By now just about everyone knows C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia has a lot of Christian themes; Lewis himself wasn’t exactly shy about his faith and its impact on his writing. Only people who read the books as kids, with no clue as to their background, are shocked to discover a magical lion who is the son of the “Emperor Over the Sea,” and who is killed in a ritual and then resurrected to set his kingdom right, is an allegory.
However, what is often surprising is just how many other novels have secret (or at least infrequently discussed) religious themes. A novel, after all, is the product of someone’s imagination, and if that person is religious, or honestly interested in philosophical questions concerning existence, morality, and a higher power, those threads are going to weave themselves into their work. Here are five books that might surprise you with their secret (or not-so secret) religious themes.
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
On the one hand, much of the religious (chiefly Christian) imagery in Childhood’s End is very obvious—the Overlords, after all, resemble traditional devils and hail from a planet that is very hell-like. What some miss is that the whole story resembles the Christian concept of apocalypse: not only does the Antichrist swoop down to govern the world prior to the end of days, but the innocent and faithful (children) are then raised up and taken on to the next plane. The implication that these images and events have been broadcast backward in time somehow through our genetics means most of the world’s religions are based on future events—that sound you heard was your brain exploding.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s interesting how many fans of Tolkien’s books are surprised to discover the fairly obvious Christian skeleton under the elvish skin of his classic epic; Tolkien himself wrote that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Tolkien wrote a work of immense complexity and depth, and avoided obvious symbols, but the Catholic values are there: from the way the meek and the humble (i.e., hobbits) are the one who must save the world while the proud and the powerful are doomed to fail, to the implication that worshipping false idols (the One Ring, Saruman’s technological foibles) leads to desolation, to the use of resurrection as a way of achieving salvation—the themes are there. Tolkien’s genius was evident in how he incorporated them without bogging down the story.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
The religious themes of this classic novel are obvious the moment you think about it: a powerful and mysterious figure who has grown unhappy with mankind and retreated inside his amazing factory invites several children and their families inside, where all are faced with various temptations that cause them to one by one break the rules and be punished in colorful and appropriate ways. The childrens’ sins are of the Seven Deadly variety (gluttony, pride, greed, etc.), but what really seals it is the fact that Charlie himself commits a sin (stealing) and is punished for it—until he demonstrates true remorse, at which point all is forgiven all and he’s named the winner of Wonka’s competition and (none too subtly) whisked up into the sky. While Dahl may not have intended this to be an overtly religious story (his struggles with his own faith after the death of his daughter are well documented), it fits the mould far too closely to be entirely accidental.
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Plenty of kids, having read this classic book for the first time, will be happy to tell you the titular garden is supposed to be the Garden of Eden—but while there is a link, that’s not the main religious theme hidden in the book. Few are aware that Burnett became a Christian Scientist in the early 1880s, and that these beliefs permeate the classic story of a hidden garden symbolizing the health and happiness of an entire family and estate. Not only does Mary Lennox begin to grow into a better and happier person when she begins setting the Secret Garden right after its decade of neglect, her cousin Colin is actually healed when his time in the garden drives out negative thoughts and fills him with strength—a very obvious theme considering Christian Scientists believe faith is the most powerful weapon in healing sickness or injury.
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The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
At first the Christian motifs in the Harry Potter books seemed fairly obvious and common, the sort that pop up everywhere by a kind of cultural osmosis: the chosen one designated to save the world, the evil one, that sort of thing. Then J.K. Rowling more or less came out and said that while she herself struggles with her faith, the Potter books are in fact filled with religious themes on purpose—most notably, perhaps, the concept that people can be saved by a loving sacrifice, as Harry is saved several times via the loving sacrifice of his parents.
Any other books we should know about that include obvious religious themes?