Fiction is good for the soul.
For me, novels and short stories — not theological tomes — have been the landmarks of my spirituality. Fiction has opened me up to more profound spirituality and a greater awareness of the world than anything in the canon of great Christian writings.
There’s nothing wrong with theology, of course. But personally, stories speak to my soul more. It’s one of the reasons why I love Jesus’ teachings. He tells us stories rather than offering systematic theology, stories that open our minds to consider new realities and that call us to ponder God anew in fresh and surprising ways.
Since it’s summer time, I thought I’d offer my top novels and short stories for deepening spirituality. My only rule for the list was that the book could not be in any way overtly Christian or religious. As a result you won’t find books like The Shack (which I didn’t like anyway) on this list.
+ The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier. More than any other contemporary author that I know, Brockmeier writes deeply spiritual and surprising stories. The Illumination was my first brush with his work. Essentially, the novel is an exploration of humanity’s woundedness. One day, for unexplained reasons, people’s wounds — their places of physical or even emotional pain — begin to emit beautiful, radiant light. Brockmeier traces how people’s lives change when their pain becomes beautiful and when other people can see the pain we hid from one another. Theological Pairing: Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer.
+ The View from the Seventh Layer. Let’s stick with Brockmeier for a moment. Because if you are short on time, you must read this collection of short stories. The entire book is arresting for its lyrical beauty, but one story in particular stands out. A Fable With White Slips of Paper Spilling from the Pockets tells the story of what happens when a man who accidentally buys God’s overcoat from a thrift shop. It is the best meditation on prayer I have ever read. Full stop. Theological Pairing: Process Theology (i.e. The Insistence of God, John Caputo or Alfred North Whitehead Process Reality).
+ Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdich. A masterfully told story, Last Report follows the story of Father Damien Modeste, a country priest on the remote reservation of the Ojibwe tribe. The story, set in the last years of Modeste’s life, centers on the creeping fear and anxiety of the priest who fears the discovery of his true identity, a woman who has lived as a man and a priest. It’s a brilliantly told story that deals deftly but not heavy-handedly with ideas of gender identity, ordination of women, and the lengths one might go to in order to live out a vocational calling in an institution that would reject you if they knew the truth. Theological Pairing: Undergoing God by James Alison or Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick Cheng.
+ Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Perhaps no modern American novel deals with racial identity more directly and skillfully than Adichie’s Americanah. The novel follows the path of two characters who leave their war-torn homeland of Nigeria and are then forced to grapple with life in a new country, one in the United States, the other in London, where they face for the first time questions about what it means to be black. Theological Pairing: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone or Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores Williams+ 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein. It’s a novel for skeptics, self-identified Christian atheists or agnostics. It’s also a great novel for the increasing number of pastors and ministers who find traditional belief difficult in the midst of preaching traditional belief to congregations but who still maintain deep faith and spirituality within communities of faith. Theological Pairing: Why Christianity Must Change or Die by Bishop John Shelby Spong.
+ Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillps. An eloquent and evocative exploration of European racial politics, Philips manages to weave several stories thematically together to create a portrait of outsiders throughout European history, from the Holocaust survivor Eva to the Moorish Othello who leads a Venetian army in the late 15th century. The novel, while challenging at times with its shifting story lines over time, masterfully engages the intersection of race and anti-semitism in Europe. Theological Pairing: The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann or Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest by David R. Blumenthal
+ Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor. What list about fiction and faith would be complete without O’Connor whose Southern gothic spirituality still shines and speaks today? I read Wise Blood at a time when the Incarnation was a theological concept I viewed with outright skepticism. But one scene, involving a mummified corpse, probably did more for changing my mind on the Incarnation than any theological argument ever could. Plus, there is a dark beauty about the nature of faith and doubt and the grotesque things that it can make us do. The rich symbolism in just this story alone would be enough to ponder for an entire summer. Theological Pairing: On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius.
+ Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A creative, tortured writer experiences an equally tortured reality. During my own times of darkness, Zafon’s series, particularly this second book in the trilogy, helped get me through. It’s a little pulpy at times, a tad over-dramatic, but it was exactly what I needed to learn to embrace my own inner darkness as part of my own creativity. Theological Pairing: St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, or Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark.
+ Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. This has to be on the list. I mean, if you can fictionalize the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin into a novel of such beauty and transcendence and win the Pulitzer for it, then that book has to be on this list. But more than that, Gilead is a contemplative work of fiction on life, death, and theology. Theological Pairing: Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin or On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
+ BONUS (UPDATED): The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I can’t believe I forgot to list this one initially. Especially since I’m in the middle of re-reading it. Russell’s tale follows a Jesuit mission to a far away planet where intelligent life has been discovered. It’s got everything in it, vivid and believable depictions of religion and the struggles of faith and alienation, the hubris of colonialism, the loss of faith, abuse, and the slow, unending process of healing. Theological Pairing: James Cone, God of the Oppressed, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, and Robert J. Miller, Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in English Colonies.
In truth, I could go on with almost every book I’ve read of late. But I’m interested to hear from you. What work of fiction has informed your faith and spirituality? What theological work or concept would you pair it with? What are you reading this summer to revive your soul?