From the classical world, though one could choose all sorts of great works, I recommend a soaking in Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, to see how the great philosopher constructed a set of ethics that shaped the Western world. Homer told the story of Odysseus and Virgil in The Aeneid. Homer’s story came into the Roman world and gave to all of us the power of a journey into ideas and ideals, sanctifying place and history. Dante took Homer and Virgil to the next level in his Divine Comedy, and if you follow him all the way down into the inferno, up through purgatory and then climb into the swirling glorious presence of God you will find new dimensions to life’s journey.
I’ve heard the case made that St. Augustine’s Confessions reshaped the entire Western world, not least in his probing of his own soul and conscience, but I’m confident that the great North African can lead each of us to the potent truth of original sin and the need to read our lives before God. Not long ago I began to re-read John Milton, Paradise Lost, and was mesmerized not only by his language and meter, but by the brilliance of his vision for the cosmic battle of human life.
No one on this side of the Atlantic can fail to be captured, humbled and even humiliated before God by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It brings into living reality the evil of slavery and the heart of darkness, a heart that was eschewed by the arch-individiual, Henry David Thoreau in On Walden Pond. Americans need to dip into this classic work of human independence and freedom if only to capture again what makes so many Americans still tick.
Hemingway said Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the great American novel. I’m not expert enough on American novels to pose such a conclusion, but I can say that very few have probed more deeply the foibles of the human heart, whether Twain does so with withering wit or raw finger-pointing.
For some reason few today have read C.S. Lewis’ Dymer, his first work, a saga, a journey, and a portrait of human hubris at its apex – and the work provides for us a revelation of what Lewis was like, what his yearning was like, before it became Surprised by Joy. I confess to being one of the few who have not read all of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – I have read The Hobbit – but I return regularly to his short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” and often wonder if there is a better way of describing our vocation and its relation to eternity.
Every summer, somehow, I find my way to Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, and whether it is the combination of the hunt with baseball in the old man’s musings or not, the struggle to catch and never show what one found … Hemingway reminds me of the intangibles of the human struggle.
Probably the deepest and most penetrating book I read during my seminary days was Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a philosophical, theological essay into the relational nature of what matters most.