The Ten Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century: Recommended Resources

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE when researching prominent figures from recent history isn’t finding information, but deciding which of the numerous resources to concentrate on. We found these to be most helpful in preparing this issue.

Karl Barth

Barth’s Church Dogmatics fills a bookshelf, but a careful reading of volume one alone will richly reward the patient reader. His commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford, 1968) shook the theological world. It’s another dense book but full of Barth’s energy. For something completely different (especially for Mozart fans), check out his little work Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Eerdmans, 1986).

The best biography, Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Fortress, 1976) gives not only Barth’s life but allows Barth to speak throughout.

Billy Graham

William Martin’s A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (Morrow, 1991) leads the pack of Graham biographies. Martin had access to an astonishing amount of information, including nearly 200 interviews; the book’s “Notes” section alone is 100 pages long. For photos, quotes, and coffee-table appeal, the best choice is Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador (Time-Life, 1999) by Graham’s longtime photographer, Russ Busby. Some of Graham’s classic messages, as well as ministry news and other current information, can be found at his official Web site (www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/index.htm) is also worth a look.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Again, the plethora of riches is daunting. By conducting extensive interviews and opening F.B.I. transcripts, David J. Garrow is able to delve deeply into both King’s leadership and personal life in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, 1999). For this issue, we kept returning to Taylor Branch’s (so far) two-part history of the civil rights movement: Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years 1956–1963 and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–1965 (Simon & Schuster, 1988, 1998). Russel Moldovan, who contributed the King article in this issue, focuses on King’s specifically Christian motivation in Martin Luther King, Jr.: A History of His Religious Witness and His Life (American Universities Press, 1999).

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his essay on civil disobedience, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) are American classics and, with other King resources, can found at the Nobel Prize Internet Archive (www.almaz.com/nobel/nobel.html).

C.S. Lewis

Lewis’s best biographer so far is George Sayer, who drew on experiences as the author’s pupil and friend to write Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times (Harper & Row, 1988). The book is full of memories of Lewis the scholar (always Jack’s focus, though he became famous for other things) and descriptions of how his relationships with his family, Joy Gresham, the Inklings, and others shaped his life and writing. Lewis tells his own story pretty well, too, in Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956), though this book only goes as far as his midlife conversion to Christianity. The hub for Lewis discussion online is Into the Wardrobe: The C.S. Lewis Web Site (The Rise of Pentecostalism.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

His best fiction can be found in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), and Cancer Ward (1968)—each is a study of one aspect of the Soviet system or another and an example of Solzhenitsyn’s richly textured writing. The Oak and the Calf (Harper & Row, 1975; English translation, 1979) is Solzhenitsyn’s account of his ten-year literary battle with the Soviet Union.

The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row, 1973–1978) is a “thick” (in meaning and girth: seven books in three volumes) account of the massive Soviet prison system under Stalin.

Edward Ericson, who contributed the Solzhenitsyn piece in this issue, explains the paradoxical and sometimes confused response the Russian writer has elicited in Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Regnery Gateway, 1993).

The most recent biography is by British novelist D. M. Thomas: Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life (St. Martins, 1998). Solzhenitsyn is not pleased with the book, and maybe with good reason: Kirkus Reviews called it “an ultimately very satisfying biography” but admitted it was “slightly odd,” and Amazon.com describes it as a “rare, controversial combination of exhaustive research and novelistic style.”

The Nobel Prize Internet Archive also has a good page on this Nobel laureate (www.nobelprizes.com/nobel/literature/1970a.html).

Mother Teresa

Teresa of Calcutta: A Pictorial Biography (McGraw-Hill, 1980) by Robert Serrou offers a nice mix of stories, photos, quotes, and first-person accounts but is hardly an in-depth look. Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God (Harper & Row, 1971) reveals the interplay between the not-yet-believing Muggeridge and the saintly woman he idolizes. Another British journalist, Anne Sebba, attempts to venture into Teresa’s hidden life in Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image (Doubleday, 1997), but the chip on her shoulder is so large she must have struggled to put pen to paper. Perhaps the dearth of comprehensive work is partially due to Teresa’s private nature; she discouraged a would-be biographer by saying, “My life or yours, it’s just a life.”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #65 in 2000]

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