As believers, we are to be filling our minds first with Scripture, then with writing that is biblically faithful, in order to build ourselves up in the faith. But that does not mean that secular writing has nothing to say to us. Occasionally, there are books coming from other worldviews that offer insights, help us learn, stretch us, and most of all, make us think. Here are five books that have helped me do that in thinking about relationships, mostly within a family, but also moving beyond. In no particular order:
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2005). C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, may be the closest thing that the Christian world has to this work. A gifted writer, Didion lost her husband and only adult child in one year. She chronicles her grief in this book that moves from hard, clear events, such as taking the bag of her husband’s clothes home from the hospital, to the confusion in her mind as she seeks to process these events in an effort to survive them. The book is a graphic look at widowhood, as a wife replays in her mind the last conversations, meals, and dates, with her husband, seeking comfort and closure. Death is not dressed up, dumbed down, or softened. Few other books are so frank about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps especially insightful are Didion’s observations on grief and our culture’s attitudes towards it: “Notice the stress on ‘overcoming’ it” (35). With the refrain, “Life changes fast. It changes in the instant.”, The Year of Magical Thinking makes its reader take a long, hard look at the horror of death, and especially death without the hope of glory. It also opens up the sore, complicated world of widowhood and childlessness for those of us who have not been through it, so we can better mourn with those who mourn.
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen (2013). If you enjoy sarcasm and dry wit, Esolen’s book is a feast. For parents, it is like a bull horn blasting away against postmodern parenting idiocies. “Books are bulky and inconvenient–like rocks, and trees, and rivers, and life. It occurs to me that everything that can be said against the inconvenience of books can also be said about the inconvenience of children. They too take up space, are of no immediate practical use, are of interest to only a few people, and present all kinds of problems. They too must be warehoused efficiently, and brought with as little resistance as possible into the Digital Age…That’s bad enough already. But children are worse than books. A book can make you see the world again, and so ruin your calm and efficient day. But a child does not need to see the world again. He is seeing it for the first time.” (from the introduction). Especially if you have a spunky kid, this book is a must.
Middlemarch, George Eliot (1874). What a marriage is and how a marriage works and what a marriage does are questions that every married person must sort through, and does, even subconsciously and unhelpfully or unbiblically. In this fat, Victorian novel, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) does what few non-fiction books can: gets into the minds of several people in order to explain the motives, feelings, and secret thoughts that work themselves out in husband-wife relationships. The fact that the people are fictional makes little difference, since Eliot’s understanding of human mind and feeling is staggering. You will recognize people whom you know in the town of Middlemarch. You may even recognize yourself as you see wives struggling with distant husbands, tyrannizing weak ones, or working hard to be good helpmeets. You might be convicted by husbands who do not try and understand their wives, who struggle to lead, or who are merely infatuated. Whatever and whomever you see in Middlemarch, you will see the profound importance of marriage, as it shapes much of life and personhood.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua (2011). Chances are, you’ve heard of Amy Chua, and maybe read this book. It caused a kerfuffle when it came out three years ago, mostly for the wrong reasons (“No sleep overs?! What a nasty person!”). The book is really about what works in parenting, and what doesn’t, taking children’s personalities into account. Perhaps even more, the book is about worship. In the Chua home, life for the daughters revolved around violin, then school, then violin. Musical mastery was the goal, and Chua let nothing stand in the way: money, effort, holidays, or childhood. While she eventually allowed her younger rebellious daughter shift her life from violin to tennis, Chua kept the same drive and passion: the girl was expected to be as good with a racket as she had been with a bow. It’s an engaging and honest walk through a very intelligent woman’s walk through motherhood. Perhaps what makes Chua so many enemies is her drive: I felt like a lazy mother with no ambition or vision for my children’s future when I read it. And that’s what makes the book so helpful. Chua’s incredible drive and dedication force other parents to look at what is running their parenting, what sorts of goals they have, what means they are willing to use in order to reach them, and how the children are responding. Chua’s drive outstrips any parent’s that I know except one. And it was for violin. What are Christian parents willing to do and give up as they seek to be instruments for their children’s growth in grace?
Sketches by Boz), Charles Dickens (1836). This book is one of Dicken’s least read, partly because there are many Victorianisms in it to which we cannot relate. But the two sections, “Sketches of Young Men” and “Sketches of Young Couples”, show that people are people, whether they are wearing tailored waistcoats or shorts and flip-flops. In these brief and funny commentaries, we see Dicken’s understanding of people which allowed him to later create such powerful stories. “The couple who dote upon their children usually have a great many of them: six or eight at least. The children are either the healthiest in the world, or the most unfortunate in existence. In either case, they are equally the theme of their doting parents, and equally a source of mental anguish and irritation to their parent’s friends.” (“The Couple Who Dote Upon Their Children”) Not only do these sketches entertain: they also help the reader grow in observing and understanding other people. And that’s something that all of us could do better at.