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In Exile

Annual list of top 10 books for the past year

By Ron Rolheiser, OMI

01/07/2015

The pressures of work and ministry, unfortunately, limit the time I have available to read as widely as I would like. Still, addicted as I am to books and knowing that without the insight and stimulation I draw from them I would forever stagnate spiritually and creatively, I scrupulously carve out some time most days to read. As well, given my ministry and personality, I like to read various genres of books: novels, biography, critical essays and, not least, books on Scripture, theology and spirituality.

Here’s my bias apposite reading: In my freshman year at university, I was introduced to good novels. I realized then how impoverished I’d been without good literature in my life. Since that time, more than 40 years ago, I’ve never been without a novel lying open somewhere within my reach. Good novelists often have insights that psychologists and spiritual writers can only envy, firing the imagination and the emotional intelligence in a way that academic books often cannot. As well, always lying open somewhere within reach too will be a good biography or a book of essays. These serve to stretch my horizons, as these perennially constrict both my imagination and my heart. Finally, there are theological and spirituality books which, given both my temperament and my vocation, I read with passion, but which also serve as a source of professional development for me.

So given these particular appetites, what are the best 10 books that I read in 2014?

Among novels, I particularly recommend these four:

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. This isn’t just one of the top books I read this past year, it is, making an exception for the great classics of English literature, for me, one of the best novels I’ve ever read. This is simply a great book; not quite the Diary of Anne Frank, but a story which moves the heart in a similar fashion.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila. Robinson picks up some of her characters from Gilead, inserts a lost young woman named Lila and, through her voice, gives us a near poetry of loneliness and faith. Aside from her emotional depth and perfect prose, Robinson also offers an apologia for the compassion and mercy of God that can help make faith more credible to many of its skeptics today.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. This is a powerful historical novel about both the evil of slavery and of sexism. Mirroring the Christian story of redemption, good ultimately triumphs, but not before someone has to sweat some blood in martyrdom. Sue Monk Kidd is always worth reading, but this book stands out, even for a novelist of her calibre.

Jhumpa Lahire, The Lowland. Like many of Lahire’s novels this story also sets itself within the particular trials of emigrating from India to America, but the flashlight that it shines into human relationships helps lay bare some very universal struggles.

Among biographical essays, two books stood out for me this past year.

Trevor Herriot, The Road is How, A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire and Soul. The flow of the book follows its title. Herriot does a walking pilgrimage across part of Saskatchewan’s prairies, a land roamed for centuries by the buffalo, and lets nature and desire speak to his soul. The result is a remarkable chronicle, a deeply moral book about nature, human nature, sexuality, faith and desire.

Nancy Rappaport, In Her Wake, A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide. In this book, Nancy Rappaport does what all of us should do if we have lost a loved one to suicide, namely, work through that person’s story and find the threads to cleanse and redeem his or her memory.

Among theological and spirituality books, I recommend:

James Martin, A Pilgrimage. This is Jim Martin at his best, offering a good, balanced, healthy Christology, presented in a reader-friendly way. Scholarship accessible to everyone.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She deservedly made the cover of Time magazine for this book. Taylor offers an insight into the dark night of the soul for those who can’t, or won’t, read more technical theological literature.

Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth, What He Wanted, Who He Was. This is more of a scholarly book, though still pretty accessible to the non-professional. It combines solid scholarship, creative insight, good balance and committed Christian faith.

Christian Salenson, Christian de Cherge, A Theology of Hope. Christian de Cherge was the abbot of the community of Trappist monks who were martyred in Algeria in 1996. This book collects his key writings, particularly as they pertain to the question of the relationship of Christianity to other religions, especially to Islam. Faith, it is said, is built upon the blood of martyrs. Future inter-religious dialogue can be built on both the blood and the writings of this martyr. An exceptional book, though hardly surprising, given the exceptional faith and character of Christian de Cherge.

May many good books find you in 2015.

Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

He can be contacted through his website: www.ronrolheiser.com.
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