4 Surprising Books About American Religion

4 Surprising Books About American Religion

February 10, 2015

I know, I know: I’m late on the list-making scene. I should’ve been making lists all through December—The Best Scones of 2014, The Best Mops of 2014, The Best Gas Stations of 2014—and then dropping them like that giant shimmering ball come January. Alas, it is February, but here I come anyway.

What pulls me back to Ruminate issue after issue is the nuance with which the artists and writers approach religious themes. They mind the gap, leaving nothing to stereotype or unnecessary binaries. They mine the gray between black and white poles and unearth gritty and real and complicated ideas worth pondering.

In that vein, I bring four books I read last year (though some were published in 2013) that take on religion in surprising and rich ways:

1. Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return From War

By Jen Percy (Simon & Schuster 2014)
I’m made a little nervous by forcing books into subgenres, but if pressed, I’d call Demon Camp literary journalism.

The writer, Jen Percy, follows the life of Army Sgt. Caleb Daniels, a machine-gunner who is out of the army after 10 tours. Back in the US, he is haunted. He sees a “black thing” pursuing him at every turn and rejects any notions or diagnoses of PTSD that float around him. Instead, he says he found deliverance after being exorcised by a minister in Portal, GA.

Percy spends years with Daniels, as he resides on a kind of religious compound with his new wife, the daughter of the exorcist minister, and attends “deliverance retreats.” A bit like Salvation on Sand Mountain, Percy is inside this story.

The hallucinations and demons and war stories begin to shake her, too, as she’s woven into Daniels’s life. This intersection is, in part, what makes this book all the more rich. It isn’t simply a book about the effects of war on returning soldiers; it’s a book about the collective psyche of a nation that doesn’t seemed equipped to deal with their return.

Or perhaps, as Lea Carpenter wrote in her New York Times review, “this isn’t really a book about soldiers or killing or war; it’s about a certain strain of American religious belief, and one writer’s transformation as she documents its effects on its adherents, several of them veterans, and on herself.”

2. I Want to Show You More

By Jamie Quatro (Grove Atlantic 2013)
This short story collection caught fire not long after it was published. Dwight Garner named it one of his “10 Favorite Books of 2013” and James Wood glowed about it in The New Yorker.

Most of the reviews zero in on the recurring themes of marital infidelity in these tightly woven and sometimes fantastical stories. Frequently, the characters engage in “emotional affairs,” almost sexual encounters, and daydreamed romances.

The writer, Jamie Quatro, told me once that she was surprised by how often people talked about the sex in her stories when, in reality, there is only one sex act in the whole collection. What appear here, instead, are the precursors, the temptations, the rationales.

But what undergird the whole collection are questions of Christian faith. James Wood wrote that Quatro’s stories move “between carnality and spirit like some franker, modernized version of a Flannery O’Connor tale.”

Nearly every story ponders the lines between faith and action, between doubt and denial. Characters confess their infidelity (or near infidelity) and work through the murky aftermath. They seek forgiveness or redemption or punishment, and motivations are held up like dirty laundry for the reader to examine.

3. Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief

Edited by Jeff Sharlet (Yale Press 2014)
If, like me, you’ve ever gone in search of an anthology of nonfiction writing about faith and come back disappointed, Radiant Truths will be a godsend.

In this anthology, Jeff Sharlet (author of The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die, and the co-creator of Killing the Buddha) has curated writing from Walt Whitman and onward about American religion. His central criterion in compiling these works was to find pieces that explore “what happens when we say ‘religion’ out loud.”

The result is a incredibly varied and unexpected mix of work (as the subtitle might suggest—speaking of subgenres): Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Henry David Thoreau, Francine Prose, among others. Expressions of and moments in American belief are crystallized by more than a century of heavy-hitting writers, and despite the scope, the collection winds up feeling nicely cohesive.

Much like Ruminate, Sharlet’s collection wants to settle into the space between poles—between fundamentalist and the secularist—and see what’s happening. The collection is interested more in questions than answers; it is “a launchpad,” John Fitzgerald wrote in The Daily Beast: “sending the reader out in a thousand different directions.”

4. When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays

By Marilynne Robinson (Picador 2013)
Marilynne Robinson is surely no stranger to readers who are interested in religious themes in fiction, but in this collection of essays, Robinson takes on these ideas more directly.

Andrew Deblanco called this book “the credo of a liberal Christian” in his New York Times review.

The essays are not entirely about religious belief, but Robinson’s arguments about and explorations of education, austerity, and love—among other lofty subjects—are shaped and supported by her Christian faith. The essays are traditional in form—she takes on a subject and she, as Philip Lopate once said of the personal essay, “surrounds [it]…coming at it from all angles.” She takes readers to new questions and ideas with even-handed reasoning and gentle prose.

The audiobook is Robinson herself reading the essays, so I decided to take her voice along with me on a long drive earlier this year. But I quickly discovered that she makes so many maxim-like proclamations and startling philosophical turns that I needed to be underlining and making notes and filing away quotes for later reflections. The book will challenge your thinking in refreshing ways.

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