“In first century Judaea, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sentenced to life as a Roman slave. When, during a pirate attack in the Aegean, Ben-Hur saves the life of a galley commander, his fortunes improve and he returns to Galilee a free man. There, his quest for vengeance turns into insurrection, but his life is transformed when he witnesses Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.”
When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur  every year around Easter. In those days, the only way to watch a motion picture was to see it in a theater when it came out or watch it on network television. There was no streaming. There were no DVDs. There was no cable TV. There weren’t even video cassettes! When one of the networks broadcast a major motion picture like Ben-Hur, it was a big deal. Families like mine made arrangements to watch it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the chance to see it again for another year.
Because of that, the movie Ben-Hur not only became a part of my Easter tradition, it became ingrained in my consciousness. I loved this film as a child, and I still love it as an adult. It should be no surprise, then, that shortly after I became a part of the Great Books Group, I suggested that we read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Imagine my own surprise at the time when, after reading a good part of the book, I realized that I didn’t care for it enough to even finish it.
The Keys of the Kingdom, by A.J. Cronin (historical fiction)
“Francis Chisholm is a compassionate and humble priest whose individuality and directness make him unpopular with other clergy. Considered a failure by his superiors, he is sent to China to maintain a mission amid desperate poverty, civil war, plague, and the hostility of his superiors. In the face of this constant danger and hardship, Father Chisholm finds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Recognized as A. J. Cronin’s best novel, The Keys of the Kingdom is an enthralling, fast-moving, colorful tale of a deeply spiritual man called to do good in an imperfect world.”
I just finished The Keys of the Kingdom and believe it’s a perfect novel to read during the Christmas season. It doesn’t contain the aura of glitter and magic of modern Christmas stories, but it is a love story—it dramatizes the love that a Christ-like priest has for his fellow human beings, his church, and God. Father Chisholm experiences many horrific situations, and during much of his life, he believes he’s a failure. Through it all, however, he never loses his focus—never forgets the Being he is really serving. Later in his life, he writes, “I have bumped my head so often . . . and so hard, in my strivings after God” (Part 4, Chapter 11).
I absolutely love this book! It engaged me completely, and I came away from it with a more refined vision of what holiness looks like as described in this verse from the Bible:
Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
“The third novel in the science-fiction trilogy by C.S. Lewis. This final story is set on Earth, and tells of a terrifying conspiracy against humanity. The story surrounds Mark and Jane Studdock, a newly married couple. Mark is a Sociologist who is enticed to join an organisation called N.I.C.E. which aims to control all human life. His wife, meanwhile, has bizarre prophetic dreams about a decapitated scientist, Alcasan.”
Of the three novels in the Space Trilogy, I think That Hideous Strength has the most compelling plot and the more interesting themes. I especially like the way Lewis dramatizes the scriptural comparison between sin and sleep:
“The second novel in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy tells of Dr Ransom’s voyage to the planet of Perelandra (Venus). Dr Ransom is sent by the Elida to Perelandra (Venus) to battle against evil incarnate and preserve a second Eden from the evil forces present in the possessed body of his enemy, Weston.”
In this novel, Dr. Ransom’s “battle against evil incarnate” is both philosophical and physical. The philosophical struggle adds meaning to the physical conflict and raises the stakes. Because the stakes are so high, the resolution of the story arc between Ransom and Weston satisfied me more that it would have had it come at the end of Out of the Silent Planet. Dr. Ransom’s battle is also fantastical, so much so that I wasn’t disturbed by the fact that the novel contains, at its core, a view of the “fall of man” that is very different from my own. Reading this book, in fact, inspired me to ponder these matters in a way that I hadn’t in a while. I particularly like this conversation between Ransom and Tinidril from chapter 9:
Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis (science fiction)
“In the first novel of C.S. Lewis’s classic science fiction trilogy, Dr Ransom, a Cambridge academic, is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet’s treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the ‘silent planet’–Earth–whose tragic story is known throughout the universe…”
I read this book a couple of years ago and came away from it with an “eh” feeling. After my recent reading of Perelandra, the second book in the Space Trilogy, I went back and re-read much of Out of the Silent Planet, and my experience was much more satisfying. My problem the first time around was that the adventure started strong and then seemed to fizzle out in the end. What I failed to understand during that reading was that the true villain in the stories of C.S. Lewis is never completely the antagonist; it is the fallen nature of the protagonist. God always exists, is always a major player in the outcome of the story struggle, and will always win. I believe that this quality, more than anything else, is what makes the Space Trilogy radically different from standard science fiction, defines it as Christian science fiction, and marks it as a standard for modern faith-based science fiction, including my own. The question of a C.S. Lewis story is how it will end—which is generally quite unique and creative—and whether the protagonist will end his or her struggle on God’s team.
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis (fantasy)
“Haunted by the myth of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life, C.S. Lewis wrote this, his last, extraordinary novel, to retell their story through the gaze of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Disfigured and embittered, Orual loves her younger sister to a fault and suffers deeply when she is sent away to Cupid, the God of the Mountain. Psyche is forbidden to look upon the god’s face, but is persuaded by her sister to do so; she is banished for her betrayal. Orual is left alone to grow in power but never in love, to wonder at the silence of the gods. Only at the end of her life, in visions of her lost beloved sister, will she hear an answer.”
After Psyche is banished, Orual returns to her people and determines to “go always veiled.” She does this to hide her face from her people, herself, and from the gods. She also veils herself—although it’s not clear she realizes it—to mimic what she sees as the silent and inapproachable nature of the gods. As time passes, she realizes the power that the veil gives her:
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)
“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.
The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)
“The Companions of the Ring have become involved in separate adventures as the quest continues. Aragorn, revealed as the hidden heir of the ancient Kings of the West, joined with the Riders of Rohan against the forces of Isengard, and took part in the desperate victory of the Hornburg. Merry and Pippin, captured by Orcs, escaped into Fangorn Forest and there encountered the Ents. Gandalf returned, miraculously, and defeated the evil wizard, Saruman.
“Meanwhile, Sam and Frodo progressed towards Mordor to destroy the Ring, accompanied by Smeagol—Gollum, still obsessed by his ‘precious’. After a battle with the giant spider, Shelob, Sam left his master for dead; but Frodo is still alive—in the hands of the Orcs. And all the time the armies of the Dark Lord are massing.”
As the armies of the Dark Lord amass, Denethor, the Lord and Steward of Minas Tirith, sends his son Faramir on a hopeless mission to fortify the garrison on the river, where the first assault will fall. Faramir and his men are forced to retreat. While doing so, Faramir is shot with a poisonous dart and is carried, unconscious, to his father. At this point, Minas Tirith is besieged and surrounded by enemies. Denethor sits with his almost-dead son, so consumed by grief, guilt, and despair that he no longer cares about defending the city. When Denethor commands his servants to burn Faramir and him alive on a funeral pyre, the hobbit Pippin realizes that Denethor’s mind is overthrown before the city is overrun and goes for help.
“Frodo and his Companions of the Ring have been beset by danger during their quest to prevent the Ruling Ring from falling into the hands of the Dark Lord by destroying it in the Cracks of Doom. They have lost the wizard, Gandalf, in a battle in the Mines of Moria. And Boromir, seduced by the power of the Ring, tried to seize it by force. While Frodo and Sam made their escape, the rest of the company was attacked by Orcs.
“Now they continue the journey alone down the great River Anduin—alone, that is, save for the mysterious creeping figure that follows wherever they go.”
The Two Towers begins with the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin, two hobbits who are the kinsmen of Frodo. The remaining members of the fellowship—Aragorn a Man, Legolas an Elf, and Gimli a Dwarf—set off across the plains of the country Rohan—also known as the Riddermark—in pursuit of the Orcs who captured Merry and Pippin. Several days into their journey, they encounter Éomer, the nephew of the king, and the men of his household, who have been in pursuit of the Orcs on horseback. Aragorn declares his kingly lineage, shows his famous sword, and explains that he is searching for “Halflings,” which are creatures of legend to the Men of Rohan. Éomer responds with this observation:
The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)
“In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell into the hands of Bilbo Baggins, as told in The Hobbit.
“In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.”
We are told in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring that Saruman the White is the most powerful of the wizards in Middle-earth and trusted by wizards and Elves as a wise, formidable enemy to Sauron, the Dark Lord. When Gandalf the Grey goes to Saruman for help, he learns that Saruman is no longer working to destroy Sauron but to supplant him and has, therefore, become a traitor.
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.