I hope all of you are having a wonderful Easter weekend! Easter is always a meaningful weekend to me, but this one is especially significant because I am getting confirmed in the Episcopal church at my church’s Saturday night Easter vigil. (I was brought up in the Baptist church and am still working on my master’s degree at a Baptist seminary, but my studies have led me toward a church with a stronger emphasis on liturgy, creeds, and the Eucharist—that’s the short version of the story, anyway.)
Because of my master’s studies (and my interest in theology), I have spent a lot of time reading from books and articles about theology, church history, and biblical studies, but I haven’t written much about them here. One reason is that since I started blogging, most of my reading for class is of excerpts of larger works, which is difficult to write about for general readers. (I’m pretty sure you don’t want a post on questions 22 and 23 in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.) On the rare occasion that I do read a larger work in its entirety, it’s usually a textbook written with the student or scholar in mind and therefore not of much general interest. Plus, I think very differently about the books I read for school than I do about the books I read on my own, and it’s difficult to translate that school-oriented thinking into a post that would interest the general reader.
However, I know that lots of folks are interested in reading books that have something of value to say about the Christian faith. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some books that have shaped me spiritually. These are books that taught me something new, showed me a new way of thinking, or helped me get through rough patches. Most of them, I think, would appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (my review). This is one of my all-time favorites, partly because Robinson is able to write beautifully and honestly in the voice of a man who takes theological questions seriously. I’ve heard Christians say that “secular” publishers and critics have no interest in books that take Christianity seriously, but this book puts the lie to that statement. Robinson’s book, although not universally loved, is widely praised and even won the Pulitzer. The companion novel, Home, did not bowl me over quite as much, but it’s still one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.
- Silence by Shusaku Endo. This 1966 Japanese novel tells the story of a Jesuit missionary to 17th-century Japan during a time of harsh persecution of Christians. This book utterly transformed my understanding of what it means to represent Christ to the world. I read it several years ago, and since then, I’ve taken a class in Global Church History that discussed how the church adapted to different cultures (sometimes badly, sometimes well). I’ve been wanting to reread this with that knowledge in mind. Incidentally, Martin Scorsese is working on a film version of Silence, so if you’re as snobby as I am about books with movie tie-in covers, you might want to get this one soon, because you may soon find it impossible to get a copy without Daniel Day-Lewis on it.
- Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Lewis has probably shaped my thinking more than any other single writer (outside the Biblical writers themselves). This, while not his most overtly Christian work, is without a doubt my favorite. It’s a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s sister. I think part of the strength of this work is in the fact that, while it does explore Christian themes of belief and unbelief, it does not take a didactic tone. The book group at my church is discussing this book in the coming weeks, and I’m hoping to reread it and join in on those discussions. If I do, I’ll write a proper review after those discussions are over.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Jane is one of those literary characters whom I’ve clung to through hard times. I know that many read Jane as a story of a woman’s rejection of Christian faith, but for me, it’s a story of a woman who stood by her convictions, even when it meant giving up her great love. But, in the end, God answers her fervent humble prayer by letting her love’s voice reach her and guide her back to him. During my early adulthood, many of the Christians I knew seemed to believe that any pleasure that wasn’t overtly and obviously Christian was somehow wrong or inferior, and I needed Jane’s story to reassure me that the mission field and overt service is not God’s will for everyone.
- Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. This is one of my most frequently reread Christian books. The author, a Quaker, discusses each of the classic spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, study, service, etc.), explaining why each is important and offering practical guidance on incorporating those disciplines into your life. I also recommend Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home and his Devotional Classics collection, a compilation of readings from Christians across the ages.
- Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. Because I spent a good bit of my early adulthood among people who assumed that Christian automatically means politically conservative, the discovery of the liberal, irreverent Jesus freak Anne Lamott was a revelation. This is my favorite of her essay collections, but that might just be because it was the first I encountered.
- The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright (my review). I’ll admit that this one probably wasn’t as significant for me as the other books listed, but I wanted to include it for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s a good overview of the questions people have about Jesus, largely because it offers more than one perspective. Second, it is as good an example as I’ve found of how two people with serious disagreements can argue with each other with passion but without vitriol.
- Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker. I read this for a class on the ways different Christians have understood salvation. It was perhaps one of the most important classes I’ve ever taken, and this book was a big reason why. Green and Baker critique the Western church’s emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement and share several other views about how salvation works. I don’t agree with everything Green and Baker say, but I did love this book for expanding my understanding and helping me see that there’s more than one way Christians have thought about these things.
That’s just a small sampling. I could go on and on, but I’d love to hear from you. Are there any books out there that have helped you see faith, specifically the Christian faith, in a new way?
Notes from a Reading Life
- The Poison Tree by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A slightly darker installment in the Morland Dynasty series.
- Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud (audio). The final book in the Bartimaeus trilogy. The whole series built up to this extraordinary conclusion.
- Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola. My first Zola. Review coming April 7.
- Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. For the Classics Circuit.
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell (audio). Short comic essays about Vowell’s life, history, politics, and culture.
- Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkein (reread). Finishing up the LOTR readalong.
- Prince Rupert’s Teardrop by Lisa Glass. I just received this from the author. A woman’s mother disappears—has she been abducted, murdered? Is the daughter mentally stable? Sounds like a good, twisty dark read.
- Kim by Rudyard Kipling. This has been on my TBR ever since I read Laurie King’s The Game.
- Season of Migration to the North by Tayib Saleh. A 1966 post-Colonial novel from Sudan about a man who returns home to Sudan after being educated in England.
Books on My Radar
- Enlightened Sexism by Susan Douglas. A exploration of depictions of women in popular media. Reviewed at Jenny’s Books.
- The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter. In her kick-off post for Angela Carter month, Claire at Paperback Reader recommends this book as a good place to start with Carter. Carter’s one of those authors I’ve been meaning to try, so I’m adding this book to my list.
- The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845-1846. I love collections of letters, and I’ve always been curious about the story of the Brownings, but I had no idea that their letters were collected and printed. Sounds wonderful! Reviewed at Things Mean a Lot.
- Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today by Nicholas Buxton. The author’s memoir of his experiences with monasticism, both Buddhist and Christian, leading to his eventual ordination to the Anglican priesthood. Reviewed at Vulpes Libris.