My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part I

Depiction of an LDS temple/library combination.

One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you have the bandwidth to fine-tune your children’s reading and media diet on a level that would be very difficult to pull off if they were gone for half the day. 

I’ve read quite a bit in my day (although I’m not currently reading as much as I used to), and whenever I come across a book that I want to make sure my children read I put it on a particular “shelf” in my Goodreads account. Below is my list of “required reading” books that are religious themed or at least have a strong spiritual/existential message. 

The Plague, by Albert Camus 

The famous French absurdist’s landmark work is interlaced with religious and existential themes as a town struggles against a deadly plague. Unlike many secular or secular-adjacent authors, Camus is rather bold in confronting the implications of naturalistic, non-religious worldview, and my personal experience with this book was powerful enough that I actually published an article in the Journal of Camus Studies on religious symbolism in The Plague

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This was the book that inspired my wife to go on her mission (in particular, Alyosha’s and the monks’ examples of dedicated holiness). It’s quite long (as Russian novels are), but (IMHO) you can get a lot of the spiritual benefit by reading certain sections. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter is of course, the classic reading used in introduction to literature classes, but there is profundity and holiness throughout, especially in the sections dealing with Alyosha (I kind of slept-read through the courtroom scenes). 

Believing Christ, by Stephen Robinson

I was privileged to take New Testament from Stephen Robinson one of the last years he taught at BYU. He was the epitome of the disciple-scholar, with both impeccable credentials and reasoning as well as impeccable loyalty to the restored gospel. His classic is a very readable and digestible take on atonement theology for Latter-day Saints. Even my elementary school kids read it (to make a point more about the book than about my kids).

The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

I get the sense that we Latter-day Saints tend to be philo-semites. Our community has a certain draw to traditional Jewish culture, and there is some sense of holy envy about their synthesis of the intellectual with the religious as well as their rich heritage. This draw of Latter-day Saints towards Judaism is quite old, going back to Joseph Smith using what I imagine were scarce Church funds to hire a Hebrew instructor for the School of the Prophets. 

I suspect that is why, again anecdotally, Chaim Potok books have had a certain popularity among members (also evidenced by Potok giving an address at BYU in 1982). His novels about tensions between religious Judaism and modernity strike a certain cord with our (albeit different) own struggles with modernity (the Asher Lev scene where he nervously paints the nude woman, for example, is much more relatable for someone from a strongly conservative Latter-day Saint upbringing), and the strong sense of devotion, sacrifice, and loyalty that suffuse his works is inspiring for us religionists.  

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

The psychological classic written by a concentration camp survivor about finding meaning in the worst situations possible. I went deep down the Viktor Frankl rabbit hole during graduate school and read most if not all of his books. He was a founder of a major school of existential psychotherapy that emphasized finding meaning as a solution to mental health issues, so his later works became more technical, but the original is still eminently readable, profound and just plain useful as the ultimate “self-help” book. The book is redolent of spirituality and religion even if he takes pains to communicate that the meaning and higher purpose that it argues is the magic sauce for thriving and survival doesn’t necessarily have to be religious in nature.

Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Bushman

The classic New Mormon History book that needs no introduction, nor much of a defense for why it’s on anybody’s to-read list. 

Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton

The story of a pastor’s son in apartheid South Africa (named Absalom, a little on-the-nose) who murdered a white man. A lot of deep feelings in this book. Both the book and movie are required. 

The Mystery of the Aleph, by Amir Aczel

It might seem odd that a math book made it on this list, but religious and spiritual sentiment played a big role in the founding of set theory and transcendent numbers–the kind of mathematics that deals with different levels of infinity. (For example, the mathematical terms involved were given Hebrew names, not the more typical Greek names).

Wit, by Margaret Edson

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Also a required movie/book combo about an English professor/specialist in the religious sonnets of John Donne who finds her learning to be of little help when faced with her own death from cancer. 

The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley 

Written by a UPenn scientist/poet in a golden age when the humanities intermingled effortlessly with the hard sciences, this is the classic book on the beauty of the Creation. Not explicitly religious, but suffused throughout with religious references as a subtle homage to a Creator. 

The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces, by Jon Canon

There are a variety of common themes in sacred spaces across varied religious traditions; this book tied all the threads together and helped me see the architecture and themes in our own sacred spaces such as temples against the background of and in continuity with a larger tradition.

Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, by Terryl Givens

Givens has a knack for isolating and distilling the theological things that make us uniquely us; this works as a sort of highbrow primer in Latter-day Saint theology

6 comments for “My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part I

  1. Great list. Thanks for sharing. I forgot that I wanted to read Mans Search for Meaning. Amazon will be stopping by soon.
    I would love to know other readers fav books.
    As a Man Thinketh – James Allen
    Above Life’s Turmoil – James Allen (strongly suggest chapter 4 The Uses of Temptation)

  2. Ooh! I’ve only read some of the books on this list. I’m going to have to add to my ever-growing TBR pile now.
    The Brothers Karamazov was a slog for me, though I love Alyosha. He’s the only character I DID like, actually, in the whole thing.
    Anyway, thank you!

  3. Rec911: Those sound familiar, but I’ll have to look into adding those to my list.
    E.C.: Yes, the Brothers K definitely has a lot of unsavory characters.

  4. If the list is for late teens and twenty somethings, I would include some Dickens, Victor Hugo and other Romantics. Tolstoy is also very valuable.

    Not a big fan of Camus and Sartre. Atheistic existentialism is too nihilistic for my taste. The Christian existentialists are a different matter.

    I do like reading nonfiction from religious authors. The Dalai Lama has several works that are worth a read. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a wonderful author. Karen Armstrong has done some interesting work. Rabbi Harold Kushner has some thought-provoking reads. This list could get pretty long…

  5. I should get into romantics more. I don’t have the attention span, get-all-the-dozens-of-characters-straight muscles that is required for most Russian novels.

    Camus feels very different from Sartre, the former seems to be more cognizant about the limitations of the materialist worldview. I seemed to recall that he had expressed interest in becoming a religionist later in his life, but on Googling it it looks like it might fall under the “Darwin converting on his deathbed” category of probably not true. (Although the latter is almost certainly not true, and Camus not converting is just “probably not true”).

    Excellent points about the Dalai Lama, Tutu, and Kushner. Karen Armstrong is interesting, but if I’m going to read a non-believer for the takes there are others that seem more interesting, although she is definitely a pioneer in that field.

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