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Wholesome reading

Good books with good values are not hard to find

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Dewey Huston, a retired Assemblies of God missionary, wrote me recently from Springfield, Mo. He started by describing how he reads every issue of WORLD and puts some on a table at his church. Then he came out with italics blazing: "My reason again for writing . . . " He sweetly implied that he wished we didn't review some books that aren't "wholesome." He asked for a list of books with good values and without descriptions of sex, violence, or how to talk dirty.

Dewey, this article is for you. I'll start with fiction, and four books for young children that are perfect for bedtime reading. In Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny, the persistent bunny mother acts as does God in Psalm 139. (Brown's Goodnight Moon is also great.) William Steig's Yellow & Pink provides a clever argument for creation, as two marionettes ponder how they came to be. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg is a terrific pro-life book, and Sylvia Plath's The Bed Book is a whirlwind poem for kids tired of their "nice little, tucked in tight little, turn-out the light little beds."

Next, for bedtime reading to children getting older, come two famous book series, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Lewis is perfect word-for-word reading, and parents should make sure that children have heard them at least once before they start watching the movies or videos. The stories are theologically pointed and usefully didactic. Tolkien is more of a challenge-I abridged a few sections when a child's attention lagged-yet more of a reward in some ways, as it excites adventurous imaginations.

My four children went high over Tolkien's misty mountains and down into dungeons deep and caverns old. They sped on Shadowfax and developed the determination to trudge through Mordor. My fond remembrance of reading The Lord of the Rings to them eight times-twice per child-doesn't mean that the trilogy is not adult reading: It is, and is probably the paramount example of what I've called romantic realism. (Definition: Writing based on the realization that we live in a fallen, often grubby world but one suffused by the romance of Christ's love for all He came to save.)

Many of the English classics show romantic realism: Dewey could read Milton, Chaucer, Walter Scott, Dickens, and Jane Austen. Shakespeare's tragic protagonists sometimes wade in blood, but exalted language covers over a multitude of spills. Those who know Spanish can read Cervantes in the original and my favorite 20th-century novel, Jose Gironella's The Cypresses Believe in God; they are also available in translation, of course. I've enjoyed Russian authors Pushkin and Turgenev, and the two greats: Fyodor Dostoevsky's work is often holy in theme and wholly good in style, but works like Crime and Punishment might not be considered wholesome. Leo Tolstoy's novels are great and his short stories-this is a minority opinion-even better: "What Men Live By" is superb.

Among the 19th-century American novelists worth reading are Nathaniel Hawthorne (although he did have an anti-Puritan bias), James Fenimore Cooper (although Mark Twain wrote a hilarious critique of his prose), and William Dean Howells. From the works of my favorite 20th-century American novelist, Walker Percy, I'd particularly recommend Love in the Ruins (1971) and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)-no bad language but, since Percy was describing a sickness in the modern soul, some might not consider them entirely wholesome.

I believe Jan Karon's Mitford books and John Grisham's legal thrillers are clean, although I've only sampled parts-and I have to admit to not reading much current fiction. So, turning to nonfiction, I think of some oldies but goodies: The Bible, of course, plus Augustine's Confessions, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and John Calvin's Institutes. Good basic explanations of who God is from the past few decades include Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There, J.I. Packer's Knowing God, John Piper's Desiring God, and Tim Keller's The Reason for God.

Currently, Keller, Piper, and Randy Alcorn write romantic realist theology readily readable by non-theologians. I'll read anything those three write. Other living authors on my "read anything by them" list: Arthur Brooks (author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism), Phillip Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial), and economists Thomas Sowell (author of The Vision of the Anointed and Economic Facts and Fallacies) and Hernando de Soto (The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital).

The departed on my "read anything by them" list include Whittaker Chambers (Witness), Shelby Foote (The Civil War), Schaeffer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Spiritual Depression), and J. Gresham Machen (Christianity and Liberalism). I like using Calvin's and Matthew Henry's commentaries on the Bible and found Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony to be very useful. Of the many, many apologetics I've read, John Blanchard's Does God Believe in Atheists? was the most fun, because it's filled with curious details about major philosophers, world religions, cults, and lots of other stuff.

With all the bad things happening, it's useful to understand how far we've come: Alvin J. Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World describes how the coming of Christ and the devoted work of His followers changed charity, sexual conduct, medical care, education, science, literature, the arts, business and labor, and a host of other fields. To understand our current battle with Islam, Bernard Lewis' books are useful: His What Went Wrong? overviews the multi-century decline in the Middle East that came about because Muslim collectivists did not allow individuals to go out on their own or think for themselves.

Finally, Gene Edward Veith and I put together in 1999 a list of "100 best books of the 20th century, including some Christian ones," so that may be a useful reference: worldmag.com/articles/3366. And, going back to children's books, where this article started, WORLD's list of 50 great 20th-century books for children can be found at worldmag.com/articles/3971.

Unwholesome reading

nother subscriber (not Dewey Huston) recently took me to task for making in 2008 some positive remarks about Andrew Klavan's novel Empire of Lies. I had warned readers in my review that the novel includes "descriptions of godless man's depravity . . . bad language and recaps of [the main character's] pre-conversion adultery"-but given three explicit passages the subscriber quoted to me, I should have had a stronger warning.

So, my error, but also my education, for the novel raises important questions about whether authors should show gross pre-conversion behavior that shows our desperate need for Christ. Klavan gives us almost a step-by-step guide to repentance. First comes a sense of disgust: After one adulterous interlude, his first-person narrator explains, "When it was over-never mind the morning after, I mean the second it was over-I felt my spirit-the spirit I did not believe existed-flooded with moral revulsion as if a bubbling tarlike substance was rising into my throat and choking me."

The second step is concern about consequences: Klavan's narrator says, "I cracked. It was the disgust, you know, the moral disgust. And yet, I had worked so hard at hiding it from myself that it could only reveal itself to me in other forms and symptoms. So I would wake up in the predawn dark or just go still, staring at my desk in daylight. My skin would suddenly turn clammy, my heart suddenly flutter and race. . . . Then other fears came, too, small emberlike worries that had been smoldering in me a long time but now suddenly burst into large flame. What if I got sick? Having sex with so many strangers, careless because of the drugs. What if I had syphilis and didn't know it? What if I had AIDS? . . . I grew sick with fear. I grew small and hunched and sallow, worrying. There were days when I thought about it every hour, hours when I thought about it every minute."

The third step is going past symptoms to the mistaken ideas that fueled risky action: "My own voice was whispering: 'Look at you! Sniveling, fearful, sweating in the dark. Where're your theories now, Philosopher Boy? Where's the great enlightenment, the freedom and liberation you promised? . . . It was no good denying it, though all my radical friends made haste to: They had been right, those conservatives-they had been right and we had been wrong. The truths we'd held to be self-evident were nothing more than a comfortable climate of opinion, self-congratulatory certainties that made me feel righteous and progressive and bold and yet had nothing to do with facts. This, too, I understood now. We had been wrong. I had been wrong. I had been wrong about everything. What an awful thing to discover. My whole sense of myself was shattered. I felt as if I were falling apart. I had to do something."

Guess what happens next to this self-described atheist? Here's the fourth step: "I don't know why I went to the Church of the Incarnation. . . . I didn't know what I was supposed to say. . . . I buried my face in my hands and started weeping. I said to [Christ], 'Help me! Forgive me! Forgive me, help me, help me.' . . . I was hoping for an enlightening interior blast of some kind. Some hallelujah conversion maybe. But there was nothing."

Last comes the slow awareness that change has occurred, through God's grace: He resolves to "dump the ugly sex that made me feel good in the moment and lousy ever afterward . . . try to be kinder to people . . . start everything over from scratch. . . . Over time I realized what should have been obvious to me right away: that my prayer in the chapel that afternoon had been answered, after all. The celestial cavalry had, in fact, charged over the hill at the first sound of my cry for help. I didn't see it at first because there was no magic to it. It was just real-as real as real. My prayer had been answered almost in the saying of it."

That's not the end of the story. Temptations come. The main character occasionally has pre-conversion thoughts of sex and violence. As the apostle Paul writes in chapter 7 of Romans, "I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

What price vividness? Klavan might reach people who have not opened the Bible, or a theology text. My advice to him would be: Show the steps of revulsion and repentance and leave out passages like the three gross ones in Empire of Lies. And yet, novelists sometimes have to go where their characters lead them. Having reread Klavan's controversial book, would I recommend it again? It has redeeming social value, but I'd provide a much stronger warning, and a suggestion that those who want to get Klavan's passionate critique of secular liberalism, but without raunchy flashbacks, should watch his biweekly "Klavan on the Culture" videos at pjtv.com.

Buy the book: Links to purchase the books featured in WORLD's 2011 Books Issue

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Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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