When Johannes Gutenberg invented his infamous press in 1440, Western civilization changed dramatically. Before, the book had been a rare object. Sixty years later, 20 million had been printed.
Many of those books were Christian Bibles. Religious texts were suddenly everywhere. And there was certainly a demand for the Word. Even in the 1800s and early 1900s, children’s books automatically included religious messages (author Johanna Spyri’s famed 1881 Swiss miss, Heidi, for example, is taught to pray by her new employers; her grandfather, who raised her, had never bothered with religion [find Heidi in Audio Books in the Lennoxville Library]).
How different is the modern world. In North America, at least, religion has become more and more of a personal, and personalized, matter.
Certainly there are specialized publishers and writers that, to this day, produce Christian texts – consider A Treasury Of Bible Stories (adapted for children by Pamela Broughton, 1999, in C-20). Or author Anne Rice’s Life of Christ (find Christ The Lord, Out Of Egypt: A Novel, filed in Adult Fiction; the next installment, The Road To Cana, can be found in Large Print). Rice is better known for her hugely popular vampire books (some of her supernaturally inflected novels are filed in Adult Fiction and in Audio Books), but her 2008 memoir is titled Called Out Of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (filed in Biography at 920).
But while religious imagery still fills novels, it’s rare that you’ll pick up something at random these days and find specific mention of God. And those books that do offer upfront references to religion are often more vaguely spiritual or self-helpful in tone.
Paulo Coelho’s Manuscript Found In Accra offers not one, but three different religious traditions from which to consider (2012, translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jill Costa, filed in Adult Fiction).
A group of residents come together in a public square, awaiting the death of their city, and perhaps of themselves. Their home is about to be overrun by armed conquerors.
And so three religious men offer solace in this one last moment of community. For the Christian, the year is 1099; for the Jew, it is known as the year 4859; for the Muslim, it is 492. This quick read offers advice on love, defeat, work, personal relationships, and more. What is success? “It is being able to go to bed each night with your soul at peace.”
“Am I useless?” asks one townsperson. “Don’t try to be useful,” is the response. “Try to be yourself: that is enough, and that makes all the difference. Walk neither faster nor slower than your own soul, because it is your soul that will teach you the usefulness of each step you take.”
Authors Shirley Rousseau Murphy and Pat J.J. Murphy offer a tattered hero in the novel, The Cat, The Devil, The Last Escape (2015, in Adult Fiction). Lee Fontana is an unrepentant thief, a train robber, jailed during the Depression. Still, he has one rule: He will not kill for the sake of killing.
God never explicitly appears in this novel, but Satan sure does, hounding Fontana, pushing him towards murder (“the wraith continued to torment Lee”). But Fontana has a bit of help when it comes to resisting temptation: He has a cat. It’s dead – a ghost, named Misto. And Misto has his own agenda. Call him an angel, if you will, but he hopes to give Fontana a chance at saving himself. (“If Misto has transcended from earthly life into a vast and more complicated dimension, why would humans be different? … Something more lay ahead, after this life. Not just the dark weight of evil, that was only part of it. Something more, so bright it shamed the golden wheat fields through which the car sped.”)
Are you a member of a religious order, or have you considered joining? Jane Christmas wrote about her deliberations in And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures In A Cloistered Life (2013, filed in Adult Fiction but intended to be considered a memoir). “A religious vocation,” she writes, “is not an uncommon second career for women.”
Christmas shops herself about to different Christian religious orders, making often hilarious attempts to fit in (or to crankily denounce their rituals and beliefs). One wonders whether she will be able to accept the loss of independence that would come with taking her vows…
This book offers a look at the differences in doctrines. (Interested in learning more about religion, or religions? Check out the 200s section on the Non-Fiction shelves — where you’ll find Canadian Haroon Siddiqui’s 2006 book, Being Muslim, for example; Huston Smith’s 2002 Understanding Islam: A Listener’s Guide, is in Audio Books.)
And Then There Were Nuns is quite funny, but as with any comedy, there are also moments of intense pain. Meditation can bring back the past, and Christmas must attempt to cope with a horrific event that she’s long buried.
Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why is there so much evil in the world?
William Paul Young’s acclaimed book (also Christian), The Shack (2007, filed in Adult Fiction), is written around the kidnapping and murder of a child. Her clothing was found in an Oregon shack, her body never recovered. Her father, “Mack” Philips, will live with guilt and agony forever after. “The tragedy had also increased the rift in Mack’s own relationship with God, but he ignored this growing sense of separation.”
One day, “God” sends him a note, inviting Philips back to the shack. Assuming the killer is making a sick joke, Philips nonetheless drives in.
This novel is Young’s attempt to answer the question: Where is God amidst all this pain?
— Eleanor Brown, October 2, 2015