The Image Top 50 Contemporary Writers of Faith

The Image Top 50 Contemporary Writers of Faith September 23, 2013

By Gregory Wolfe

Last week we posted a list of The Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith. We did so for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that there continue to be articles and essays proclaiming a dearth of contemporary literature that grapples with the age-old religious questions of our Western tradition.

We begged to differ, and we put out what we believed to be a pretty outstanding group of writers to furnish irrefutable evidence.

The response was electric. That web page was shared nearly 6,000 times and several dozen comments were received, including suggestions of a slew of writers people thought should have been included.

So we decided to post a new list—of 50 writers. Most of those we’ve added came from your suggestions, a few from the original survey we took, and a couple sprinkled in from our own editorial list of favorites.

We also felt this expanded version was worth doing because a list like this can serve as a valuable resource—it’s a cracking good reading list.

Looking at all 50, we honestly don’t believe the expanded list has been watered down by the additions—the quality remains, as they say, “world-class.”

Of course, as we noted last time, for all their popularity, lists are inherently flawed. This one is no different. Thank you for being such a vibrant, engaged community. You are the reason why Image flourishes.

The new additions to the list are boldfaced.

Pinckney Benedict, Wrecking Yard, Town Smokes, Miracle Boy and Other Stories

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow; Hannah Coulter; That Distant Land

Doris Betts, Souls Raised from the Dead, The Sharp Teeth of Love

Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth, Godric, Telling Secrets, Whistling in the Dark

Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection; Philokalia

Richard Chess, Third Temple, A Chair in the Desert

Robert Clark, My Grandfather’s House; Mr. White’s Confession

Robert Cording, Walking with Ruskin, Common Life, Against Consolation

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana, Learning to Die in Miami

Leif Enger, Peace Like a River, So Brave, Young, and Handsome

Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Plague of Doves

B.H. Fairchild, Usher; Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest

Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy; Exiles; A Stay Against Confusion

Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque; The Florist’s Daughter

Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow; The Pacific and Other Stories

Geoffrey Hill, Selected Poems

Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Absolute Truths

Fanny Howe, Radical Love, Come and See

Andrew Hudgins, American Rendering, Ecstatic in the Poison

Mark Jarman, Bone Fires, Unholy Sonnets, Questions for Ecclesiastes, Epistles

Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, Train Dreams

Mary Karr, Lit; Sinners Welcome

Julia Kasdorf, Sleeping Preacher; Poetry in America

Haven Kimmel, The Solace of Leaving Early, The Used World

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Bret Lott, Jewel; A Song I Knew by Heart

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking, Bodies in Rest and in Motion

Paul Mariani, The Great Wheel; Deaths and Transfigurations; Epitaphs for the Journey

Alice McDermott, At Weddings and Wakes, Charming Billy

Erin McGraw, Lies of the Saints, The Good Life, Better Food for a Better World

Les Murray, Subhuman Redneck Poems, New Selected Poems

Marilyn Nelson, The Fields of Praise, Faster Than Light

Kathleen Norris, Dakota; The Cloister Walk; Acedia and Me

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto; The Patron Saint of Liars; Run; State of Wonder

Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life, Three Gospels, A Palpable God

David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children; The Friends of Meager Fortune

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead; Home; Absence of Mind

Richard Rodriguez, Brown; Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me; Olive Kitteridge; The Burgess Boys

John Terpstra, Brilliant Falls, Skin Boat, The Boys

John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Roger’s Version, My Father’s Tears

Jeanne Murray Walker, The Geography of Memory, New Tracks, Night Falling

Richard Wilbur, Anterooms, Collected Poems

Christian Wiman, Every Riven Thing; My Bright Abyss

Tim Winton, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, Breath

Larry Woiwode, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Born Brothers, Poppa John, Acts

Tobias Wolff, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, Old School

Franz Wright, God’s Silence; Walking to Martha’s Vineyard; The Beforelife

Adam Zagajewski, Mysticism for Beginners; Another Beauty; Without End: New and Selected Poems

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  • Asher Gelzer-Govatos

    Thank you for adding Buechner. How he was not on the original list is an utter mystery to me.

  • Kim

    y’all couldn’t come up with an african american writer? not even just one token?

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Marilyn Nelson. She’s on the list.

    • SARAH

      Marilyn Nelson. 1 is not enough but she is African American.

    • STLKen

      Suggest some names!

  • Marilyn

    Li-Young Lee might be added. And Kazim Ali.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Absolutely. Great suggestions.

  • STLKen

    May I suggest Bo Caldwell, Ron Hansen’s wife? I’ve recently finished two terrific novels by her, The Distant Land of My Father and City of Tranquil Light.

  • Gregory Wolfe

    Needless to say, friends, we knew that a Top 50 list would hardly exhaust the candidates, so don’t be shy about suggesting yet others! We want this to be a resource for readers, after all.

  • Gregory Wolfe

    Also, while I feel the ache of failing to be fully representative, I will say that the list above does include American. Canadian, Polish, Australian, Cuban, British, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, gay, straight, white, African American, Hispanic, and Native American. And yes, it still fails to be as representative as it should be.

    • johnnyb

      a mistaken idea of what “representative” really means. Gene Wolfe was a real oversight; sad “science fiction and fantasy” is viewed as a genre/niche when it is as representative as can be. Many on Mr. Otto’s list I concur. I guess Endo is out as only “living” contemporary is the rule? Including Updike is laughable. But as you point out, a list is a list not an index! cheers

  • Jeff Cagwin

    P.S. Wangerin. Still missing.

  • Some great inclusions there. And now I have some further reading to do…

  • Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

    Muriel Spark, George Mackay Brown, Dan Wakefield, Mark Richards, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty, Tim Powers, Michael Bishop, Connie Willis, Michael F. Flynn, Stephen King…

    • Gregory Wolfe

      Yes, yes, yes, etc.

      • Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

        Ha ha, I know. How in the world do you narrow it down? G. M. Brown and Lafferty are the main two that I rue not being more engaged (or even known!) by a readership fascinated with writers of faith.

  • Rosemary

    Gina Ochsner! The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight is one of my favorite books.

    Also Alice Thomas Ellis passed away several years ago, and her most recent book was published in 1999, so perhaps she doesn’t qualify as contemporary, but she is one of the most underrated writers of faith, in my opinion. Her novel The 27th Kingdom is absolutely amazing.

    • Gregory Wolfe

      No arguments here! Love both. Maybe we need a top 75? 100?

  • F. Escobar

    Wait, and where’s Anne Rice? She is Catholic again, and she wrote a trilogy on Jesus…

    • Paul Adams

      I thought she had come and gone, renouncing Christianity in 2010, after the Jesus books and her memoir. (Fr. Barron did an excellent comment on her leaving Christianity.) Is she back again?

      • F. Escobar

        Sadly, you’re right, Paul… I got stuck on the idea of Rice as a Catholic revert after reading a piece from the New Yorker, but I guess she has come to argue for this “Christ-without-Christians” perspective that makes it difficult to associate her with Christianity any longer. Sad. I found Fr. Barron’s commentary (, and, yes, it was very good. Thanks!

  • ladydusk

    I think Patrick D O’Brien should be on this list solely for his book *Island of the World*. Others are on my wishlist, but are hard to come by. That book is life-changingly beautiful.