Apparently I’m Liberal

N.T. Wrong calls me a “liberal” biblioblogger, which I suppose is accurate enough. I tend to be moderately liberal in most areas of my life. Check out his list of active bloggers, each of whom he labels “very conservative”, “fairly conservative”, “liberal”, or “very liberal”.

As a blogger said to me last night, Jim Davila being labelled “very liberal” is puzzling. (I would have said “liberal”.) Nor do I understand why Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson are considered “fairly conservative”. They’re puzzle solvers more than anything. Is there really anything “conservative” about Q skepticism without Matthean priority, or recognizing Secret Mark as a hoax, or dating Galatians after I Corinthians? They don’t talk politics on their blogs, so that can’t be that issue.

Most others whose blogs I read seem right. Michael Bird is pegged as “very conservative”, James Crossley “very liberal”; Chris Heard and Tyler Williams are each “fairly conservative”; April DeConick “very liberal”; Chris Weimer “liberal”, though he team blogs with others who are “fairly conservative”; etc. It’s an interesting exercise.

UPDATE: N.T. Wrong clarifies his labels.

How Did Christianity Begin?

In this book we find Bird and Crossley in fine form, trading shots over the inadequacies of the other’s account of Christian origins, never budging, never giving in when they disagree, but mercifully engaging instead of talking past each other. It’s a sharp and fun debate, and I honestly can’t say who wins. Two books like this were published back in ’99, but they haven’t aged well. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (Craig vs. Crossan), and The Meaning of Jesus (Wright vs. Borg), each featured an evangelical debating with a liberal Christian, but seemed chiefly concerned with interfaith dialogue. Bird and Crossley come off more historically disciplined, and the latter is secular, having no interest in Jesus as a confessional figure at all. This is where the rubber meets the road.

The authors take turns going first and responding to the other’s reply across five chapters:

1. The Historical Jesus: Crossley — Bird — Crossley
2. The Resurrection: Bird — Crossley — Bird
3. The Apostle Paul: Crossley — Bird — Crossley
4. The Gospels: Bird — Crossley — Bird
5. Earliest Christianity: Crossley — Bird — Crossley

Crossley has the advantage of starting and ending strong — speaking first and last in the first and last chapters, where he’s at his best — and so on whole he may seem more impressive. But Bird comes off better in the sections on Paul and the gospels, and he ties evenly with Crossley in the resurrection chapter. It’s a bit like watching a boxing match between friends who get floored repeatedly, but are never down for the count. Let’s see how they do.

Front and Back: Jesus and Earliest Christianity (Chapters 1 and 5)

Crossley is the alpha and omega of the book, providing a reliable guide to the historical Jesus and how Christianity triumphed in the Roman Empire. He begins with the wry observation that he’s sometimes mistaken for a quasi-evangelical on account of the large amount of (synoptic) gospel testimony he thinks is traceable to Jesus. My own starting assumptions are the same as his:

“I think that there is a lot of useful historical information about Jesus’ life and teaching that can be gleaned from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (but not John)… I believe the following: famous terms for Jesus such as ‘son of man’ and ‘son of God’ really were being used by or of Jesus when he was alive; Jesus really did practice healing and exorcism; and Jesus really did predict his imminent death and probably thought it had some important atoning function.” (p 1)

Crossley grounds all of this in Judaism, showing that there’s nothing necessarily “Christian” about any of this. One can hardly argue with his general sketch: Jesus was conceived and born like any other human being (Crossley thinks his father was Joseph; I suspect he was illegitimate, but no matter). His prophetic career was driven and shaped by social upheaval in Galilee; he condemned the rich for no other reason than being rich, and promised a reversal of fortune for the poor. He forecast God’s coming kingdom, but was wrong about that expectation. He was a successful exorcist-healer. He was executed by Jerusalem authorities for raising hell in the temple during a passover festival. He died a martyr, and like other martyrs his death was understood to have atoning value. Right on.

The only weakness is Crossley’s claim that Jesus was a completely law-abiding Jew, based on an overwrought distinction between “biblical laws as explicitly stated in the bible” and “the interpretation or expansion of biblical law to new situations” (p 6). While I agree that Jesus was more law-observant than many confessional portraits suggest, “Torah” and “Torah-interpretation” can’t always be kept so neatly distinct. But more on this when we get to the section on the gospels (chapter 4).

Bird’s take is transparently confessional, going so far as to defend the virgin birth, that Jesus thought he was divine, and that he wasn’t wrong about the kingdom’s timetable. Crossley’s rejoinder on all these points is right on the money, and as he notes, Bird’s evangelical view makes him more or less obligated to argue this stuff. I was getting a very bad feeling for Bird in this chapter, but thankfully he gets better as the book goes on.

Jumping to the end, where Crossley and Bird give alternative accounts of Christianity’s ultimate success, I think the former again shows more argumentative strength. Believers like to hold up what’s theologically distinctive and appealing, but religions usually triumph for more mundane reasons, even accidentally. The west would have probably become Islamic if Charles Martel had lost the Battle of Tours in 732 (think how different the world would be today if a very minor battle had gone the other way). Sociological accounts of Christian origins may not be the most exciting things to read about, but Crossley is right that “Bird’s near-complete reliance on ideas and individual influence is odd and outdated” (p 166).

I do agree with Bird that Christian monotheism began as early as Paul and probably before (on which see below), but Crossley is right that it wasn’t Jewish friendly (in my view it was a radical if understandable mutation) but found ready welcome in the Gentile world. I also think Crossley, following Casey, is at least persuasive about why Jesus was only later understood to be God in the strongest and most explicit sense: “changing social situations and the perception of socio-ethnic alienation from the Jewish community, just like the conflicts underlying John’s gospel” (p 148), on top of a pagan milieu where monotheism was fluid and had a long tradition within the development of agrarian empires. If Judaism had been more missionary and less ethnic/kinship-oriented (as Crossley suggests, p 147), it could well have triumphed over the pagans before (and instead of) Christianity. In short, there was nothing inevitable about Christianity’s triumph owing to theological beliefs.

In Between: Paul and the Gospel Writers (Chapters 3 and 4)

If Crossley is the alpha and omega, Bird is the mu and nu (doesn’t sound flattering, I know), nailing some important ideas that came in-between Jesus and the second century. I should preface this by admitting I don’t agree with Bird’s overall take on Paul — I think the apostle was anti-nomian (despite a few lame protests to the contrary in Romans), while Bird warms to Wrightian ideas about covenant-climaxes, continuity with the OT, and that the law really “hasn’t been done away with” (p 91). That aside, Bird is on top of his game in discussing two crucial topics: Paul’s Christology and his reason for persecuting early Christians.

Against Crossley who sees an exalted but not divine Jesus in Paul’s letters, Bird sees the Jewish God himself. I agree that passages like I Cor 8:6 go beyond portraying Jesus as an exalted being, and ditto with Philip 2:6-11, where Jesus is not only exalted but worshipped as the Lord of all creation (which Bird rightly parallels with Isa 45:23). This isn’t to say Paul never waxed ambiguous (or perhaps even uncomfortable) (in I Cor 15 he takes pains to subject the Son to the Father), but for him, Jesus was somehow YHWH. Not a Chalcedonian, granted, but the fifth-century Hellenized deity was easily derived from Paul’s (radically mutated) Jewish personalized understanding of God.

I suspect first-century Judaism was ripe for a radical move like this on account of increased personifications. “Who God was” mattered more than “what he was”, says Bauckham; and Witherington has chronicled the development of Wisdom incarnate in various ways (through texts like Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon). It was a short step to start meshing the divine and human in creative ways. The “Big Bang” theory of early high Christology (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Philip Esler) is to be preferred over the gradual evolution theory (e.g. James Dunn, Maurice Casey, and Marinus De Jong). While I agree with Crossley that we don’t get an explicit equation between Jesus and God until John’s gospel, it’s implied nonetheless in Paul’s letters and to a lesser degree the synoptics.

Overblown Christology and wacky messianic beliefs, however, doubtfully account for why the early Christians were persecuted so zealously. I’m confident Bird is right that the catalyst for Saul going berserk was the acceptance of Gentiles without requiring circumcision, or in other words, indiscriminate table fellowship (Crossley suggests it was only an “interpretation” of the law calling forth such zeal, to which Bird counters on p 93). Saul’s zeal must have been aimed against those who were visibly threatening the integrity of Judaism with outrageous behavior — not just professing abstract belief in wacky ideas or splitting legal hairs. Christianity was likely admitting uncircumcised Gentiles (few as they were) right from the get-go — and only around 49 were James and Peter beginning to insist otherwise, precisely so they could survive more comfortably in a mainstreamed movement. As Paula Fredriksen explains, millenarian movements have a short half-life by necessity, and the pillars’ move was an entirely understandable one. Paul’s formula may have been destined to prevail in the Diaspora, but not Judea. James was pulling back on a position originally shared with Paul (indiscriminate table fellowship between circumcised and uncircumcised), to fend off threats from any more Sauls who were ready to pounce.

That was the issue at Antioch, I believe, which I’ve written about before (see here, for instance), and I agree with every one of Bird’s objections to Crossley (p 94). Antioch was about circumcision (per Esler, Nanos, Watson), not food laws, which is why it’s relevant in the context of Galatians. Paul’s adversaries at Antioch weren’t the “food faction”, but the “circumcision faction”. The issue at Antioch wasn’t about what was eaten, but with whom it was eaten. It’s exactly what Paul had found so offensive as a Pharisee.

When they turn to the gospels, Bird and Crossley are again focused on the question of Jesus’ divinity and the Torah, and I should address Crossley’s love-affair with a “completely law-abiding Jesus/Markan Jesus”. As mentioned above, he bases his view on an overplayed distinction between biblical laws and their interpretation/expansion. When, save in trivial cases, does the former not involve the latter? Whether or not one is violating the First Amendment (freedom of speech), or Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), is no more self-evident to our nation of Americans today than whether or not one was violating the sabbath or the duty to honor one’s parents in antiquity. The question is whether or not Jesus was perceived as violating the Torah, which he was. And as William Herzog emphasizes, it’s always a question of whose Torah we’re talking about: the Torah of the prophets? of the priests and scribes? of Galilean peasants? etc. Bird says as much in his rejoinder to Crossley:

“Whose standard of law-observance is [Crossley] talking about? Does he mean the sectarians from Qumran? Does he mean the Pharisees (if so, which school of the Pharisees: Gamiliel or Shammai)? Does he mean the radical allegorical interpreters that Philo refers to in Alexandria? While there was diversity of Law-observance and legal interpretation within Judaism, that does not mean that each group thought that each other’s interpretation was legitimate and fitted comfortably within the boundaries of a common Judaism. The polemics that Jewish groups vented against each other would suggest otherwise… Thus it is one thing to say that the Gospels make sense as part of intra-Jewish debates about the Torah, but it is quite another thing to suggest that the view of the Torah espoused within the Church during the earliest decades of its existence were regarded by others (outsiders or insiders) as exclusively Law-observant. Did the Pharisees who debated with Jesus about hand-washing and purity laws think he was Law-observant?… Paul’s belief that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised has parallels in certain pockets of the Jewish Diaspora. Did that stop others from accusing him of being anti-nomian? Of course not! If early Christianity was so Law-observant in the ‘Jewish’ sense that Crossley argues for, then why was James the Just put to death on the charge of being a Law-breaker?” (p 133)

Jesus himself may have believed he was fulfilling the Torah (everyone interprets their sacred traditions properly in their own minds, don’t they?), but that’s not the end of the story — anymore than it was for Paul when he claimed his gospel fell in line with the calling of the prophets. His opponents easily denied his claims: what he actually taught was apostacy. Paul, of course, went beyond Jesus and explicitly dethroned the law (and I think he was largely anti-nomian in his own mind), but the analogy regarding perception still holds. If Crossley wants to insist that Jesus was “completely Torah-observant” from Jesus’ own perspective — in the same way that other Jews who found wiggle room for their questionable interpretations were — then fine. But many would agree with that anyway.

Jesus’ Body (Chapter 2)

Crossley is right about the unhistoricity of the resurrection (as if this should need spelling out in a work of history), and Bird is right about the historicity of the empty tomb. Crossley insists that visions alone gave rise to the resurrection belief, based particularly on the account of II Maccabees 7. But as Bird points out (p 68), that’s not an example, because the resurrection is seen as corporate and happening at the end of history — as is every understanding of the resurrection we know of. There was no precedent in Judaism for a single person being raised before the apocalypse, and so (in light of the fact that Jesus’ martyrdom wasn’t seen as a failure), based on visions alone, the disciples would have concluded that Jesus was a ghost or apparition, or that his spirit had been exalted into heaven. Visions coupled with an empty tomb, on the other hand, could have plausibly caused the disciples to revise their expectations. Which they did.

I’ve written too many blogposts about the empty tomb to count, but Dale Allison’s arguments against and for its historicity are worth revisiting. He plays devil’s advocate for both sides, because there are indeed many arguments from both sides which fail to carry weight. For instance, Bird appeals to Paul in arguing for the empty tomb (p 41), but Paul can be used either way. In listening to someone like William Lane Craig a novice could get the impression that a case for the empty tomb is so conclusive it’s foolish to question it, but that’s ridiculous. Arguments for the empty tomb slightly eclipse those against it on account of their concrete and evidential nature. As Allison says:

“Of our two options — that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility. The best two arguments against the tradition — the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies — while certainly weighty, remain nonetheless hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential.” (Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pp 331-332)

The concrete and evidential arguments are the testimony of the women, and the simple fact that the disciples had no reason in the world to invent a premature resurrection (without an empty tomb prodding them in that direction). People create fictions in order to cope with failures and broken dreams, but in an apocalyptic context Jesus’ execution wasn’t seen that way. His crucifixion would have demoralized the disciples but met their expectations just the same. Jesus promised there would be suffering and death in the tribulation period, and it’s a sure bet he foreshadowed his own. His followers would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they (and he) would have been resurrected. As Bird notes, citing Allison, “the disciples were emotionally down but not theologically out” (p 45). It was the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) that caused them to conclude Jesus was raised prematurely.

When Bird writes that any answer to the question of how Christianity began “must include the notion that God raised Jesus from the dead” (p 48), he could be taken more seriously by non-evangelicals if he just qualified it with the word “belief”. The belief that God raised Jesus from the dead was important, but historians don’t put two-and-two together the way the disciples did. “Belief,” as Crossley says, “does not prove anything happened, anymore than lots of people believing in God proves God exists.” (p 58) We’ll never know why Jesus’ body vanished — though grave robbing was common enough, especially the corpses of holy/crucified men — but we don’t resort to faith confession to answer historical questions.


How Did Christianity Begin? is a debate to learn from, because in the end there’s no clear place to lay your allegiance. Neither Crossley nor Bird explain Christian origins in a way that completely satisfies, but that’s how it should be. They are each persuasive about a good deal, but about different things, and ultimately about evenly matched. I’m wondering if their discussion indicates that secular historians have an edge on the historical Jesus, evangelicals on the confessional writings of the NT. I seriously doubt it, but that seems to be how it played out in this case.

Jesus Spawned by Parthenogenesis? (Michael Bird)

Just yesterday I posted a list of my favorite songs, one of which (Nemesis by Shriekback) gets considerable mileage out of the word “parthenogenesis”. It’s not often we get to hear this term used anywhere, let alone in a rock song. But also just yesterday I received my copy of Bird and Crossley’s How Did Christianity Begin?, in which Bird manages to use the word on page 21, almost as if to gratify my personal thrill for coincidence. Bird writes, in defense of Jesus’ virgin birth:

“What we can say for certain is that Jesus’ paternity was enigmatic from the start. That is the fact that Crossley must explain and yet he does not attempt to do so other than say that historians would consider the birth accounts ‘imaginative storytelling’… All I can say is that in early 2007 it was reported in the news that a female Komodo dragon named Flora conceived through parthenogenesis (i.e. reproduction without the aid of a male). I cannot help but think that if a Komodo dragon can do it, why not God?” (p 21)

Even in my richest fantasies as a devil’s advocate for evangelicals, I wouldn’t dream of appealing to the phenomenon of parthenogenesis (which occurs in certain plants, insects, and about 70 vertebrate species — mostly snakes and lizards, like our Komodo dragon) to imply that a human virgin birth isn’t so far-fetched. Really, Michael. I agree that Jesus’ paternity is problematic, but that’s easily enough accounted for by illegitimacy. (And yes, many human beings have been verifiably illegitimate.)

Well, back to the book. I’m enjoying it so far and will eventually have a review up. It turns out that Bird and Crossley each succeed in scoring zingers against each other (the above citation not being an example). Of the three chapters I’ve read, Crossley has the better case in chapter one (the historical Jesus), Bird and Crossley split the victory in chapter two (the resurrection) — Bird for a persuasive case for the historicity of the empty tomb, Crossley for the unhistoricity of the resurrection — and I’m honestly not sure who impresses more in chapter three (the apostle Paul), though I agree more with Bird about particulars, like the Antioch incident and the reasons why Paul persecuted the church. These guys are good debaters.

Waiting for the Stars to Fall

Lorenzo DiTommaso has an RBL review of The Stars Will Fall from Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and Its World, by Edward Adams. Wright fans who doubt the conclusive evidence for a literal belief in the end of the world by the time of Jesus really need to read this book. It surveys both Jewish and classical literature, and even ends on a suggestion that environmental responsibility and apocalypticism aren’t necessarily incompatible. I’ve been meaning to review it myself but have been neglecting the blog lately (and reading too much high-brow literary fiction instead).

Why Literature Matters

Last year a book called The Top Ten presented lists of favorite literary works from 125 popular authors — Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Perrotta, Anita Shreve, to name a few. Classics and modern fiction alike fell on these lists, and when all 125 were “averaged”, the ultimate top-10 list looked as follows, with Tolstoy’s adulterous epic claiming the #1 slot.

1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
6. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch, George Eliot

These were the high-brow winners, but there were many — hundreds — of titles appearing on one list but no others, as various as Ian McEwen’s Atonement, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. (For examples of individual lists scroll towards the bottom of The Top Ten Blog.) That Anna Karenina came out as the best book of all time surprised me a bit, but that’s probably just because I never got around to reading it. This month I finally did, and it left enough impact on me to blog my own pick list — I’m going to be ambitious enough to try a top-20 — on which Karenina certainly finds a home.

But before my list, it’s worth reflecting on what qualifies as literature. “Literature” is usually understood to be writing which illuminates, surprises, and delights in a lasting and transcendent way. I used to think a lot of fiction could be considered literary since the question is so subjective. Glenn Arbery’s Why Literature Matters forced me to grapple with the question more seriously. How exactly do we classify literature? The classics are a given, but modern works are endlessly debated.

Consider Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison, each of whose novels have been hailed as literary masterpieces. Arbery thinks Morrison deserves the praise, but not Wolfe. Wolfe may be a good satirist, but that makes A Man in Full more journalistic than literary. Literature, says Arbery, has to apprehend reality on a level deeper than current politics and social issues, so that when those issues fade, the work still resonates as powerfully.

Satire can be literary (think Flannery O’Connor), but it needs to do more than “expose the follies of things” and register impatience with the world. Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, for instance, is in my opinion a brilliant satire on upper-middle class suburbia, but more than that. It works on multiple levels as literature should: characters are defined by their relationship to their children, while they, in turn, remain children on the inside — even as parents — as they shun responsibilities and live as in a dream. They reflect a pathos particular to American suburbians, but whose dark emotions and desires take us beyond the surface-value level, and who are capable of surprising us despite how we peg them.

The world of A Man in Full, by contrast, remains flattened and lower-dimensional throughout, never reaching for the more “permanent things” in human experience. “Tom Wolfe’s novels are placards of simplicity,” says James Wood. “His characters only feel one emotion at a time; their inner lives are like jingles for the self. Everyone is scrawled with the same inner graffiti. As Picasso had his Blue Period, so Wolfe’s characters have their Angry Period, or their Horny Period, or their Sad Period. But they never have them at the same time.” (The New Republic, 12/14/98, pp 37,41). On top of that, his prose is almost completely devoid of aesthetic appeal. As Arbery puts it:

“I remember hearing a radio story about the way that cocaine arouses pleasure and well-being by activating L-dopa in the brain, but uses up the brain’s natural chemicals to such an extent that, without the drug, the addict is left like the knight in Keats’ poem, ‘all haggard and woe-begone’. In the same way, Wolfe’s fictional world is pumped, exaggerated, like a comic book, but the style blanks out the natural pleasure of perception. It is almost impossible to quote from A Man in Full without feeling that Wolfe used plastic and neon for his sentences instead of more expensive materials… The problem is that this kind of exaggeration, like pornography, uses up the imagination and obliterates subtlety.” (Why Literature Matters, pp 9-10)

So when a book like A Man in Full is praised unduly (by The Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, and Time back in ’98), it may be a sign that we’ve become alarmingly short-sighted. The acceptance of his kind of writing as literature is dangerous, as Wood says, not (hopefully) because anyone will be foolish enough to think this is what life is actually like, but “because readers will read it and think ‘this is what literature is like'” (The New Republic, 12/14/98, p 42). Elitist as it sounds, we need to maintain better standards and prefer authors who get at complex human emotions, irony, and even contradiction, rather than posterlike “realism”.

That’s what makes a novelist like Toni Morrison (though perhaps not Alice Walker) so superior. Instead of using a book like Beloved to skewer social problems or angrily demand justice, she engages social drama and tests ideas by showing what happens when they naturally unfold. Paradoxes result, uncomfortable ones, and the reader is left struggling (as much as the novel’s characters) with the more timeless dilemmas. Arbery again:

“Morrison does not promote the ‘black experience’ so much as she questions its meaning and locates it thoughtfully within an American literary tradition that includes Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor… She finds universal qualities with her subjects, because she chooses, not Us-vs.-Them, but Us-vs.-Us situations… Rather than group grievances of race-gender-class issues, she concerns herself with revealing especially the self-contradictions… [In Beloved] slavery is the backdrop, the memory, the threat, but the drama played out is one that stems from contradictory, tragic reactions — as in Exodus — when the promise of freedom is both offered and deferred. And not black reactions, as though ‘black’ really did, in some secret depth, mean something other than ‘human’: the reactions of humanity in these conditions.” (Ibid, pp 62,66-67)

Authors like Morrison (and Cormac McCarthy and Ian McEwan, to name others) not only address the more “permanent things”, not only understand human experience in all its messy irony, they write with an aesthetic language layered with multiple meanings. Literary authors constantly struggle to find the right ways to express things on more than one level, even often against their personal preferences and tendencies — not to bamboozle readers with impressive diction or show off sophistication, but to take their work as seriously as they want the timeless reader to take it.

Some writers, of course, are good storytellers without being literary. I’ve often pondered the difference between Stephen King (a great storyteller, but hardly literary) and Peter Straub (who I think achieves literary form in at least some of his books). King forcefully engages — dare I say rapes — our attention, with garrulous prose, while Straub teases our minds so that we really want to pay attention. Straub is clearly concerned with the art of his books, so that readers can ponder ambiguity and see through it to other levels; I’m thinking especially of Shadowland and Mystery, though others too. I’ve certainly enjoyed some of King’s books, but aside from two (The Gunslinger and The Stand), I doubt that any qualify as literature.

But why does it matter? Literature matters, says Arbery, because ultimately what lasts is something that satisfies the imagination more than just a good page-turner or a mirror of hot social issues. Nothing about the social circumstances of the Trojan War pertain to us today, but Homer was able to take up those things, elevate them, and find what’s permanent in them so that The Iliad sustains our interest anyway. The same with Tolstoy: Anna Karenina is saturated with the socio-political debates of Czarist Russia — the relation of peasants to the land, education of the poor (and women), the question of zemstvo activism, the Serbian war against the Turks — but Tolstoy transcended politics as he engaged it. What really hits the reader of Karenina (certainly me, recently) are the bigger and more tragic questions about life, death, religion, love, jealousy, and ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with non-literary fiction when it’s recognized for what it is. But when we start lumping Tom Wolfe with Charles Dickens, or Alice Walker with Toni Morrison, there’s a problem — a sure sign that we need to step back and reassess how much we’re willing to allow cultural pressures determine the shape of our literary canon.

Here’s my own stab at a list of literary favorites. If I could save only 20 works of literature for my home library, I’d choose the following, rated roughly in order of preference:

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.
2. Shogun, James Clavell.
3. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri.
4. The Iliad, Homer.
5. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain.
7. Paradise Lost, John Milton.
8. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.
9. Dune, Frank Herbert.
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
11. The Judeo-Christian Bible.
12. The King of Vinland’s Saga, Stuart Mirsky.
13. The Hyperion Cantos, Dan Simmons.
14. Hamlet, William Shakespeare.
15. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe.
16. Boy’s Life, Robert McCammon.
17. Perelandra, C.S. Lewis.
18. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
19. Weaveworld, Clive Barker.
20. The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough.