Sunday Salon: An Easter Book List

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.

Fiction

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Nonfiction

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

Books Completed

  • 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.

Currently Reading

  • 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.

On Deck

  • 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.

New Acquisitions

  • 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.
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37 Responses to Sunday Salon: An Easter Book List

  1. Nymeth says:

    Thank you for this list! I think I’ve told you before that I’m not myself a person of faith, but Christianity in such a big part of my culture (of Western thinking, really) that I’d like to understand it better. Gilead was on my list already, since I’m slowly reading all the Pulitzer winners, and though I haven’t always gotten along with Lewis, Till We Have Faces really appeals to me.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re welcome, Ana. I do think you’d like Til We Have Faces, with the caveat that it’s been a good 10 years since I read it and I was less sensitive to people’s objections to Lewis at that time. (But I do know Christians who’ve complained that it’s not overt enough in its Christianity.)

  2. Eva says:

    Huge congratulations to you on your confirmation Teresa! I’ve been looking into the Episcopal church myself. :)

    I’ve had Till We Have Faces on my reading list forever, and now I want to read Silence too. Richard Foster sounds wonderful; I’ve already discovered Lamott.

    • Teresa says:

      Eva, So funny–I was just leaving a comment on your Jesus post about the Episcopal church! The decision was a huge one, but it’s been a long time coming, and it was *so* exciting to be confirmed at the Easter vigil.

  3. Congratulations, and thank you for sharing these- I’ve been meaning to read C.S. Lewis’ work, but have shamefully never gotten around to it.

    One of the books that has helped me in my spiritual journey is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, oddly enough- something about its cyclical nature and, of course, the quote “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else”. I know it’s metafiction, but I pick up a lot of odds and ends that help me, I have to say.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks and you’re welcome, Clare! C.S. Lewis is well worth reading. Til We Have Faces is my favorite, but I also love the Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, the Space Trilogy, and the Narnia books.

      And that’ so cool about R&G are Dead! I’ve never read it or seen it on stage, and haven’t seen the movie since college, but I know exactly what you mean about picking up spiritual truths in unexpected places like that.

  4. Word Lily says:

    I’ve read most of those books, and I, too enjoyed them.

  5. Jenny says:

    Congratulations to you!!! How exciting!

    I adore C.S. Lewis. Even when he’s being a prat, he writes in such elegant, nicely punctuated sentences. I’ve not read Till We Have Faces, though! I’ll have to get hold of it.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, and I meant to say: If you ever have the chance, read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. She’s the reason I got through my compulsory adolescent crise de foi, as she writes these really lovely, personal things about her experience of God. And as well, she’s a mystic, and I <3 mystics. :)

      • Teresa says:

        Jenny, Thanks! Yes, Lewis’s writing is just amazing, and he does have some wonderful insights, when you can put aside some of oddities.

        And I have been wanting to read Julian of Norwich for ages! There’s a selection from Revelations of Divine Love in Foster’s Devotional Classics book and whetted my appetite in a big way. I really want to read more of the mystics. I was planning to take a whole class on them, but the prof who taught it left my school, so it might not be offered again for a long while, if ever.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Congratulations on your confirmation! I, too, have moved away from my Baptist roots, and found a home in a more liturgical community. Easter is such a perfect time to make this commitment.

    Thanks for your list. If I made a similar list, it would include The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd – while I never quite made her leap to goddess-inspired spirituality, this was the book that gave me the “lightbulb” moment I needed to start questioning and searching for myself.

    Also, I would totally read your thoughts on Aquinas. =)

    • Teresa says:

      Elizabeth: Thanks! I know several other Baptists who’ve made this switch. I think there are a lot of us who hunger for liturgy.

      I have read Dance of the Dissident Daughter. I really liked the first half–she explains the problems of patriarchal theology so well. I couldn’t get on board with the Goddess stuff either, though.

      And I’m not ruling out the possibility of writing on Aquinas, if I ever read one of his shorter works or a biography or something. But for school I pretty much have to dig very deeply into a scrap of a monumental piece like the Summa, and that’s not very blog friendly.

  7. Kinna says:

    Congrats! I love Season of Migration to the North.

  8. I love this list! Anne Lamott…C.S. Lewis…both are big favorites.

    I’ve been hoping to read St. Therese (not sure about the spelling). Heard so much about her…raves, really.

    Just finished re-reading Crazy Love. It’s a book that challenges us to move out from our comfortable pew.

    BTW, today is the last chance to become a follower at my blog and leave a comment to try to win one of two $10 Amazon gift certificates. Stop in today!

    http://www.readerbuzz.blogspot.com

  9. Kathleen says:

    Thank you for the recommendations. I have Traveling Mercies on my list already as I have heard good things about it. It is comforting to know that we can have liberal leanings and still be conservative in our faith.

    • Teresa says:

      Kathleen, Travelling Mercies is amazing, although I don’t know that I’d call Lamott conservative when it comes to faith. She is, however, head over heels in love with Jesus and not afraid to say it. I love that about her.

  10. bookssnob says:

    Great recommendations Teresa! I never read Christian fiction – just non fiction- but I would like to introduce some into my reading. I didn’t realise that Marilynne Robinson’s books were Christian based and I will give them a go. It’s so hard to find Christian fiction that isn’t cheesy or totally dull – all the stuff I’ve come across has been achingly cliched and I just can’t bear it!

    • Teresa says:

      Rachel, I avoid fiction from Christian publishers for exactly the reasons you state. I understand it has improved in recent years, but I’ve been burned often enough that I’m still skeptical. Most of the Christian-oriented fiction that I enjoy was either written before there was a separate Christian publishing industry (so Lewis and Endo) or is published by mainstream publishers but happens to have Christian themes (Robinson).

  11. Deb says:

    Congratulations and welcome to the fold from a “cradle Episcopalian.” I would strongly recommend the works of Barbara Pym, especially EXCELLENT WOMEN. So many of Pym’s novels include characters (especially women) whose lives are strongly involved with the Church. Of course, she’s writing about the Church of England, the Anglican Church, but that’s just Episcopalian by another name!

  12. Melissa says:

    Thank you for this list. I’ve read some and others have now been bumped up my TBR list. And I agree, Lewis is a fantastic author.

  13. Jenny says:

    Ha, Teresa, I just read Till We Have Faces on Good Friday. And of course our favorites (the ones I have read to this point) are almost all the same. I have a few others that have shaped me, but mostly these are the ones.

    I’m going to have to read the Green/Baker book. Thanks for the rec.

    • Teresa says:

      Not surprised that we share favorites, Jenny. I’d be more surprised if we didn’t!

      The Green/Baker book is interesting. I’d be curious as to what you think of it because it is geared toward evangelicals who hear about little besides penal substitutionary atonement (with splashes of the incarnation and resurrection but little discussion of how they fit it). It really helped me see the need for a more multifaceted view.

      And you also need to read Silence, if you haven’t yet. (You haven’t have you?) I’m pretty sure you’d love it.

      • Jenny says:

        I haven’t read Silence, but it is sitting and looking at me! Another book that has shaped me spiritually is Brideshead Revisited, by the way. I wouldn’t expect many people to share that one, though.

        I would want to read the Green/Baker for the opposite reason, really — my side of the table wants to completely dismiss subsitutionary atonement. In fact, I think it’s one fruitful way of looking at things (though only one.)

  14. Frances says:

    Congratulations on your confirmation! It is always a powerful thing to find a group that shares and celebrates your own values, beliefs.

    You are drawing me to the C.S Lewis read too. Such an intriguing figure. Have thought of reading more than Narnia since reading The Magician’s Book earlier this year (which I loved!).

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Frances! Til We Have Faces is definitely a good next choice after the Narnia books.

      I remember seeing reviews of The Magician’s Book a while back and was intrigued by the premise, although my experience of Narnia was the opposite of Miller’s. Like her, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and didn’t pick up on the Christian imagery at all, and I didn’t read the rest of the series either. But then in college I learned that it had all this symbolism, which got me interested again!

  15. Teresa says:

    Jenny, I get where you’re coming from on Brideshead. I think it’s like Jane Eyre in that people read the message of it in different ways, depending on their own point of view. Graham Greene can be like that too.

    The main area where I actually disagreed with Baker/Green was that they were perhaps a little too dismissive of substitutionary atonement, instead of seeing it as one of several fruitful ways of thinking. They seemed much more excited about other ideas–almost as if they were new toys that made the old toys less exciting.

  16. Lorin says:

    Congratulations on your confirmation! I was lucky to get to mentor and sponsor one of the teens in our Episcopal church for confirmation this year – we did it on Palm Sunday. The whole experience was just wonderful. Sounds like yours was great as well.

    I enjoyed your post. I avoid most Christian fiction, to be honest, but I’ll have to check out some of your recommendations.

    • Teresa says:

      Lorin, That must have been exciting! We adults didn’t really get sponsors, although we did participate in an inquirers class, led by the clergy. It was a great way to get to know the church.

      I avoid most fiction marketed as Christian fiction, too. With a lot of it (but by no means all), the presentation of the gospel message gets in the way of the honest human story. Lewis is the only one I’ve ever seen in a Christian bookstore.

  17. rebeccareid says:

    Thanks for this great list, Teresa. I definitely need to find SILENCE. You’ve mentioned it before!

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I’ll admit–I’m a bit of an evangelist for Silence. It’s such a wonderful book! (And doesn’t everyone want to say they knew and loved it before the movie?)

  18. Congratulations and belated Happy Easter, Teresa!

    Thank you too for the link; I’m hoping you will be hearing much more about The Magic Toyshop this month.

    I knew that I wanted to read Endo’s Silence but I didn’t know much about it; I was wondering why the copy I was looking at on Amazon had Scorcese’s name on it too.

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