Summer reading




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.


Also rans:

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!


12 thoughts on “Summer reading

  1. Steve the virge says:

    Charles, you missed out ‘How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious’ by Charles Merrill Smith. But I don’t blame you – he was a Methodist (yes, USA Methodists seem to have bishops).

  2. Murray says:

    Thanks for the list – some of those sound like I should really have a look!
    I had a think and I can think of a couple of things although one is admittedly a bit indirect.

    The indirect one results from listening to an opera, “The Greek Passion”, by Bohislav Martinu, for the first time since I was a teenager. It’s based pretty faithfully on a novel by Nicos Karantzakis with the slightly forbidding title “Christ Recrucified.” The opera must be a rather stripped down version, but I might try the novel now. Enrolment into characters in a passion play results in the actors increasingly taking on the New Testament roles in real life. It’s in the Mediterranean, involves hostility to refugees, and so is probably very relevant right now!

    The other one is a little more unexpected (even to me). Gunter Grass can be a bit over the top, but his novella “Cat and Mouse” is shorter than what he usually wrote and although the first chapter is a little “stream of consciousness”, it’s not hard to read. Teenagers growing up in Danzig during the war and based on his own experiences in school and as a catholic altar boy at the time. The central character that the narrator reports on is in some sense a devout Catholic and is given Christ like attributes without these ever becoming too simple. His strange personality and resistance to assimilation to Nazi normativity is the subject of the book. By the end, it’s is really quite moving.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Murray – will add these to my must-get-round-to-reading list. Mention of Kazantzakis reminded of another of novel of his: ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. When this was made into a film some years ago, it was widely accused of being heretical or blasphemous, but I think in fact it’s one of the most interesting and serious attempts to explore the humanity of Jesus. Haven’t tackled the book (or ‘Christ Recrucified’, though I have a copy on my bookshelf…).

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Could I also add Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead to your lovely selection – emotional and thoughtful reflections around age, relationships and small town America.

    And if people don’t have time for all of the Barchester collection – at least start with the Parsonage!

  4. Murray Low says:

    I have so many unread books I quite understand! Not surprised you have it though. If I do read it I’ll give you a review- does seem timely though.
    On the Grass, I don’t know what you would think – it leaves you quite unsure what to think but this is good. One way of looking at it is that it is about the idea of “heroes”, and the way that we as adolescents latch onto this. And there are different kinds of “heroes”, so what kinds are better? Will latching onto a human hero ultimately let us down, simply because of his humanity (the example in question is hardly bad). Anyway I think the author is hardly conventionally religious but is in a way a very religious book. Oh, as this is a public blog, I should say there are a few pages that were thought obscene in 1961 in Germany- you couldn’t have published them here. Now I take these as reassuring evidence that teenagers then were as teenagers now.,.

  5. Laurie Harris says:

    A Song for Nagasaki. Fr. Paul Glynn Ground Zero where a Christian pioneer in radiology research, Takashi Nagai, ‘lived out the rest of his life by bringing physical and spiritual healing to his war-weary people’.

    Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes Kenneth E. Bailey You may want to skip some sections of the book, but do not miss the explanations of the parables – especially the one of the compassionate employer Matt 20 1-16

    Tramp for the Lord Corrie ten Boom Continuing the story of Corrie after she survived sheltering Jews & deportation to Ravensbruck

    Praying the Names of Jesus Ann Spangler

  6. Colin Parsley says:

    Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell.
    A portrait of St Luke, a complex and brilliant man, including imagined conversations with Pontius Pilate and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

  7. david broad says:

    Ones that made a strong impression on me at the time , besides most of Graham Greene’s ones , include Morris West – especially the Devil’s Advocate and more recently Brian Moore – the Black Robe on Jesuits in 17th century Canada – in fact nearly all of Moore’s stuff is packed with moral issues written in a beach-readable style .

    Thanks too to others for the mentions for Herman Hesse and Gunter Grass , both ones I feel I would like to know but havent had the gumption to tackle .

    I’m reading the Essex Serpent at present = excellent and a fair bit of religion mixed in .

  8. Becky says:

    If you fancy an affectionate but poignant-at-times laugh at the Church of England in all its glorious imperfection, I enjoyed Catherine Fox’s Acts and Omissions (and its sequel Unseen Things Above). She calls it a homage to Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, so it may appeal!

  9. They’re rather mannered, but the Compton McKenzie trilogy: The Altar Steps, The Parson’s Progress and The Heavenly Ladder, give a very good picture of Anglo-Catholicism in the early part of the last century, with some wicked portraits of actual people under false names.

    • admin says:

      Thanks to all here (and elsewhere) for their suggestions, a number of which have now found their way into my holiday bag! Based on which, I am already planning a sequel: “Summer Reading 2” ! Coming next year to a blog-site near you…

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