Several new books on religion and spirituality look at faith and God with both fresh and traditional views. From irreverent humor to pure devotion, these books follow Dorothy Day’s edict to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
THE ULTIMATE BEST-SELLER
The Bible is a holy text but also a revered work of literature; as such, it is open to consideration and interpretation by all. In The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages, editor Andrew Blauner collects musings that run the spectrum from irreverent to heartbreaking. Lois Lowry’s tale of family love and a tragic loss that has parallels to the Book of Ruth is absolutely wrenching, while Reverend Al Sharpton’s take on the Book of Psalms connects it to the lamentation over black lives lost today and ends with a bracing, “No justice. No peace.” Daniel Menaker mines the Book of Jonah for humor in a manner that must be read to be believed (a sample: “In truth I was much relieved later to learn that Jonah hath not gone, yea, all the way through the whale, if you knoweth what I mean.”). An introduction by Adam Gopnik, the inclusion of a poem by Robert Pinsky and a short story by Colm Tóibín break up the march of the essays. If one piece sings God’s praises, the next may well argue that He doesn’t exist. This is substantive reading that casts the Good Book in a new light.
OLD STORY, NEW TWIST
Another fresh vision of a central religious text comes in artist Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an. This illuminated rendering of Islam’s holy text—which took 9 years to complete—is hand-lettered in an angular style reminiscent of graffiti, with each passage superimposed over a scene painted by Birk and bordered in ornate blue, red and gold accents. It’s gorgeous, and will most likely be controversial. Some of the paintings depict people, which in Islam can be considered a form of idolatry. Yet Birk’s goal was never to rewrite the Qur’an, but to make connections between the text and the daily lives of Americans; without seeing representations of ourselves, that connection would likely remain tenuous at best. Scenes at a funeral or a beach feel inhabited and abandoned at the same time, and an aerial view of a city looks like a tweedy New Yorker cover but for the block of text in its midst.
Religious scholar Reza Aslan writes in the introduction about how, lacking a central authority like the Vatican, Islam is not the same from one place to the next. “Religion is water and culture is the vessel; Islam takes the shape of whatever culture it encounters.” Whether this American view helps to foster understanding remains to be seen; it is, however, a stunning work of art.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
This Moment Is Full of Wonders: The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh captures the Buddhist author and meditation teacher’s brushwork, much of which contains simple messages that grow in meaning with consideration. “You have enough” is surrounded by a circle that’s just slightly open at the bottom, as if to allow a little more in or out as needed. A single panel with just the word “Look” on it, is followed by a panel reading, “Look deeply,” with the second word much smaller and placed below the first as an almost literal instruction. These beautiful messages, rendered with care and a spirit of play, offer a gentle path to focus and contemplation. For their sparse design and construction, they’re remarkably rich.
Two pocket-sized volumes, The Illuminated Book of Psalms and The Illuminated Life of Christ, pair Bible verses with classic paintings that were either directly inspired or strongly influenced by them. The Life of Christ follows the gospels, and the paintings are by turns lush and romantic, then suddenly stark and frightening, bringing the story home with power; a rendering of the ascension that depicts two feet disappearing up into the ceiling would almost be funny, were it not for the fear and wonder on the faces of the witnesses. The flexible cloth binding, end papers and ribbon bookmark make these beautiful keepsakes, and the juxtaposition of art and text offers material for deep reflection.
Finally, all this talk about religion can make a person itchy. Commandment this and thou shalt not that, but how do you put all these lessons into action? Lori Deschene’s got you covered, with a little help from her friends in the Tiny Buddha community. Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges offers daily suggestions for a more friendly, loving and socially connected life. Ideas include making a small sacrifice for someone else (such as giving up your spot in a slow-moving line), people-watching with the intent to compliment everyone rather than judge them and passing along praise instead of gossip. There are questions for reflection, a cue to review at the end of the day and illustrative stories of the big results that can come from small actions.
While they’re not Buddhist per se, these practices put a practical spin on spiritual ideas, beginning with self-care and carrying it forward into the world, from friends and family to strangers. Take these challenges and help create more for yourself and those around you.