Lent is more than the waiting period between the revels of Fat Tuesday and the frills of Easter. For Christians of every cloth, it’s meant to be a period of preparation, reflection, and mindfulness. While some people practice a 40-day sacrifice as a means of spiritual devotion—I’ve heard of giving up chips, Facebook, and even the Hamilton CD—others resolve to add some form of spiritual enrichment to their lives.
But reading can be a year-round spiritual practice. Perhaps Girl on the Train–type thrillers aside, if you try, you can usually find an edifying message in most things you read. Here’s a collection particularly aimed at opening your mind and spirit this season. Note that some are of the NSFC variety, as in “not safe for church.” Don’t expect simplistic, obvious, traditional messages from these works. A few of them may challenge accepted notions of Jesus or Christianity, or they may just challenge your notions. But, while they make you a little uncomfortable, they will also make you think.
If there’s a single book I read last year that has stuck with me, it’s this one. Penned by an unlikely church leader named Nadia-Bolz Weber, a Lutheran pastor and founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, this collection of essays is part Christian theology, part personal memoir, part humor, part social commentary—but all real. I absolutely loved her ability to demonstrate God’s presence in the most unexpected, difficult, embarrassing situations. “At the end of his dinner party parable [in Luke], Jesus says that when a party is thrown we should invite the lame, the poor, the crippled, and the blind. . . . In the kingdom of God, we need not cultivate a personal to hide the lame, poor, blind, or crippled parts of us. . . . the uncool parts of us are exactly what Jesus invites to sit and eat around his table.” Few readers will be lukewarm about this book or its author, who isn’t ashamed of her tattoos or her foul mouth. Accidental Saints tends to be of the love-it-or-hate-it variety. But I know Christians and book clubbers of all types that can’t stop talking about it. [Buy the book here.]
Though much has been made of Mary, the mother of Christ, Colm Tóibín manages to present an utterly new portrait of her in his 2012 novel. Here we find Mary many years after the Crucifixion, an older woman who wants to distance herself from the events and people of her past. She is hounded by the writers of the Gospel who seek her story and attempt to convince her that Jesus was the Son of God. But to her he is simply her son, a man who should not have had to die: “I want what happened not to have happened, to have taken another course. How easily it might not have happened! How easily we could have been spared! It would not have taken much. Even the thought of its possibility comes into my body like a new freedom. It lifts the darkness and pushes away the grief.” Of all the readings in this list, this is possibly the most unorthodox of them all. This Mary is not a person you’ll love or revere, this Crucifixion is no longer a meaningful , and Jesus’s followers are nothing but annoying evangelists. But if you’re not afraid to consider how the story of Jesus came to be a story, and how the human people in it may have actually acted human, then The Testament of Mary can be timely reading for Lent. [Buy the book here.]
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo
Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but that’s not why this book made my list. For Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo, it’s less about the result than the approach. Or at least that was my personal takeaway. She preaches that we should surround ourselves with only things that “spark joy”: “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.” The book veers a little toward New Age–ish nonsense in certain sections, such as the one titled “Treat Your Socks and Stockings with Respect.” But if we take to heart her advice on striving for simplicity and joyfulness, then we might experience a lasting life change. [Buy the book here.]
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Along with book critics across the universe, I hail Station Eleven as one of the best books of 2014. (Read my original review in The Snail’s “25 Days of Great Reads” series.) Station Eleven is worth mentioning again in case you haven’t set aside the time to read it. There’s nothing overtly Christian about its version of the apocalypse, except that it is a hopeful story about turning ashes to beauty. There’s plenty of darkness and doomsday in the pages of this novel, but you’ll ultimately find love, friendship, art, and optimism as this collection of characters carves out a new life and sense of community. [Buy the book here.]
Quarantine, Jim Crace
It’s been almost a decade since this novel came out, but it remains one of the most unique fictional imaginings of Jesus I’ve read. Crace depicts Jesus at his most human in this retelling of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert and his temptation by the Devil. Crace’s fictional account is only very loosely based on the biblical version, and it might upset literalists who don’t want to view Jesus as a character or a fallible person. In some way, Jesus is tangential to this story, as a villainous merchant named Musa takes on a predominant role. But together, these two characters help Quarantine explore the interplay of good versus evil. [Buy the book here.]
Billy Budd, Herman Melville
Christ figures in literature are like the proverbial pub in Dublin: you can count on one on just about every corner. Melville’s Billy Budd, a sailor found guilty of insurrection aboard a merchant ship, stands out from the Christ-figure crowd because his execution bears signs of the Crucifixion: Just before being hanged, Billy says, “God bless, Captain Vere!” and forgives the man responsible for his fate, and then at his death he seems to rise as his fellow sailors look on: “At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” But Melville doesn’t allow a simple reading of Billy or his situation. Billy Budd is a complicated story of ethics, law, and human relationships. You won’t find black-and-white answers here, and that’s what makes it worth your time. [Buy the book here.]