The following are texts I’m suggesting for fellow (Christian) travelers this summer. Some are novels, some aren’t; some are books, some aren’t. The only unifying element is that I hope these texts may be of possible use or interest to you this summer, and that they might help you grow in the faith in the less structured summer months.
1) Silence by Endo Shusaku
My own favorite saint, St. Francis Xavier, arrived in Japan in 1549, and though his Christian mission there was not an immediate success, he nonetheless called Japan “the joy of his heart,” for it was there that he saw Christianity beginning to flourish before he died. In the next hundred years, especially among the lowest classes, Christianity did grow. 1550-1650 is still frequently known in academic circles as Japan’s Christian Century. More often than not though, this period is referred to as the time of Kakure Kirishitan, “Hidden Christians.” Many have debated what particularly was offensive about Christianity; was it its European trappings, its claims to universal truth, or its alignment with the lords that lost? No matter the reason, Christianity became a crime punishable by death post-1614, and roughly 6,000 people were killed in the immediate aftermath. Most Christians, though, were merely required to show that they renounced the faith by walking across an icon.
After Shusaku Endo returned to Japan from his time at university in France, he came across one such icon, blackened by the thousands of feet that had walked across it, and wondered if he too would have been among the fallen, whose footprints he now saw. That moment inspired this work, which Graham Greene called “One of the finest novels of our time.” A small, accessible book resulting from Endo’s oral tradition research about that time, it is a book equally influenced by Endo’s lifelong alienation from those around him. Between French racism, his religion, and the Tuberculosis he later contracted, Endo’s life was spent alone with God. This is the most powerful book I’ve read about the experience of being Christian in a fallen world.
2) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Just as I suggest Silence for those in unsparingly unchristian environments, I suggest Gilead to those for whom Christianity is a family affair. Almost a parable in its morality, Gilead is the tale of four generations of an American family and their encounters with God, history, and each other, between the times of Bleeding Kansas and the Civil Rights Era. About a series of fathers and sons between whom there is nothing but “loyalty, love, and mutual incomprehension,” Gilead is at once an incredibly tight examination of family relations and a sprawling tale of a country’s fitful romance with that old-time religion. As the New York Review of Books wrote, it is impossible to understand this book if you’re not immersed in the faith. As such, I certainly wouldn’t claim to have fully understood this book myself. However, it did win the Pulitzer (and the National Critics Book award), contributing to Marilynne Robinson’s unique status in American literature presently. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani has said that she writes “in lovely, angular prose that has the high loneliness of an old bluegrass tune.” With that in mind, I might just love this because it reminds me of my home state of Kentucky. However, you might just find this book reminds you of home too.
3) By Way of the Desert, compiled by Bernard Bangley
365 daily readings in scripture, prayer, and the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I thought it good to suggest a devotional, and this one remains my favorite to suggest. If you are a mainline or evangelical protestant, this book will probably be something very different from what you’re used to in a devotional … which I tend to think is a good thing.
And if you like that, you should inspect The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen.
4) Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition by James R. Payton
Quite simply, Orthodoxy and its 300 million adherents are a very important part of Christianity, and most all of us (myself included) know very little about it. Their history, exegesis, style of worship, method of praying, even the questions they ask about God are different from ours. And yet they are still incontrovertibly Christian. Written by a Protestant scholar of the Orthodoxy, this book bridges that fairly well in regards to telling us what we have never been told.
5) Paul: His Impact on Christianity by Justo L. and Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez
Written by the authorial (and marital) couple that produced a fairly defining, and also fairly massive, three-volume history of the Church, this book is not nearly so exhaustive. It can fit in your pocket. It can be read in less than two hours. Despite its size, though, it represents the best primer on what Paul means for us. Addressing authorial controversies, utilizations of Paul over time, and actual intent with clarity and brevity, I believe this to be an essential read on the second most important man in the history of Christianity. Caveat: This book is slightly old and as such, does not touch on all the recent innovations/deviations/restorations (depending on who you ask) in popular Evangelical thought.
6) Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment (if it comes out)
It’s always good to read encyclicals, just to keep tabs on the leader of the biggest group of Christians in the world. Also, no encyclical in modern times has been the object of more speculation than this one. What’s more, as Christians, we believe that the first task assigned to humans was caring for Creation. How Pope Francis weighs in on this discussion will be interesting to see.
If it doesn’t come out this summer, then please read it when does come out.
7) The Cloud of Unknowing (Bernard Bangley’s version)
This classic of the medieval church was written by an unknown English monk in the late medieval age, and focuses on the question of how one comes to interact with God. A staple of Christian mysticism, Bangley’s version renders the original in modern English, while keeping the wisdom of the old. Regardless of how much one plans to apply this to one’s own faith life, it represents a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of the Church (particularly Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite) and which influenced most Christian thought at least up to Luther and the Reformation.
And if you’d like a modern example of Negative Theology, and are feeling up to chewing through a longer book of pure theology, feel free to try: Cloud of the Impossible by Catherine Kellar.
8) Heretics for Armchair Theologians by Justo L. and Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez
In October 2014 article, “New Poll Finds Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies,” Christianity Today took stock of the wrong things we still so often believe. Conducting a survey directed at self-identified American evangelicals, they discovered that the early church heresies are alive today. In fact, a majority of American evangelicals apparently believe in Marcionism, Pelagianism, and Arianism (to name just a few). Of course, no one’s terribly to blame for that. Arianism was once the predominate view in the Church. Athanasius had to fight alone against it, and he was successful, but at the time, he was known as Athanasius contra mundi (Athanasius against the world) for it seemed as if the whole world were against him. Regardless, knowing what we believe, why we believe it, and the history behind these misbeliefs should be essential to anyone’s faith. This book, again written by the Gonzalez couple, also comes with illustrations. Top-class scholarship, early church heresies, and pictures – what more could one want!
(For Bonus Points: Read the syllabi of courses taught by Charles Stang, our professor of Early Christian Thought here at Harvard. Better yet, maybe you’ll find time to take a course with him! In my humble opinion, he’s fantastic.)
9) The Qur’an (but it doesn’t really count unless you find yourself a local mosque and get someone to explain it to you, in depth, over the course of a great many days)
The same goes for any other large religious tradition you might want to investigate. I believe that becoming fluent in another religion is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our faith. Perhaps you can find a synagogue or mosque or other religious center nearby to spend some time in over the summer. In my experience, if you phrase your request in a not-condescending, I’m-genuinely-curious type way, usually the resident clergy will be more than happy to teach you.
Perhaps y’all saw this coming, but the tenth book I’m suggesting is actually a great many books. This summer, it’d probably be good to try and read the Bible. How you go about that isn’t terribly my business, of course. With help from commentaries, or friends, and assumably the Holy Spirit, assumably this summer can be a time of continued growth.
Will Sack ’17 lives in Pforzheimer House and concentrates in East Asian Studies and History.