Rich in material for spiritual seekers, this diverse selection of titles invites Christians, Jews and Muslims to explore aspects of their own faiths, while allowing them—and curious students of religion in general—to look outward at the beliefs of other traditions.
Rooted in her own Christianity, Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope can be read through the lens of any, or no, faith community. Inspired by the wish that her late father had “written down everything he had learned here, whose truths he was pretty sure of,” Lamott boldly sets out to share “almost everything I know.” In the 14 essays that compose the book, she veers from the intensely personal to the philosophical, highlighting some of the ways joy and pain are close companions in life.
Lamott is nothing if not ecumenical, drawing on sources that include the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, a Coptic minister in Cairo and the Dalai Lama. Her breezy, self-deprecating style, as when she refers to her “nice Jesusy beliefs,” makes her insights simultaneously memorable and easy to appreciate. But don’t mistake Lamott’s casual tone for a lack of seriousness. She’s not afraid to grapple with some of life’s most tragic aspects and profound mysteries, as she does in the moving essay “Jah,” the story of her friend Kelly’s lifelong battle with alcoholism. Anyone reading with an open mind and heart will come away with more than a few nuggets of useful wisdom.
A SURVIVOR’S MORAL LEGACY
Before his death in 2016, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel produced a large body of work exploring themes of faith and doubt, much of it shadowed by his experience as a Holocaust survivor, which he chronicled in his memoir Night. Rabbi and scholar Ariel Burger had the privilege of a close personal and professional relationship with Wiesel spanning 25 years, including time as his teaching assistant. Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom is the account of their relationship and the changes it wrought in Burger’s life. In chapters organized around memory and activism, Burger describes his experience observing Wiesel’s classroom discussions, in which he drew on classic works of literature from writers like Dostoevsky, Kafka and Camus to challenge and gently shape his students’ thinking.
Wiesel the literary scholar, as portrayed in these pages, is both wise and compassionate, but Burger is quick to point out that his mentor’s mild demeanor should not be mistaken for passivity. Time and again, Wiesel returns to the importance of “reading literature through an ethical lens,” intending, through this process, to awaken his students and inspire in them the moral clarity and courage to speak out against oppression and injustice. “Listening to a witness makes you a witness” becomes almost a mantra in Wiesel’s tutelage. Burger leaves little doubt of his own commitment to transmit Wiesel’s teachings to a new generation of students.
A STORY OF FINDING SOLACE
Elaine Pagels, a distinguished professor of religion at Princeton University, is best known for her scholarship on the Gnostic Gospels, the secret religious texts discovered in Egypt and the Dead Sea region in the 1940s. In Why Religion?: A Personal Story, she brings to bear that scholarship to help narrate the tragic story of losing her young son and husband—one to a chronic illness and the other in a mountain-climbing accident—within the space of barely a year.
Born with a heart defect, Pagels’ son, Mark, developed pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal condition at the time, and died at age 6. Some 14 months later, while hiking a familiar trail near the family’s Colorado vacation home, Pagels’ husband, Heinz, an eminent physicist, plunged to his death when the path beneath him gave way. Either one of these tragedies would have been sufficient to upend Pagels’ life, and the doubled nature of these events devastates her. In this memoir, she describes an eclectic and personal religious history that exposed her to everything from evangelical Christianity to Trappist monasticism. In the face of these painful events, Pagels has an extraordinary, dawning realization that the texts to which she has devoted her professional life might also spark a personal exploration. As she notes, it “compelled me to search for healing beyond anything I’d ever imagined.”
All this is summed up in a moving and transcendent final scene, as Pagels receives an honorary doctorate from Harvard, her alma mater, and finds spiritual peace.
AN OUTSIDER ON ISLAM
In books like his Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography, Jack Miles has shown he’s willing to tackle big subjects. God in the Qur’an is the third in a trilogy of books about holy writings. Despite identifying himself as a practicing Episcopalian, Miles, who currently teaches at Boston College, approaches these works “not as a religious believer but only as a literary critic writing quite consciously for an audience crowded with unbelievers.” Above all, he’s determined to puncture the myth that every Muslim is a terrorist-in-waiting simply because they honor the Qur’an as sacred scripture.
In each chapter, Miles engages in a detailed textual comparison of a familiar story from the Qur’an and either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. One chapter examines Moses and the account of the Exodus. In the biblical version of the well-known Passover narrative, Miles points out the emphasis on the drama of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage and the start of their journey to the land promised to them by Yahweh. The Qur’an’s version “mutes the centrality” of that story, stressing instead Allah’s concern for Moses’ role “principally as a prophet of the eternal, unchanging message of Islam.” Miles’ book should inspire curious readers to engage with this sacred Muslim text.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.