Best Faith-Themed Reads For Summer 2016

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I get a lot of free books in the mail. 

Like, a lot. 

 It’s one of the many perks to doing what I do for a living. (Other perks: pajamas count as work attire, book purchases count as tax deductions, zoning out on Facebook at night counts as “platform building.”) 

Most of these books come to me from publishers and imprints with a faith-based focus, so at the end of each week I find myself sorting through a stack of freshly printed titles on topics ranging from biblical interpretation, to racial justice, to faith and doubt, to “Christian sex,” in the form of everything from spiritual memoirs, to specialty Bibles, to coloring books.  (No “Christian sex” coloring books…yet.) With a newborn in the house, I’ve had less time than usual to comb through this spring’s offerings. Still, there were a few standouts that I simply had to share in case you’re looking to add some Jesus to your summer reading list. These were the titles that most delighted and surprised me. Enjoy! 

(Note: I’m not paid for reviews, but I am an Amazon affiliate.) 

#1 Pick…

How To Survive A Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin

I’ve long enjoyed Jonathan Martin’s perspective on faith and life, but How To Survive A Shipwreck caught me off guard with its remarkable wisdom and beauty.  This is such a poetic and profound book. Drawing from the rich imagery of Scripture and speaking transparently from his own experience, Martin offers a series of reflections on surviving loss, failure, and change with your faith and humanity intact. 

This one was competing with a newborn for my attention, so I’d planned to simply scan it for endorsement, but a few pages in I turned to Dan and said, “this is not a book to be skimmed; this is a book to be savored.” So I took my time, reading while I was nursing, and underlining entire paragraphs so I could return to them again (when I’ve had a bit more sleep!). 

Highlights for me include a chapter on sea monsters that invites the reader to confront the untamed forces in our lives, a reflection on the apostle Paul’s meal on his threatened sea vessel as Eucharist, and this quote on presence—“If we will attend to this moment, God will attend to us.” 

Get your hands on this book if you can. I suspect it will become one of the treasures of your bookshelf. 

Best Memoir…

Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman's Journey with Depression and Faith by Monica Coleman (Releases July 1) 

We interviewed Monica Coleman for “Ask a Liberation Theologian…” years ago, so I knew her primarily as a scholar. But with Bipolar Faith, Coleman takes her place as one of the finest writers in Christian literature today. 

To say this is a book about depression is to severely limit its scope, which includes arresting reflections on race, sex, womanhood, death, love, community, church, and faith.  

A master storyteller, Coleman knits together the personal and the universal, the particular and communal to tackle some really difficult, complex topics but in a narrative style that leaves you eager to turn the next page. We need more books like this in faith-based publishing. They would make us wiser and more compassionate. 


In Theology/Bible…

Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted by Richard Beck

Y’all know I love everything Richard Beck writes, but the man has simply outdone himself with Reviving Old Scratch. This is such a fun and insightful read! Lively, engaging, and super-relevant, Reviving Old Scratch revisits the theology of the devil and demons to forge a fresh way forward that avoids the conservative tendency to over-spiritualize the devil and demons on the one hand and the progressive tendency to reduce these powerful forces to social issues on the other. 

By understanding evil as a very real force in the world, Beck argues, we are better able to name it for what it is and thus to combat it as Jesus did. We resist the devil by joining the kingdom of God's subversive campaign to interrupt the world with love.

Even though I had two copies of Reviving Old Scratch already, I bought another one for my dad for Father’s Day and will likely be handing out more in the months and years to come. Next time someone asks me what I think about Satan, demons, or spiritual warfare, I’ll be glad to recommend something so simultaneously entertaining and challenging. 


Transformed by God’s Word by Stephen J. Binz, with Icons by Ruta and Kaspars Poikans

This unassuming little book sat on my desk for months before I casually cracked it open, only to be delighted by what I found inside.

Transformed by God’s Word combines the ancient Western practice of lectio divina (sacred reading) with the Eastern Orthodox tradition of visio divina (sacred seeing) by pairing reflections on twenty gospel readings with a series of beautiful, never-before published contemporary icons .

Each chapter takes the reader through six steps—reading, seeing, meditating, praying, contemplating, and acting—and also provides suggestions for self-reflection. It’s a gorgeous little book. I only wish I’d discovered this in time to recommend it for Lent.  



Justice/ Contemporary Issues…

Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism by Deborah Jian Lee

This book is billed as an examination of progressive evangelicalism, but to me it read more like a series of dispatches from “the margins”—where the Spirit is working in some mighty ways.

Lee’s reporting skills really shine as she features the stories of women, people of color, and queer Christians are rising up to lead the Church.

Rescuing Jesus is a thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling page-turner that gives me hope for the future of Christianity. Those of you who long for a more just and inclusive evangelicalism will be encouraged by it. 



 Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart 

While racism is certainly not an issue that can be tackled in a few days, Drew Hart has managed to write a really fine book about it that can be read in a weekend. In Trouble I’ve Seen, he addresses police brutality, mass incarceration, antiblack stereotypes, poverty, and everyday acts of racism by placing them in the larger framework of white supremacy.

It’s an uncomfortable yet incredibly accessible read—perfect for a book club or church group new to the topic and work of racial justice. I was continuously impressed by the skill with which Hart managed to call out all the b.s. that tends to surface in well-meaning religious conversations around race (“stop being divisive; we should focus on unity!” “why dredge up the past?”) while maintaining a tone of approachability and grace. That’s not an easy thing to do. 

Here’s the endorsement I wrote for the back cover:  "Drew Hart masterfully cuts through all the platitudes and good intentions to reach the fleshy, beating heart of true justice. An unforgettable read, Trouble I've Seen deserves the Church's full attention and considered action. It certainly challenged and changed me."


Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

For more than a year now, I’ve been savoring this translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, which includes an informative introduction and a series of delightful notes written by the translators to correspond with each poem. The poems themselves are of course transcendent, and revisiting them at this time in my life has rekindled my love for Rilke’s work and invited me to see it with new eyes. The narrator’s relationship with God in these poems is tender, complicated, dark, and disarmingly sincere. I would go so far as to say it is relatable— in deeply profound and moving way. Highly recommended for fellow “searchers,"

Rilke's Book of Hours has become one of my most treasured books. (Be sure to listen to this On Being episode with Joanna Macy)


The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World by Sandra Maria Van Opstal

I don’t think or write a lot about worship, but after four or five people told me I needed to check out Sandra Maria Van Opstal’s work on multiethnic worship, I had to check this book out. I’m so glad I did!

Van Opstal describes herself as a “Chicago-born, second-generation Latina and preacher, trainer, liturgist and activist passionate about creating atmospheres that mobilize people for reconciliation and justice.” That passion is evident in The Next Worship, which provides biblical foundations for multiethnic worship, with super-practical tools and resources for planning services that better reflect the sounds and colors of the Kingdom. 

While the intended audience is clearly evangelicals, Van Opstal’s ideas are so considered and helpful,  so persuasively articulated, church leaders from all sorts of denominations will benefit. As I read The Next Worship, I was impressed with Van Opstals’ prophetic confidence. I suspect we will be hearing a lot more from this woman in the future, so keep her on your radar!

Guides for the Journey…

Out of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey

I received my review copy of Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts at the lowest, most exhausting point in my pregnancy and so I never got around to writing an endorsement, which killed me a little because Sarah is such a kindred spirit. And if you’ve ever experienced a crisis of faith, or are in the midst of one now, this book is a must-read.

Written in Sarah’s trademark style—incisive yet gracious, personal yet prophetic—Out of Sorts invites the reader to walk courageously through the tough questions of faith with a maturity that avoids cynicism on the one hand and naïve acceptance on the other. The thing I love about this book, (and all of Sarah’s writing), is that she really gets the evolving faith experience and how it’s not just an intellectual exercise, but rather a deeply personal and consuming rearrangement of the self that affects body, soul, relationships, and identity. When you’re wrestling with doubt and disillusionment, the thing you need most is a friend who understands. In Out of Sorts, Sarah pulls up a chair and offers healing words of encouragement and help. 

Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad by Elizabeth Esther

If anyone knows the way out of an unhealthy religious environment, it’s my friend Elizabeth Esther. I love how this lady has taken the broken fragments of her past in a dysfunctional fundamentalist cult to piece together a roadmap for those who find themselves experiencing religious burnout. (If you haven’t read her first book, Girl at the End of the World, you must. It’s a page-turner!)  In Spiritual Sobriety, Elizabeth explores how religious fervor can become religious addiction and lights the path forward for those longing for sobriety. rarely is a single book this personal and practical. 

By Yours Truly...

Of course I love it when folks use the summer to pick up one or two of my own titles: Faith Unraveled, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and Searching For Sunday

On My Nightstand…

A few titles I’ve yet to finish, but recommend: Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark, The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper, and Boy Erased by Gerrard Conley. 



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