The best books on faith

3 authors have picked their favorite books about faith and why they recommend each book.

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Don't Give Up

By Kyle Idleman,

Book cover of Don't Give Up: Faith That Gives You the Confidence to Keep Believing and the Courage to Keep Going

It’s far too tempting when we go through rough patches in our lives to want to give up. When we long for something and pray for years and still wait, quitting sounds like the best option. I nearly quit writing after twenty years of trying to break into publishing because I didn’t think I could take any more rejection. 

In this book, Idleman points out that some people come to Jesus expecting Him to make life easier. But life is hard. Idleman says, “One way we know we’re running the race marked out for us is the presence of regular, unexpected challenges.” 

Joseph could relate to that all his life. I can too.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated with the subjects of forgiveness and reconciliation most of my life. I’ve spent years researching people of the Old Testament, and as I read their stories, I see their need for these things in their relationships. It is a universal need of humans. Because I write about people who actually lived, I read books that deal with the things we all face. Truth is, time may change, but the human heart does not. I’m an amateur theologian and avid reader of books that will help me grow as a person and allow me to understand these ancient people who walked before us.


I wrote...

The Prince and the Prodigal

By Jill Eileen Smith,

Book cover of The Prince and the Prodigal

What is my book about?

Joseph is the pampered favorite son of the patriarch Jacob. His older brothers, deeply resentful of his status in the family, take advantage of the chance to get rid of him, selling him to slave traders and deceiving their father about his fate. It seems like their troubles are over. But for Joseph and older brother Judah, they are just beginning.

While Joseph is accused of rape and imprisoned, Judah attempts to flee the memory of his complicity in the betrayal of his younger brother. After decades apart, the brothers will come face-to-face in a stunning role reversal that sees Joseph in a position of great power while Judah begs for mercy. Will forgiveness or vengeance win the day?

How God Becomes Real

By T.M. Luhrmann,

Book cover of How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others

This book instantly drew me in, since Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann asks a question I’ve always wondered about: how the mind—and imagination—work. Here she documents her work with groups that range from Wicca, Evangelical Protestants, Hasidic Jewish communities, to Santeria and hallucinating patients in mental hospitals. Through her research, she explores a kind of “imaginative play” that enables people “to experience the world as responsive and alive.” The book is a page-turner, offering amazing insights about cognition, anthropology, and about why—and howcountless people still powerfully engage religious traditions.


Who am I?

“And what do you do?” someone asked at a crowded reception at the NY Academy of Science. “Write—comparative religion.” Startled, he backed away, asking suspiciously, “Why religion? Are you religious?” Yes, incorrigibly—although I grew up among people who regarded religion as obsolete as an outgrown bicycle stashed in a back closet. While many of us leave institutions behind, identifying as “spiritual, not religious,” I’ve done both—had faith, lost it; then began exploring recent discoveries from Israel and Egypt—Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian “secret gospels,” Buddhist practices, asking, Why is religion still around in the twenty-first centuryWhat I love is how such stories, art, music, and rituals engage our imagination and illuminate our experience.


I wrote...

Why Religion? A Personal Story

By Elaine Pagels,

Book cover of Why Religion? A Personal Story

What is my book about?

I wrote this short, intensely personal, book  to sort out a question: after growing up in a secular, scientific post-religious family, in high school, went with some friends to an evangelical “Crusade for Christ,” and, to my own surprise and my parents’ shock, I fell right in: got “born again.” To my surprise, that opened up a new dimension of experience that I’d previously met in music, dance, poetry—until, a year later, the “Christian friends” at the evangelical church told me that a close friend who’d just been killed in a car crash was “going to hell” because he was Jewish. Shocked, I asked, "Wasn’t Jesus Jewish?" That didn’t seem to matter: I left immediately, and never went back. 

Devotion

By Dani Shapiro,

Book cover of Devotion

When I teach creative nonfiction writing, I tell my students that the more personal you can make your story, the more deeply readers will connect with it. Broad generalizations just won’t do. Devotion by Dani Shapiro is one of those intimate, inward-looking memoirs that opens the reader to her own journey, even if that journey is completely unlike Shapiro’s own quest. In Devotion, Shapiro is struggling to help her infant son who has a life-threatening illness, while simultaneously undertaking a search for what she believes, for her faith. Her prose is lyrical. Her insights wash over you like ancient truths. By the end of the book, you will feel entertained, but also enlightened.


Who am I?

In 2010, Sandra A. Miller began hunting for a chest of gold coins buried in New York City soil. In her late forties at the time, she was mired in the process of helping her ailing mother to die, her teenage children to fly, and her writing career to survive the beating it had taken in the Great Recession and beyond. Soon enough, Sandra realized she was not just hunting for a treasure chest full of gold, but rather a different kind of riches. She had lost herself and needed to find a spiritual path that would lead her back home.


I wrote...

Trove: A Woman's Search for Truth and Buried Treasure

By Sandra A. Miller,

Book cover of Trove: A Woman's Search for Truth and Buried Treasure

What is my book about?

Trove is the story of a wife, mother, and writer whose life is upended when she begins an armchair treasure hunt—a search for $10,000 worth of gold coins buried in New York City, of all places with a man who, as she points out, is not her husband. In this eloquent, hilarious, multi-award-winning memoir, Sandra A. Miller grapples with the regret and confusion that so often accompanies middle age, and the shame of craving something more when she has so much already.

In a very real way, Miller has spent her life hunting for buried treasure. As a child, she trained herself to find things: dropped hair clips, shiny bits of broken glass, discarded lighters. Looking to escape from her volatile parents and often unhappy childhood, Miller found deeper meaning, and a good deal of hope, in each of these objects. Now an adult and facing the loss of her last living parent her mother who is at once cold, difficult, and wildly funny Miller finds herself, as she so often did as a little girl, pressed against a wall of her own longing. Her search for gold, which soon becomes an obsession, forces her to dredge up painful pieces of her past, confront the true source of her sorrow, and finally discover what it is she has been looking for all these years.

Matrix

By Lauren Groff,

Book cover of Matrix

Matrix pulled me in immediately. I loved the realness of the setting: the mud and the cold and the food and the smells. Life in the middle ages wasn’t easy, and Groff’s novel doesn’t try to romanticize that. I also loved the protagonist, a woman who gradually builds a position of power for herself. Groff explores sexuality and desire, community and meaning, religion and power on a scale that is both personal and profound.


Who am I?

I’ve been reading fiction set in the middle ages since…well, since I could read! Tales of Arthur and his knights featured largely on my childhood bookshelves. In graduate school, I got the chance to study both the literature and the religion of the middle ages and read up on the source texts. Reading literature from the period itself – whether saints’ lives or poems or travel tales – made me realize how rich the age was, and how few stories we tend to retell. I became passionate about writing more about the experiences of those who didn’t fit the mainstream expectations of gender and sexuality. There are a wealth of tales that need to be retold.


I wrote...

The Story of Silence

By Alex Myers,

Book cover of The Story of Silence

What is my book about?

There was once, long ago, a foolish king who decreed that women should not, and would not, inherit. Thus when a girl-child was born to Lord Cador – Merlin-enchanted fighter of dragons and Earl of Cornwall – he secreted her away: to be raised a boy so that the family land and honour would remain intact. That child’s name was Silence.

Silence must find their own place in a medieval world that is determined to place the many restrictions of gender and class upon them. With dreams of knighthood and a lonely heart to answer, Silence sets out to define themselves. Soon their silence will be ended.

Listening to Your Life

By Frederick Buechner,

Book cover of Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner

Fred Buechner writes, “Listen to your life. All moments are key moments.” These 366 short writings taken from the works and books of Frederick Buechner are rich and deep. A few moments with a daily reading can shift my perspective from an earthly one to an eternal one. I come back to his books often to absorb his wisdom and the example of his faith. One of Buechner’s great strengths is his gift of storytelling which permeates the readings giving life to the words and wisdom.


Who am I?

Books have been an important part of my faith journey. I set aside time each morning to read scripture, and devotional material, to meditate and pray. As I read about the experiences of others my faith increases and I know God better. As a writer I express my own faith through words and invite others to know God better by experiencing Him with time set aside in the mornings. More Love is part of a series of small books that I have created to give readers experiences to connect with God and to know His love. 


I wrote...

More Love: Experiencing God's Love

By Betsy Duffey,

Book cover of More Love: Experiencing God's Love

What is my book about?

Have you wondered about God? For those who have never known God, those who desire a deeper connection with God, or those who feel unworthy of love, this book is for you. More Love provides 30 short exercises, prayers, and reflections to help you experience God’s love. Through prayer, breathing, and imagery you can draw closer to God and experience His love.

A Confession

By Leo Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude (translator),

Book cover of A Confession

This is a riveting read for people (like me, maybe you) impatient with second-hand dogma, driven to search for what resonates as authentic. Here the famous author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina tells his own story: how even enormous creative success, wealth, family, and worldwide fame, could not prevent a midlife crisis. Tolstoy tells how he narrowly escaped his inclination toward suicide, then began to discover a spiritual dimension in his own life. After first resolving to rejoin the Orthodox Christian church, he rejected that option, “since I couldn’t believe all they said,” then engaged in his own—unconventional—process of spiritual discovery. 


Who am I?

“And what do you do?” someone asked at a crowded reception at the NY Academy of Science. “Write—comparative religion.” Startled, he backed away, asking suspiciously, “Why religion? Are you religious?” Yes, incorrigibly—although I grew up among people who regarded religion as obsolete as an outgrown bicycle stashed in a back closet. While many of us leave institutions behind, identifying as “spiritual, not religious,” I’ve done both—had faith, lost it; then began exploring recent discoveries from Israel and Egypt—Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian “secret gospels,” Buddhist practices, asking, Why is religion still around in the twenty-first centuryWhat I love is how such stories, art, music, and rituals engage our imagination and illuminate our experience.


I wrote...

Why Religion? A Personal Story

By Elaine Pagels,

Book cover of Why Religion? A Personal Story

What is my book about?

I wrote this short, intensely personal, book  to sort out a question: after growing up in a secular, scientific post-religious family, in high school, went with some friends to an evangelical “Crusade for Christ,” and, to my own surprise and my parents’ shock, I fell right in: got “born again.” To my surprise, that opened up a new dimension of experience that I’d previously met in music, dance, poetry—until, a year later, the “Christian friends” at the evangelical church told me that a close friend who’d just been killed in a car crash was “going to hell” because he was Jewish. Shocked, I asked, "Wasn’t Jesus Jewish?" That didn’t seem to matter: I left immediately, and never went back. 

Don't Quit! Your Faith Will See You Through

By Kenneth W. Hagin,

Book cover of Don't Quit! Your Faith Will See You Through

There have definitely been times in my life that I wanted to quit! Can you identify? I keep this book handy for days like those, and every time I grab it and read it, my faith gets renewed and I get encouraged enough to keep going. This book shows how to develop faith that won't quit – and if we don’t quit, we win in Jesus! 


Who am I?

I’ve been a writer for most of my life, and when a publisher approached me to write a book, they asked me to write about how I managed to overcome the death of my husband at such a young age and move forward into a successful life. I meet people all the time who have had hard things happen, and I wanted to help them get past the pain. Hard times don’t have to be the end of the story! They can strengthen us and equip us to help others. That’s why I love books about how to keep going in times of trouble and overcome.  


I wrote...

Why, God, Why ?: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense

By Karen Jensen Salisbury,

Book cover of Why, God, Why ?: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense

What is my book about?

When I was 37, my husband (a pastor, also 37 and father of our two sons) died suddenly in our bed on New Year’s night. He hadn’t been sick – he just went to bed and went to heaven. And I had questions! Sometimes things happen in life that completely shatter us – we can’t make sense of it. Not only death, but other life-changing events and devasting disappointments. We just didn’t see it coming, and now we don’t know how to go on. I wrote this book years later – it’s a testimony of how God brought my sons and me through, and how you can ask Him all your tough questions and move forward. I call it “a manual for getting past the pain.” 

The Third Angel

By Alice Hoffman,

Book cover of The Third Angel

This one is all about the enchantment and disenchantment that comes with love. In it, women fall for the wrong sort of man and a grieving mother grows “belladonna, thorn apple, hemlock, black nightshade...everything poisonous” in her garden. The story is told in reverse until it comes to 12-year-old Lucy Green in 1952 who blames herself for a tragic accident, then spends forty years looking for the angel she hopes will renew her faith.

Who am I?

I grew up in northern Wisconsin, where a love of books set my imagination on fire as I waited out the long, cold winters. Southern writers were my favorites because they took me from the plains of my northern home to a landscape vined in lushness, where people had names like Scout, Calpurnia, and Battle Fairchild; where places had names like Yoknapatawpha, and where a streetcar was named Desire. I got lost in that place of different constellations with its mint julep and velvet evenings, and its readiness to accept magic. It wasn’t until my children were grown that I finally earned bachelor's and master’s degrees, and determined that I would be a writer.


I wrote...

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

By Rita Leganski,

Book cover of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

What is my book about?

Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead. No one knew that his silence was filled with resonance—a miraculous gift of rarefied hearing that encompasses the Universe of Every Single Sound. He can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops. Then one day he hears the voice of his father, who’d been shot dead by a crazy man known only as the Wanderer before Bonaventure was even born. This special little boy would find the key to buried mysteries and soothe a chorus of family secrets that were clamoring to be healed.

The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory

By Jorge Luis Borges, Andrew Hurley (translator),

Book cover of The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory

I love anything that explores issues of identity, how we define ourselves and others. Throw in a subtle questioning of the ‘truth’ of our most treasured memories, and I am completely hooked. Jorge Louis Borges does all that in this irresistible short story where it is possible for a person to have access to Shakespeare’s memory. As wondrous as this sounds for scholars of Shakespeare’s work, the reality is actually much more mundane and troubling.


Who am I?

When I first saw Shakespearean text, I could not get how anyone related to things written so many centuries ago. It took me several years before my soul awakened to these words that now felt fresh, like they could have been whispered to me that very day by a best friend who understood all the pain and all the laughter of my life. Very little is known about the man himself leaving writers a lot of room to create their own version of Shakespeare. I know my Shakespeare is just that: my magical, enigmatic, wise Shakespeare. It’s exciting to see how others give him life in their own stories.


I wrote...

Airy Nothing

By Clarissa Pattern,

Book cover of Airy Nothing

What is my book about?

John has always seen things others could not see. He runs away to fabled London to find his fortune, but all he finds are grimy streets, rife with hangings and disease. Black Jack is a fast-talking pickpocket ready to show John a new life in the big city. When John first sees Shakespeare's wondrous Globe theatre, he becomes convinced that this is where he truly belongs. But can Black Jack resist the urge to make some easy coin off of his new, naïve friend? And can John step up to the stage before the beast of the city swallows them both? Airy Nothing is a magical period tale of two boys finding friendship, love, and acceptance in seething Elizabethan London.

Soul of Doubt

By Dominic Erdozain,

Book cover of Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx

This is a wonderfully mind-expanding book which gently takes the history of philosophy that you think you know and turns it on its head. Most of the great critics of Christianity – Spinoza, Voltaire, Tom Paine, they’re all here – were not really, it turns out, atheists trying to tear it all up: they were idealistic, reforming believers who weren’t satisfied with churchy orthodoxies and wanted to purify religions that they thought had become corrupted. That made them maybe even fiercer in their criticisms, and it certainly meant they had unleashed forces they couldn’t control. But it means the moral force that drove anti-religious criticism during the Enlightenment was the desire, not to destroy religion, but to perfect it.


Who am I?

I’m a recovering atheist: a Christian convert who has more sympathy with some of my former atheist brethren than with a lot of my fellow believers. And I’m a historian by trade, which means I believe in the importance of trying to get inside the heads of people living in very different times – but who were still people. I’ve chosen polemical books by atheists and by believers, but in my own writing I try to get sympathetically inside the heads of both. I find that I get on better if I listen to the other side rather than banging the drum for my own – whichever ‘my own side’ is.


I wrote...

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

By Alec Ryrie,

Book cover of Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

What is my book about?

We think we know the history of faith: how Christian belief declined as philosophy and science blossomed and a secular age dawned. But human beings, intuitive creatures that we are, don’t actually make decisions that way. The choices that really matter for our lives are ones we make emotionally, with our whole selves. It’s true when people choose faith; and it’s true when people reject it.

This book is a history of atheism with the emotion put back in: a story of how anger at a corrupt priest or anxiety in a turbulent moment have kindled religious doubt, a story that reaches much further back into the past than we normally think and which still drives what how we believe and how we doubt today.

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