Alister McGrath: My Top Five Books
It’s hard to name your favourite books. Some books mean a lot for special reasons, perhaps because they speak to us in moments of sadness or discouragement. When the occasion passes, they recede into the background. Yet I find that I keep coming back to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Why? Partly because I keep coming across phrases and images that I thought I knew well, yet which seem to speak to me with new clarity. Yet perhaps the real reason is that Lewis seems able to convey the intellectual power and existential depth of the Christian faith in ways that seem to elude some writers – myself included. Lewis somehow manages to find the right words to engage his audience, making a winsome appeal to both our reason and imagination in his presentation of faith.
I try to read something improving every Lent. It’s a great discipline, and I find that it has led me to discover some remarkable works that I might otherwise have overlooked. Yet the medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis remains one of my favourite works. Not because it’s a comfortable read. I find it profoundly disturbing and unsettling, challenging my spiritual complacency. I now prefer to read this in the original Latin, as too many of the published translations use archaic English when rendering the biblical texts that play such a central role in the book’s exploration of Christian discipleship. Why do we have to use ‘Thou’, ‘Thee’, ‘doth’ and ‘wilt’ when modern English conveys the original sense more effectively and directly? I’m tempted to produce a new translation myself of this perennially rewarding text.
When Lent passes, I shall get back to reading less disturbing books. It’s hard not to like G. K. Chesterton. (Sadly, I missed the recent BBC adaptation of the ‘Father Brown’ series). My favourite work by Chesterton is The Everlasting Man. Chesterton’s ebullient style helps him land his theological punches effectively and amusingly. How does he manage to write such great prose, while making such important apologetic points? I wish I knew. But it remains a great read – perhaps one of the best pieces of theological journalism ever written.
Then, of course, there are theological classics – the works that somehow always seem to have something to say to us that we missed the first time round. Or perhaps we weren’t ready for some of its ideas when we last read it. The older I get, the more I’m inclined to think that some books are best read earlier in life, and others later. Augustine’s Confessions – especially in Henry Chadwick’s scintillating translation – remains one of my firm favourites. I read it once a year, and invariably find something new to savour and ponder. It’s interesting to set it alongside C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, and see how each writer works God into their conversion narratives.
It’s always good to get away from works of theology, and read works which convey the saltiness and earthiness of the everyday. Thanks to a Christmas gift, I’m enjoying Andrea Camilleri’s series of witty detective novels based on Inspector Montalbano. What I like best is their sense of place – the distinct ‘feel’ of Vigàta, and the willingness to work with its grain. Crime fiction appeals to one of my core instincts as an apologist – wanting to make sense of things. Yet Camilleri takes the genre in a new direction, using it as a lens to explore the darker side of Sicilian life and the messiness of human relationships. Perhaps that’s why I also like Augustine, whose realism about the complexities of life I find reassuring. But Camilleri writes better detective novels than Augustine!
Revd Professor Alister McGrath is Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College, London. His most recent book for SPCK is Faith and the Creeds.