Recommendations: Transformational, captivating and recent books

open magical book


The Outlook asked some of our younger readers three questions. They responded with books that are well worth checking out this spring.

What is a book that was transformational for you and why?

A book that was transformative in my understanding of spirituality was the classic Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I’ve used it for a sermon series, for elder training, for devotions, for counseling and for personal spiritual development. It doesn’t completely encapsulate spirituality, but it has helped me to get a better grasp on spiritual growth. Alex Becker

It isn’t a book exactly, butThe Unbusy Pastor by Eugene Peterson has been huge for me. I first found it through one of those weird internet wormholes you go through, arriving at it completely out of context. It struck me as so timely, relevant and simple in a profound way. Peterson highlights three things he wants to do to be an unbusy pastor: pray, preach, listen. He talks about blocking out all the noise and distractions of pastorlife to focus on these things. My goodness, I thought, Peterson must be pretty old to be tackling the problems of our modern, tech-adled times. But no. “The Unbusy Pastor” was published in 1981, before I was born. If it was true in the 80s, I guess it’s true now. Alex Wirth

It’s difficult to choose just one, but a pivotal book for my spiritual and religious journey was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets.” Heschel, a 20th-century Jewish rabbi who engaged Martin Luther King Jr., wrote this book as an overview of the Hebrew prophets to better articulate the meaning and burden of the prophetic voice. Heschel described a God of emotion. He articulated a theomorphic faith, one that saw certain human virtues as revealing God’s very nature. All these were gamechangers for me. Because of these insights, I began to cognitively and affectively embrace a Christian story dripping with both human virtue and vulnerability. It is a testament to the power of interfaith encounters that reading the work of a Jewish rabbi would help form this Christian pastor. Joe Morrow

Trauma and Grace by Serene Jones. I left notes in the margins of nearly every page. Jones’ reading of Calvin as a pastor preaching to a traumatized community and the way she explores feminist/womanist theology from within the Reformed tradition left me so excited about our theological tradition, with an exuberance I haven’t felt since seminary. Kathryn Lester-Bacon

Earlier this year, I read Greg Boyle’s new book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.” Boyle is a master raconteur and models compassion and humility and courage and humor better than just about anyone I’ve read. Much like his earlier “Tattoos on the Heart,” Boyle’s new book is chock-full of encounters from his wide-ranging ministry at Homeboy Industries. He founded it 25 years ago in Los Angeles and it’s now the largest gang intervention and treatment center in the country. Even though my work and ministry is quite different than Boyle’s, he inspires me to be more loving, more hopeful and more faithful. Jeff Lehn

There are so many, but I’d have to sayThe Brothers K by David James Duncan has certainly been transformational. It is a long but enjoyable read and touches on themes near and dear to me, such as family dynamics and relationships, baseball and faith. It does all of this through great storytelling and while showing how they can all be related and intertwined. This book moves me to tears, makes me laugh out loud and stirs my spirit and soul. I’ve recommended this book to my friends more than any other. Andy Kort

Take This Breadby Sara Miles. As Miles shares her story in this autobiography, the reader is invited to think about his/her relationship with the Lord’s Supper, and to expand it wider to include more people, more love, more grace, more dancing and more food. She is an outstanding writer, and her words still encourage me to seek the Holy Spirit in every person I meet. Lauren Cochran

Waking Up White by Debby Irving has helped me a lot as I continue my journey toward becoming anti-racist. It opened my eyes in new ways to my own white privilege, how I benefit from it and how it contributes to the systemic racism that prevails throughout our country. It also helped me continue to acknowledge my own racism and confess that no matter how much I wish I wasn’t racist, our racialized society has conditioned me to be so. I believe this is a must-read for all of my white siblings! Emily Heitzman

Growing up in California near the coast, my favorite part of day was early morning walking to the school bus stop. The marine layer, still thick and gloomy, made the air crisp and bracing. I would take deep breaths of it, storing it in my lungs, knowing that by mid-morning the marine layer would be all burned off by the sun and replaced by smog until the next day dawned. I always go back to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row because it is the marine layer in book form. The descriptions of that time and place in California are crisp and bracing. The characters, well fleshed out with great economy, hang around thick and gloomy. And then it all kind of dissipates. It’s a short book. Not much really happens. But I go back to it because it gives me that same marine layer feeling I had walking to the bus as a kid. Reading it feels like a deep breath of that air. Alex Wirth

What is the book you keep going back to and why?

I can’t pick just one! I love the Harry Potter” series because sometimes you just need a little magic in your life! Anne of Green Gables is my all-time favorite book that I first read as a child and continue to go back to over and over again. As a young girl, even though my story was quite different from Anne’s, I strongly admired her and saw so much of myself in her. I think one of the reasons I am who I am today is because Anne portrayed a beautiful example of how a girl can be independent and strong-willed. She showed me how to be imaginative, value friendship, see the beauty of the world around me, stick up for myself and others and stand up for what is right — no matter how difficult it might be to do so. Emily Heitzman

I have three books that I keep going back to over and over again. The first is The Spirituality of Imperfectionby Ernest Kurtz. It comes largely from the perspective of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it talks about the struggles we face as imperfect human beings in our attempts to simply live and to connect to the divine. What I love most, though, is that Kurtz expands on these subjects through stories, all of which are conveniently written in bold throughout the book, many of which have wound their way into a sermon or two.

The second book I keep close at hand, at least over the past two years or so, is The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen. It’s meant to be read slowly, and I read it slowly — I haven’t made it very far yet because I keep re-reading the first few entries on what Nouwen calls his “secret journal.”

The third is a children’s picture book that I read every year during Advent: Who is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate. The animals are all anticipating the arrival of the baby Jesus, and I love the building excitement and the way that all the animals are taking part in preparation. Alex Becker

Lately, I keep coming back to Beryl Satter’s book Family Properties,” a book I’m teaching to undergraduates this year. It’s the complex history of segregation and predatory lending in Chicago neighborhoods involving diverse religious and ethnic communities. Each person presented grapples with moral quandaries weighted against a backdrop of cultural, religious and economic pressures. I keep returning to it because so many of the challenges and hopes of our present moment are wrapped up in this “micro” story about Chicago. Satter’s book convinced me that there are powerful insights to be gained from her ethnographic approach and from pondering the lived theologies of actual persons and communities. It also engenders self-examination. I keep wondering about my own place and agency in this unfolding civic drama. The question becomes not only “what would I have done?” but also “what am I currently doing?” Joe Morrow

I find myself continually going back to In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us,” by James Calvin Davis. We are clearly living in a time of great division and incivility, and I have found this book to be especially helpful in presenting useful and clear biblical and theological perspectives from different sides of various issues. Davis, a Presbyterian, highlights issues like war, abortion, marriage, separation of church and state, and more in a way that not only helps me articulate my own thinking, but also is very helpful in allowing me to better understand the opposite view. He does this all while making the case for a civil discourse. This is a very timely book. Andy Kort

A Nazareth Manifestoby Sam Wells. Wells was dean of Duke Chapel while I was part of that community, so I’ve followed his work for several years. The model for ministry he lays out here – the differences between working for, working with, being for, being with – has both supported and challenged me over the years. I keep returning to this densely nourishing book when I need to remind myself what the heck we’re doing in this ministry thing, where God might simply enjoy being with us and why that all matters. Kathryn Lester-Bacon

What book are you currently reading?

I just finished reading two very different things: King Lear by Shakespeare, andWonderby R.J. Palacio. I read “Wonder” because a 5th-grade congregant told me it was her favorite book and brought me her copy to read. How could I not read it? I read “King Lear” because I wanted to read something drastically different and stretch my brain. It felt great to read Shakespeare as an adult, and “King Lear” has so much to say about aging and suffering. Lauren Cochran

The book I’m currently working on is Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness about vulnerability and belonging in our modern era. So many quotable lines! For instance: “If our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our faith.” I’m really enjoying this one and it’s opening my eyes a little bit to new possibilities for community. Alex Becker

Poetry. I seem to order a new book each week, as an antidote to information overload and the way words are wielded as divisive weapons in the public sphere. For me, poetry reclaims and recenters the beauty of language, while forcing me to breathe and take it slowly. In my current stack of books, I am appreciating the earthy humanity of Naomi Shihab Nye and Seamus Heaney, the linguistic layering of Kevin Young and Christian Wiman, and the interplay of trauma, healing and theology in Padraig O’ Tuama. Kathryn Lester-Bacon

I’m starting Walter Brueggemann’s “Interpretation Series” commentary on “Money and Possessions.” Covering both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, Brueggemann addresses biblical patterns of faithfulness and wickedness in economic life. I don’t readily dive into academic commentaries, but I eagerly anticipated this volume as someone who is passionate about the need to connect Christian theology and economic life in critical and constructive ways. Joe Morrow

I am currently reading The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman. The problem isn’t the church but its position in the middle ring. Dunkelman shows that we spend our social capital in three different rings. The inner ring is our close family and friends, the middle ring is our tribe, church, Lions Club, etc., and the outer ring consists of those with whom we have only tangential alignment (belonging to the same celebrity fan club, for example). In this new world we have shifted our social capital so that we are spending more time with close family and friends and more time with tangential relationships (via Facebook groups, nonprofits, etc.). However, the middle ring is dropping out; all middle ring institutions that thrived in the 20th century (Rotary, the church, bowling leagues) are seeing a sharp decrease in involvement. Read Dunkelman — not just because we need to understand the trend he documents thoroughly, but because understanding the ways we are spending our social capital in this new realm may be the key to realigning the church to more inner and outer ring relationships. Eric Peltz

I have been most of the way through Zadie Smith’sSwing Time for a very long time now. It is the kind of book that makes you want to clear whole blocks of your schedule to read it. Smith’s writing is so immersive that you can’t just dip into it while you’re riding the train to work in the morning. You need to spend time with it. And because my life has been chaos for a while now, “Swing Time” sits and waits for me patiently to come back and spend a whole evening with it. Smith does such a good job of holding you close as a reader that even though the book jumps back and forth decades in the life of its main character, you never feel lost. That’s it! I’m canceling all of my evening plans tonight. It’s me, pizza and Zadie Smith. Alex Wirth

Right now, I am reading, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650by Carlos M.N. Eire. This book is extremely well written and readable, which is good since it contains over 900 pages. I began this book in late 2017 at the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and I am glad I did. There is so much that I am discovering, or discovering again, about the world, religion, leaders and more during that time. As someone interested in church history, I can’t put this down because it is so fascinating. Andy Kort

I’m currently reading Windy City Blues by Reneé Rosen. I selected this book because I enjoy historical fiction, I am a lover of music and I am always fascinated to learn about the history of my city (Chicago). Emily Heitzman

At the moment, I’m chewing on Matthew Desmond’s sobering book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” It tells the story of eight Milwaukee families who were evicted over the course of a year and a half. Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton, is doing an ethnography trying to figure out the staggering eviction rate in our country, and also putting a human face on the rising cost of housing, especially for the poor and low-income among us. Desmond believes stable housing is a right. I think Jesus does, too. Jeff Lehn  

Contributions from:

Alex Becker is pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church in Avoca, Pennsylvania.

Lauren Cochran is associate pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois.

Emily Heitzman is a pastor member of Chicago Presbytery and a shared minster to youth and families for three Lutheran churches.

Andy Kort is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

Jeff Lehn is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wilmette, Illinois.

Kathryn Lester-Bacon is associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Joe Morrow is a pastor member of Chicago Presbytery and campus engagement manager for Interfaith Youth Core.

Eric Peltz is associate pastor of The Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wirth is associate pastor for congregational care at Point Loma Community Presbyterian Church in San Diego.