A Jewish academician, an Anglican historian, and a Catholic seeker walk into a bar.
This isn’t the start of a bad joke. Instead, you have the three authors that I’m taking on for my reading practice during the season of Lent. I read everywhere, so some of my time spent with these books will, no doubt, take place in establishments that serve adult beverages.*
Today, the first of the forty days of Lent, is known as Ash Wednesday. Its name comes from the custom of placing blessed ashes on the forehead of worshipers at services in churches, transit stops, coffee shops, and other places both traditional and quirky across the globe.
Ash Wednesday, in all seriousness, is where the symbolism of our mortality is the most overt and graphic during the liturgical year. I’ve heard it described as the church’s celebration of finitude.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.Words spoken at the imposition of ashes, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer
The message that we have the human disease and will die doesn’t get any more direct.
For Christians, Lent is a season of repentance, fasting, and self-reflection. In some traditions, believers “give up” something for Lent. The more modern approach is to take on something for this journey, which is the same length of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness. In our time of so much anxiety and uncertainty, perhaps it is enough to give people the opportunity to just stop, pause, reflect, and try to breathe again.
So, back to our three authors.
This year, over the course of these forty days, I am going to take on the reading of three books that focus on difficult questions, doubt, and the intersection of faith and history. My guides for this journey are three writers I admire who come at faith from very different perspectives.
- The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine promises to showcase the wit, wisdom, and first-class scholarship of this self-described “unorthodox member of an Orthodox synagogue and a Yankee Jewish feminist who until 2021 taught New Testament in a Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” As one of the blurbs on the cover suggests, Levine “goes for the doozies.” The first is that favorite of prosperity gospel preachers everywhere, “Sell what you own.”** I can’t wait!
- The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, takes the seven phrases Jesus spoke from the cross and considers them through the lens of the intersection of faith and history. Lent is the season leading up to Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter. There’s no better individual to help us think through these intersections than the Canon Historian of the Washington National Cathedral.
- Amen? Questions for a God I Hope Exists by Julia Rocchi is a new book from my friend and former colleague that is “a collection of prayers and essays for practicing penitents and devoted doubters.” I have read a number of Julia’s essays through the years and know that this new work from an observant Catholic will be thoughtful, engaging, and empathetic. My review of Julia’s book will feature my second author interview of the year, and I can’t wait to chat with her about Amen? and what she’s learned in the writing process.
UPDATE: I’ve joined another reading group, and we’re taking on the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree by the influential African American theologian James H. Cone for Lent. So, add a fourth to the list as well!
Please feel free to read along with me during this season. If these works don’t appeal to you, I’m highlighting three other books I’ve read over the past couple of years in the hope that you will find something that piques your interest here.
Short Stories by Jesus: The enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (2014) by Amy-Jill Levine is the highly praised study of the parables of Jesus written in an easy-to-read style spiced with humor. Levine helps her readers understand the parables in the same way as their original audiences did. She notes that these stories are less about revealing something new and more about tapping into “our memories, our values, and our deepest longings.”
The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, faith, and food justice (2021), by Christopher Carter speaks to the clear, Christian ethical basis for a new system of food justice. “Our foodways are an expression of our identity, a way of maintaining connections to our ancestors and our ancestral homelands; our foodways are personal and communal, emotional and habitual.” This book is a timely reminder of the often-oppressive underpinnings of our broken food system.
Being Home: Discovering the Spiritual in the Everyday (1991) by Gunilla Norris looks at the tasks we do — from awakening in the morning to locking the door at nightfall — and puts them in the context of living in place. “How we hold the simplest of our tasks,” Norris writes, “speaks loudly about how we hold life itself.”
May you find time for a meaningful season of self-reflection, no matter how that evolves in your life.
More to come…
*If you absolutely must have a bad joke, here you go: A priest, a rabbit, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender asks the rabbit, “what’ll you have?” The rabbit says, “I dunno. I’m only here because of Autocorrect.”
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Photo by Thays Orrico on Unsplash
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