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Summer reading: a collegial sampler
by Rosemary Bray McNatt

For many of us, summer means not only a chance to abandon the indoors or break free of our everyday routines. It's also an opportunity to become "well read" once again -- a fantasy of particular power for those of us in the ministry. Our summers typically include one month of "study leave," those magic days before the start of the church year in which we attempt at last to peruse the many books we swore we'd get to soon.

So it's not surprising that, when I surveyed ministers on the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association chat line about the books they were currently reading -- or planned to read -- my colleagues spoke wistfully of books stacked in ministers' studies, on dining room tables, or by the bed waiting to be read in idle hours that never seem to come.

Time, love, history, memory, faith, justice -- these are the themes that surfaced during my unscientific survey. Several books surfaced more than once in my inquiry, perhaps reflecting some part of the Zeitgeist in our congregations. Yet there were many other books that represented no particular pattern. But enough from me. Let a few of my ministerial colleagues tell you in their own words what books have contributed most to their thinking, preaching, and living throughout this year, and what books they expect to inspire them and their parishioners in the months ahead.

Christine Brownlie, who serves as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the New River Valley in Blacksburg, Virginia, recommends Robert Grudin's Time and the Art of Living (Mariner Books, 1997; paper, $12.) "This is not another manage-your-time-better book," Brownlie says. "Grudin talks about our conceptions of time and the problems that come from seeing time in fragments rather than as a continuum. His focus is on 'natural time,' and the small events and patterns of daily life, not psychological theories and dysfunction or trauma. The book is comprised of many brief observations, metaphors, and aphorisms along with a very few lists of mental exercises to help the reader connect more deeply to memory, dispel anxiety about future events, and look to the future with intention."

Suzanne Spencer, associate minister of the First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts, says that Eugene L. Pogany's In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith after the Holocaust (Viking, 2000; $25.95) caught her attention in a local independent bookstore. "The title pretty well says it: these are identical twin brothers, born in Hungary to Jewish parents who convert to Christianity, change their name from Popper to Pogany, and raise their children in the Catholic Church. One of the brothers, Gyorgy, becomes a Catholic priest. The other, Miklos, is sent to a concentration camp. He renounces his baptism after 25 years and becomes a practicing Jew. Miklos's son, a practicing Jew and a therapist, tells their story."

Spencer also reports being "distracted" by Gail Godwin's novel Evensong, (Ballantine Books, 1999; $14), "a well-crafted, well-researched novel about a female Episcopal priest in the mountains of North Carolina. I devoured it in a few satisfying gulps!"

Kathleen Hepler serves the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County, Lincroft, New Jersey. "I've just read Randall N. Robinson's The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (Plume, 2001; $13), a succinct look at why we cannot end systemic racism until certain reparations are made by white America to black America. The author gives cogent examples of what transformations are necessary: teaching African American history in ways that stop portraying slave history (a victimized people in relationship with whites) as all there is; remaking the iconography of the nation's monuments and museums; forgiving debt in Africa so that it can recover its pre-slavery and pre-colonization greatness; dismantling the 'war on drugs'; and providing monetary payment for unpaid work and for suffering."

Hepler reports that the book is "beautifully written and politically useful." She says that Robinson helps answer the question: "Now that we understand systemic racism and white privilege, what can we actually do to dismantle it?" The book has fueled one sermon already.

Stewart Brand's book The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer (Basic Books, 2000; $13) "has been keeping me company lately, especially when I see cultural shifts that put me in despair," writes Martha Niebanck, minister of the First Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts. "Brand is building a computer that will be the world's slowest clock, and with this metaphor he reminds us that 'good things happen slowly.' These ideas are an antidote to my own pathologically short attention span, and remind me to shape my attention to the 'long clock of now.'"

One book at the bedside of James Ishmael Ford, minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, is Jack Kornfield's After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path (Bantam Books, 2000; $24.95). "It comes to me highly recommended by several friends," Ford says. "And while so far I've only poked through it a bit, it does look like a worthy successor to his contemporary spiritual classic, A Path With Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (Bantam Books, 1993; $15.95.)"

Ken Collier, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, recommends Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God (Ballantine Books, 2001; $15). "Armstrong is her usual erudite self," Collier says. "She takes on the development of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalism from the late 15th century until the present. She concludes that we should not be surprised at the rise of fundamentalism: it appears whenever people forget the essential connection between our mythic consciousness and our rational consciousness and become afraid for their cultural identity. The rise of modern -- read Enlightenment -- thinking and European imperialism brought about both of these conditions."

If modernity has led some people to fundamentalism, it has led others away from religious belief. Scott Gerard Prinster, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan in Portage, recently preached a sermon on atheism. He says that James Turner's history, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985; $18.95) "was an excellent resource."

Collier also recommended Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World (Grove Press, 2001; $12). The stories "range from realism to surrealism, and from tender love stories to expressions of anger and despair among Native Americans. Alexie is, to my ear, one of the finest of the marvelous crop of young Native American writers," a sentiment evidently shared by Linda Hart, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Washington. She adds that "if you ever get a chance to hear him live it's worth whatever effort it takes to get there. Alexie is a local hero -- grew up on the nearby reservation -- so there's always a full house when he's around. I also recommend his marvelous movie, Smoke Signals (directed by Chris Eyre; Miramax, 1998.)"

Michael Leduc, minister of the First Parish Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is currently reading James Carroll's book, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (Houghton Mifflin, 2001; $28). "It's as much personal essay as history, full of interesting insights. The one thing I found distracting is that Carroll spends an awful lot of time apologizing for being Catholic and a Christian -- though I suppose, given the premise of the book, which is the development and current role of anti-Semitism in the Church, maybe it's appropriate to be doing a mea culpa."

Melanie Morel Sullivan, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee, recommends several books. Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Prodigal Summer (HarperCollins, 2000; $26) is a "wonderful book about love's second, and third, chances. Who'd've thunk a book about two intertwined romances could teach me so much about insects and the ecology -- and that I'd love it?" On to Melinda Haynes's novel Mother of Pearl (Washington Square Press, 2000; $13.95): "an astounding first novel set in Mississippi, with a fabulous assortment of white, black, straight, and gay characters. This was one of the Oprah's picks, but don't let that turn you off." Sullivan also recommends bell hooks's All About Love: New Visions (Harper Perennial, 2000; $13): "As my African American colleagues say, 'This'll preach.'" Finally, Sullivan turns to her New Orleans roots with Creole: the History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color, edited by Sybil Kein (Louisiana State University Press, 2000; $24.95), a collection of essays "about the culture, heritage, traditions, and myths surrounding New Orleans and South Louisiana's gens libre du couleur (free people of color). I especially recommend the essay on 19th-century Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, one of my heroines."

Maryell Cleary, a retired minister in East Lansing, Michigan, enjoyed feminist writer and literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun's The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (Ballantine Books, 1998; $12). "Especially good is the part about finding unknown relatives through the publicity accompanying her resignation from her professorship at Columbia," Cleary writes. She also observes that the book sheds light on the poet May Sarton, "who was a friend to Heilbrun--of sorts."

In a foretaste of summer, Nana Kratochvil, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Muskegon, Michigan, just returned from a five-day study retreat. One of the books she read was The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life by Thomas Moore (Harper Perennial, 1997; $14). She writes: "In my congregation, which is growing and moving from humanist/intellectual to open/spiritual, the book will help me bridge the gap."

As for myself, I've also been lured by Gail Godwin's Evensong --as well as a moving and useful book of spiritual practice, When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life, by Jane Redmont, (HarperCollins, 1999; $25). Redmont's spiritual journey -- from Unitarian Universalism to Roman Catholicism! -- is as fascinating as her presentation, which is meant to unlock prayer from its rigid and doctrinaire history. From the use of icons to liturgical dance, from ritual to the linking of spirituality and social justice, Redmont's book is full of treasures and surprises. May your summer sojourns with books be likewise.

UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 59-60.

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