What’s Missing from the 50 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century


The book list from Intercollegiate Review was very instructive.  I have seen many gaps in my own reading and study, along with confirmation of some books that I have read and loved.  But there are some egregious omissions from their list, in my opinion.

1.  Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen.  This was the most powerful hammer used against the theological liberals of the 1920s.  It emboldened Christians, buttressed the Fundmentalist movement, laid the groundwork for a revival of Reformed theology, and influenced a host of future preachers, theologians, and thinkers.  You cannot understand the background of 20th Century American Protestantism apart from this book.  It was the theological and intellectual side of the battle that included the Scopes Trial, the rise and retreat of Fundamentalism, the theological decline of many denominations and seminaries, and the secularlization of the universities.


2.  How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer.  There are quite a few Schaeffer titles that could be mentioned.   One might argue that the trilogy of The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, and He Is Not Silent were more foundational than this book.    But, coming out in 1976–America’s Bicentennial, this book captured and repeated the essentials of Schaeffer’s arguments.  There have been better writers and thinkers than Schaeffer, but he influenced many others and staked out some essential issues.

3.  The Institutes of Biblical Law by R. J. Rushdoony.  Sadly, Rushdoony’s vast number of books and ideas have been marginalized due to oppositition to Christian Reconstruction.  As is the case with Schaeffer, there are several Rushdoony titles that could be listed as the most important.  Certainly, such books as his studies on education, apologetics, and history, have also been thought-changing for many.  I reckon that Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law has not had as wide a currency in theological or intellectual circles as I might assume or wish.  Too many have dismissed the of Rushdoony’s thought because of differences over some of his ideas.  There is no other book that detailed Old Testament Law and the Ten Commandments like this massive work.

4.  God and Man at Yale or Up From Liberalism by William F. Buckley.  I find it surprising that the ISI guys did not include Buckley on their list.  God and Man opened up a salvo against the liberal economics and theology of Yale (and, by implication, other major universities). Conservatives, businessmen, and orthodox Christians were funding institutions that opposed their most cherished beliefs.  Buckley’s work helped create and coalesce conservative alternatives to all areas of life.


5.  Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper.  Although these lectures were given in 1898, they were published in book form first in 1931.  And although Kuyper was Dutch, these lectures appeared first in English.  This book is the foundation for so much that fits into the world of Christian worldview education, which includes Christian schooling from day schools to universities.  Don’t be misled or put off by the title.  Kuyper uses the word “Calvinism” as shorthand for a Scripture based approach to all areas of life and thought.  He himself was a Calvinist and was lecturing at the premier Calvinistic seminary in America (Princeton).  His call for Christian thinking and application is monumental.

6.  Knowing God by J. I. Packer.  This book has really impacted lots of people.  Packer is one of the premier forces who has popularized and promoted Reformed theology in our time.  This books ranks right up there with C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship in its widespread impact.  It is a good book in and of itself.  But more than that, it is a bridge-book.  It has introduced Reformed thinking across the spectrum.  Coming from a English Anglican, it has connected with all sorts of Christians.  The rise of the New Calvinism, in the best senses of that movement, is due in large part to Packer and others in his circles.

7.  A Theological Interpretation of American History by C. Gregg Singer.  I suppose the impact of this book is mostly in among Calvinistic circles, but it should have been more widely read and noted.  I remember being in a conversation at church camp some years back where several different men were telling about how this book changed their thinking.  There are now lots of books that talk about the influence of Christians on American history, but this book is significant because it deals with the ideas, the philosophies that dominated throughout American history.

8.  The multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro.  These four volumes tell the story of American politics in the 20th century.  The third volume is the best book on real politics that I have ever read.

9. The History of the English Speaking People by Winston Churchill.  Of course, the other list did include Churchill’s account of World War II.

10.  A Religious History of the American People by Sidney Alhstrom.  A really in-depth and enjoyable look at American history.  As might be noted, the ISI list was weak on theology and almost devoid of Protestant studies.

11.  Russia Under the Old Regime by Richard Pipes.  Of course, the mention of Russian history demands that I at least mention Robert Massie and W. Bruce Lincoln.  Pipes wrote quite a few worthy books on Russian history, Communism, and the Russian Revolution.

12.  The Southern Tradition at Bay by Richard Weaver.  No listing of Weaver on the ISI list?  His book Ideas Have Consequences and Visions of Order are both notable.

13.  The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart.  I have highlighted Jesse Stuart’s books on quite a few posts.  Of all his books, this one is the best.  This book is fun; it is inspiring to a teacher; and it is revealing of life in an older, much more rural America.

14.  I’ll Take My Stand by 12 Southerners.  These essays and authors are indispensible to me.  This book was a game changer in my thinking.  Conservative thought all too often sidesteps the thinking of key Southerners.  Eugene Genovese wrote several significant volumes explaining Southern thought.  This book captures much of the tradition, farm, faith, and family connections found in the South and much of rural and small town America.  These essays deal with history, literature, culture, education, and more.

15.  How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.  This book yeilds more insight each time I teach it.  This is not just a chunk of overlooked history; rather, this is a recipe for saving civilization.

16.  Barbara Tuchman:  But do I pick A Distant Mirror or The Guns of August?  That is a tough decision, but The Guns of August wins out.  In Max Hastings’ new book Catastrophe 1914, which covers the same ground, he pays tribute to the influence of Tuchman’s best selling book.  The month of August 1914 determined so much of what would unfold in the rest of the Twentieth Century.

And No List is Ever Complete

It must be noted that any list of most important books of mine would be more inclined to including 20th century Calvinist thinkers and theologians. So, I would have had an entry for Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, David Wells, Carl F. H. Henry, and Herman Dooyeweerd (whose lectures titled In the Twilight of Modern Thought first appeared in English, even though he was Dutch).   These men have influenced me and a lot of the other people in my circles, but Calvinistic thought has not had as wide influence beyond Reformed circles.

I would be more prone also to list a few more current historians, such as Niall Ferguson, David MacCullough, Victor Davis Hanson, and Rodney Stark.  At this point, I would definitely include George Marsden on my historians listing.  Stephen Ambrose, Cornelius Ryan, and Rick Atkinson are all really good, but the bulk of their work is on World War II.

And a few of my friends, acquaintances, and e-friends whose books I have read and liked would have been included, and that would have meant books by George Grant, Douglas Wilson, Roy Clouser (whose Myth of Neutrality is unsurpassed), Danie Strauss (author of the weighty Philosophy: Discipline of the Disciplines), and John Frame.

What I have left off that should be included?

One thought on “What’s Missing from the 50 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

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