Parish Read Ideas
July 26, 2006 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for book suggestions for a (Catholic) parish read. Good things would be wide appeal, a fairly short and very readable book, something that lends itself to interdisciplinary programming (slideshows, music, participatory discussions or lectures led by social scientists, doctors, etc., and the like), and ecumenical (appeals not just to Catholics but to others). If it's fiction, then it should have characters that people can really identify with. Anyone?
posted by mmw to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total)
The Narnia books?

If not, then could you specify more exactly just what you're looking for? (I assume, for instance, that "The Screwtape Letters" wouldn't fulfill your requirements.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:47 PM on July 26, 2006

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel would either be totally perfect -- or a total disaster -- but I'm throwing it out there anyway. It is somewhat about religion/religious faith but some readers (depending upon how conservative they are) might be turned off by somebody who considers themselves, as the main character does, to embrace 3 religions simultaneously (Hinduism, Catholicism & Islam). It's a great read though and would definitely foster some discussion.
posted by brain cloud at 7:04 PM on July 26, 2006

Response by poster: I have read both of these (and Screwtape Letters) and I don't think they're quite right ... Life of Pi had some interesting multireligion stuff in the beginning, but most of it was only tangentially religious, IIRC, and my secular bookgroup didn't much like it. The CS Lewis, while great books, have probably been overused and overread.

I think we're looking for something more specifically spiritual/religious, and not widely read. Last year's book was wildly successful, Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son. ... This year's can't be the same kind of book, but it should have the same wide appeal.

Some ideas that have come up are Sabbath by Wayne Muller, Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak, and David Yount's What Are We to Do? Living the Sermon on the Mount. I haven't read any of these. Or maybe a Thomas Merton book?
posted by mmw at 7:19 PM on July 26, 2006

Thomas Merton's Thoughts on Solitude is brief, but fairly dense. I've read The Return of the Prodigal Son, but I can't recall anything quite like it.

While it isn't brief, Tracy Kidder's Mountain Beyond Mountains is a quick read, extremely interesting, and does tie in spirituality, inasmuch as it does address Dr. Paul Farmer's conversion to Catholicism (not to mention healthy doses of liberation theology).

A fiction suggestion would be something by Graham Greene, given the way that he interweaves spirituality with extremely frail, human characters; best I can think of is The Power and the Glory.
posted by Avogadro at 7:57 PM on July 26, 2006

Okay, this isn't short, but it's a very engrossing, quick read, so let me throw it out there.

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. It's set in India, during a state-declared state of emergency, and the four characters are thrown into an apartment together. I suggest it because it gives one of the most compassionate depictions of dire poverty that I have ever read. It's a very lively, humorous, humane book. It would appeal to Catholics as members of a faith strongly focused on social justice; its characters and situations would give it a universal appeal to those from outside your faith. Also, it would provide ample material for discussions led by social scientists.

I'm not one to be drawn to Oprah book club picks (I read it long before Oprah picked it), but this is one that grabbed me and wouldn't let me go until I read the last page.
posted by jayder at 8:23 PM on July 26, 2006

Best answer: Second Tracy Kidder; good story, accessibly written.

Something by G. K. Chesterton, depending how "thinky" you want it to be. For example The Man Who Was Thursday; it's very short, and there are detailed descriptions in the Amazon reviews.

Another challenging, interesting group read might be novelist Ron Hansen's A Stay Against Confusion, a book of essays about writing and his own Catholic faith. You could pick and choose which essays seem best. He also wrote Mariette In Ecstasy, a great novel about a nun who receives the stigmata, which might or might not be suitable since it is sensual. Again, the reviews at Amazon are quite descriptive, so should give you a good sense if this fits the needs of your group.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:39 PM on July 26, 2006

Well if you're willing to go ecumenical, I will once again recommend My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. It's an easy read. It's about being an artist, being compelled to do what you must do for your art, it's about religion, family and people making connections. I have reread this book numerous times. I like it that much. And you do NOT have to be jewish to appreciate the book even though the main character is/was an orthodox jew.

The late Mr. Potok was a good man and his books have touched many a heart.
posted by bim at 8:51 PM on July 26, 2006

A Canticle for Liebowitz?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:11 PM on July 26, 2006

Tuesdays with Morrie. Easy, appealing.
posted by lannanh at 9:52 PM on July 26, 2006

It's probably not for families, but I loved The Sparrow. It raises some fascinating questions about faith, following the story of Jesuits in the future who travel to a distant planet.

It raises some issues that some Catholics may have a problem with (FWIW: I, and my SO, and my parents are all Catholic, and we loved it. We're the liberal kind, though), and it's not exactly short, but it's a good read.
posted by rossination at 10:14 PM on July 26, 2006

All Quiet On The Wesern Front? It's short, it's interesting and it will definetely lead to some interesting discussions on morality and humanity. On the downside, a lot of people probably read it in high school
posted by fshgrl at 10:16 PM on July 26, 2006

Maybe The Alchemist? It's not specifically Catholic, but it does deal with issues relating to personal growth, faith in the unknown and living a fulfilled life. It's pretty short, and I found it to be a very simple read; all of the "morals" are spelled out pretty plainly.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 10:20 PM on July 26, 2006

Best answer: I think you could go a long way with The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. It's an interlaced biography of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor and discusses their relevance and the emergence of an American Catholic voice. It's interesting and accessible.

For fiction, from the above cohort, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.
posted by sagwalla at 1:06 AM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Power and the Glory.
posted by piers at 2:27 AM on July 27, 2006

The Kite Runner.
posted by phrontist at 6:31 AM on July 27, 2006

Second Chesterton - I loved Orthodoxy and Heretics and I'm not even Christian, never mind Catholic.

Graham Greene is also a good suggestion - i just finished Brighton Rock which is short and quite gripping whether you're religious or not. Perhaps a bit grim for what you want though.
posted by crocomancer at 7:11 AM on July 27, 2006

I'd be tempted to recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Sparrow. They're both science fiction with strong Catholic themes [as well as explicitely Catholic characters], but they're still accessible [and interesting] to non-Catholics. They're both full-sized novels - not hugely long, but they will take a little time to read.

Canticle tells the story of the Church [and the world] in the centuries after planet-wide nuclear war. The story's told from the points of view of various members of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, which was formed by "bookleggers" and "memorizers" who, like medieval monks, wanted to preserve what knowledge remained after the nuclear war. As humanity slowly begins to rebuild and rediscover things, it's obvious that mankind could easily destroy itself again - what's less clear is whether mankind is capable of learning and not repeating all of its mistakes. There are a lot of cute details - an early monk making an "illuminated blueprint," for example - that make it entertaining as well as sobering. However, the book was written before Vatican II, and there are a fair number of Latin phrases, along with some references [the Wandering Jew, for example] which might not be commonly known. It would probably help to provide a study guide of some sort.

The Sparrow focuses more on the personal: whether one can maintain faith in the face of suffering. It's the story of a Jesuit mission to Alpha Centauri, a nearby planet that's the source of alien radio transmissions. Only one of the Jesuits returns, however, and he's broken both spiritually and physically. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the story of the mission and the later attempts by Superior General to understand what happened, and, perhaps, to provide some amount of healing to the survivor. The Sparrow is written more accessibly than Canticle; interestingly, the author is a convert to Judaism from Catholicism. My Catholic high school actually assigned it every senior year in religion class.
posted by ubersturm at 7:15 AM on July 27, 2006

Oh, and I didn't spot it above, but The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a fantastic book with a compelling narrative and, as Rossination says, it raises some fascinating ethical questions.

It is science fiction, but don't let that put you off. It is also seriously grim - definitely not for children.
posted by crocomancer at 7:15 AM on July 27, 2006

Best answer: Fumbling by Kerry Egan is a short, readable memoir about the author's experience walking the Camino de Santiago not too long after her father's death. It's got a lot of good stuff for Catholics and non-Catholics alike--thoughts on faith, family and loss, the joys and frustrations of lengthy hiking, and the culture of northern Spain. Almost everyone, no matter their faith or lack thereof, can appreciate the appeal of a spiritual and physical pilgrimage. Could lend itself easily to different kinds of discussions, and possible interdisciplinary activities could include food/music/dance of Spain, history of the Camino and/or pilgrimage in general, a mini-pilgrimage, lots of things.
posted by lampoil at 7:31 AM on July 27, 2006

Maybe something by Madeleine L'Engle? Perhaps Bright Evening Star? Penguins and Golden Calves looks good too.

My other suggestion would be Joshua, by Joseph Girzone, but that's been pretty widely read. It does have the advantage of wide appeal and a readability that would be suitable even for kids as young as 7th or 8th grade.

Disclaimer: I have not personally read any of these books, but I did work at a bookstore for eight years and helped many satisfied customers find good books for groups like yours.
posted by slenderloris at 11:34 AM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your help! Lots of interesting ideas for me as well as the parish read. btw, I love Walker Percy and am glad he was mentioned here.

The books I'm suggesting are:

Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation (1972)

Mark Salzman's Lying Awake

Judith Lief's Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality

A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction by Ron Hansen

Tracy Kidder's Mountain Beyond Mountains (2003)

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie.


Fumbling: A Journey of Love, Adventure, and Renewal on the Camino de Santiago by Kerry Egan

Further suggestions still welcomed.
posted by mmw at 4:33 PM on July 27, 2006

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