Ever wonder how big an influence the Bible has had on literature through the ages? Here are a few of the biggest literary works ever that have been impacted by Scripture.
NOTE: This list is NOT dispositive, nor is it definitive or some sort of "ranking." It is simply a starting point for those interested in learning more about the influence the Bible has had on classic literature for the past millennia or so. If you have an idea for a contribution to this list, please discuss it in the comments. Enjoy!
1. Piers Plowman by William Langland.
A masterful and lengthy medieval poem about the role of virtues in the devout Christian life, this work is considered the second greatest piece of medieval literature and history, topped only by Chaucer’s "The Canterbury Tales."
2. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
In Shakespeare’s seminal problem play, the characters of Shylock and Antonio represent the Old and New Covenants, respectively, and illustrate how “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
3. Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare.
Another allegorical problem play, this one is more straightforward: its characters illustrate the relationship between God and Man, with the essential theme rooting back to Matthew 7:2.
4. "Sonnet 129" by William Shakespeare.
An outworking of the Biblically-defined effects of lust in both body and mind.
5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
This masterpiece is inappropriately considered taboo by Christians for its use of witchcraft in the plot. However, a close reading will show that Shakespeare is clearly defining the dangers of the Devil’s devices in awakening the sins we struggle with – in Macbeth’s case, ambition.
The play drips with Biblical spiritual principles, and is especially poignant when one remembers that the Bard wrote this play for a performance in front of King James, who was notoriously and obsessively interested in witchcraft.
6. Paradise Lost by John Milton.
I was going to leave this blank because of how obvious the Biblical influence is, but I think C.S. Lewis is worth quoting here: “The great moral which reigns in Milton is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined, that Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and that Disobedience makes them miserable."
7. "The Sacrifice" by George Herbert.
Considered one of the greatest explicitly religious poets of all time, Herbert depicts Christ’s crucifixion and its implications in this piece.
8. "The Dark Night of the Soul" by Saint John of the Cross.
A mystical poem depicting the soul’s journey through trial and into a better understanding of God through His divine guidance during the trials.
9. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri.Rod Dreher's How Dante Can Save Your Life for further reading.
10. "Holy Sonnet 11" and "Holy Sonnet 12" by John Donne.
Donne became Dean of Saint Paul's in London after his conversion and wrote sonnets contemplating the gospel's implications - these are two of the best.
11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
An indictment of those lacking in charity not just during the Christmas season, but throughout the year. Dickens uses the Christmas season as a vehicle to revisit what Christ has done and how we are to respond as receivers of the grace His sacrifice brings.
12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Bronte’s description of Jane’s inner battle to maintain her purity despite Rochester’s petitions is firmly and eloquently rooted in Biblical teaching regarding sexual immorality and marriage.
13. A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt.
14. Becket by Jean Anouilh.
The effect of gospel revelation on a soul is demonstrated through the life of Saint Thomas Becket in this masterful play.
15. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevksy.
Arguably the most masterful Biblically-themed novel of all time, Dostoevsky’s pinnacle work displays the effect one man of God can have in a totally confused society and family. “The Grand Inquisitor” is considered one of the greatest chapters in all of the Western literature.
16. Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake.
Blake's faith works itself out through this illustrated collection of poems relating to all aspects of English life in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.
17. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
Lewis’s allegorical children’s fantasy series remains the seminal children’s work of the 20th century and continues to entertain, inspire and comfort children with its Biblical themes into their adulthood.
18. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I personally consider this to be the greatest overall work of literature of the 20th century. The ways in which the Bible has influenced this trilogy are too numerous and wondrous to list here, but they are also not always obvious. Because of this, I recommend The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft for excellent reading on this topic.
19. "Mythopoeia" by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien did not just write poetry for use in his novels. “Mythopoeia” is his poetic description of the artist’s calling to imitate our Creator by creating excellence.
20. Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.
21. The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.
22. The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis.
This is Lewis’s first work of prose fiction to be published. He described it as “Bunyan up to date.” It is also allegorical fiction, but the character grapples with the unique issues of the early 20th century world.
23. The Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton.
Almost a perfect counterbalance to the legendary Sherlock Holmes, Chesterton’s mystery-inclined minister uses empathy instead of deduction to solve the crimes he faces and serves as a vehicle by which Chesterton applies his Christian worldview to very real problems.
24. Dracula by Bram Stoker.
25. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe.
I mention this because the lyrics were originally published in The Atlantic Monthly and only set to a previous tune afterwards. The very first line echoes the Nunc Dimittis very closely and served as an explicit link of the Union’s cause of freedom to God’s Word and character during the American Civil War.