midst of fighting monsters).
- Small Gods – Terry Pratchett
Themes: Faith, Relationship between gods & people (or GOD and people to an extent), Church and People, Believers vs Non-Believers
Pratchett is hilarious and poignant, you should read as much of his stuff as you can. The story is set in an oppressive theocracy led by the worshippers of Om, who frequently wage war on nonbelievers. Brutha is a simple guy who isn’t about that and wants to do something about it. He’s also good at growing melons and the his god spoke to him as a tortoise (this book is very funny, btw).
One of the many good lines: ‘You can die for your country or your people or your family, but for a god you should live fully and busily, every day of a long life.’
- American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Themes: Worship, Power, Belief, Legacy, Loyalty
NOT FOR KIDS – There was a recent… Starz(?) show based on this book if that says anything. Belief has power. What we worship gains power. The old gods fear irrelevance with the advent of the new gods such at technology and media – and a war could be coming. One ex-con gets caught in the middle when he’s hired as bodyguard to ‘Mr Wednesday”. The main character struggles throughout with the idea of faith and belief, it’s relative to a pantheon of gods but still relevant.
- . Ender’s Game – others in the series (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind) – Orson Scott Card
Themes: The Nature of Humanity, Faith, Identity, Morality and Responsibility, Forgiveness and Violence
The first book has a very different take from the others, as we follow a child recruited for his intelligence to participate in a military game. He has to figure out who he is, who he’s going to be – and cope with knowing the’s essentially the smartest kid on the planet. The latter books focus on deeper themes, spanning out from the logical conclusion of the first and building on the legacy of a child military genius and his struggle to cope with who he is. They delve into Catholic mythology and the nature of creators/creation – each point of view is given weight and validity without being trivialized, making these incredibly thought provoking.
- Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Themes: Preconceptions, Good vs Evil, The Concept of Inevitability, Free Will
Apparently Armageddon is imminent, and two beings caught in the middle of it have decided they need to (sort of) put aside their differences and deal with it. Of course it would be challenging enough if the two weren’t associates of heaven and hell, but they’ve grown attached to Earth and its inhabitants and can’t stand idly by. The hippie humanist Antichrist who refuses to participate in then end of the world is just a bonus. Read this book.
- Pendragon – DJ MacHale
Themes: Power, Free Will, Fate, Identity, the Nature of Right vs Wrong (rather that just black & white), the Power of Individuals
If you aren’t familiar with this series, it’s about a time/space traveling teenager who is tasked with saving the world from a madman who has set out to “tip the scales” through influencing events. Each book has nice little surprises and twists, and overall it asks how we know what is “best” for a given people. Do we force or convince them to do what we think is right, do we leave them to their own devices, or do we ride in after the fact as saviors? Every book is a little different, but they’re pretty good and quick reads.
- Sanderson’s Cosmere – Brandon Sanderson
Special Case: There are dozens of themes throughout Sanderson’s dozens of books. Almost all of his books deal with human identity, cosmic responsibility, and the burden and blessing of power in one way or another. There are other themes that run throughout as well, and you really can’t go wrong. However, there is one character that I want to address, and depending on the book (all which happen in the same universe – hence ‘cosmere’) this character takes on different names and varied characteristics, but is always an embodiment of one aspect of another of God/godliness. Hoid, Wit, the Drifter, etc – all are a rather mysterious and aloof being who comes and goes from worlds as he pleases, influencing and helping/hindering the deeds of men for an vague or unknown goal. This character changes faces, identities, planets, and holds unimaginable power – yet is always in the background, never taking the spotlight, but always there.
- The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky
Themes: Nature of God, Character, Consequences of Sin
This is a huge book, and it’s one of those that everybody in your University’s BCM read and made sure to talk about. It’s seriously a great, if dense, book and asks a lot of questions we have asked at some point in our lives. It’s far from something that offers easy solutions, and is mostly worth it.
- Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry (or… any Wendell Berry)
Themes: – Love, Pastoral Theology, Independence and Bureaucracy, Commitment
Wendell Berry is another classic ‘theology without theology’ authors. Jayber Crow is another one of those books that lots of a certain type have read. Unlike Karamazov it isn’t brought up as an achievement, but accepted as an understood right of passage. Crow is story about its namesake, whose life in a small town consists of existing on the edge. He avoids being connected, preferring to consider himself cut from a different cloth- until an interaction with the story’s antagonist causes him to reevaluate what it means to live with others.
- The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Themes: Pride, Values, Humanity, Forgiveness
Centered on the Price family, who moves from Georgia to the Congo in 1959, Kingsolver says this is a political allegory to frame he Western explotaion of Africa. Outside of the allegory, it’s a story of attempted missionary conquest, as family arrives assuming to “save” the Congolese people. There are struggles within the family, as resentment surfaces and an accepted ideology is questioned. Naturally, things don’t go as expected, and neglecting local traditions cause issues as does failure to respect the locals. Tragedies call motivations and messages into question, and open readers to question our own perceptions.
- Harry Potter – JK Rowling
Themes: Sacrifice, Friendship, Identity, Loyalty, Courage
We all know this one. The chosen one destined to save the world, (created by loving sacrifice – which is strongly featured ad nauseam) the evil one constantly striving to work against him and gain followers. Rowling has said she struggled with her faith, and it’s no accident there are religious themes throughout.
- The Life of Pi – Yan Martel
Themes: Identity, Truth, Family, Religion and Spirituality, Isolation, Grief
If you haven’t read this, you’ve definitely heard of it. It’s the coming of age survival story of Pi, a boy who has to survive on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger name Richard Parker. The book begins as a traditional “kid stuck on a raft with animals” story, and as it proceeds it gets progressively more bananas.
- 16. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Themes: Education, Sacrifice, Identity, Service, Equality, Integrity
Another we all know, probably. If you’re from the South and you don’t know this book, you should be ashamed. Sorry, but for real. Set in Depression era Alabama, the story is told from the perspective of Scout, a white girl whose father is defending an obviously innocent black man accused of raping a white girl. The book follows the interactions and realizations of Scout as she learns human nature and the struggles of racism, equality, and social inequality. These issues are more than timely today, show how quickly fear can lead to hatred, and how difficult it can be to turn that around. Also a movie, but come on read the book.
- Lamb: The Gospel According Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore
Themes: Piety, Materialism, Friendship, Faith
So we all know the story of Jesus. From the Gospels we know of his birth and adulthood as well as teachings. We don’t know about his childhood (I know, Infancy Gospel of Thomas… I’m speaking from the book’s perspective so just roll with it), luckily Jesus’ childhood best friend Biff has been resurrected to tell us the tale. As with and Christopher Moore, this book is hilarious and probably mildly offensive. There’s also a lot of depth in the interactions with people who just don’t get who Jesus is, or will be.
- Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Themes: Humanity and Civilization, Value, Innocence, Fear, Religion
Remember this one from, what? 6th Grade? Yep. It’s actually a good book. Some pre-teens get stranded on an island and don’t immediately die. So they set up a society of sorts and start killing each other. Ok not really, well kind of. They struggle with the line between civilization and savagery, attempting to hold it together and survive rather than go feral. “Sucks to your Auntie” gets thrown around a lot. Amidst all of this, the boys must come to terms with themselves, who they are and, being British, what social norms they’re willing to eschew in order to survive on an island. There is Simpsons parody episode that leaves out a lot of the meat, but it’s still hilarious.
- . Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (yes, really)
Themes: Sacrifice, Temptation and Self-control, Social Pressure, Repentance
Another one we all know. A crazy man hides away in a candy factory, then lures children in to murder them one by…oh wait. Well that’s close. A poor kid whose grandparents all sleep in the same bed spends his last money on chocolate and wins a factory. You know the story. The horrible kids commit “the deadlies”, gluttony, greed, pride, etc and are apparently executed(?). Whereas our hero follows the rules until he gets caught stealing, but upon displaying true repentance he’s whooshed away into the sky and given the keys to the kingdom. Come on, this can’t be an accident.
- Wheel of Time series – Robert Jordan
Themes: Considered seminal to so many fantasy writers today, The Wheel of Time series draws on Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and Christian themes of respect for the world around us and its inhabitants, darkness versus light, balance, duality and struggling with the idea of a creator and opponent.
First published in 1990, Robert Jordan actually died while writing what he considered the final (12th) book, which due to extensive notes was deemed too dadgum long and intense to be one book and published as three books by author Brandon Sanderson. Although containing many good themes for use, the key in this series is the main character Rand al’Thor and buddies who, a simple farm boy, is chosen to become something great and wield the greatest power ever conceived. This ‘one power’ is diametrically opposed to the ‘true power’ held by the Dark One – hence the themes mentioned earlier. Despite the influence and quality of this series, as well as my belief that everyone should inflict it upon themselves, I can’t actually recommend you read them for three reasons: One – it’s 14 freaking books, plus a prequel and a companion novel. That’s just so much. Two – Robert Jordan doesn’t seem to have ever met people before, so every time any character (it’s a lot) acts contrary to what “all women” or “all men” do, he must mention it and it becomes infuriating. Lastly – With this many books, the themes are rampant and wonderful and easy to pick out… but the despite characters’ development in social circles and in raw power, but despite everything they seem unaware of themselves, making their progression seem more like a chronicle of everyone’s descent into insanity. Even considering that, the books really are very good – and hey, they’re making a TV show!