Reading Recs: Advent, Incarnation, & the Power of Story

This past Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, and it is during this season of expectant waiting when I am reminded that God cares about stories. We all live and understand the world in terms of narrative; what’s more, our individual stories are wrapped up in the much grander meta-narrative, described in the Bible, of which God is the Author. At its heart, Christmas is the celebration of God’s entrance into the very story He was writing. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus could be both fully author and yet somehow also fully character in that story.

I wrote a few weeks ago about imagination and its power to transform our perceptions of even the most mundane aspects of life. There is nothing about the imaginative that necessarily implies a lack of real truth; if anything, it presses us to remember that God, the ultimate Author and Arbiter of reality, does not fit within the predictable bounds of time or physical laws or earthly patterns. One of the ways God has reawakened my heart to see the world with more imagination, more wonder, and more glory has been through immersing myself in fiction and poetry. So while there’s a great deal more that could be written about the significance of narrative in the life of faith (another future post, perhaps), I mostly wanted to use this week to offer a few pieces of Christian creative writing that I’ve loved this year. It’s also the time of year for Christmas lists and gifts, and if you’re searching for some new reading material, check these out!

Fiction and Creative Reflections

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is, without a doubt, my favorite work of Christian fiction right now. It’s also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and is just, well, incredible. I read it for the first time this past spring and was deeply affected by Robinson’s seamless integration of artful writing, skilled storytelling, as well as reflections on theology, faith, beauty, etc. within the minds of the characters. The entire book is one continual letter from the dying Rev. John Ames, a minister in a small Iowa town, to his seven-year-old son. It’s illuminating and poignant and so incredibly rich.

Lila, Home, and Jack by Marilynne Robinson

These three novels are all related to Gilead — either because they re-tell the same narrative from a different perspective, or they expound upon the life of a character from Gilead. As with most of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, the stories have a beautiful way of exploring hard questions. Lila is largely an exploration of the problem of suffering, and Home is a kind of re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son which also confronts the question of predestination. I’m still in the middle of reading Jack!

The Genesis Trilogy by Madeleine L’Engle

This trilogy contains L’Engle’s reflections on the book of Genesis in three constituent parts — And it was Good, A Stone for a Pillow, and Sold into Egypt. Each book is a mix of L’Engle’s thoughts on the stories in Genesis, related anecdotes, the occasional poem, and imaginative re-tellings of key moments in scripture. I read And it was Good this summer and just started A Stone for a Pillow; they’ve been absolutely wonderful reads, both instructive and nourishing.

Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis

Till We Have Faces is CS Lewis’ re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It was one of his later works, and is a stunning display of quality storytelling with reflections on love, loss, and human nature all mixed into the plot. I’ve written about it a fair amount in former “Best Reads” posts, so I’ll let those descriptions (or, better yet, the book itself) say the rest.

Poetry Collections

The Stream & The Sapphire by Denise Levertov

This may be one of my current favorites when it comes to poetry collections. Denise Levertov has a brilliant way of writing in free verse which is both accessible and many-layered; this collection includes many of her poems specifically about faith. Levertov’s work deals honestly with both the struggles and delights of her Christian walk, and I’ve found it immensely comforting in times of difficulty.

Given by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is mostly known for his writing about ecological stewardship, culture, and agriculture, but he’s also a prolific creative writer. He’s written a lot of fiction and has also published a great deal of poetry. What I love about Berry’s poetry is its simplicity and focus on the natural world; in an unadorned yet still-lovely fashion, Berry uses his free verse to point the reader to the beauty, mystery, and richness embedded in Creation. This collection includes work from throughout Berry’s life, most notably groups of short “Sabbath” poems, written on days of rest.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works

Hopkins is a 19th-century English poet; his poems are therefore “older” in form and style (more sonnets, rhyme, and meter), but there’s nothing about their agedness which keeps them from being immensely accessible and so beautiful! Some of my favorite standalone poems are by Hopkins, including “God’s Grandeur,” “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” and “Pied Beauty.” Hopkins’ use of traditional poetic forms is far from rigid, and he has a great way of playing with sounds and words to create an aesthetic full of meaning.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Much like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver is a poet of the outdoors. Her work is mostly centered around nature, from which she draws inspiration and reflection. One of my favorite things is to go on a long walk and take some Mary Oliver with me; her words have a way of encouraging more attentiveness to the beautiful details of plants, animals, and seasons in a way that has transformed my appreciation for Creation (and, as a result, its Creator).

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