Jesus, Paul, food, charity and prayer were just some of the areas examined in the 2013 crop of books under the broad heading of religion. Some of these titles rank at the top of the year’s best books, period. Others barely registered in the mainstream press, but are lavishly praised in their own fields.
Here are the year’s most interesting religion books, numbered but not ranked.
1. ‘My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer’ by Christian Wiman
When he learned he had a rare form of cancer at age 39, Wiman was the editor of Poetry magazine. He was also a lapsed Christian whose brush with mortality triggered a return to belief. His poetic reflections on the redemptive power of art and faith are moving and evocative, yet unsparingly harsh on atheist intellectuals, self-righteous fundamentalists and his peers. Addressing suffering and sorrow through the prism of Christianity, Wiman’s ruminations glow with the “burn of being,” his term for pervasive spiritual longing in a world of materialism, violence and loss. “Please read this book,” urged journalist Andrew Sullivan, of The Dish blog, in a typically glowing review. “It truly is an essential book for our times.”
2. ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’ by N.T. Wright
One of the most prolific Christian theologians of our time lays out his case for Paul as a thinker on par with Aristotle and Plato. Clocking in at nearly 1,700 pages, this tome has been hailed as “magisterial” and is already being held up as the standard reference work on Christianity’s first and, arguably foremost, theologian. Wright’s vigorous prose provides an engaging introduction to the Judaism and Christianity of the first century. Wright contends that Paul’s writings are to be understood as those of a devout Jew who reworks Jewish redemptive theology around the figure of Jesus in the furtherance of “getting the Creation project back on track.”
3. ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan
If not for Aslan’s fortuitous Fox News interview – in which the creative writing professor was badgered on national TV to explain why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus – “Zealot” might not have made a dent in the public consciousness. Aslan’s premise, that Jesus of Nazareth preached socialism and plotted sedition against the Roman Empire, is not original, and depends on a selective reading of the Gospels. But the YouTube clip of the Fox interview went viral and catapulted Aslan’s book into the best-seller stratosphere. Vivid and cinematic, Zealot offers a much-needed antidote to the ethnically sanitized, anodyne Jesus preserved in aspic in the Sunday hymnal.
4. ‘A Prayer Journal’ by Flannery O’Connor
Penned nearly 80 years ago, these private journal entries have found the light of day thanks to a biographer’s diligent archival rummaging. The secular literati are greeting this slender volume of personal meditations as revelatory; ordinary readers simply respond to O’Connor’s intimacy, openheartedness and humor. The pages reveal O’Connor, then in her early 20s and attending the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in 1946-47, pouring out her soul to God in a manner that is both naive and brilliant. She appeals to God directly as her confidant and confessor about her weakness for “intellectual quackery,” her burning ambition to achieve literary greatness, and her all-too-human foibles. The lifelong Catholic writer would become a pillar of Southern American literature and the foundations of her artistic vision are already evident here.
5. ‘Coffee with Jesus’ by David Wilkie
The cheeky, online comic strip that has gained a cult audience of 40,000-plus followers in less than three years is now ready to burst upon the world as a giftable, brightly hued coffee-table book. Jesus is the star of the show, tossing sage and cryptic comebacks to goofball stock characters. Bob, hater of gays, addresses the coffee-sipping messiah as “the J-Man.” Lisa, who swoons at the thought of owning a Lexus, asks Jesus if the Antichrist is a Jew. It doesn’t end there: Complacent liberal posturing comes in for a drubbing, too. It’s no wonder the strip’s caffeinated savior says he’s often tempted to take his own name in vain. The wit is barbed, theology surprisingly relevant, and the overall effect highly addictive.