Whether written by an iconic Southern author in 1947 or compiled from emails written by a young pastor to the president in 2010, these gift books explore the enduring themes of spirituality and faith, reminding us that contemplating the divine can confirm our very humanity.
Spiritual thinking has been with us from the beginning, as The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained reminds readers in its opening sentences. While it may be difficult to come up with a definition for the concept of religion, “cave paintings and elaborate burial customs of our distant ancestors and the continuing quest for a spiritual goal in life” indicate its timelessness. This book offers a remarkable overview of major world religions through recorded time. Though the introduction acknowledges the difficulty of covering such an unwieldy topic, the subsequent pages are easily comprehensible, and even feel nearly comprehensive. Organized chronologically, the book opens with prehistory, moves through the ancient and classical beliefs (devoting the longest sections to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and closes with a selection of modern religions (such as Mormonism and Scientology). The material is both dense and broad, yet the book’s reader-friendly layout and clever graphics invite lingering. An impressive board of contributors (mostly academics) shaped this content. The result is a book at once egalitarian and open-minded, ideal for a visually oriented student of religion or anyone interested in scrambling up the mountainside of human spirituality and taking in the panoramic views.
GRACE AND ART
We move from the lushly panoramic to the intensely personal with Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal. Penned by the Southern Gothic legend when she was just 22 years old and a student at the University of Iowa, these pages reveal O’Connor at the very beginning of her professional writing career. She prays to get something published, to understand God better and to be free of an ever-present concern that she is simply mediocre. Anyone interested in creative writing or literature will be thoroughly charmed by lines like this: “I am too lazy to despair. Please don’t visit me with it Lord, I would be so miserable.” Though O’Connor is delightfully glib, she worries about some of the big questions of faith and finds few answers. The journal illustrates her complexity of feeling. She criticizes certain sentences because they sound “too literary” and strikes out others altogether. A facsimile of the original diary in O’Connor’s own hand lets readers in on her process and makes the book feel very intimate. The volume is quite short, but that isn’t a drawback. The material that is here is well worth reading. I especially loved the last lines, written in September of 1947: “Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.”
AN ECLECTIC REIMAGINING
During a 2011 retreat in Utah, a group of Jewish artists and writers found themselves hotly discussing Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Several admitted, though, that it had been a long time since they had really read a biblical text. Dialogue ensued and, luckily for us, so did Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, edited by Roger Bennett. After the Torah was divided into 54 sections—which reflects the annual reading pattern of many synagogues—each contributor created his or her own Dvar Torah (“word of the Torah”) for an individual slice. Their creations range from short stories to poems, from personal essays to imaginary recipes for “bloody guilt offerings.” There’s even a drawing detailing how the Tabernacle could fit in modern-day Manhattan. (Spoiler alert: It would have to be tilted on its side.) I especially like when contributors cleverly juxtapose the Torah and their response, as in Aimee Bender’s piece on the Tower of Babel. She celebrates how language defines individuality rather than lamenting the loss of shared consciousness. Brief biblical summaries preceding each Dvar Torah feel contemporary and edgy, and unify the collection. In short, these artists and writers can certainly now say that they’ve read—yes, even wrestled—with a biblical text recently, and readers can be counted among the lucky beneficiaries.
DAILY DOSE OF INSPIRATION
The President’s Devotional began as correspondence between a White House staffer and President Obama, and has since become a public daily devotional. Obama appointed author Joshua DuBois to be the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership in 2008. Since then, DuBois has emailed Obama a spiritual reflection every morning. The book pulls content from the best of these, providing readers one for every day of the year. DuBois opens each month with a personal essay. Some of these tell heartrending stories about our nation’s leader, as in DuBois’ account of Obama’s interaction with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. Other essays are more personal, as when the president encouraged DuBois to propose to the nice girl he’d been dating (he did). The devotions themselves are a diverse bunch. Some feature national heroes like Jackie Robinson and Johnny Cash, while others take inspiration from theological texts. The reader cannot help but wonder what was going on in the nation when certain devotions were emailed—like the one that extols the value of having a well-prepared army. Whatever the initial context, faith-filled fans of the president will want to add The President’s Devotional to their nightstands.