The Accidental Terrorist, Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, William Shunn

Over the month I took to read this book, I recommended it to twelve people. My husband was the first, and he’d finished it before I got through the third chapter. Two of the people I told were former Mormons themselves, and they not only wanted a copy but also told me they were going to pick it up for a few of their family members and friends back in Utah. The fact that I spread the word far and wide makes an odd kind of sense given this was the memoir of a questioning young man striking out on his mission in the great white north.

accidental-750pxI grew up with several Mormon friends (the Church of Latter Day Saints shared a parking lot with my high school, so we had maybe more than the average number of Mormon students for a small town in New Hampshire). Every single one of them could be described as the nicest person I ever met. Unfailingly friendly, kind, and considerate, I was never prosthelytized to or even subject to any conversation about God while with them.

Looking back, I don’t know whether it’s just that teenagers – even those growing up in a religion that expects generous time to be spent on the topic of conversion – just want to blend, to survive those four years without being labeled or judged, or if it’s that the specific people who would be friends with me were a little less devout. All I knew about them then was that we had fun goofing around in class and at play practices, and that they belonged to a church that required a lot more time than mine did.

It wasn’t until I started reading this book that I had any real concept of the history of the Mormon church. Shunn’s perspective is fascinating because he grew up loving and fearing his religion in equal measure. He had a great respect for those in authority and accepted the lessons he was taught until adulthood. I suspect that some of the information he shares in the book is considered sacred to Mormons, and his writing about it prompted a two-fold reaction in me.

On the one hand, I was incredibly curious about the secret rituals of the church. Ever since I first went to a service with one of my best friends, who’s Greek Orthodox, and was told women were never permitted to go behind a certain screen in the sanctuary, I’ve known I have an obsession for peeking behind the curtain. What could possibly be so sacred? A part of me burns to know, I’m sure in part because my own church is the complete opposite – everything on the table, free to access for anyone regardless of where they might be on their journey with God.

On the other hand, I have a deep respect for all religions, and although I don’t agree with every element of every faith, I do believe people have a right to practice with a sense of safety. People should be able to relax into their faith, to feel secure enough that they can explore a relationship with God, if they so choose. To make naked another faith against the will of its members makes me uncomfortable.

Shunn does an admirable job of balancing this, at least for me. That being said, I’m not a Mormon and have no concept of the history or tenets taught to members, so I recognize that I’m speaking about this as a wholly unaffected outsider. In that position, I found both his personal journey and the extensive history of the church and its founders to be fascinating. He pokes a little fun at the forefathers of the church but is respectful of his contemporaries. Both his story and Joseph Smith’s were absolutely captivating, and I intentionally only allowed myself to read a bit at a time so I could process what I was learning.

I realize it would be in poor taste to make a joke about bringing this book from door to door, but it’s truly been impossible not to want to share it with as many people as I can. If you’re looking for a book to rev up for fall after an indulgent summer, this is it.

God and Goodnight Moon: Finding Spirituality in Storybooks for Children

After three weeks of heading deep down the rabbit hole into the life of babies, where they come from, and what to to do with them once they’ve arrived, I felt like I had reached my saturation point. Don’t get me wrong – this is all exciting and necessary information, but I’ve started to really look forward to my (slow) elliptical workouts at the gym, because for forty minutes a day, I get to read fiction, and it’s absolutely glorious. I find myself drawn to books with plenty of swashbuckling adventure, inappropriate language, and over the top romance to balance out all the studying I’ve been doing. 

It probably doesn’t help, of course, that aside from reading all these baby books, I’ve also been taking a class for the last eight weeks to hone my skills writing for children. I scheduled it back in January when I was absolutely lousy with energy, and by the time it started in March, I felt like a sponge that had been wrung out to dry. The first week, I absolutely despaired. How could I possibly get through my class reading, plus check out all the children’s books recommended as supplementals, while also getting my assignments in on time and staying on top – if not ahead – of all my actual work that has to be done before the baby arrives? 

There might have been some crying and some gnashing of teeth, but eventually, I settled into a routine (a routine that absolutely required and justified an hour long nap every afternoon) that was doable, and I remembered exactly why I love taking writing classes when I have the chance. It feels amazing to stretch parts of the brain that have been atrophying, and even though I’ve had the best of intentions in regards to several projects for younger audiences in the last year, none of them had even made it into the solid outline stage. Taking this course was exactly the kick I needed, and I found that it actually energized other writing projects simply by forcing me into more of a time crunch. Truly, nothing motivates me to work on a new chapter or essay like the threat of missing a deadline (as an anti-procrastinator, it really is a marvelous scramble to stay ahead!).

As a nice addition to my classwork, a couple of months ago, my parents sent me a book that’s less of a sit down and read than it is a reference for families looking to explore the themes of some of their children’s favorite stories within the context of Christianity (in this instance, “Christianity” is defined as a value system that encourages tolerance, compassion, understanding, and equality while using stories from the Bible to supplement these themes). I read through it this week, and while I doubt it will be my go-to activity book (I liked a lot of the ideas, and I’m sure I’ll use some of them, but I also have years of preschool teaching materials that may well see more use), I did get a chance to learn about some wonderful children’s lit that I had either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. 

The absolute best thing about the book was how diligently researched it was to find such wonderfully diverse books for children. Not only were children of many races represented, but also children with different abilities, children from all sorts of families, children from countries around the world – each suggestion had been carefully chosen to intersect between the deeply well known (Goodnight Moon, The Velveteen Rabbit) and the joyfully affirming (Crow Boy, Hope, The Story of Ruby Bridges). As I was reading, I found myself making a list to take to the library, and at this point, anything that gets me that excited to move off the couch gets a thumbs up in my book.

From the Psalms to the Cloud, Maria Mankin and Maren Tirabassi

Hey, guess what? It’s November, and that means my latest book is finally here! I’m sure you’re all dying to get your hands on a copy of this magnificent treatise on faith’s place in a fast-paced digital culture. It’s basically like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Eat, Pray, Love got together and had a baby, and that baby was this book.

Just kidding. It’s absolutely nothing like that. Seriously, don’t buy this book based on that idea. If anything, buy this book because you feel bad for me. Being a full-time writer is awesome and I love it, but it’s not a big moneymaker. (Unless you’re Neil Gaiman. I like to imagine him swimming in a room full of gold coins; in fact, I assume his publisher is contractually obligated to pay him in gold coins for just such a purpose.) I write some fiction, and I still dabble in poetry (even though trying to sell poetry is like choosing to stand in the stocks and have rotten fruit chucked at you), but my bread and butter is worship resource books.

It’s pretty sexy work, I know. I don’t talk about it much here because religion is a touchy subject, and the moment people even start breathing in that direction, it gets heated. I do my best to steer clear of the topic since I never want anyone to feel pressured to agree with my perspective on the matter.

For the record, my opinion is that faith is a mountain with an infinite number of paths; the top of the mountain is not God, but a place where respect, tolerance, and justice coexist. For me, God is everywhere and accessible to any and all interested parties. My faith in God doesn’t conflict with my belief in scientific fact or my desperate hope that I will someday get to meet an alien. I have friends of many different faiths, and I have friends who are atheist and agnostic; I love them not because of what religion they may or may not practice, but because, like me, they believe all people deserve equal rights and a healthy dose of compassion.

That being said, I often struggle to live up to that in my day-to-day life; it’s gotten to the point where I notice the opportunity to be a more generous person but walk straight past it because, for whatever reason, the opportunity makes me feel uncomfortable. As it turns out, my faith is all about radical discomfort. There is very little room in it for lip service; the path is all about action, and the seed for this book came from a desire to explore what that really means.

It turns out, that’s a huge question, and not one we could tackle in a single book. As we talked about it together, and turned to others to hear what they had to say on the matter, we began to focus on an idea that I love: How do we climb out of the out-dated confines of a faith we grew up with, as individuals and in community? And as we do it, how can we translate that faith into something less focused on tradition and more connected to real-world need?

When we started this project, I was overwhelmed by a desire to connect to a more radical, messy, challenging faith than the one I experienced on Sunday mornings. I love my church and my denomination, and I know that many people involved in it are doing great work living out the verse my husband and I requested for the benediction at our wedding:

What does God require of you
But to act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)

But I didn’t feel like I was doing enough of that. I was practicing a safe, comfortable, childish version of my faith, and I didn’t know how to change. When we wrote this book, we called on people of all ages from around the world to help us dig into something real. When I read over the page proofs at the beginning of October, I was reminded that the best part of this experience has been reading what they wrote. We asked for prayer and practice, and our contributors came back to us with a raw faith that inspired me. The end result wasn’t a complete answer to the puzzle, but it gave me hope.

This book isn’t a step-by-step guide to faith. It’s more like a party where it’s completely acceptable to discuss the stumbling blocks on the way to the mountain top. It’s a place where, by silent agreement, we looked around and said, here, it’s okay to fall apart, or to be on the way to dying, or to simply be trying to live a life that’s a little more thoughtful. It’s alright to be clinging to constant, avoidable failure even while others dance chaotic, arms-outspread rejoicing for tiny, nearly forgettable blessings. Once I arrived, I realized I’d found my tribe – people as troubled and lost as I was who hadn’t given up hope.

Now, I know this isn’t a book for everyone, and we wrote it knowing our audience might be small. I’m okay with that. I’ve published six books in this vein, and this is by far the one I’m most proud of. Given that fact, if any of you are interested in buying a copy (or four – to subsidize the poetry, you know?), hit me up in the comments and I’ll point you in the right direction. For those of you who aren’t, we’re still good, right? The world is full of books on lighter subjects, and I promise we’ll be back at them next week…

Does God Have a Big Toe, Marc Gellman

I’ve had this book on the shelf for about two years now, and I was actually almost entirely certain that I was never going to read it. I bought it after a particular moving sermon mentioned the title in passing (and for $4.00, why not, I thought…because you could have bought a Pumpkin Spice latte for that much, that’s why! said my caffeine addicted brain). So much time has passed that I have no idea what the context  was, or why exactly I decided I needed a book that basically translates important stories from the Old Testament (Marc Gellman is a rabbi) into bite sized stories for children.

Having read it, I admit that I still have no idea. The stories are sweet, if a little bland (it doesn’t hold a candle to the cartoon Bible I had when I was little…or at least I assume it doesn’t, since I mostly used that particular book to make a bunk bed for one of my barbies in the amazing house I constructed. I didn’t really get how to play with those dolls, but I loved to build junk for them). As I was reading them, I tried to decide if this was something I wanted to keep for my kids. Could I imagine myself reading this interpretation to them someday? Would it supplement what they learned in Sunday School or Youth group? They certainly were written to appeal to a very young audience (sort of the Frog and Toad of biblical translation), and I didn’t read anything objectionable in them.

I think what bothered me though, was how simplistic and one-sided they were. I don’t really remember how I learned what I know now about my own faith or others, but it certainly wasn’t from Sunday School – a waste of time where I’d goof off because I was the minister’s daughter and could – behavior I assume acted as a relief valve since I wouldn’t dream of misbehaving in what I considered “real school” Monday through Friday. I feel like church for children is mostly about coloring and learning to sit still; I had a friend in college whose parents would bribe her with lifesavers to get through a service, and I know for a fact her family was not the only one that employed such measure to keep the peace.

So then, how do we learn a code of conduct when we are very young if not with the help of a religious institution or books like these? I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my family, it was a combination of the examples set by my parents and what I learned from the books I loved the most. I’m obviously not talking about books like Gellar’s, although it was well-written with enough humor and doctrine to be a worthwhile read if this sort of thing works in your household. No, I’m talking about the books I read over and over when I was little, the ones that instilled values in me without my even noticing.

Mostly, the books I liked best were about independent children (usually without any parents, a staple of that genre) who were capable, mischievous, and ultimately brave and willing to sacrifice when it came to protecting friends, animals, or what was just. They were respectful and intelligent without being stuffy. They were everything that I strive for now as an adult, and they have been with me constantly as I’ve made my way through the treacheries of growing up.

Between reading those books and having the opportunity to watch my parents fight, again and again, for equal rights for all people, including those who might be incarcerated, marginalized, or excluded, I figured out how faith and day-to-day life can coexist. While I’m knowledgable to some extent about all five world religions and have spent time reading texts from each, I don’t believe that’s where I’ve grasped the really challenging concepts of my faith. The stories were important and interesting, but ultimately, a little flat. The really tough stuff, I had to live out.

Has it helped to have a strong background in one of those religions as guidance? Maybe. But I know plenty of people with no interest in religion who get along just fine, so I can’t say for sure that it matters. All I know is that books like this one, while well-intentioned, probably do more to make a parent feel better about doing his or her due diligence than they do making any real impression on the child.

Gellar did capture two moments that I particularly liked though, so I’ll leave you with them:

After a long while, God spoke to them saying “The tomato plant is dead.” Adam and Eve cried. They asked God, “Why did it have to die? Nothing dies here in the garden.” But God would not answer this question no matter how many times they asked.

So they became angry with God. They demanded that God let them out of the Garden of Eden so they could take care of the tomato plant . God said to them, “You can leave, but you can’t come back.”

Well, Adam and Eve got up and walked right out of the garden and right over  to the little tomato plant  that had drooped over and turned brown. Inside the garden nothing needed help, and even though outside the garden everything needed help, they were not sorry they could not return. (p24)


The man and the woman asked, “What’s a partner?” And God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days, we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world….” (p 3)

For more about Marc Gellman, go here.

The Year of Living Biblically, AJ Jacobs

This has been a strange week for me taste-wise. First, a nonfiction book about athletes, history and biology, and now, more nonfiction, only this time it’s religion?! What’s going on here? Honestly, I’m usually more of a novel girl, but I have to at least mention this book because it took me, no joke, a year to read it. I know – it’s like I planned it! Hilarious, right?! But I didn’t, because to be honest, one of my biggest pet peeves is having a book unfinished while trying to read other books. It just eats away at me like a little reminder of all the other nagging things that are being left undone.

Somehow though, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, turned out to be the perfect book to keep queued up on the Kindle app on my phone. Every chapter is broken down into even briefer sections using the biblical verses Jacobs is considering, and it was breeze to catch up for a few minutes every night while waiting for David to wrap things up at the office, or while I at the doctor’s office, or standing in a long line.

I was actually surprised when I found myself finished a few days ago. I hadn’t been paying close attention to the day markers in the text, and the story doesn’t so much climax as it does end with Jacobs still questioning much of what he has discovered over the last twelve months. He has such a conversational style though that it’s easy to be caught up in his day-to-day trials as he struggles to grasp religion from a scholarly perspective.

As a skeptic with Jewish roots, Jacob begins his year perplexed but strangely fascinated by believers. His decision to try to discover what makes a faithful Jew or Christian by strictly adhering to the laws dictated in the Bible (more of his book is dedicated to his exploration of the Old Testament than the New out of an especial curiosity for his own history) is an interesting approach. He uncovers plenty of fascinating (and incendiary) rules the vast majority of practitioners of either religion won’t be familiar with, and he follows all manner of bizarre leads around the country and even to the Holy Lands to try to uncover the secrets he’s searching for.

Now, my mother is a minister for the UCC. My husband’s mother is an American Baptist minister. I went to church summer camp for nine years, taught Sunday School, and I’m currently writing a book (my fifth) for The Pilgrim Press (the UCC imprint). We go to church, well, not every week (the farmer’s market is only on Sunday mornings and sometimes I need fresh air and locally grown produce more than a sermon), but many. I take great pride in belonging to a community of faith that believes in tolerance, justice, peace, and action. I also take great joy in being well-versed in the traditions of the other major world religions, as well as many of the less major ones. In my faith, I’m a traveler on a path, and the path is wide, and it intersects with more roads than I could ever imagine. I love to discover and braid in elements of other religions into my own ideas about compassion and community. That being said, I was surprised by much of what I read in this book – it’s clear that his researcher nature has uncovered a lot of details that I’ve missed even after years of study.

I find great beauty in the author’s quest to uncover his own spiritual truth. One of his most lasting revelations – the beauty of taking time to say a quick prayer of gratitude many times during every day – especially stuck with me. Through all the rules, all the conflicting advice and controversial ideas that he discovered, the piece of it that seemed worthwhile was not about all of us answering to the same idea of God or searching for the most knowledgable teachers or even having faith at all – it was just a small, human nugget of happiness that evolved from appreciating the bounty of what he already had.

Today, before tasting my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: “I’d like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown.” 

Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.”

Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. 

Here’s the thing: I’m still having trouble conceptualizing an infinite being, so I’m working on the questionable theory that a large quantity is at least closer to infinity. Hence the overabundance of thank-yous. Sometimes I’ll get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight—the people who designed the packaging, and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. Julie has usually started in on her food by this point.

The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. 

And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium. (pg 95-96)

AJ Jacobs can be found at