kathykeller-2Today I am beginning a new blog series on Novels That Every Christian Should Consider Reading. Only the Bible is a “must read,” so put these in the category of “should consider reads.” Over the next couple of weeks I will post one or two entries a day.

The first contributor is Kathy Keller.

Kathy holds an MA in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has worked as an editor for Great Commission Publications, and presently serves on the staff of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where her husband, Tim, is senior pastor. In Redeemer’s early years, Tim preached and Kathy was the entire staff; now she serves as assistant director of communications.

Kathy writes below about a series of books—which can also be considered one long novel—that will leave you “forever dissatisfied with poorly written fiction.”


POBPatrick O’Brian, the author of the 20-book series of Aubrey-Maturin stories set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, was famously reticent about his personal life. Judging by the competing narratives that came to light shortly before and after his death, it was a complex one. Following C. S. Lewis in The Personal Heresy, I do not care a whit. The man could write a story.

If it would not be a breach of contract, I would stop writing here and re-direct any reader to David Mamet’s piece  in the New York Times along with George Will’s retrospective in the Washington Post and consider my duty done.

Mamet’s and Will’s admiration was reserved for a writer who could tell a good story, and in this they regard Patrick O’Brian as one of the masters. The long tale of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s friendship, adventures, marriages, successes, humiliations, strengths, and weaknesses is one that will become a part of you. The follies and glories of human nature are recorded with humor, insight, and tenderness. I often think that if I am confined to bed in my dotage, I will ask to have my favorite books, whom I think of as friends, stacked up in bed with me, just to handle and hug to myself, as Mamet said.

I stumbled across the O’Brian books one summer when I was looking for a cache of books to take on vacation. No trip could rightfully be called a vacation unless I had at least half a dozen unread books to pack among the bathing suits and sunscreen. I was particularly delighted to discover what looked like a good writer with a long tail—meaning he had already written a LOT of books, so that if I did discover that I liked his writing, there would be no waiting for the next installment to come out.


I bought three, just to give them a fair trial, and by the middle of our second week away I was calling back to the bookstore in NYC and begging them to FedEx the next five or six in the series so I wouldn’t run out before we returned. Since then I have read all 20 four times through, and am about to embark on another marathon.

I am completely ignorant of sailing in all its incarnations (ancient, modern, recreational, naval, etc). As O’Brian has made use of historical diaries and letters, as well as mastering the sailing jargon himself, each story is liberally peppered with “loosening the foretopsail” and “shipping the capstan-bars,” and other nautical expressions. As Stephen Maturin, physician, spy, and friend of Captain Jack Aubrey, is also an unreconstructed landsman, this should not be an impediment to enjoyment of the story. If you do happen to understand sailing terms, so much the better for you.

Critics rightly regard all 20 books as one long story. So make no mistake: I am not recommending ONE novel to you, but the entire series. To my friends with whom I have waxed passionate about their joys and perfections, and who have tried to get interested and failed, I can only say “You didn’t give it long enough.” Like people who say they just can’t get into The Lord of the Rings, you just have to take it on the word of people you trust that if you get into the rhythm of the writing, the use of language, the overarching story arc, and most of all, the friendship (LOTR and PO’B) you will be drawn in, enriched, entertained, changed, and made forever dissatisfied with poorly written fiction.

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8 thoughts on “Kathy Keller: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading”

  1. Wayne Wilson says:

    O’Brian is a great writer. He completely puts you back in the time, and somehow overwhelms you with things you don’t know (especially sailor-speak) to re-create that world. But somehow, the reader’s lack of comprehension never dulls the story. The wonderful characterizations of the two unlikely friends is especially delightful.

    It should be said, however, that if you are looking for something with a strong Christian core (like Dostoevsky, for example), this isn’t it.

  2. It’s great that TGC is taking a look at novels and fiction. Today’s piece of what Mike Cosper is reading likewise showed someone who takes fiction seriously.

    O’Brian’s books are a pleasure to read. I’ve read several and loved them. And I am an ex-sailor (RCN) and so loved them even more!

  3. Michael Kelley says:

    While as Wayne says, the overwhelming vocabulary doesn’t diminish the joy of reading O’Brien, I found that the companion lexicon A Sea of Words is a great help for those that want to dive in a little deeper to what’s going on.

  4. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Kathy,

    It was good of you to make mention of Patrick O’Brian’s series of the British “Napoleonic” Period. I would also recommend C. S. Forrestor’s Horatio Hornblower series as well. For those who would like more ancient fiction series, there are three author’s that I would highly recommend.

    First, Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome series. This series begins with Gaius Marius, uncle of Julius Caesar, related by marriage to Cornelius Sulla. This series is entirely set in the First Century BC and the Roman Empire. It deals with the likes of Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, Marcus Cicero, Gnaeis Pompeii, Maximus Crassus, Marcus Antoninus, Julius Caesar, Octavian Caesar (Augustus), and their opponents., etc. It helps illuminate a great deal of the historical background to the New Testament. All the books of the series has a glossary of terms which become invaluable in understanding the political, cultural, military and religious background of the Roman Empire.

    Second, Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. This is a more elaborate ancient detective novel series set in ancient Rome beginning with Cicero and Sulla. The main character of the series is Gordianus the Finder. Excellent series.

    The third, and final, author is Sharon Kay Penman. Her characters are set in the 12th Century AD. It begins with the English Civil War between Empress Maud and King Stephen in When Christ and the Saints Slept to The Ransom, with the kidnapping, release and death of Richard the Lion-Hearted. It begins with Empress Maud, King ,Stephen, Henry II, Eleanor of Acquitane, Thomas Becket, Geoffrey, Hal, Richard and John, Phillip, and other characters of the English, Normandy, France, Germany, Italy, Holy Roman Empire, etc. This is period is the pivotal historical background to the Magna Carta, signed by King John, at Runnymeade (near modern Windsor) which with the Bible is background to the U. S. Constitution.

    A final thought. Scholars are often tied to the requirements of their professions as to what happened in history, etc. due to the nature of the disciplines that we find ourselves in. Historical fiction writers, though, have the ability to think and write “outside the box” to postulate theories of controversial or ambiguous characters, events, etc., in history. It allows for the imagination and the use of “psychological profiling,” understanding the nature of man, etc. to be used in the writing of a book. This sometimes leads to moments of discovery, e.g. Heinrich Schliemann and the discovery of Troy.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Amen Mrs Keller! Not only a recommendation of a great story, but a recommendation to just enjoy the story, rather than analyse it!

    For anyone struggling to get into these books, I would suggest two things,

    1. Dont start at the beginning. I dont think the books really get into their stride until book 3, the first two have a different feel. Desolation Island or The Ionian Mission would be good ones to try.

    2. Listen to the wonderful readings by Robert Hardy. They are abridged but he brings the characters wonderfully to life, and you get a nice treat of lots of extra detail and sub-plots when you read the book.

    1. Jeremy says:

      Also, don’t expect Horblower. These are not action stories. On a scale between Jane Austen and CS Forester, they fall near the middle, but towards the Austen side.

      1. Thanks for the helpful comments, Jeremy.

  6. Bruce Russell says:

    These novels emphasize and reinforce the crucial place of habit and ritual in life. Something oft-neglected in our day.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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