These are books that are helpful for the Christian in better understanding their world past and present. Some of the books are not written from an explicitly Christian perspective, but are nonetheless quite valuable.
1. The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntingtonn [y, l, e, p, s]
Huntington’s thesis is that the world is broken down into 9 different civilizations that each have a different main worldview/religion and that wars are most likely to occur where several civilizations come in close contact with each other – due to the friction created by mutually exclusive ideas. Huntington’s work has proved to be a solid predictor over the last 20 years.
2. Culture Wars by James Hunter [y, l, e, p, s]
Hunter provides acute analysis on the American cultural landscape, describing battlelines drawn over American culture of the orthodox vs. progressive. A must read for getting a better look at hot-button issues in contemporary America.
3. Social and Cultural Dynamics by Pitrim Sorokin [e, p, s]
Sorokin has a mountain of historical and cultural analysis on the history of western civilization. He describes this history as oscillating between ideational culture and sensate culture. Ideational culture is where the Western civilization was driven by the world of ideas (typically Christian ones). Sensate Culture is where Western civilization has abandoned ideas and been preoccupied with pleasuring ourselves (#10 on this list does a great job in explaining the latter in our present context).
4. Intellectuals by Paul Johnson [e, p, s]
Johnson takes a look side-by-side at the thoughts and lives of several key intellectuals over the past two centuries (specifically: Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tynan, and Noam Chomsky). He lets the reader come to their own conclusions… but the conclusions are obvious: these intellectuals lived lives either horribly inconsistent with their ideas OR their horrible lives drove their suspect ideas. Paul Johnson also happens to be a very well respected historian whose other works are standard texts at Universities everywhere.
5. Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber [y, l, e, p, s]
Weber’s thesis for the first half of the book is pretty shocking – the Puritans started capitalism and that no one but the Puritans could have started capitalism. Never before had capitalism been created because no one had a Calvinistic view of the world before where work was sacred and one did not spend one’s wealth because their focus was on the world-to-come. Capitalism required an immense amount of initial capital to begin the new paradigm and the Puritans were the first people to be able to inadvertently create the system. Weber spends the second half of the book explaining how capitalism destroyed the Puritans four generations later as the wealth accumulated became an iron cage.
6. Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn [y, l, e, p, s]
Kuhn levels the idea that the history of science follows the Darwinian model of slow-and-steady progress. He coins the term “paradigm shift” to explain how the history of science is a history of completely new-and-superior paradigms leveling older paradigms (ie. Quantum Mechanics and Newtonian Mechanics). The thesis of the book has implications though for other fields as well.
7. Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey [y, l, e, p, s]
Excellent book on worldview that I have commended here numerous times. Get it and read it.
8. Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr [e, p, s]
See write-up on this one here.
9. Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark [y, l, e, p, s]
Fascinating look on how Christianity spread from a marginalized Judean sect to the state religion of the Roman empire in under three centuries. Stark is a well-respected historian and this book is a standard text at most Universities. I think the implications of how Christianity was so successful in the pluralistic Mediterranean area has important lessons to teach Christendom today.
10. Sensate Culture by Harold O.J. Brown [y, l, e, p, s]
Brown picks up where Sorokin (#3) left off. He takes a good hard look at Sorokin’s categories in light of modern American culture.
(c=children; y=young adult; l=lay leader; e=elder; p=pastor; s=scholar)