If you’re anything like me, stocking up on good books is an essential part of holiday preparation. So here’s twelve of my favourite novels on or about faith or religion, from serious and profound to escapist entertainment. Click ‘Comments’ below if you’ve got your own recommendations, or want to see what others suggest!
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
Still (after a century and a half) the best and sharpest guide to the life and politics of the Church of England! I read this years ago as an ordinand at theological college, whilst on placement at Westminster Abbey. Nothing seems to have changed. Funny, actutely observed, and affectionate.
Shusako Endo, Silence
I haven’t seen the recent film, but the original book, telling the story of a Jesuit priest facing martyrdom in 17th century Japan, is a sombre and moving meditation on the nature of faith, which offers no easy answers or resolution.
John Updike, Roger’s Version
Clergyman-turned-theology-professor Roger finds his life and faith beginning to fall apart as he hits middle age, in a witty and learned dissection of sex, religion and ageing masculinity. So, nothing to identify there with then.
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
A quirky coming-of-age story of a young girl growing up as a lesbian in a strict Pentecostal church in the north of England, loosely based on Winterson’s own childhood. Despite the painful subject matter, the tone is surprisingly humorous and positive.
Niall Williams, Four Letters of Love
A beautiful affirmation of love, faith and miracles in the midst of the sufferings and tragedies of everyday life, by a contemporary Irish catholic writer. It’s many years since I read it, but I do remember that I cried. You will too.
James Robertson, The Testament of Gideon Mack
Set in the north-east of Scotland (where I grew up), this is an extraordinarily strange and Gothic tale of a faithless clergyman whose tumble into a gorge leads to an encounter with the Devil. A clever, funny and profound exploration of belief, it’s like nothing I’ve read before or since.
Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors
Amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey solves a twenty year old mystery in a remote 1930s Fenland village. The greatest (and possibly only) detective story about church bell-ringing. Evocative, charming and fantastically atmospheric.
Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev
A powerful and intriguing account of a young Hasidic Jew in 1950s New York struggling to reconcile a vocation as an artist with his family and faith, culminating in his painting of a shocking crucifixion. A fascinating look into another religious world, and illuminating background for those (like me) struck by Christian imagery in the paintings of Marc Chagall (for which, see posts past…).
PD James, Death in Holy Orders
PD James was a committed Anglican and patron of the Prayer Book Society, and her knowledge of the ins and outs of church politics is clear in this rather creepy investigation of a murder in an isolated Anglican theological college on the wind-swept East Anglian coast.
Herman Hesse, Journey to the East
Reading Herman Hesse in my twenties played an important part in rekindling my interest in faith and spirituality in my journey out of atheism. Shorter and more accessible than the brilliant The Glass-Bead Game, which secured his Nobel prize, The Journey to the East is a thought-provoking allegorical tale about the universal spiritual quest.
Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Not exactly light reading for the beach, but a massively ambitious novel exploring philosophy, religion, and morality, which seems to have influenced practically everybody since. The most famous chapter, on ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, was compulsory reading for my undergraduate theology degree in Durham.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
It’s difficult to imagine a list of novels about religion without including something by Graham Greene. This one, about a reluctant priest hunted down during an anti-clerical purge in Mexico, is probably his best, and earned him a letter of condemnation from the Vatican for its ‘paradoxical’ approach to faith.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible; Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; Tolstoy, Resurrection; Marilynn Robinson, Gilead; Naomi Alderman, Disobedience.
And for this summer:
I’ve just got hold of Conclave, the latest thriller by Robert Harris charting the political shenanigans surrounding the election of a new pope. Don’t tell me how it ends!