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Professor Smith Recommends…

As a church historian, Associate Professor of Historical Theology J. Warren Smith reads about the past for pleasure, as well as professionally, not to escape the present (or, not always), but to gain a new perspective by comparing cultures present and past, ancient and near-modern.

Non Fiction Classics

Five classic works as readable for amateurs as they are provocative for professional historians.

Africa and the Victorians
By Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher
An account of how Britain ended up with African colonies that London never really wanted.

Battle Cry of Freedom
By James McPherson
The best single volume on the Civil War.

The Great War and Modern Memory
By Paul Fussell
World War I in the poetry and prose of its literary participants, including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and others.

Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church
By Rowan Greer
This is the book that got me into patristics

Christians As the Romans Saw Them
By Robert Wilken
How Roman intellectuals heard the gospel.

Historical Fiction

Nothing compares to the literary license of fiction to give contemporary readers insight into the past.

By Robert Harris
The politics of republican Rome as seen through the eyes of Cicero’s secretary.

Gates of Fire
By Steven Pressfield
A slave captured by Xerxes at Thermopylae gives a penetrating account of life in Sparta, Athens’ military rival and cultural foil


Southerners pride themselves on being able to tell a good yarn. Here are two lesser-known, but masterful, Southern storytellers.

Cold Sassy Tree
By Olive Ann Burns
A small town reacts when a prominent businessman and churchman marries a younger woman one month after the death of his universally loved wife.

The Whisper of the River
By Ferrol Sams
A child prodigy’s coming-of-age story set in a Southern Baptist college during the depression.

Books on Tape

Since listening as a boy to my father read The Wizard of Oz , I have loved listening to a good story even more than reading one. Reading that brings a story to life is an art form in itself. Some of the best are:

C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters
John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) reading: Cleese is “your affectionate
Uncle Screwtape.”

Homer’s Iliad
Derek Jacobi’s dynamic reading of the superb translation by Robert Fagles.

Plato’s Symposium
Actors assume the parts of Plato’s famous and infamous interlocutors, bringing the philosophical drinking party to life in all its ribaldry and profundity.

Classic Just Discovered

Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn explains how to maintain one’s integrity in the world of political compromise.

Perfect For Church Study

Rowan Williams’ Where God Happens is the most profound book in the amorphous category of “spirituality” that I’ve read recently. Using the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, Williams shows why there cannot be a purely private holiness. 

Perennial Favorites

These are the books to which I repeatedly return to raise the soul:

Augustine’s Confessions
Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God
Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
George Herbert’s Poems
John Milton’s Paradise Lost