The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The books of summer

Some of the best explore matters of faith

Novels with religious themes are turning up on the pages of mainstream media reviews, not only on the "evangelical novel" lists. Several of these promise summer reading that's as provocative as it is enjoyable. Consider John Grisham's latest novel, which spent weeks this spring at the top of The New York Times Book Review best-seller list.

It's The Testament (Doubleday, 1999; cloth, $27.95). Other Grisham novels have been extremely popular, but none have such an obvious faith theme. Depicting dramatic struggles between selflessness and self-indulgence, poverty and extreme wealth, the "testament" in question can be understood in various ways and associated with several characters.

Another major writer with a current novel dissecting faith struggles is Gail Godwin with Evensong (Ballantine, 1999; cloth, $25). Where Grisham's settings are dramatic and exotic, Godwin's is the everyday life of an Episcopal priest and her husband in North Carolina. Psychological, spiritual and practical issues intertwine as a variety of characters — some of them quite strange and mysterious — encounter one another.

And devoted members of the "congregation" of the gentle Father Tim Kavanagh, another North Carolina Episcopal priest, will rejoice that author Jan Karon is out with a fifth novel in her Mitford series. It's A New Song (Viking, 1999; cloth, $24.95).

My recommendations also include two novels published last year. Quarantine by Jim Crace just came out in paperback (Picador, 1999, $13). This striking book by the British author focuses on Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, though he is not actually the "main character." As he takes his "quarantine," there are others in nearby caves, and the novel tells of their reactions to him.

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (Scribner, $14) is set in modern-day Jerusalem. The plot features the interaction of religion and politics that characterizes many trouble spots today.


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Embracing diversity