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Top Ten Christian History 'Starter Books'
Get rooted in the Christian past with these riveting reads.
Last week, we went way behind the news and gave our top ten reasons why—when today's news seems more pressing than ever—we should read the history of the church at all.
Ten good reasons, however, are not enough, even with the best of intentions. With hundreds of thousands of books out there, we need to know where to start. Which is just what we've got this week: ten great Christian history "starter books."
These are not books written by modern historians. They are that more exciting, though sometimes more difficult, thing—primary documents. Written by folks "on the ground," right in the midst of events, these are the front line reports of the church through two millennia. And they make for riveting reading, unveiling in a fresh and compelling way what God has done for his people.
Here, then, are our top ten Christian history starter books. For an anchor against the current media "war blitz," pick one that matches your interests and begin reading. Such reading is not an escape—it's a way of girding up, in faith, for whatever news tomorrow will bring. History shows this, if nothing else: those who are rooted in the centuries are less likely to topple in the storms of the present.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History
I get chills reading this. If you have ever wondered what happened to the church in the decades and centuries after the apostles, this is your book. In fact, there is simply no other history of the church written so close to these early centuries. Eusebius (260-340) cites hundreds of precious early documents that he had personally seen, and many of them are long gone. These colorful pages often have the feel of a first-hand account, because Eusebius's sources were really there, living, breathing, "spreading the flame." The edition linked above even includes a "Who's Who in Eusebius," to help you find your way through the names. (Another edition is available for free online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)
Here is the granddaddy of all biography. Augustine (354-430) was an expert rhetorician, and all of his art goes into this book. He is brutally frank about his own struggles with sexual sin. He is also penetratingly insightful on the nature of sin and faith. Written as a long prayer of thanksgiving to the God who saved him, this is truly a riveting read. You may be tempted to skip through his occasional philosophical meanderings on topics like the origin of the soul or the nature of time and eternity. But even these help complete the portrait: Augustine was a deep, devoted thinker who lived out his motto Crede, ut intelligas ("Believe in order that you may understand"). There are many, many translations of the Confessions. I happen to like the lively, intimate one of Maria Boulding, linked above. (But if you want a free version, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library has two translations. Another is available online here.)
If you have already read the Confessions and want to get a glimpse of what Eugene Peterson has called Augustine's "earthy, colloquial, witty, Christ-honoring sermons to his African congregation," you should pick up the new translation of some of those sermons into our contemporary idiom, Sermons to the People, translated and edited by William Griffin (OK, we're sneaking in #11).
Little Flowers of St. Francis
Clearly, some of these collected stories about the life of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) are legends—or at least half-legends built on kernels of fact. Yet even these have the ring of truth. With or without the legends, Francis was a truly remarkable man, as Christlike as any who has lived. And beyond the man himself, we get a sense from this loving contemporary account of the intensely visual and mystical piety of the thirteenth-century friars. Levitations, prostrations, visions of holy fire, words of knowledge—this was a rockin' charismatic church, folks! (Here's the CCEL's older translation.)
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