April 1, 2020

Dear Youth: I’m writing you this letter on the eve of Christmas Eve, and do you know what I’m hoping is under the tree for me?

Books.

Could there be a better gift? A better companion for your nightstand? A better friend to spend your time with while waiting for the dentist? I don’t know about you, but as a bibliophile, I love everything about books—the smell of the pages and the font of the type; the dog-eared corners and the colorful dust jackets; the shape, and the size, and the weight of a tome in my hand.

Even more than the physicality of books, I love the stories. The allusions and the linguistic nuances, the rounding out of characters, the syntax and the diction, even the final paragraphs that bring the saga to an end—everything about books brings me tremendous joy.

Now I know that not all of you like books as much as I do. In fact, I’m certain that books might have been the last thing some of you wanted under your Christmas tree. But as a former English teacher, I have to believe that there’s at least ONE book that’s a PERFECT match for you. And as a professional matchmaker—I mean English teacher—you should know that I’ve paired up hundreds of students with the love-of-their-life books over the years.

So, when I was asked to compile a list of life-affirming books for youth a few weeks ago, I’m guessing you thought it would be easy for me. Am I right?

Ironically, it wasn’t.

And it’s not because those books don’t exist; it’s just that I desperately want them to exist for YOU. The truth is I want a perfect match.

There are two things I need to know about you to recommend the right book. First, I need to know what you already like to read. We all have different likes and dislikes. Some appreciate a good mystery; others fall in love with romance. Some youth love dystopian novels—and others despise them. There are so many genres: historical fiction, action adventure, anime, sci-fi, and fantasy to name a few. And that’s not even accounting for the classics, nonfiction, and self-help books. Our tastes in literature reflect our interests, our needs, and our desires; they are as unique as we are.

Here’s the second consideration: your Christian conscience. Though we all know that there’s literature outside of the fence or curb of God’s Law, there is also, by God’s grace, much room within the fence to pursue personal interests and enjoyment. (If you’re not sure what you should avoid, here’s an easy test: Read it out loud to your mom. If even the thought of that act makes you squeamish, you probably shouldn’t be reading it. And in case you’re wondering, I still use this as one of my measuring sticks!)

So instead of recommending a specific book, I’m going to list a few guidelines for finding life-affirming books and provide a smattering of examples, hoping that at least one of the books will spark your interest. Here we go:

First, we need to recognize that a life-affirming book isn’t going to avoid sin. Good literature never does. But it should address sin and the human condition in a way that is “true … honorable … and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). It should recognize that life is inherently valuable, and even though the book doesn’t need to have all of the answers, it should have some of them. It should depict a battle between good and evil, whether internal or external, and despite hardship and destruction, life-affirming literature should ALWAYS end with HOPE. All good literature should point to a need for a Savior; life-affirming literature is no exception. So, where do we find these good books?

How about a Lutheran publishing house? Concordia Publishing House has many life-affirming and faith-affirming options. Grounded in God’s Word: Commentaries on Life by Lutherans For Life and CPH, You Ask about … Life and You Ask about … Relationships both by Tim Pauls, Echo by Jonathan Fisk, and Sexuality Mentality by Heather Ruesch are just a few of the books I’ve picked up recently that speak to youth of all ages. (And they’re good reads for adults too!) The books I’ve listed are all nonfiction, but CPH has a smorgasbord of fiction to choose from as well.

As I alluded to above, good, life-affirming literature doesn’t depend on genre; instead, it is determined by its timelessness and truths about life. Countless secular books, whether their authors intended it or not, speak about life in a true and uplifting way. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, and The Tempest by William Shakespeare are all great examples.

In addition to timelessness, a life-affirming book, as stated above, will always provide hope. That doesn’t mean that every problem is wrapped up neatly in a fairytale ending by the conclusion of the book or series; perfect endings don’t often ring true. What it does mean is that despite sin, death, and destruction, there is still hope for a better future. Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Les Miserable by Victor Hugo, and The Giver by Lois Lowry are great examples.

Some books make it easy; they actually contain a Christ figure who affirms the value of life. Christ figures die so that others might live; their suffering is always sacrificial and unmerited, and their act reminds us of the hope we have in Christ. I’ve made a list of books with Christ figures (see note at the end of the article), but I’ll mention a few of my favorites here: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis; The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; A Separate Peace by John Knowles; and my absolute favorite: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

When literature recognizes lives are valuable, provides hope, and points to a Savior, it is indeed commendable. No book but the Bible does that perfectly, but there are many other books that can remind us of who and whose we are. Life-affirming books are gifts, and whether they were under your tree or not, I hope you find time to pick up at least one of them. Better yet, I hope you find your perfect match.

For those who prefer viewing stories rather than reading them, I’ve made a list for you too!

A Note to Readers and Viewers: The line of Christian conscience varies greatly among believers. Books and movies that delve into the supernatural—magic, myth, special powers, and even vampires—can be life-affirming, but they may not be within the fence for some Christians. The same can be said of some nonfiction texts and documentaries, political or otherwise. So, when the line of Christian conscience varies among believers, we recognize that’s okay, and encourage each believer to remain within the confines of his or her own conscience in reference to novels and films.  

Novels with Christ Figures:

The Staff and the Sword Trilogy by Patrick W. Carr

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Life-Affirming Movies (in addition to the film versions of the books mentioned above!):

“Avenger’s Endgame”

“Dead Poet’s Society”

“Dr. Strange”

“Forest Gump”

“The Greatest Showman”

“Hacksaw Ridge”

“Hidden Figures”

“Horton Hears a Who”

“The Lion King”

“McFarland USA”

“Pacific Rim”

“The Passion”

“The Pursuit of Happyness” (sic)

“Saving Private Ryan”

“Stand and Deliver”

“Schindler’s List”

“Superman”

“The Transformers: The Movie” (1986)

“Up”

“War Horse”

“Wonder”

“Wonder Woman”