WELCOME to a new week at ReadTheSpirit! And, welcome to a new “look” in our book recommendations. Throughout the year, we bring you lists of important books and films, especially focusing on titles that you’re likely to overlook without some assistance.
In the past, we’ve asked you to click on book covers to jump to Amazon, if you want to order books. NOW, using some of Amazon’s new software, we invite you to use the “carousel” at the top of the page, if you’d like to read more about these books on Amazon and you’re thinking about ordering a copy. If you click to Amazon from this carousel—a small part of your purchase will help to support our work at ReadTheSpirit.
SO—today, we’re looking into the horizon. You’re going to hear more about these books in coming weeks. Wednesday this week, for example, we will publish an in-depth Conversation With Dr. Joel Kraemer on his life-long interest in Maimonides—and why this medieval sage has such important wisdom for us today. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll welcome the author of the new Thomas Merton book and Deepak Chopra will join us here to talk about his fascination with Jesus.
So, here are “10 Books to Watch”! We recommend all 10, but the following list doesn’t imply any particular ranking among the 10:
MAIMONIDES: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, by Joel L. Kraemer.
Come back on Wednesday, this week, for an in-depth Conversation With Dr. Kraemer, who truly has spent 60 years of his life contemplating this great figure in world history. Because Maimonides lived in an era of turbulent cultural change around the world, he was fluent in many languages. This meant that Dr. Kraemer also had to learn those languages. Because Mainmonides traveled widely and lived in many cultures, Dr. Kraemer also had to travel widely and search through many libraries and archives.
This new biography, based entirely on original sources, sweeps away many myths about the great sage’s life, but also clarifies in remarkable detail the humane approach Maimonides took to questions of faith and civic life.
Even though he lived in the 12th century and more than 800 years have passed since his death, reading Dr. Kraemer’s biography, we find wisdom applicable to many modern dilemmas. Come back Wednesday for more.
SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton, by Morgan C. Atkinson (hardback edition with DVD).
Thomas Merton remains one of the towering prophetic figures of the 20th century and, even if you have a shelf of Merton’s own books—you can’t beat this deal from Liturgical Press and Amazon.
On December 14, PBS will air a new documentary on Merton’s life and enduring influence, produced by Morgan C. Atkinson with assistance from Merton expert Jonathan Montaldo. This hardback companion book offers more than 200 pages of expanded reflections on Merton by a Who’s Who of leading religious thinkers, including Martin Marty, Huston Smith, John Dear, Rosemary Radford Ruether and others. Plus, a DVD of the documentary is tucked into a pocket in the back of the book.
Given the hundreds of thousands of small discussion groups in congregations across the U.S., this is a great, contemporary starting point for inviting a group to dig into Merton’s life and work.
Watch ReadTheSpirit, because we also will be featuring a Conversation With Morgan Atkinson before the anniversary and PBS air date.
JESUS: A Story of Enlightenment, by Deepak Chopra.
If you doubt that the spiritual world is changing dramatically, you only have to visit Anne Rice’s Web site to find a lavish, multimedia display that looks more like a shrine to evangelical Christianity (complete with Dr. James Dobson’s smiling face)—than anything related to the bizarrely erotic vampire novels that made Rice a world-famous writer. Now, Rice only wants to write about her faith—and about Jesus.
She’s not a Bible scholar, although she reportedly has tried to immerse herself in research. Nevertheless, her fictional books on Jesus are well received.
So, if Rice can do it—why not Deepak Chopra?
Frankly, it seems as though we are moving into an age in which new “gospels” are being written to offer us hopeful new windows into what Jesus’ life and teaching may mean for large segments of the world’s population left out of traditional Christian dogma.
Perhaps this recommendation sounds provocative, but I think it’s spiritually healthy to find so many popular writers focusing on a story that, just a few decades ago, literary lights considered too tired to contemplate further.
In any case, watch ReadTheSpirit—and soon you’ll hear from Chopra himself in a Conversation about his new take on Jesus’ life.
THE LOST HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia—and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins.
Returning to the ranks of world-class scholarship—Philip Jenkins is back with a new book and that means, to put it bluntly: Whatever it is, buy it and read it.
As a journalist who has circled the world covering the impact of religion for more than 20 years, I can count only a small handful of scholars I’ve encountered who are daring enough to tackle subjects as broad as Jenkins’ repertoire—and have maintained the top-notch reputation Jenkins enjoys.
In case you’ve lost track of his remarkable career, Jenkins is respected as a historian of the Cold War and 1960s America; he’s also written extensively about the pathology of crime; meanwhile, he’s charted the often rocky course of Native American spirituality in America; plus, he’s written about anti-Catholicism, the impact of emerging countries on the future of Christianity and he found time to write about the search for the historical Jesus. He’s also written about terrorism, the nature of public panics and the development of new religions in the modern world.
Startling, right? He’s in great demand because of the breadth of his work to date. And now? He’s charting a vast swath of Christian history that most of us have never encountered. This is a must-buy book for anyone who cares about the future of Christianity, because Jenkins shares some of the faith’s strange dead ends in the past from which we all can learn.
BECOMING THE ANSWER TO OUR PRAYERS: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
Here’s a second book that hardly needs our recommendation. A certain young and restless segment of our Christian readership seeks out anything new by Shane Claiborne and gobbles it up enthusiastically. I’m not poking fun at him. In my observation of his life and work, Shane’s “the real deal.”
He is, indeed, a “radical,” although not ordinary anymore, due to his huge following across the U.S.
He really is a prophet, stubbornly refusing to buy into a lot of the comfortable theology of mega-church, conservative, evangelical America. With his trademark bandanna tucked around his unruly hair, he truly hopes to rattle the pews of American religious life and get us out there actively working in diverse communities.
This is a little book, barely more than 100 pages, but it’s substantial. Here’s one of the pithier lines: “We are the ones God is waiting on. When we throw our hands up at God and inquire, ‘Why do you allow this injustice!?’ we have to be ready for God to toss the same question back to us.”
Prepare to be rattled—and read this book.
FOLK LIKE ME: The Read-Aloud Book of Saints, by K.M. Lucchese.
Now, let’s have some fun, shall we? Most of the first five books in this list might catch your eye if you wander through the Religion/Spirituality section of a good bookstore. But I’m now going to highlight some books you might never encounter without a tip from a friend.
The first is this delightful book from a longtime teacher and storyteller who has served up a holiday gift for families who want to enjoy the stories of saints. As a journalist who has interviewed thousands of men, women and young people all around the world, I can tell you this: Stories of saints rank right up there with popular religious songs and Bible stories as the solid substance of the religious culture that we share generation to generation.
Even people who live a good arm’s length away from organized religion enjoy connecting with stories of saints like the unexpected discovery of a letter from a long-lost, beloved relative. One of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century, Frederick Buechner, turned time and again to the stories of saints to renew his own life and letters.
We’ll run a fuller review of this book in coming weeks, but think about this as a gift for a family you love. Lucchese has rewritten classic stories of saints in short texts that are designed for read-aloud storytime.
EYE WITNESS: RISE OF THE APOSTLE, a Graphic Novel, by Robert James Luedke.
Hey, who says Shane Claiborne is the only radical Christian producing exciting new books these days? From my perspective, Robert Luedke truly deserves to be called a prophet, as well, because he is a leading light showing independent comic artists the way toward top-flight art and storytelling in the otherwise fairly secular revival of serious comic books.
There are many religious comic artists trying to produce manga, the small-format, Japanese-style books that generally feature highly stylized black-and-white art. There also are religious comic artists working in standard-grade comic book formats or producing black-and-white comic strips and panels. In contrast, Luedke is producing his multi-volume Eye Witness series on heavy, glossy paper in vividly designed full-color scenes. Many secular comic artists have produced similar books, but Luedke’s Eye Witness series really stands out among religious comic books.
True to the comic genre, his story features a contemporary tale full of suspenseful action and cliff hangers. But he has figured out a way to weave New Testament stories through his epic, as well. Think about a marriage of Indiana Jones and Eugene Peterson’s dramatically rewritten, “Message” Bible. Yeah, that’s right: Fresh, fun, faithful and frantically pulse pounding all in a single paperback.
SCRAPBOOKS: An American History, by Jessica Helfand.
OK, now you’re wondering where I’m heading with this list of 10 titles, right? What’s spiritual about scrapbooking?
Well, as a lifelong, journal-keeping journalist, I can tell you—plenty! Yes, I know that scrapbooking has become a heavily commercialized craft these days and it’s easy to make fun of people who obsessively cut-and-paste assemblies of paper mementos. (I write this as an obsessive cutter and paster myself.)
But, the truth is: Some of my own fondest and most spiritually revealing memories are associated with paper keepsakes. I’m talking about snapshots, hand-written letters, ticket stubs, notes scrawled on church bulletins, prayer cards, wedding invitations, baby announcements—and on and on.
We’ll write more about this really wonderful book in coming weeks, but the power within these hardback covers lies in the evocative choices Helfand made in her scrapbook samples. If all you’ve encountered, so far, are contemporary memory books assembled from craft-store templates, this book will blow open your window of possibilities.
Helfand has a smart eye for cross-cultural examples here, as well. I’ll bet this particular “coffe-table book,” if given to someone at the holidays, won’t stay closed for long. You’ll find people eagerly passing it around the room, leafing through the pages. And, we can hope, going home inspired to save just a few more gems that might spark creative memories somewhere down the line.
AN EYE FOR IRAN: The Photographs of Kazem Hakimi, introduced by James Attlee.
Let me put this particular recommendation in blunt terms: Before we bomb a people, perhaps we should meet them and explore their lives.
Since it’s unlikely that a large number of Americans will tour Iran in the next couple of years, we need to treasure those few books and films that capture everyday Iranian life. This isn’t my own slanted interpretation. Hakimi and Attlee introduce the book this way:
“With the United States and Iran once again squaring up to each other in the Persian Gulf and the actions of firebrand president Ahmadinejad never far from the news, ‘An Eye for Iran’ provides a welcome opportunity to view images that show the human side of a nation we are being led to distrust.“
It’s tougher to contemplate attacking a nation, when we explore images of children dancing in a park, a young couple meeting to talk near a fountain, women bartering over herbs at a roadside stand, a family washing a harvest of carrots in a stream near their home, an old man dozing after a sunny afternoon picnic and a young girl peacefully herding sheep.
ODYSSEYS AND PHOTOGRAPHS, by National Geographic and Focal Point.
Finally, our journey through these 10 spiritual books winds up with perhaps the most lavish and spiritually moving of the whole list. I say “perhaps,” because both “Scrapbooks” and this new National Geographic book are expensive coffee-table editions—and because inspiration comes in many forms. I was moved when I read “Maimonides” and the Thomas Merton book and DVD will touch you, as well.
But, just as I have been arguing in the last few mini-reviews here, I believe that one of the greatest spiritual challenges of our era is the need to re-engage our larger world with the kind of hopeful, constructive spirit that has nearly been drained from us in this age of news media that mainly serves up the latest screaming crisis of the day.
I am amazed that, in the midst of a slow implosion of print media and an uncertain future for brick-and-mortar bookstores, National Geographic is rising to the occasion with some of the most gorgeous, stirring books I’ve seen from the organization in years. I might have chosen National Geographic’s new “Visions of Paradise” for this list, as well, a collection of soul-stirring photographs from the far corners of the Earth.
Instead, I chose this historic collection of photographs the moment I spotted the enormous image from Afghanistan, spread across two pages of the large-format book. Taken in 1931 by Maynard Owen Williams, who died in 1953, this is one of the rare, surviving, high-resolution photographs of the giant sandstone Buddhas in remote Afghanistan, later destroyed by the Taliban.
Williams explored the area with ethnographers and archaeologists and made a small number of large-format photographs on fragile glass plates that had to be painstakingly carried back to the U.S. Although the sacred site now lies in ruins, there are a few places—like the pages of this new book—where we can glimpse the grandeur once again.
That’s the kind of spiritual adventure story that needs to be told and retold in our current generations and in the next.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)