May 22, 2015
C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, co-author of the new book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus and is wor... Read More
The RELEVANT Summer Reading Guide
Our fast-paced, technology-driven culture has changed the nature of reading. We read 140-character summations of news. We read humorous lists interspersed with cat GIFs. But taking the time to sit down and read an actual book is a lost art.
It’s an art worth reviving, however, even if it takes a retraining of our attention spans to do so. Books can transport you to different worlds and give you new perspective on your own. They can teach you more about God and what it looks like to live out your faith.
We’ve selected a mix of stories, memoirs and spiritual reflections for you to choose from the next time you head to the beach or sit down for a lazy summer afternoon read. You can thank us later.
By Philip and Carol Zaleski
Although recognizing that the Inklings were a wider circle of scholars and writers, this new history focuses on the four whose works were the most original: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. The Fellowship examines not only the lives of these authors and the gatherings of the Inklings community in Oxford, but also the common themes that shaped their work and wove together a distinctively Christian vision of the ways in which story can form us. The Fellowship is vital and life-giving reading, especially for artists and scholars in the Christian tradition, as it challenges us to imagine ways of living and being that are in greater harmony with the intentions of our Creator.
By Chigozie Obioma
Drawing upon the rich history of Nigerian storytelling, this novel is a myth of sorts, reminding the reader of tales of the Greek gods or the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The four oldest brothers of the Agwu family encounter a religious madman who prophesies that the oldest brother, Ikenna, will be killed by one of his brothers. This prophecy haunts Ikenna, who is gradually undone by it. Obioma combines a stark, mythic narrative with lavishly descriptive writing that depicts not only the Agwus’ life in their town, but also the rapidly modernizing culture of Nigeria in the 1990s.
By Erik Larson
One hundred years ago this spring, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, killing almost 1,200 people. In Dead Wake, Larson takes readers inside both the Lusitania and the U-boat in the lead-up to the disaster, painting vivid pictures of those involved on both sides. As in his other books, Larson’s carefully researched details bring history to life and make for a fascinating read.
Q&A: Erik Larson
The saying “truth is better than fiction” certainly applies to Erik Larson’s writing. His historical narratives such as Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts have landed him at the top of best-sellers lists. We talked to him about his latest, Dead Wake, which details the sinking of the Lusitania.
What can we learn from the sinking of the Lusitania?
If there’s any lesson, it’s that over-confidence and hubris are dangerous things. If we ever think for a moment that weapons will not be used to their fullest potential, we are deluding ourselves; which gets a little scary when you think about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
How do you know when you’re finished researching for a book?
There’s always a point where you begin to realize you are done. Discoveries wane. Archival sources start to repeat themselves. And, more important, the accumulated material just starts pushing you to start writing. My organizational system is very complex and arcane, and too tedious to even begin to describe, but, the end result is a detailed chronology that contains coded references to all my sources, so that I know exactly where to look to find them. For Dead Wake, the chronology came to 165 single-spaced pages. The beauty of this is that it also serves as a de facto outline, because chronology is the single most important tool at a writer’s disposal.
What have you learned about human nature from researching your books?
The thing I find over and over again is that people are nuanced creatures. There are no unalloyed heroes. Whenever I read about heroes portrayed as having no blemishes, I get very suspicious. Heroes have warts, villains have good sides (with the exception of Hitler). In writing history one has to resist the temptation to paint people in monochromatic terms. Nuance is far more interesting.
Did you get particularly attached to any of the characters in Dead Wake or your other books?
I don’t typically get attached to characters. I appreciate them, I empathize with them, but in the end, I approach them on a complex dual trajectory, as one who feels their joys and sorrows, yes, but mainly as a writer who is constantly evaluating everything for its value in moving the story along. Having said that, my favorite character thus far was Olmsted, in Devil in the White City. I don’t think that man ever had a single unoriginal thought in his life.
Do you think you’ll ever release a fiction book?
I’m not sure I’m cut out for fiction. To write good and compelling fiction, you have to visit really bad things on good people. I have a hard time doing that. History, on the other hand, does it for me. I just have to capture what happened in as vivid and fresh a manner as possible.
By Debra Hirsch
Hirsch draws upon her own experience in and around the LGBT community to write this gracious exploration on sex and the Church. Hirsch calls for churches to extend hospitality and embrace the LGBT community, but stops short of arguing that churches should affirm same-sex marriages. This book demonstrates an unwavering Christ-like love for all humanity and carves out a space for open conversation about sexuality. It flies in the face of the escalating culture wars of our day and invites us to imagine a Church of the future that is shaped by the Gospel virtues of love and unity.
By Scott Russell Sanders
Scott Russell Sanders is an award-winning essayist and novelist whose work, filled with themes of faith and care for creation, is in a similar vein as that of his friend Wendell Berry. Divine Animal braids together the stories of a diverse cast of characters who we come to find out are united by a traumatic event in the past. Once the past has been unearthed, the characters begin the journey toward healing. Ultimately, this is an extremely hopeful story, and in a similar display of hope in imagining economic alternatives, Sanders is giving away this novel in ebook form as a gift to readers.
By Scott Cairns
Poetry may not exactly be your preferred choice of summer reading. In fact, we in the 21st century are formed by fast culture in ways that may make poems nearly impossible for us to read. Poetry, however, can open the gates for the journey toward a slower and more meaningful life. There is no better guide for such a pilgrimage than Scott Cairns, a psalmist of our day, whose spirituality immerses us ever deeper into the realities of everyday life. His poems, as Gregory Wolfe notes in the book’s intro, heal the gaping wound between our hearts and our minds, and in the process make us fully human.
Q&A: Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday is a love song of sorts for the Church—warts, brokenness and all. She writes, “All we have is this Church—this lousy screwed-up, glorious Church—which by God’s grace is enough.” We sat down with Evans to discuss the book and the Church.
What led you to leave your church?
A lot of people bring secrets to church, and the secret I brought was my doubt. I had serious questions about our church’s teachings on gender roles, sexuality, evolution, climate change, theology, politics, and a host of other issues, and in addition to all those questions, I struggled with some pretty unsettling doubts about my faith. As kind and gracious as the people in that church were to me, it became clear that as someone who supports women in ministry and the inclusion of LGBT people in the Church, I no longer “fit” in that community. It was a painful decision to leave, but my husband and I agreed we both needed a little space to process these big changes happening in our faith.
What brought you back to church?
Norah Gallagher once said, “on those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what I would do about Communion.” The same is true for me. It was the sacraments that brought me back to church. The sacraments of baptism and communion, confession and anointing reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. When I’d all but given up on church, the sacraments reminded me that, try as I might, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the Church.
One of the striking images in the book is your suggestion that: “a little death and resurrection might be just what church needs right now.” Can you explain what you meant?
It’s become popular in recent years for folks to fret about the “impending death of Christianity,” based on statistics that show a decline in church attendance here in the U.S. and in Europe. But death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about. As the religious landscape in the U.S. changes, Christians are going to have to learn to measure our success by something other than money and power. Maybe this is an opportunity to die to the old ways of dominance and control and be reborn into the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice and service.
By Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman
For years, Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer has been sitting down to talk with notable figures in entertainment, arts and politics. This book is a captivating mix of stories of these conversations, Grazer’s own experience, and reflections on curiosity. The real strength of the book lies in Grazer’s exploration of curiosity and the ways it energizes and transforms us.
By Jamie Arpin-Ricci
The modern age has been marked by a spirit of invulnerability. Our Christian faith has, to a large degree, been formed by this spirit. Drawing upon the story of Ireland’s St. Patrick, this book reminds us that the way of Christ is ultimately a way of vulnerability. It is a profound and gripping work that challenges us to be attentive to the faithfulness of those who have gone before us and to dive deeply into the vulnerable way of Jesus.
By Toni Morrison
God Help the Child is Morrison’s first novel set in the present day, but it still features the richly developed characters and themes of redemption after violence that have marked her previous work. At the heart of this story is a woman struggling to find a meaningful life after being neglected by her mother. Her story, along with those of several other characters, highlights the great damage childhood trauma can wreak upon our lives, even as adults. God Help the Child is a profound work that is vitally important for understanding our times, even if its message is not always easy to hear.
By David Brooks
Many people desire to do great things—to be influential leaders, artists or thinkers. But becoming an influencer starts with having a strong character, which is what best-selling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks explores in his latest book. He examines some of his heroes and their moral fiber—what it consisted of and how they got it. Reading the book can’t make you a better person, he says, but it can provide a roadmap for some ways to develop character.
Q&A: David Brooks
What Inspired The Road to Character?
I was motivated by various experiences of love. Love plows open hard ground, exposing soft soil below. It exposes the workings of the heart. I came to realize I had a clearer idea of how to do well in the world than I did of how to cultivate a deep inner soul. I decided I would look at people who had admirable inner lives, who had gone from shallowness to depth, selfishness to surrender. I wasn’t sure I could follow their road to character, but I wanted to see what it looked like.
You write about “the culture of big me.” What does that look like?
There was once a sense that we are splendidly endowed but also deeply broken. That common understanding of our nature faded away and was replaced with the idea that we are good inside. You should follow your passion, trust your desires, be true to yourself. All of this has made us less humble. We all praise humility, but the culture does not encourage it. But humility is the seedbed of the other virtues, and pride leads to bloated ego and self-deception.
What do you hope for people who read your book?
I think many people are inarticulate about how to develop character and about their own spiritual longings. I thought it was important to modernize and define words like sin, grace, redemption and soul, just so people could think more clearly.
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