While I personally tend to gravitate toward children’s literature, there is a grand tradition of mature Christian storytelling, stories that grapple with real and pressing issues in a thoughtful manner. This is far from a comprehensive list (I could easily add a list of honorable mentions twice as long), just some stories that have stuck with me and provoked serious contemplation, presenting Christian themes and ideas in striking ways. When I describe these as “adult stories”, I don’t mean that they have particularly explicit content (although some of them certainly do), but that they probe ideas in a nuanced fashion that children would be unable to fully appreciate. These are stories that I wish could be more prominent in the contemporary conversation (both secular and religious). For the record, this list is in (roughly) chronological order, not in order of quality/personal preference/whatever (hence the lack of numbering).
Paradise Lost (John Milton): This is English poetry at its finest. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t just a retelling of the Creation story – it manages to contain the whole scope of Christian history, both epic and intimate. It maintains a focus on spiritual warfare and its impact on humanity, and in so doing addresses philosophical and theological arguments I still hear today. Even if you disagree with some of its assertions or assumptions, it’s still a powerful story richly told.
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte): This is among the finest examples of Christian feminist literature, and it’s both sad and amazing that it was written two centuries ago. It speaks to many issues that still haunt us, from surviving domestic abuse to pushing back against the subjugation and objectification of women, and even just standing up for your seemingly old-fashioned and irrelevant principles. This has been a longtime favorite of mine, and although I’d recommend this to anyone, it speaks particularly to young women just starting to make their way in the world.
Les Miserables (Victor Hugo): This story of the miserable and downtrodden of the Earth is just as relevant to today’s conversation as it was when it was first published. What makes it timeless is not so much the way it critiques the institutions and attitudes that keep the vulnerable down, but that it actually suggests the possibility of redemption. A man of God saves a criminal, and the rest of the story tells how that one act of compassion changes a cycle of violence into a cycle of grace. While I won’t try to stop you if you choose to read the 1,000+ pages of the (occasionally meandering) original book, having read it myself, I think I can safely say that the musical is a perfectly legitimate way to experience the story (and much shorter). I personally can experience the story just as well listening to the soundtrack as watching a recording, but if you feel the need to watch it, please just seek out a recording of the play, as none of the films of this story do it justice.
Till We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis): Yes, I am an unapologetic Lewis apologist. This story stands out as his most mature fictional narrative (in just about every sense of the word). While it’s still far from progressive in its depiction of gender, Lewis is definitely more careful and thoughtful about it here than in any of his other stories. In other senses, though, it’s very timely. It’s concerned with our “faces”, the way we present ourselves to the world and even to our own minds, and how that can differ from our true natures – in other words, it’s very concerned with personal identity. It’s also Lewis’s fullest exploration of religion outside the Judeo-Christian tradition and his view of its place within Christian theology. While it’s more speculative than most of his body of work, this remains a unique take on ideas that have since become dominant in the modern dialogue
Trigun (Yasuhiro Nightow): This story is unique in that it’s far from a traditional Christian story, and although I had my doubts, I still consider it a powerful, prophetic Christian narrative. For the record, I’m only referring to the anime here, as I’ve never read the original manga (and probably never will). This is a very flawed story on many fronts (not least in the obvious lack of spiritual maturity on Nightow’s part – he later recanted his faith), but the heart of it is too passionate and prescient to ignore. This is a story about violence (particularly gun violence) and how it affects individuals as well as society. The main character, a pacifist in a world of violence, is the standard by which I’ve come to judge every pacifist character I encounter – not just for his commitment to his ideals, but because those ideals are constantly challenged. The post-apocalyptic world it presents isn’t all that far from modern America, and therein lies its potency. It excels at questioning our attitudes toward violence (even if it has no answers beyond, “I don’t know”). It stands as a testament to a gospel of love, peace, and mercy.