The holidays offer an opportunity to reflect on the past year, to give thanks and to consider what has gone before and what is to come. For many it is a time to renew faith, for others it is a time to celebrate faith and for some it is a time to encounter faith for the first time. Six new books approach faith—particularly faith in the Bible—in unique ways, two as studies of historical and cultural influence, and the others as personal encounters with God.
In Walking the Bible, author Bruce Feiler followed the account of the Exodus, the founding story of Judaism, through the ancient lands where it took place. But when Feiler returned to the United States, he made a surprising discovery: during America’s own founding, the story of the Exodus played a central role. Moses, the leading character of this biblical epic, stood out as a touchstone for social movements, political ideas, even popular culture. From the shores of Plymouth Rock to the hills of Hollywood, (America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story traces the path of Moses through American history, with interesting results. Some may know that the Exodus inspired the Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay and the marchers for civil rights, but how many know that Moses is quoted on the Liberty Bell? Or that the Founding Fathers cited Moses as their inspiration more than any other philosopher—even John Locke? As Feiler points out, Moses’ influence extends from our holidays to our architecture, while his character has defined American ideals of leadership from the earliest days. America’s Prophet is a compelling look at how our culture intertwines with one of the world’s oldest stories.
The Bible’s pervasiveness in Western culture is the theme behind Timothy Beal’s Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know. A professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, Beal collects significant Biblical passages that are woven through our history, philosophy and art. Written as a guided tour through representative selections—“The best bits without all the boring bits,” the cover declares—Biblical Literacy offers comments and questions to help the reader consider the Bible’s connections to modern thought. As such, Biblical Literacy is not so much a religious book as an exploration of cultural influences. Though Beal has a tendency to ignore traditional interpretations of some biblical passages, he makes a well-stated case that a knowledge of the Bible is essential to understanding our culture. His book will serve as a handy first step toward that goal—especially for the reader who may feel intimidated by “the boring bits.”
One woman’s experience with reading the Bible for the first time is compellingly recounted in Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels by Mary Gordon. A celebrated author of both novels and memoirs, Gordon was raised Catholic, but realized that although she had heard Bible stories for years, she had never actually read the Bible herself. She resolved to encounter the gospels on her own, reading the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which begin the New Testament and contain the story of Christ, and writing about her reactions. The result is a remarkable struggle of faith, as Gordon tries to reconcile the controversial figure of Jesus with her own “postmodernist” worldview. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes she stumbles, but her memoir of discovery remains intriguing throughout, both for the insight she gains and for the insight the reader will gain from observing Gordon in the process.
For millions, of course, the Bible is more than a source of history or culture; it is a guidebook for life. Best-selling author Kathleen McGowan focuses on the lessons from the Bible’s best-known prayer in The Source of Miracles: 7 Steps to Transforming Your Life through the Lord’s Prayer. McGowan uses a medieval labyrinth pattern from the Chartres cathedral as a guide for contemplating the Lord’s Prayer. The pattern, a six-petaled rose, represents six progressive concepts within the prayer—faith, surrender, service, abundance, forgiveness, overcoming—capped by a final seventh concept, love. Beginning with the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer, McGowan examines each idea, exploring how understanding and connection with God grows as the prayer progresses. It is a unique approach, inspiring both contemplation and reflection, and a compelling call to consider both the meaning and the power of prayer.
Equally compelling is One Simple Act: Discovering the Power of Generosity by beloved romance novelist Debbie Macomber. Through personal experiences and gentle stories, Macomber calls the reader to a life of generosity, both in action and in spirit. More than simply a message about material gifts, One Simple Act is a reminder that generosity is about sharing our lives, thoughts and prayers even more than our worldly goods—though that, too, has its place. It is also a reminder that the blessings of giving always outweigh the cost.
Rewriting your life story
Being open to God and others is a central element of Donald Miller’s powerful new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. As in his wonderful memoir Blue Like Jazz, Miller once again shares his life, speaking with honesty and humor. When two filmmakers contact Miller about turning Blue Like Jazz into a movie, the author is set on an odyssey of discovery. Forced to examine his life as a story, Miller realizes that he isn’t living one—he’s watching the world go by and commenting on it, but he’s not participating. Rather than living, he’s simply existing. Sparked into action, Miller searches for a way to bring “story” into his life—to live intentionally, with purpose and meaning, guided by God. As he goes, he encounters passion and pain, love and loss, life and death, and discovers others who, like him, are pursuing that same power of story.
Miller’s experiences are convincing, his words digging into the soul, forcing readers to examine themselves and ask the same question—“What story am I living?” Beautifully written with clarity and simplicity (though never simplistic), this book offers both conviction and hope. If you’ve ever wondered about the direction of your life, read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. You may find yourself, like Miller, beginning a journey you never expected.
Howard Shirley is the author of a collection of inspirational dramas, Acts for God, published by Meriwether Publishing.