1. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Edited by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone (Oxford University, 1997).
“The Christian Church has been so closely interwoven with the course of Western civilization that her history, life and institutions are matters of deep concern . . . to all who take an intelligent interest in contemporary culture.” With that robust prefatory sentence, the late F.L. Cross anticipated the readership of this marvel of erudition, concision, fairness and accuracy–arguably the best one-volume reference work on Christianity ever produced. Cross’s ecumenical sense of audience probably excludes the likes of Richard Dawkins and other members of the Guild of Village Atheists. But for anyone interested in how Christian doctrines, heresies, liturgical practices, artistic achievements and personalities (admirable and deplorable) shaped our world, this volume is indispensable.
2. Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University, 1985).
Because Christianity is, above all, a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the New Testament Gospels hold a uniquely privileged position in Christian literature. Yet some find the prospect of reading the Gospels intimidating. Happily, one can begin to understand the pivotal figure in human history in a different way, through Jaroslav Pelikan’s lucid and learned explication of how the idea or image of Jesus Christ in any given historical moment shaped a period’s culture. An example: Pelikan discusses how Christianity’s theological wrestling with, and final acceptance of, representational art helped make possible accomplishments of the magnitude of Chartres’ stained glass and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. It’s something to consider when pondering what a triumph by jihadist Islam might mean for the greatest artifacts of Western civilization.
3. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin Classics, 1949, 1955, 1957).
Dorothy L. Sayers was far more than the mystery writer who created Lord Peter Wimsey. Her Dante remains among the best, both for the elegance of the translations of the “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” (this last completed by Barbara Reynolds after Miss Sayers’s death in 1957) and for the subtle theological intelligence of her introductory commentaries and notes on this greatest of Christian poems, a complex allegory of the breadth of human experience and yearning. At a time when it is frequently suggested that nature–humanity included–is an accident of galactic biochemistry, Sayers’s “Divine Comedy” offers a genuinely humanistic alternative: a glimpse (to cite the last phrase of Dante’s masterwork) of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
4. The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright (InterVarsity, 1999).
More than 200 years of “historical criticism” of the Bible have vastly increased our knowledge of biblical times and vastly decreased many Christians’ confidence in their sacred text. Wright, now the Anglican bishop of Durham, takes the historical-critical method with utmost seriousness but, by challenging some of its assumptions, offers readers not the desiccated shadow-Christ of the notorious “Jesus Seminar” but a historically reliable portrait of the man, his teaching and his mission–a portrait that is, in its own way, an invitation to faith.
5. The Sources of Christian Ethics by Servais Pinckaers, O.P. (Catholic University of America, 1995).
Christianity–classic Christian morality in particular–is frequently pilloried as dour and nay-saying. Father Servais Pinckaers offers a different, more humane and more accurate perspective: the Christian moral life as a process of growing in “freedom for excellence,” the freedom to choose the good as a matter of habit. By linking the best of Christian moral theology to the virtue-ethics of Aristotle, Pinckaers shows how human happiness is the goal of moral action. He thus provides a bridge across which Christians and non-Christians can discuss the full meaning of the good life.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.