Reads for the Head and Heart, December 2022 and January 2023


Praying with Jane Eyre, Vanessa Zoltan (2021)

Vanessa Zoltan has perhaps had one of the more unusual personal stories for authors in the spirituality realm. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors (a theme which recurs throughout this book), she observes her Jewish faith and heritage while identifying as an atheist. As an atheist, she ended up studying at Harvard Divinity School, where she became familiar with Jewish and Christian practices of scared Scripture reading. Recognizing that she felt a stronger spiritual connection to Bronte’s Jane Eyre than she did with the Tanakh, she began to apply these practices to it with a small reading group. Eventually she teamed up with her friend Casper ter Kuile in applying this idea of treating fiction as a sacred text to the Harry Potter series, which turned into the popular podcast ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.’

This delightful book is part spiritual autobiography, part exploration of the sacredness of reading. As the title suggests, much of the book is spent reflecting on Jane Eyre, what it meant to her as a teenager, and her more complicated feelings about it today. The basic premise of her endeavour is that ‘sacred’ is an action, not an adjective — that anything can become sacred for us if we put intention and heart to it. It’s a profound idea and the essays are all though-provoking, even as they challenge received ideas of the sacred. The way her more mature reflections on the text have led her to understand some of the problematic elements of the story I think have particular relevance to people of faith, who love and follow texts that sometimes let us down.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Sacredness
  • Literature as Sacred
  • Sacred Practices
  • Jewish Identity
  • Spiritual Autobiography
  • Postmodern Spirituality

My Rating: Premise 10, Intrigue 10, Information 8, Authority 10, Responsibility 10, Success 10, Structure 8, Writing 9, Enjoyment 8, Impact 9: TOTAL: 92

(Bi-)Monthly Roundup

  • Showings, or Revelations of the Divine Love, Julian of Norwich (ca. 1410s), 95: In May 1373, an English nun named Julian had a series of visions during the course of a severe illness. Over the next decades of her life, she reflected upon, studied, and challenged what she experienced and the result is the ‘long text’ of this classic of Christian mystical literature. It is a beautiful and challenging work that I come back to time and time again and always find it deeply moving and insightful. (Spirituality, Christianity, Mysticism, Medieval Europe)
  • Thomas Berry: Selected Writings, Thomas Berry (ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim) (2014), 82: Thomas Berry was one of the first leading lights of radical Christian ecology towards the end of the twentieth century. This selection of his writings offers some of his ‘greatest hits’, to allow the reader to understand his insight and vision. While I appreciated much of what he had to say, ultimately I found this selection to be repetitive and overly focused on the problem and the general sense of what must be done, with far too little focus on how his positive vision might be lived out in real ways. So this was good, but ultimately underwhelming. (Spirituality, Ecology, Christianity, Pan-Religious Movements)
  • Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose, Stephen Lewis, Matthew Wesley Williams, and Dori Grinenko Baker (2020), 78: This is a case of an excellent book that is rated a bit lower than it would otherwise be because of a misleading title. It’s less about leading purposeful change than it is about facilitating faith-based groups through internal attitudinal changes, reconciliation efforts, and advocacy. What it says is great and needful, but it was not what I was expecting from the title. (Spirituality, Christianity, Leadership, Community Organizing, Reconciliation, Facilitation)
  • Reflections during Advent, Dorothy Day (1966, 2015), 43: This was such a disappointment for me. Dorothy Day was a feisty leader in the Christian social justice movement within the Roman Catholic Church, so I was excited for some hard-hitting and profound insights here. Instead, this was four essays, disconnected from one another and from the theme of Advent, that promoted a rather bland traditional morality without saying anything interesting about it. There was one Advent essay in the Epilogue, focused largely on silence, which would have been welcome as part of a broader reflection, but which felt insufficient on its own and out of place in this volume. (Spirituality, Roman Catholicism, Catholic Workers Movement, Virgin Mary, Poverty, Chastity, Obedience, Silence)
  • Come, Thief, Jane Hirshfield (2011), 90: I rarely read poetry, but I was so glad I picked up this tremendous volume by a contemporary master. (Poetry, Cats, Nature, Philosophy)
  • Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, John Boswell (1994), 90. I recently revisited this ground-breaking (and therefore controversial) text, which laid out evidence from the ancient Mediterranean and Medieval European worlds that suggests that, at least at certain times and places, there may have been room for some cultural recognition of homosexual relationships. While he probably could have been a bit more cautious with some of conclusions, the only reason why Boswell is so controversial is because he pointed out evidence that goes against the grain of our common narratives about the history of sexuality. It’s still well-worth reading thirty years after its publication. (LGBTGQ2S+, Classics, Greco-Roman Cultures, Medieval Europe, Medieval Christianity)
  • When God’s Ways Make No Sense, Larry Crabb (2018), 75: Larry Crabb was one of the leaders of the evangelical ‘Biblical Counseling’ movement, starting in the 1970s. In this book, written towards the end of his life, he tackles the age-old question of theodicy, or ‘God’s justice’. The book’s greatest strength is the strong stance he takes against the ‘prosperity gospel’ that has taken over so much of the evangelical world. He insists that we give our experiences of pain and suffering their due. That said, because these big questions of human suffering and God’s goodness are unanswerable, there isn’t much here other than an exhortation to trust in God’s goodness no matter what our experiences and circumstances may be. His language and presuppositions also never stray from his evangelical heritage, which limits its usefulness outside that context. (Christianity, Spirituality, Trust, Evangelicalism, Theodicy)

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