Austin Carty, a Baptist pastor and author in South Carolina, wants you to read books. Lots of them. He even wrote a new book about this topic, The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry. He doesn’t just want you to read his book, and his advice can help more than just pastors. As he argued, “Reading is not just an informative act but is also a deeply formative act.”
Carty started his book on reading books with a confession about feeling guilty while sitting in his office to read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Was reading a novel really a good use of time? It was! And Carty’s book is a case for why people should read more, including more fiction.
“A commitment to wide, regular reading exposes us to so many new people and places and ideas and ideologies that — slowly, quietly, and continually — it enlarges our sense of the world and of what is possible,” he explained. “So, that’s my advice on fiction: read it. Read a lot of it. Then read some more of it. And all the while, trust that what you’re reading is slowly forming a deeper kind of knowledge in you than you’ll ever be able to fully articulate.”
So, with the school year ending, summer heat arriving, and fun trips to the beach or elsewhere approaching, we’re offering a list of “summer reads” to help you find a book to spend time with during these summer months. We asked some of our regular writers at Word&Way for their recommendations — including Bob Cornwall, who writes weekly book reviews for us (like last week’s review of Carty’s book on reading). We asked them to suggest lighter or inspiring reads for people to enjoy on a day off from work or school.
In this issue of A Public Witness, we both join with six other people to each suggest two books for your consideration. We hope you’ll find at least one good book to help in your own formation this summer.
Some Recommended Books
Here are some books recommended by eight Word&Way writers.
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. This true story about the wonderful cinematic tale The Princess Bride is a delightful and humorous book that any fan of that classic film should read (and if you don’t like the film, well, that’s inconceivable!). But don’t read this book in a physical format or even a Kindle version. This story is best absorbed as an audiobook. Not only does Elwes narrate his book, but when he quotes his fellow cast members you hear them in their own voices. Have fun stormin’ da castle as you relive the comedic fantasy in the kingdom of Florin.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. If you ask me to name my favorite novel, this will be the answer. It’s a hauntingly beautiful book. The narrative pushes you to keep turning the page, the writing is gorgeous, and the narrator is unlike any other. Set in the time of World War II, this book unpacks issues of life, death, and the power of words. And perhaps no book has ever hit me with the last line as strong as this one. But I can’t say much more because I don’t want to spoil the story. So, just read it.
The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar by Luke Timothy Johnson. As someone who mostly consumes non-fiction books, my summer reading will involve two autobiographies from Christian leaders with Georgia ties. I already devoured Johnson’s memoir. Echoing Bob Cornwall’s fantastic review of the book, my interest in the volume stemmed from using many of Johnson’s biblical commentaries in my own studying and preaching. Johnson did not disappoint! The book walks the reader through his devotional life and academic career, with the renowned scholar offering incisive comments on contemporary biblical scholarship and theological education.
A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story by Raphael Warnock. While some will dismiss his book as an exercise in political aggrandizement, those critics miss the bigger picture. Regardless of one’s political preferences, Warnock is an influential figure in both American politics and Christianity. As the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and Georgia’s junior U.S. Senator, he is vocationally situated at the intersection of religion and politics. I want to understand his story, while learning how he integrates those spheres and navigates the inherent tensions between them.
It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from A South African Childhood (Adapted for Young Readers) by Trevor Noah. Late-night host and comedian Trevor Noah shares his poignant tale of growing up in South Africa as the son of a Black South African mother and a Swiss-German father at a time when their union was against the apartheid laws. Noah weaves together humorous stories of his childhood antics with deep reflections on finding his place in a racially stratified society. Noah also discusses his eclectic faith background and how different members of his family shaped his beliefs. Noah’s ability to weave humor with challenging topics makes for an enjoyable read with many places for reflection. Read this book together with a tween or teen this summer for some deep conversation on race, family, and faith.
The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom by Andrew Peterson. During the long days of summer, we tend to find ourselves in nature more often, which makes this book a great reflective read. Peterson, singer-songwriter of Behold the Lamb of God fame and author of the Wingfeather Saga for children, teaches us to appreciate our time outside more. In this memoir, woven together with scripture, poetry, and lots of trees, Peterson not only recounts his experience of God in creation, but he also prompts the reader to reflect upon our own encounters with the Creator. Peterson models for us how observation of the seemingly ordinary can reveal God’s handiwork — a peaceful, easy read for a lazy summer day on the back porch.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel. Like all of Bechdel’s graphic works, this is a book you can read backward and forward, up and down, and again and again. This book is a graphic memoir that catalogs the author’s relationship to her own body over time. She has taken up eating routines, strength routines, meditation, time in nature, and various forms of asceticism. With humor and insight, Bechdel takes us on this journey with her and suggests that we pay attention to our own bodies as well. How do we try to perfect ourselves? What are we really getting out of our gym memberships? How is our work in the world connected to our bodies? Bechdel connects her search for perfection and mastery over the body to an effort to avoid mortality, and ultimately, she builds a bridge between her body and her spirituality. This book is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Anyone who takes this journey with Bechdel will be better for it.
The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays by Megan Stielstra. Stielstra writes about her fear. Or more to the point, her fears. She tracks what she fears at different ages and seasons of her life, from being alone to losing a parent to not being a perfect partner or mother. Running alongside these relational fears are the things she (and we) fear in the outside world: political violence, mass shootings, and the whims of the economy among other things. Stielstra asks hard questions that are worthy of pondering: Where do I keep my fear(s)? Why do I hold on to them? Can I use them to make the world a better place? Do I have to overcome them before I can use them? In a world battered by fear and uncertainty, it is worth spending some time with an author who has been thinking about how to live in such a space for years. Let her guide you. And as a bonus, she’ll definitely make you laugh!
The Rabbi Wore a Fedora (The Rabbi Daniels Mysteries Book 2) by Arthur Gross-Schaefer. What happens when a lawyer rabbi from the Central California Coast who happens to be an amateur detective heads off to Germany? While there, he faces the reality of the Holocaust while also getting caught up in a murder mystery to help solve. The book is written by a rabbi/lawyer/professor who has tried his hand at writing murder mysteries. In this second novel, not only do we have a murder to be solved but a series of interfaith conversations between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. Overall, it’s a fun read that opens up conversations about religion.
30 Days with E. Stanley Jones: Global Preacher, Social Justice Prophet by John E. Harnish. Although designed to be used as a month-long devotional, it can be used however you would like. Jones was once one of the most famous missionaries and evangelists in the United States. He is not as well known today, but his sincere engagement in interfaith work makes him a person worth reconsidering. He shared a fascinating friendship with Gandhi and a strong commitment to social justice long before that was welcomed. So, why not spend some time with him using this introductory work?
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. My late father, Don Clemons Edwards Sr., would always tell me as a kid that in this racist country you will never get what you want but you will get what you negotiate and compromise for. I didn’t believe it until I lived long enough to know it. Dad was right! Now enter into this discussion Tisby’s book and we have a summer reading and reflection program. From the “construction” of race in early colonial America to the Black Lives Matter movement, Tisby shows readers that our particular path towards slavery, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration was not a historical inevitability. For those to whom this history is new and in direct conflict with what they have been taught, Tisby includes guidance on how to endure the emotional process of coming to grips with American Christianity’s complicity in racism. Tisby also speaks directly to readers for whom the central claim of the book is not news and who have long known that American Christianity is tangled up with White supremacy.
Where Have All the Prophets Gone?: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America by Marvin A. McMickle. This book will aid you in gaining confidence in prophetic preaching, but you might lose a couple of friends. I personally noticed that White fragility often cannot handle biblical truth. This book is a call for preachers to learn the importance of keeping their eyes on the vision of Jesus and biblical prophets — that of doing justice, caring for others, and being equitable. To me, this is exactly the preaching we need in this post-quarantine quandary we are living through. If prophetic preaching is to be heard in proportion to the challenges and conditions that confront this country, preachers will have to find the courage to stand up and speak out against the people and policies responsible for those conditions. The words that must be spoken are not hidden in some unknown future. The words are rooted in promises made and values espoused in our past.
Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women by Alissa Wilkinson. You may know Wilkinson as one of the most knowledgeable culture writers covering the intersection of religion and film today. Her new book, however, represents an intriguing pivot to exploring the ways that what and how we eat can connect us to higher ideals like grace, truth, and joy. She takes the classic prompt “If you could have a dinner party with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?” and uses it as a framing device to explore the lives of figures like Hannah Arendt, Octavia Butler, and Maya Angelou. This book will not only teach you about how important thinkers and artists navigated the world but will also have you rethinking your own meaningful relationship to food, drink, and fellowship.
Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. A couple of years ago, I discovered that I grew up surrounded by a fascinating plant that I had previously never heard of: the pawpaw. This mysterious tree produces the largest edible fruit native to the United States, which tastes like the delicious combination between a banana and a mango. Despite its prominence in forests all around the lower Midwest and upper South, most people don’t know it exists. Moore uses this fruit as a window into the cultural history of this country from Native American cultivation to the contemporary foraging movement. And he just might make you want to romp around in the woods in search of a pawpaw patch when the fruits ripen this September. Sometimes we need a reminder that we are surrounded by enchanting things — we just need to make time to actively seek them out.
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris. There is no chapter in parenting books about what to do when no one can give you a definitive answer about what’s happening to your child or what is causing it or if you caused it or what this means for any of you. Harris’s memoir reveals what it feels like to live it. With unsparing honesty, deep wisdom, and delightful wit, she writes the awful but true thing: that life can’t always be wrapped up with a neat diagnosis and a happy ending.
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. Maybe Darius isn’t always going to feel like a disappointment. Maybe his family’s trip to Iran will be just what he needs to understand who he is and how he fits in the world. Maybe. This young adult novel makes sense on your adult reading list this summer. Khorram’s honest and sweet rendering of his characters will transport you — in the very best ways like the very best novels do — into lives that probably don’t look like yours, so that you can remember alongside Darius that “love is an opportunity, not a burden.”
There’s no common thread to these suggestions beyond stirring your mind and enlivening your spirit. Working your way through this list promises to make you laugh, cry, think, and relax. In other words, these books do exactly what Austin Carty described in his book on reading. They enlarge our sense of the world and what we believe is possible.
That is also part of our goal with every edition of A Public Witness. We want to increase your understanding of how religion, politics, and culture intersect, while offering new ideas and old reminders about living faithfully as a Christian in the world today.
So, if you like what you read and you’re not a paid subscriber, then consider upgrading today. If you’ve already done that, then we’d invite you to help sustain our journalism ministry through an additional donation. More than anything, we hope you’ll forward this email to a friend with the encouragement to consider both the books suggested here and subscribing for A Public Witness themselves.
Once you’ve done all that, go enjoy your reading!
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood