Books for Cultivating Faith

A common struggle for readers here at this blog is knowing how to cultivate a sustainable faith life when they feel so weighed down with Bible baggage.  I’ve learned over the years that I am useless when it comes to getting rid of my own Bible angst. For me, it has never been as simple as just laying it down at the cross or giving it to Jesus or letting go, letting God. Rather, my legalistic load is being unloaded slowly, one bit at a time, through the grace-filled voices of others. My cover artists.

As you approach your own mending faith journey, I wanted to introduce you to some of my favorite cover artists for cultivating faith. This list will be dynamic, and I plan to keep adding to it as I discover new voices. I hope you discover some that resonate with you.

(Click here to view additional resources, including my favorite books on creating community, writing and creativity,  spiritual memoirs, and some of my favorite blogs and websites.)

Short, Daily Readings

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Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris: This book is a more intense, wise, beautiful version of this blog, back when it was “How to Talk Evangelical” and I focused almost entirely on redefining religious language. Because it’s organized by terms instead of by chapters, it’s easy to dip in and read on just one. This book played a defining role in my own faith changes, and hers continues to be a voice that helps me to disentangle the culture behind faith language with the true beauty of it.

Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader: I love everything that Henri Nouwen writes, but this little reader features little bite-sized bits of his letters and writings that are perfect for reading over a cup of coffee. His stuff on community, silence, and vocation have been game-changers for me.

Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections, Madeleine L’Engle: L’Engle’s spiritual reflections, particularly in her nonfiction books her Crosswicks Journals and her stunning book of faith and writing, Walking on Waterhave been very instrumental in my own faith journey. This little compilation culls bits of her work into a lovely little collection of daily readings. A great daily book for lovers of art, mystery, and beauty.

Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner: Frederick Buechner is one of my all-time favorite spiritual writers. (His Telling Secrets is one of the books that pushed me toward memoir writing.) This is a compilation of his work, broken into bite-sized bits — one for each day of the year. I’ll be honest, the excerpts of his novels that appear along the way don’t resonate with me like the essays and memoirs…but that could be because I’ve never read them. Still, he has been a faithful guide to me through the years, and his voice is one that I trust to lead me toward God.

Unique Perspectives on Biblical Texts

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Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, Debbie Blue: I loved Blue’s exploration of ten birds found in the Bible. It’s an interesting new avenue into these stories, particularly if you feel like you need a fresh approach. From the publisher: “With these (usually) minor characters at the forefront of human imaginations, poignant life lessons illuminate such qualities as desire and gratitude, power and vulnerability, insignificance and importance—and provide us with profound lessons about humanity, faith, and God’s mysterious grace.”

The Hungering Dark, Frederick Buechner: Buechner is one of my favorite spiritual writers. This book is a compilation of reflections about how “the darkness of doubt is often necessary to provoke a hunger for God.” I know many of you can relate to that.

The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner: Another beautiful book of reflections from Buechner, this one explores “what it means to follow Christ, the lessons of Christmas and Easter, the miracles of grace, and ‘the magnificent defeat’ of the human soul of God.”

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, Lauren Winner: This exploration of little known biblical metaphors for God is interesting and beautifully written — some of Winner’s best work. Choosing to see God through different lenses and metaphors opens “new doorways for our lives and spiritualities.”

Meditations on the Life of Faith

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Transformed into Fire: Discovering Your True Identity As God’s Beloved, Judith Hougen: This book by my former professor was my first introduction to concepts of my own  brokenness and belovedness, which has come to one of the most deeply formational concepts of my own faith and life. So grateful for this book and the woman who wrote it.

Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality, David Benner: This book was recommended to me by my spiritual director and is so grounding in its discussion of surrendering to the love of God. From the publisher: “In this profound book, David G. Benner explores the twin themes of love and surrender as the heart of Christian spirituality…Surrender to Love will lead you to an unexpected place, where yieldedness to God frees you to become who he created you to be.”

The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat Up and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning: Manning’s landmark book on the extravagant grace of God has been deeply influential in my life. I read it first in high school but didn’t really get it. Now I go back to it again and again as a reminder to be honest and unafraid. From the publisher: “Most of us believe in God’s grace—in theory. But somehow we can’t seem to apply it in our daily lives. We continue to see Him as a small-minded bookkeeper, tallying our failures and successes on a score sheet.” This book helps.

Simply Tuesday, Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World, Emily P. Freeman: This book has been deeply important to me in my work as a writer and a blogger, constantly fighting against a culture that seems obsessed with performance and numbers and name recognition. Emily’s gentle words help me breathe. From the publisher: “Jesus lived small moments well, slow moments fully, and all moments free. He lives with us still, on all our ordinary days, creating and redeeming the world both in us and through us, one small moment at a time. It’s time to take back Tuesday, to release our obsession with building a life, and believe in the life Christ is building in us–every day.”

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An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor: Taylor has written a lot of fantastic books, but this one was my favorite. Where everyone seems to be talking about finding the “sacred in everyday life” this book actually gives direction and depth to that call and helps you find your way toward that recognition.

Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything is Falling Apart, Kathy EscobarFor anyone who is struggling to find their way in the middle of the deconstruction and rebuilding of faith, Kathy Escobar’s voice is so helpful. From the publisher: “Filled with honest stories and practical insights, Faith Shift gives language to what many experience as their faith evolves. With an inviting blend of vulnerability and hope, it addresses the losses that come with spiritual shifts and offers tangible practices for rebuilding a free and authentic faith after it unravels.”

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller: This book on prayer was like water to me. It spoke to my dry, dead places, and it dared to address my lingering cynicism. It gave me permission to come to God weary and imperfect. This description from the publisher is spot on: “Author Paul Miller shares his insights and conclusions about how to connect the broken pieces of your life and allow prayer—even poorly delivered—to fill the gaps with meaning and substance.”

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Parker J. Palmer: I learned the concept of vocation from Parker Palmer’s work, and I go back to it regularly to realign my goals with the true callings that I feel in my life. From the publisher: “Telling stories from his own life and the lives of others who have made a difference, he shares insights gained from darkness and depression as well as fulfillment and joy, illuminating a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives.”

Interactive Books/Workbooks

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Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity and the Kingdom at Hand, Dave Harrity: This 28-day study does a better job of anything I’ve ever seen at combining spiritual depth with the creative practices. Each day has a short (but poetic and poignant) meditation that invites you to respond, not by filling in blanks, but rather by free writing responses.

Unquiet Time: A Devotional for the Rest of Us, Heather Caliri: This is a quirky little book is almost like a little homemade art journal. The questions Heather asks are insightful and get beyond the typical churchy questions, and the format of the book invites doodling, free writing, and figuring out.

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, Christine Valters Paintner: This book is divided into 12 weeks, each week giving “suggestions for grounding both the creative and the spiritual life through three basic practices: walking, lectio divina, and journaling.” For the creative who wants to find new, more contemplative ways to connect with God and with their own soul, this book is helpful.

Praying Upside Down: A Creative Prayer Experience to Transform Your Time with God, Kelly O’Dell Stanley: I love the creative way that Kelly approaches prayer. This isn’t a “dip-in” kind of book, but you can definitely read one chapter at a time…and each one has unique, beautiful exercises to get you approaching prayer in different ways. As someone who has always struggled mightily with prayer, the playful, creative, faith-filled way that Kelly writes about it is inspiring. (Kelly has another book out now, too, called Designed to Pray: Creative Ways to Engage with God, which I haven’t read yet, but which looks great.)

Liturgies and Prayers

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The Divine Hours Prayer Manuals, Phyllis Tickle: I love the idea of praying a common liturgy with Christians around the world…but as a person who grew up evangelical and continues to worship in a non-liturgical church, I struggle with how to do this. Phyllis Tickle’s series of prayer manuals have been so helpful. For some reason, even when I can’t bear to open my Bible itself, having the Scripture laid out for me in daily readings (morning, noon and night) is more accessible. When I don’t have anything to say to God or don’t know how to speak to him, these books help me keep talking, even if it’s just joining in the song of everyone else. Here are the three books which will take you through the entire year:

The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime

The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn & Wintertime

The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime

(She also offers versions for Eastertide and Christmastide if you just want to join in the liturgy for those shorter periods of the Church calendar.)

Common Prayer Pocket Edition: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: What I love most about this book is the collection of Occasional Prayers offered in the middle. The Prayer of St. Patrick and the prayer for Deliverance from False Desires and Fears have been deeply important to me, as have many of the other prayers that the authors have included.

Poetry of Faith

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The Stream & the Sapphire, Denise Levertov: I discovered Denise Levertov’s poetry a few years ago and absolutely love it. This little book is a compilation of her religious poems. This book traces Levertov’s “movement from agnosticism to Christian faith and her oscillation from doubt to affirmation along the way.” It’s gorgeous.

The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, Tom Andrews: My writing professor introduced Andrews’ work to us during my undergrad, and it is incandescent. While not directly about faith, it appears alongside themes of illness and mystery. This line alone: “may the Lord hear our listening, His word like matchlight cupped to a cigarette.” Swoon.

The Gospels in Our Image: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry Based on Biblical Texts, ed. by. David Curzon: In this compilation, a variety of great 20th century poets respond to Scripture texts from the Gospels. The section on Jesus’ incarnation is, predictably, huge, but I like that it continues throughout the rest of his life. (I got my inspiration for my post, Beatitudes for the Week After the Election, from this book.) If you need a new way to approach this scriptures, check this out.

Second Sky, Tania Runyan: As a person who has always had a few…issues…with the writings of the Apostle Paul, this book is perfect. Runyan intertwines the life and writings of Paul with her own suburban experiences of a broken world. From the publisher: “Runyan invites us to work out our salvation in rusted Cadillacs, operating rooms, and packs of wild coyotes. Meanwhile, Paul runs from the collapsing walls of his prison cell toward shipwrecks and vipers, meeting us on our own roads to Damascus, the earth breaking open to a second sky of faith.”

Bibles

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NIV Bible for Women: Fresh Insights for Thriving in Today’s World: I had the honor of contributing five pieces to this devotional Bible, along with several of the wonderful women writers and bloggers that I know and respect. Not everyone likes a “devotional” Bible, but for those who do, this one’s a good choice. The readings that the editors have included alongside the Biblical text feel like a good mix of thoughts with lots of authenticity, complexity, and encouragement.

Spiritual Formation Bible: I bought a used copy of this Bible after I saw it recommended in Alice Fryling’s Seeking God Together. Though I’m not thrilled that it’s NIV (ahem – Bible baggage), I do love the spiritual direction-esque questions in the margins that provide a way for you to approach both God and your own soul. I’ll often look in this Bible when I don’t know how God is asking me to respond to a text; sometimes the questions provided there get me started.

ESV Single-Column Journaling Bible: I’ve been watching a friend of mine create the most stunning art in the columns of her new journaling Bible. (You can follow her Instagram for her Illustrated Bible here.) For those who are creatively inclined and also need something to do with our hands during any sort of church service/Bible study/women’s group/whatever, this is a great way to interact artistically with the Bible. I’m thinking of trying my own in the New Year!

Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-JonesI bought this for my kids, but they could care less about it, and I cry every time I read it. If your inner six-year-old needs to re-hear the stories of God in a grace-filled, beautiful way, buy yourself this Bible.

The Message, Eugene Peterson: This is still my go-to version of the Bible if I have to read anything by Paul, who I just cannot handle in NIV but who, when filtered by Eugene Peterson’s gentle insights, comes out sounding a lot more gentle himself. You don’t have to get the whole Bible if you’re not sure you want to commit — The Message is a standard version on any Bible app or website, such as BibleGateway.

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