This summer, I'm crawling through the archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut in the name of historical research. While you're watching seagulls wheel above the waves, I'll be spinning my way through miles of microfilm.
But both pursuits require the same distractions: fiction, and lots of it. By the time I leave the archive at sundown, all I want is something that keeps my interest (even in fiction, my taste turns to religion) without too much work. What follows is my summer reading list of page-turners (mostly) that go down as easily as cold lemonade at a church picnic.
After a few afternoons reading illegible, mostly tedious 18th-century Anglican sermons, I took guilty pleasure in the demise of a (fictional) cleric or two in P.D. James' new mystery, "Death in Holy Orders." James does a nice job turning a gimlet eye on life (and, as the title makes clear, death) in a theological college in East Anglia, where James' beloved detective, Adam Dalgliesh, spent summers as a youth. (James fans will recall that Dalgliesh's father was a priest.)
James is mostly concerned here with the enigmatic death of an enigmatic priest-in-training. But she also offers sharp insights into the current state of the Church of England. Peevish Archdeacon Cramden is consumed with retooling the church to meet the needs of the modern world. That means Dalgliesh's beloved St. Anselm's, an old-fashioned bastion of intellectual rigor and high-church piety, must be shut down. The students, Cramden insists, need to learn to evangelize a multicultural world more than they need koinic Greek. Little question which James is rooting for: By novel's end, St. Anselm's is no longer with us, but neither is the archdeacon.
From St. Anselm's, it's an easy leap to the Canadian Cistercian monastery portrayed in Remy Rougeau's "All We Know of Heaven." This short, elegant first novel follows Brother Antoine through his early years as a monk, as he wrestles with homosexuality and masturbation, discord between older and younger monks, and with the tedium of working in the monastery kitchen. Rougeau doesn't shock us as much as he might wish, and at times--as when a group of Buddhist contemplatives visit--he manages to make everyone involved naïve and unsympathetic.
Still, there is a quiet beauty in "All We Know of Heaven." Rougeau, a monk himself, lovingly conveys the rhythms of the monastic life. We are left with a quiet awareness that commitment to community, habitual prayer, work that is sometimes interesting but more often drudgery, are indeed all we know of what heaven means.
Such glimpses are not restricted to monasteries, as Manil Suri teaches us in "The Death of Vishnu." My one nod to serious literature, Suri's fictional study of the residents of one Bombay apartment building introduces us to a Muslim intellectual who believes Hindu deities are revealing prophecies to him; an alcoholic who may or may not be a god himself; a long-suffering husband who tries to keep his bases covered with weekly rounds to every religious spot in the city, Hindu, Muslim, or Catholic; a middle-aged housewife who wonders where her life went. In this perfectly pitched, many-layered narrative, Suri shows that spiritual sustenance is happening constantly and everywhere, including the neighborhood stoop.
The luxury of literature is that we can go straight from teeming Bombay to the relative cheer of North Carolina hill country, where Jan Karon sets her five-volume (so far) Mitford series. Her new novella, "A Common Life," zips readers back to the weeks that elapsed between Volumes 2 and 3. At the end of "A Light in the Window," Father Tim, America's favorite Episcopal priest, proposes to his neighbor, Cynthia Coppersmith; "These High, Green Hills" finds them already married. "A Common Life" gives us their wedding.
For newcomers to Mitford, this is inside baseball: Better to start off with one of the full-length novels. And anyone lacking a literary sweet tooth should steer round Mitford entirely. But for Karon fans, those who boosted "A Common Life" to the best-seller list its first day in stores, will thrill to know what the bride wore, the hymn Dooley sang, and to have confirmed (as we all guessed) that the cake was Esther Bollick's orange marmalade.
Some reviewers have carped that Benjamin Anastas' "The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance" promises more than it delivers: This meandering account of the disappearance of a Congregationalist pastor in New England is too concerned with skewering small-town housewives and church busybodies to solve its central mystery. (In fact, it's a play on one of Jonathan Edwards' most famous sermons, "A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.")
Anastas has fun with liberal theology, keeping his parishioners up night looking for clues to the minister's vanishing act in his last sermon, entitled "God as Sphere." And he keeps us updated on the gossip around town. If God hangs in the air in Karon's fictional Southern town, he has deserted this little burg's as surely as the wayward minister.
God makes a brief appearance in "Paradise Park," by Allegra Goodman, whose "Kaaterskill Falls" and "The Family Moskowitz" examined the lives of American Jews. Her engaging new creation, Sharon Spiegelman, gets a peek at the Ultimate Reality while whale-watching off Honolulu and spends the rest of the book chasing another fix, taking up and dispensing with Buddhism, hippified nature-worship, born-again Christianity, New Age seminars, and "ultra-Orthodox" Judaism. Searching for God, all she finds is religion.
The pontificating holy men Sharon meets on her faith walk are punctured hilariously but charitably. For Goodman, the worst sin is to be sure of one's dogma but not of oneself, and Sharon's triumph is coming to see that finding herself is the first important step to finding God.
Novels about religion and spirituality can be syrupy, gossipy, or inspiring. They are also wonderful ways to sample the thriving and changing life of the country. Tova Mirvis' "The Ladies' Auxiliary" from 1999 was a fictional recreation of the Orthodox Jewish community of Memphis, Tennessee. Now Lois Battle turns old assumptions about religion and the South on their head with another ladies' auxiliary, "The Florabama Ladies Auxiliary and Sewing Circle."
Where Mirvis' novel tells the story of a religious community, Battle's "ladies auxiliary" is at Marion Hawkins College, where Bonnie Duke Cullman has gone to head up a Displaced Homemakers program.
Bonnie is a newly displaced homemaker herself, bankrupt and divorced after two decades of marriage to a suave Atlanta businessman. But her students, she is surprised to learn, aren't homemakers. They are displaced factory workers, left low on skills and short on cash after a local lingerie factory closes. Not without its flaws, Battle's novel nonetheless firmly establishes her Bible-thumping factory workers in a land where Protestantism is as widespread as the kudzu.
But Battle's most insightful spiritual lessons come from the mouth of an Indian motel owner, who makes a cameo appearance in Chapter 1. Inspired by the motel owner's wisdom, Bonnie names her new puppy Ganesha, after Ganesh, the "mover of obstacles." If, as Flannery O'Connor pointed out, the Southern landscape is Christ-haunted, the literary landscape has become haunted not only by Christ, but by the gods of other pantheons as well.