"My Bright Abyss" by Christian Wiman

“My Bright Abyss” by Christian Wiman photo courtesy of amazon.com

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(RNS) Jesus, Paul, food, charity, and prayer were just some of the areas examined in this year’s crop of books under the broad heading of religion. Some of these titles rank at the top of the year’s best books, period. Others barely registered in the mainstream press, but are lavishly praised in their own fields. Here’s Religion News Service’s list of the year’s most interesting religion books, numbered but not ranked.

1. “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” by Christian Wiman

When he learned he had a rare form of cancer at age 39, Wiman was the editor of Poetry magazine, perched atop the nation’s most prestigious journal of verse. He was also a lapsed Christian whose brush with mortality triggered a return to belief, surrendering to its depth, mystery and wonderment. His poetic reflections on the redemptive power of art and faith are moving and evocative, yet unsparingly harsh on atheist intellectuals, self-righteous fundamentalists, and his peers: professional poets preening with the pride of peacocks. Addressing suffering and sorrow through the prism of Christianity, Wiman’s ruminations glow with the “burn of being,” his term for pervasive spiritual longing in a world of materialism, violence and loss. “Please read this book,” urged journalist Andrew Sullivan, of The Dish blog, in a typically glowing review. “It truly is an essential book for our times.”

2. “Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” by N.T. Wright

"Paul and the Faithfulness of God" by N.T. Wright

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In this magnum opus, one of the most prolific Christian theologians of our time lays out his case for Paul as a thinker on par with Aristotle and Plato. Clocking in at nearly 1,700 pages, including 70 just for the footnotes, this tome has been hailed as “magisterial” and is already being held up as the standard reference work on Christianity’s first and, arguably foremost, theologian. Wright’s vigorous prose provides an engaging introduction to the Judaism and Christianity of the first century. Wright contends that Paul’s writings are to be understood as those of a devout Jew who reworks Jewish redemptive theology around the figure of Jesus in the furtherance of “getting the Creation project back on track.”


"Zealot" by Reza Aslan

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3. “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” by Reza Aslan

If not for Aslan’s fortuitous Fox News interview — in which the creative writing professor was badgered on national TV to explain why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus — “Zealot” might not have made a dent in the public consciousness. Aslan’s premise, that Jesus of Nazareth preached socialism and plotted sedition against the Roman Empire, is not exactly original, and depends on a selective reading of the Gospels. But the YouTube clip of the Fox interview went viral and catapulted Aslan’s book into the best-seller stratosphere. Vivid and cinematic, Zealot offers a much-needed antidote to the ethnically sanitized, anodyne Jesus preserved in aspic in the Sunday hymnal.

"A Prayer Journal" by Flannery O'Connor

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4. “A Prayer Journal,” by Flannery O’Connor

Penned nearly 80 years ago, these private journal entries have found the light of day thanks to a biographer’s diligent archival rummaging. The secular literati are greeting this slender volume of personal meditations as revelatory; ordinary readers simply respond to O’Connor’s intimacy, openheartedness and humor. The pages reveal O’Connor, then in her early 20s and attending the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in 1946-47, pouring out her soul to God in a manner that is both naive and brilliant. She appeals to God directly as her confidant and confessor about her weakness for “intellectual quackery,” her burning ambition to achieve literary greatness, and her all-too-human foibles. The lifelong Catholic writer would become a pillar of Southern American literature and the foundations of her artistic vision are already evident here.

"Coffee with Jesus" by David Wilkie

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5. “Coffee with Jesus,” by David Wilkie

The cheeky, online comic strip that has gained a cult audience of 40,000-plus followers in less than three years is now ready to burst upon the world as a giftable, brightly hued coffee-table book. Jesus is the star of the show here, tossing sage and cryptic comebacks to goofball stock characters. Bob, hater of gays, addresses the coffee-sipping messiah as “the J-Man.” Lisa, who swoons at the thought of owning a Lexus, asks Jesus if the Antichrist is a Jew. It doesn’t end there: Complacent liberal posturing comes in for a drubbing, too. It’s no wonder the strip’s caffeinated savior says he’s often tempted to take his own name in vain. The wit is barbed, theology surprisingly relevant, and the overall effect highly addictive.

"God's Forever Family" by Larry Eskridge

“God’s Forever Family” by Larry Eskridge photo courtesy of amazon.com

6. “God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America,” by Larry Eskridge

The nearly forgotten chapter of America’s Christian hippy revival comes to life in this history of the Jesus People movement, a fusion of utopian counterculture and soul-saving urgency. Eskridge, a historian of evangelicalism, contends that the movement, born in 1967 in San Francisco’s legendary Haight-Ashbury district, laid the groundwork for the Christian music industry and eventual evangelical embrace of pop culture. This hippy paradise is threatened by a wolfish rival, the Children of God, an authoritarian sect that ensnares wayward Jesus People. The Jesus People phenomenon spread like blazes throughout the country, was captured on TV documentaries and made the cover of Time magazine, then fizzled out in the early 1970s as its members burned out, grew up and tuned back in.

"Going Clear" by Lawrence Wright

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7. “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” by Lawrence Wright

Show trials, forced confessions, penal colonies, re-education camps, humiliation rituals, secrecy and spying are the sacraments observed by the “church” of Scientology, according to Wright, a New Yorker staff writer who previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his penetrating look into another secretive movement, al-Qaida. This time, Wright sets out to answer a question that had long mystified him: Why would reasonable people, especially Hollywood celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, risk their reputations and surrender their lives to a stigmatized, totalitarian regime? He soon learned the secret: It’s easy to get in, almost impossible to leave. The lawsuit-happy organization’s undercover goons tailed Wright as he interviewed Scientology defectors, then pre-empted the release of Wright’s book by airing an ad during the 2013 Super Bowl. The book’s title, “Going Clear,” refers to a stage of Scientological enlightenment, wherein “thetans” (i.e., earthlings) empty their minds of self-defeating “engrams” (suppressed memories from previous lives).

"Eat with Joy" by Rachel Marie Stone

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8. “Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food,”  by Rachel Marie Stone

The moral imperative of food sustainability has turned many a well-intentioned dining companion into a locavore-vegan-forager scold obsessed with ritual purity at the expense of pleasure. From the Christian perspective, eating biblically should weigh not only the ethical and environmental implications of food production methods, but also such elements as generosity, friendship, gratitude and worship. Stone, a contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, presents a compelling case to tone down foodie righteousness with common sense and awe of the sacred. Confessing to personal struggles with eating disorders, Stone ends each chapter with lyrical prayers drawn from around the world. “Better the occasional meal shared with friends at McDonald’s than organic salad in bitter isolation,” Stone admonishes the new dietary purists.

9. “Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition,” by Gary Anderson

"Charity" by Gary A. Anderson

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Anderson’s study examines the concept of voluntary good works, almsgiving and philanthropy, which were not exalted in Greco-Roman culture but became paramount for Jews and Christians. Though sometimes trivialized as punching an admission ticket to the afterlife, charity was a holy commandment to the Jews, whose ancient sages devised an image of storing up a treasury in heaven. Aiding those in need became understood as making a loan to God, or an investment in the Creation, and trusting in Providence that the good deed would be redeemed at a later time. Anderson previously established his bona fides with “Sin: A History” (2009), and in “Charity” delivers a worthy sequel that traces the origins of a single aspect of belief that remains central in religious worship today.

10. “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” by David Nirenberg

"Anti-Judaism" by David Nirenberg

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Astonishing, lucid, searing, brilliant, and shocking are the terms reviewers have used to describe this sweeping historical analysis of an idea that is foundational to Western civilization and has proven impossible to eradicate. Nirenberg’s opus is not a catalog of injustices and crimes against Jews, though he cites more than enough examples to make his case; it is a comprehensive study of the ways the idea of Judaism, and opposition thereto, has undergirded theological, intellectual and political discourse for more than two millennia. Anti-Semitism, a close cousin, requires real Jews for scapegoating, Nirenberg contends, but Anti-Judaism is a much broader pathology: wielded by Christians, Muslims, artists, philosophers, political theorists — and occasionally by Jews themselves — to describe any kind of obstinacy, superstition, literalism and deviancy that is worthy of nothing less than contempt and annihilation.



  1. Another intriguing book on religion: Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark. Unearthing the hidden history buried beneath the surface story in the earliest Gospel. Find out where the story of Jesus really come from.

  2. Another lovely book about Jesus and food is The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes, by Douglas E. Neeland and Joel A. Pugh, published by Rowman & Littlefield. It delves into the background of the many accounts of eating in the Gospels and gives the social setting. Intriguing perspective on the times.

  3. “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now” is the sleeper book of the year. It focuses on the present earthly aspect of Jesus’ kingdom teaching. A real paradigm changer.

  4. Another great read for theological brainiacs is “Subversive Meals” which delves into the anti-imperial nature of Christian meals in the first-century under Roman domination.

  5. John Murawski apparently does very little research because the FOX News interview was an online interview, there was no TV interview. If Murawski can’t get something that simple right it makes me wonder what else he’s clueless about.

  6. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    3 books I liked reading this year are: “The First Thousand Years-A Global History of Christianity” by Robert Louis Wilken.
    “Crucified Again-Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians” by Raymond Ibrahim (His Coptic Christian family had to flee Egypt).
    And “Evangelical Catholicism” by George Weigel.

  7. It’s sad to see the book ostensibly about Scientology on a year-end list like this. I’ve been a Scientologist for more than 30 years and the characterizations the book makes about Scientology are so far from my experience — or the experience of any other Scientologist I know as to be laughable. And it doesn’t take 30 years of being a Scientologist to know it missed the mark. People around the world have seen a rush of new Churches of Scientology opening over the last several years, there has been an amazing expansion in Church supported drug education/rehabilitation programs and a virtual parade of successes for Church sponsored criminal rehab programs. What’s more, Scientologists are active in so many communities and professions these days that I doubt if there’s many, if any, degrees of separation for most Americans and a member of the Church. But this complete disconnect between the book and reality is not what makes the book’s inclusion sad. The tragic part is that a book like this, at least in some quarters, apparently wasn’t dismissed outright as an extremist, prejudiced tract. That says all too clearly that we have further to go as a culture to escape religious bigotry than we’d perhaps hoped.

  8. “Show trials … penal colonies … secrecy … spying …” Reading this review in the post I thought it must be some expose of Guantanamo Bay or the NSA. Instead it is just another big yawning lie about the Church of Scientology. ( See John Murawski’s endorsement, oh sorry, “review” of “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” by Lawrence Wright). As an active participant in Scientology for almost 40 years let me simply say that Scientology should be known for its good works across a broad spectrum of humanitarian endeavor, including countless hours of disaster relief across the planet, and highly successful programs for drug addiction, rehabilitation of criminals, and helping kids gain learning skills to name a very few. A lot of good folk get involved with Scientology to help their fellow man and to gain knowledge and insight into their own lives and spirituality and they stay connected with it because it gets results. I’d love to see for once an honest review and account of the truth about this religion and its good works. For some, apparently secret, reason the Washington Post has some other agenda. Meanwhile at least let your readers know that www.scientology.org
    will give them some of the other side of the story.

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