There comes a moment at the end of each meeting of the “spiritual” book club that I’ve been attending this past decade when collectively we pick what to read next. Usually whoever is hosting gets the casting vote, and the best-case scenario is that the choice emerges seamlessly. But there have been plenty of occasions when we find ourselves scratching our heads for inspiration.
Never again. After my column last month on the Church Times’ admirable attempt to produce a list of the 100 Best Christian Books ever, you responded in large numbers to my closing appeal to put together your very own list of Christian classics of the past decade. I’ve now got intriguing suggestions to keep my book club in enthralling, contemporary reading for years.
Before revealing the votes of the Tablet jury, to borrow a phrase from Eurovision, a couple of technical points to note. First, apologies to the correspondents whom I offended by binning (literally) William P Young’s The Shack. Sr Dorothy Hindle and Tessa Frank both love it. “It throws great light on the love of God,” writes the latter, an 85-year-old ex-nun.
Next, I’m always telling my kids that being good at English doesn’t stop you excelling in maths too, but some of you who enthusiastically shared your nominations took a less-than-precise definition of what I meant by “published in the last decade”.
Fascinating as it is, John Cornwell’s A Thief in the Night – his account of the death of John Paul I that scotched rumours that he was murdered - came out in 1989. Now I do have a growing tendency to refer to things that happened 25 years ago as “recent”, but that really is stretching it a bit.
Ditto Peter Lovat’s nomination of Mister God, This Is Anna. His plea – “maybe even required reading for every seminarian” is heartfelt, but this classic came out in 1974.
But let’s not be as unbending as a seminary rulebook. If I extend the last decade back to 2000, it more or less captures most of the other titles suggested, even if a few – Gerald Vann OP’s Morals and Man (1923), Nevil Shute’s Round The Bend (1951) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927) – only qualify because all three have been republished in new editions in the twenty-first century.
At our spiritual book club, we like to mix and match. One month a novel, next month something autobiographical, and then, in no particular order, works of theology, spirituality or history.
As fiction goes, I liked the sound of Philip and Faith: A Tale of Development by Terry Wright, suggested by Catherine Priestland. “It combines the personal journey of the characters,” she explains, “alongside the events they have to confront in the public life of the Catholic and Anglican churches”. And I have already been in raptures on the Tablet’s books pages the peerless Marilynne Robinson’s latest sublime work, Lila.
My old friend Fr John Ball MHM recommends Australian Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany. “A beautiful novel,” he writes, “for me deeply Christian, though I have no idea whether Zusak is or isn’t a Christian”.
In the autobiographical category, Sheila Cassidy’s Confessions of a Lapsed Catholic rang many bells, while Patrick Woodhouse’s Etty Hillesium: A Life Transformed, based on the diaries kept by a Dutch woman who perished in Auschwitz, had its admirers. And the continuing pull of Thomas Merton – his Seven Storey Mountain is included in the Church Times’ list of 100 – was witnessed by votes for John Moses’ Divine Discontent: The Prophetic Voice of Thomas Merton.
Theology and spirituality were well-represented by titles such as the late Cardinal Basil Hume’s A Spiritual Companion, Daniel O’Leary’s Treasured and Transformed, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Brian Thorne’s Infinitely Beloved, and Anne Primavesi’s Cultivating Unity in the Biodiversity of God.
And among those who enjoy Christian history, Eamon Duffy’s Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition was specially popular.
But since the starting point of this whole exercise was one list of books, the time has now come to unveil the Tablet readers own Top Ten Spiritual Books of the Past Decade, along with some of the comments made in the nominations. Thanks again for all those who emailed and wrote in with their suggestions, from as far away as Munich, Seattle and Australia.
Ready, steady, read
(1) Jubilate by Michael Arditti
Topping the poll in terms of votes cast, a novel set in Lourdes by “a terrific writer” who “admirably addresses the ecumenical and personal challenges that face Christians with a questioning mind”.
(2) I Call You Friends by Timothy Radcliffe
The former Master-General of the Dominicans was nominated for several titles, but this one stood out.
(3) Faith in The Public Square by Rowan Williams
Another well-known name that came up again and again.
(4) The Case For God by Karen Armstrong
This admired religious historian “writes with a simplicity and clarity which I envy. I send copies to atheist friends”.
(5) Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense by Francis Spufford
“It knocks Dawkins into a cocked hat”.
(6) Christianity in a Nutshell by Leonardo Boff
“Short, inspiring and much in line with Pope Francis, Vatican II and the gospel”.
(7) Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
“Trying to make sense of her somewhat disorganised life in terms of the gospel”.
(8) In Search of the Lost by Richard Anthony Carter
“Had me on tables jumping up and down”.
(9) In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister and Tom Roberts
“You might never think about the Creed in quite the same way again”.
(10) God and Caesar by Shirley Williams
“I found so much in it that is relevant today and how faith is central”.