There’s something undeniably special about old books to me. To read something written by someone who lived and died decades, centuries, or even millennia before I was born is a chance to glimpse into passions and perspectives which have been lost to time. It is enchanting to read stories which may seem so alien to me because of their historical location, and yet it is also captivating to see just how much the human condition has remained the same as history marches on. I’m especially fond of old books which were not only written long ago, but printed long ago as well: There are few things that match the feeling of turning indescribably delicate pages and running one’s hand over cracked leather binding. However, I still appreciate newer printings, too, for their often creative covers and, of course, ease of access.
Because of my relative youth, I consider anything circa- or pre-1960s to be “old”; I think I am justified in describing them this way because I feel that the information age has led to the popular notion that anything which is not imminently recent is also not relevant. A side note: Many very old Christian works remain untranslated from languages like Latin, which most of us don’t know (including me), or translations are not widely published. As such, most of these books will be somewhat modern, but still predating most of our lives. My hope in this article is merely to suggest a few of my personal favorite “old” books which relate to the Christian faith for your reading. I won’t endeavor to give you any in-depth synopsis, but, rather, I want to briefly describe why these books impacted my faith life positively and how I think they might impact yours. Lastly, this is hardly an exhaustive list, so don’t take offense if your personal choices aren’t on here. If you feel led, perhaps suggest some of your own favorites from this category in the comments; I’d be enthusiastic to add them to my own to-read list.
I figure I should start with this, as it is unarguably one of the foundational works of Western Christian thought. The ancient autobiography of one of the most notable Christian theologians to ever live, Confessions tells the story of Augustine’s life, conversion, and his (often complicated) striving to live faithfully from then on out. If you ever found yourself wondering where certain Western Christian doctrines come from when they aren’t clearly laid out in the Bible, chances are fairly good that you can find at least some of them here. Additionally, it can be somewhat pleasantly surprising how relatable Augustine can feel at times; you probably won’t mistake his story for that of someone who is alive today, but his humanity (and all the flaws that come with it) are still palpable for readers today.
I will be the first to admit that, depending on what particular Christian tradition/denomination you ascribe to, you may or may not be in complete agreement with all of Augustine’s assertions, and that’s okay: He might have been a reasonably wise man, but he also wasn’t infallible in the same way the Bible is. Heck, despite my recommendation of this, I’m still not sure I completely agree with all of Augustine’s ideas (or I’m at least still working through some of them). So, even if you find yourself disagreeing with Augustinian theology often and/or harshly, I still encourage you to give this book an honest chance. At the very least, it might be effective at painting a portrait of what life and faith looked like for a Christian who lived in that time period. In that respect, it could also very much function as a historical case study, if early Christian history is an interest of yours.
I could perhaps be accused of sometimes reading books and watching media with a tinge of coldness which keeps me from feeling genuine emotion or empathy towards the characters. Silence gave me no such option: It is a historically-grounded fictional novel full of painful martyrdom and apostasy, yet mostly devoid of closure or easy answers. True to the painful subject matter, Silence pulls no punches and offers little in the way of comfort to the reader. What it does provide, however, is a thoughtful lesson in history, humility, and humanity.
Its setting in 17th century Japan, under the rule of the ruthlessly anti-Christian Shogunate (sho-guh-nit), is likely to be very foreign to most of us Western Christians, and I would dare say that it is all the more powerful for it. While the characters may hail from the West, the place they find themselves in does not coddle them or the reader, stripping away any illusion of true control. Additionally, the fact that the author is himself a Japanese Catholic means that there is a certain authenticity which a Western writer would be hard-pressed to achieve with any amount of research. I would not go as far to say it is a hopeless book, because I don’t believe it is, but it certainly has no reservations of walking the reader through great darkness and sorrow.
If this seems familiar somehow, it may be due to the star-studded 2016 film of the same name, which was based on the novel. I’ve heard the movie is also quite moving (I’ve not seen it myself), so I can tentatively give it my blessing as well, though I have to strongly recommend reading the book first. Though this would not be my first recommendation for someone who is themselves struggling with despair or angst, I highly recommend it for any who are prepared to wrestle with some hard questions about faithful living in a hostile environment.
Keeping with the theme of martyrdom is this classic work by one of Christianity’s most famous modern martyrs. The German theologian could not have fully foreseen the cost of his theology, as this was written during the Nazi Party’s rise to power but before they started their heinous death camps, one of which would eventually be the site of his execution; nevertheless, this work remains somberly prophetic. As a startlingly large portion of German Christianity (arguably even the majority) bowed its knee to Hitler, Bonhoeffer remained a staunch opponent of the regime from its earliest days until his death.
The Cost of Discipleship serves as an unflinching call for Christians to devote themselves to radical faith lives, in part derived from the tradition of monasticism. Essentially, it condemns what we might call “lukewarm Christianity” in favor of the sort of faith which remains committed to Jesus even in the face of suffering, persecution, and/or death. Likewise, it criticises the idea of “cheap grace” and reiterates the narrowness of the path to follow behind Jesus. Like Silence, this is not a book which aspires to reassure the reader of their current situation, but rather challenges them to think deeply about what it really means to live by the teachings of Jesus, especially in the face of serious adversaries.
I would most recommend this to anyone who feels that the sort of Christianity they have been taught is shallow or does not speak deeply enough to how we live. Our faiths may not be justified through works, but they are proven through our demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit and the work that proceeds from it; I feel this book provides meaningful insight into those topics. For that reason, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this.
I feel obligated to include at least one C.S. Lewis book on here, given both his continued popularity and my own personal love of his writing, but I wanted to suggest one of his works that is a bit “off the beaten path” (since I feel like this gets disproportionately fewer mentions than many of Lewis’s great works). This was his last novel, and also the one he felt was his best work. This was a sentiment which was shared by many, including a variety of critics and his close friend, Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkein, who was also one of the key figures in converting Lewis back to Chrsitianity after a stretch of atheism many years earlier. At its simplest, it is a reimagining of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, though the reader need not be an expert on ancient Greek mythology to enjoy the story.
While Lewis’s legacy is built largely on his allegorical novels (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, etc.), they could sometimes be fairly criticised as being a bit “on the nose” for mature readers. Till We Have Faces suffers from no such stumbling block, as its allegory runs much more subtly (in my opinion) throughout the story, still implanting a meaningful message in the reader without smashing them over the head with it. The result is a narrative which stands up to critique on its own, yet also illustrates the surprising intimacy of a relationship with God and convicts the reader to examine their own notions of His Mystery. This book made me cry not out of sadness, but out of conviction, and I am grateful for it. In fairness, I will admit that the book got off to a slow start for my taste, but stick with it because the last few chapters are what really makes things come together beautifully.
This is going to be my most “out of left field” suggestion, hence why I have saved it for last. Fosdick’s work is certainly the least known of the ones I’ve mentioned here, and also probably also the most theologically polarizing, beating out even Confessions in that respect. Nevertheless, after just reading it recently, I feel like it is worth recommending.
Fosdick was an American pastor who served in a few different denominations over his life and was a fairly high-profile figure in the Fundementalist-Modernist controversy, taking the side of the modernists. His thoughts on issues like science and race were surprisingly progressive for the time period (1920s-1930s) and for his profession, but that also means they have aged reasonably well compared to many of theological opponents, who were largely opposed to many scientific innovations we now consider acceptable and were sometimes quite racist. Fosdick, meanwhile, was once extolled by Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the greatest preacher of this century”.
Adventurous Religion is a collection of essays, and therefore does not necessarily have any central thesis, but it did seek to generally push certain boundaries of Christian faith and culture, which I believe it is still effective at today, given a resurgence of Fundamentalism since Fosdick’s time. Now, I do not expect anyone to set aside their strongly-held, genuine, and valid beliefs about human origins in reading this; if Young Earth Creationism is something you really will not stand to read any push back on, I will say you should skip this book, since the topic comes up more than a few times and Fosdick is in clear opposition to that view. If you have a little more leeway on the subject, or if you yourself ascribe to a more progressvie Chrstian view on the subject, then I would still recommend it as a neat look at 20th century American theology.
So, thus concludes my recommendations for “5 ‘Old’ Books that could Change Your Faith”. Some honorable mentions I can think of include: Literally anything else by C.S. Lewis, the works of Thomas Merton, and the works of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Maybe you are interested in all of the works I mentioned, none of them, or any number of them. Quite possibly, you may have read some of them already, because many are bonafide classics of the Christian library. Whatever the case, I hope at least one stuck out or was new to you. Also, a reminder that you should feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments.
Finally, a brief disclaimer, in case you have particularly strong feelings about anyone or any work brought up here: I do not necessarily endorse any theological stance held by any of the mentioned authors as absolute truth. All my suggestions are only meant to provoke curiosity and reflection about faith and God, not to reflect a desire for anyone to subscribe to any particular set of theological opinions.
I’m an evangelical-raised kid at a Catholic university with a semi-explored interest in Eastern Orthodox theology, just to round things off. I currently study Economics, Finance, and Theology at Loyola University Chicago. In my free time, I enjoy reading/writing theology, exercise of almost any kind, Christian indie music, and specialty coffee. Some of my favorite study interests are Biblical history, Orthopraxy, and Ecclesiology. Feel free to reach out about anything; I love getting to know fellow Christians, questioning Christians, or non-Christians from all walks of life!