Summer reading: a collegial sampler
by Rosemary Bray McNatt
For many of us, summer means not only a chance to abandon the indoors or break
free of our everyday routines. It's also an opportunity to become "well read"
once again -- a fantasy of particular power for those of us in the ministry. Our
summers typically include one month of "study leave," those magic days before
the start of the church year in which we attempt at last to peruse the many
books we swore we'd get to soon.
So it's not surprising that, when I surveyed ministers on the Unitarian
Universalist Ministers Association chat line about the books they were
currently reading -- or planned to read -- my colleagues spoke wistfully of books
stacked in ministers' studies, on dining room tables, or by the bed waiting to
be read in idle hours that never seem to come.
Time, love, history, memory, faith, justice -- these are the themes that surfaced
during my unscientific survey. Several books surfaced more than once in my
inquiry, perhaps reflecting some part of the Zeitgeist in our congregations.
Yet there were many other books that represented no particular pattern. But
enough from me. Let a few of my ministerial colleagues tell you in their own
words what books have contributed most to their thinking, preaching, and living
throughout this year, and what books they expect to inspire them and their
parishioners in the months ahead.
who serves as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the New
River Valley in Blacksburg, Virginia, recommends Robert Grudin's
Time and the Art of Living
(Mariner Books, 1997; paper, $12.) "This is not another
manage-your-time-better book," Brownlie says. "Grudin talks about our
conceptions of time and the problems that come from seeing time in fragments
rather than as a continuum. His focus is on 'natural time,' and the small
events and patterns of daily life, not psychological theories and dysfunction
or trauma. The book is comprised of many brief observations, metaphors, and
aphorisms along with a very few lists of mental exercises to help the reader
connect more deeply to memory, dispel anxiety about future events, and look to
the future with intention."
associate minister of the First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts, says
that Eugene L. Pogany's
In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith after the Holocaust
(Viking, 2000; $25.95) caught her attention in a local independent bookstore.
"The title pretty well says it: these are identical twin brothers, born in
Hungary to Jewish parents who convert to Christianity, change their name from
Popper to Pogany, and raise their children in the Catholic Church. One of the
brothers, Gyorgy, becomes a Catholic priest. The other, Miklos, is sent to a
concentration camp. He renounces his baptism after 25 years and becomes a
practicing Jew. Miklos's son, a practicing Jew and a therapist, tells their
Spencer also reports being "distracted" by Gail Godwin's novel
(Ballantine Books, 1999; $14), "a well-crafted, well-researched novel about a
female Episcopal priest in the mountains of North Carolina. I devoured it in a
few satisfying gulps!"
serves the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County, Lincroft,
New Jersey. "I've just read Randall N. Robinson's
The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks
(Plume, 2001; $13), a succinct look at why we cannot end systemic racism until
certain reparations are made by white America to black America. The author
gives cogent examples of what transformations are necessary: teaching African
American history in ways that stop portraying slave history (a victimized
people in relationship with whites) as all there is; remaking the iconography
of the nation's monuments and museums; forgiving debt in Africa so that it can
recover its pre-slavery and pre-colonization greatness; dismantling the 'war on
drugs'; and providing monetary payment for unpaid work and for suffering."
Hepler reports that the book is "beautifully written and politically useful."
She says that Robinson helps answer the question: "Now that we understand
systemic racism and white privilege, what can we actually do to dismantle it?"
The book has fueled one sermon already.
Stewart Brand's book
The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer
(Basic Books, 2000; $13) "has been keeping me company lately, especially when
I see cultural shifts that put me in despair," writes
minister of the First Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts. "Brand is building a
computer that will be the world's slowest clock, and with this metaphor he
reminds us that 'good things happen slowly.' These ideas are an antidote to my
own pathologically short attention span, and remind me to shape my attention to
the 'long clock of now.'"
One book at the bedside of
James Ishmael Ford,
minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, is Jack
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path
(Bantam Books, 2000; $24.95). "It comes to me highly recommended by several
friends," Ford says. "And while so far I've only poked through it a bit, it
does look like a worthy successor to his contemporary spiritual classic,
A Path With Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life
(Bantam Books, 1993; $15.95.)"
minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California,
recommends Karen Armstrong's
The Battle for God
(Ballantine Books, 2001; $15). "Armstrong is her usual erudite self," Collier
says. "She takes on the development of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim
fundamentalism from the late 15th century until the present. She concludes that
we should not be surprised at the rise of fundamentalism: it appears whenever
people forget the essential connection between our mythic consciousness and our
rational consciousness and become afraid for their cultural identity. The rise
of modern -- read Enlightenment -- thinking and European imperialism brought about
both of these conditions."
If modernity has led some people to fundamentalism, it has led others away from
Scott Gerard Prinster,
minister of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan
in Portage, recently preached a sermon on atheism. He says that James Turner's
Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985; $18.95) "was an excellent resource."
Collier also recommended Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories,
The Toughest Indian in the World
(Grove Press, 2001; $12). The stories "range from realism to surrealism, and
from tender love stories to expressions of anger and despair among Native
Americans. Alexie is, to my ear, one of the finest of the marvelous crop of
young Native American writers," a sentiment evidently shared by
minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Washington. She adds
that "if you ever get a chance to hear him live it's worth whatever effort it
takes to get there. Alexie is a local hero -- grew up on the nearby
reservation -- so there's always a full house when he's around. I also recommend
his marvelous movie,
(directed by Chris Eyre; Miramax, 1998.)"
minister of the First Parish Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is currently
reading James Carroll's book,
Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History
(Houghton Mifflin, 2001; $28). "It's as much personal essay as history, full
of interesting insights. The one thing I found distracting is that Carroll
spends an awful lot of time apologizing for being Catholic and a
Christian -- though I suppose, given the premise of the book, which is the
development and current role of anti-Semitism in the Church, maybe it's
appropriate to be doing a mea culpa."
Melanie Morel Sullivan,
minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee,
recommends several books. Barbara Kingsolver's novel,
(HarperCollins, 2000; $26) is a "wonderful book about love's second, and
third, chances. Who'd've thunk a book about two intertwined romances could
teach me so much about insects and the ecology -- and that I'd love it?" On to
Melinda Haynes's novel
Mother of Pearl
(Washington Square Press, 2000; $13.95): "an astounding first novel set in
Mississippi, with a fabulous assortment of white, black, straight, and gay
characters. This was one of the Oprah's picks, but don't let that turn you
off." Sullivan also recommends bell hooks's
All About Love: New Visions
(Harper Perennial, 2000; $13): "As my African American colleagues say,
'This'll preach.'" Finally, Sullivan turns to her New Orleans roots with
Creole: the History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color,
edited by Sybil Kein (Louisiana State University Press, 2000; $24.95), a
collection of essays "about the culture, heritage, traditions, and myths
surrounding New Orleans and South Louisiana's
gens libre du couleur
(free people of color). I especially recommend the essay on 19th-century
Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, one of my heroines."
a retired minister in East Lansing, Michigan, enjoyed feminist writer and
literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun's
The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty
(Ballantine Books, 1998; $12). "Especially good is the part about finding
unknown relatives through the publicity accompanying her resignation from her
professorship at Columbia," Cleary writes. She also observes that the book
sheds light on the poet May Sarton, "who was a friend to Heilbrun--of sorts."
In a foretaste of summer,
minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Muskegon, Michigan, just
returned from a five-day study retreat. One of the books she read was
The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life
by Thomas Moore (Harper Perennial, 1997; $14). She writes: "In my
congregation, which is growing and moving from humanist/intellectual to
open/spiritual, the book will help me bridge the gap."
As for myself, I've also been lured by Gail Godwin's
--as well as a moving and useful book of spiritual practice,
When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life,
by Jane Redmont, (HarperCollins, 1999; $25). Redmont's spiritual journey -- from
Unitarian Universalism to Roman Catholicism! -- is as fascinating as her
presentation, which is meant to unlock prayer from its rigid and doctrinaire
history. From the use of icons to liturgical dance, from ritual to the linking
of spirituality and social justice, Redmont's book is full of treasures and
surprises. May your summer sojourns with books be likewise.